Futures Trading – A Beginners Guide To Trading Futures
What is Futures Trading? Futures’ trading is a form of investment which involves speculating on the price of a commodity rising or falling.
What is a commodity? Most commodities you see and use every day of your life:
- the corn in your morning cereal which you have for breakfast,
- the lumber that makes your breakfast-table and chairs
- the gold on your watch and jewelry,
- the cotton that makes your clothes,
- the steel which makes your motor car and the crude oil which runs it and takes you to work,
- the wheat that makes the bread in your lunchtime sandwiches
- the beef and potatoes you eat for lunch,
- the currency you use to buy all these things…
… All these commodities (and dozens more) are traded between hundreds-of-thousands of investors, every day, all over the world. They are all trying to make a profit by buying a commodity at a low price and selling at a higher price.
Futures’ trading is mainly speculative investing, i.e. it is rare for the investors to actually hold the physical commodity.
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What is a Futures Contract?
To the uninitiated, the term contract can be a misleading however the term is used because a futures investment has an expiration date. It is similar to other forms of short-term contract. You don’t have to hold the contract until it expires. You can cancel it anytime you like. In fact, many short-term traders only hold their contracts for a few hours – or even minutes!
The expiration dates vary between commodities, and you have to choose which contract fits your market objective.
For example, if today was June 30th and you think Gold will rise in price until mid-August. The Gold contracts available are February, April, June, August, October and December. As it is the end of June and this contract has already expired, you would probably choose the August or October Gold contract.
The nearby (to expiration) contracts are usually more liquid, i.e. there are more traders trading them. Therefore, prices are a true reflection of trading activity and less likely to jump from one extreme to the other. But if you thought the price of gold would rise until September, you would choose a back-month contract (October in this case).
Nor is there a limit on the number of contracts you can trade. Many larger traders/investment companies/banks, etc. may trade thousands of contracts at a time!
All futures contracts are standardised in that they all hold a specified amount and quality of a commodity. For example, a Pork Bellies futures contract (PB) holds 40,000lbs of pork bellies of a certain size; a Gold futures contract (GC) holds 100 troy ounces of 24 carat gold; and a Crude Oil futures contract holds 1000 barrels of crude oil of a certain quality.
A Short History of Futures Trading
Before Futures Trading, a producer of a commodity (e.g. a farmer growing wheat or corn) could find himself at the mercy of a dealer when it came to selling his product. The business of transacting between producer, agent and end-use needed to be legalised so that specified amounts and quality of product could be traded between producers and dealers within a specified time-frame.
Contracts were drawn up between the two parties specifying a certain amount and quality of a commodity that would be delivered in a particular month…
…Futures trading had begun!
In 1878, a central dealing facility was opened in Chicago, USA where farmers and dealers could deal in ‘spot’ grain, i.e., immediately deliver their wheat crop for a cash settlement. Futures trading evolved as farmers and dealers committed to buying and selling at a specified time in the future. For example, a dealer would agree to buy 5,000 bushels of a specified quality of wheat from the farmer in June the following year, for a specified price. The farmer knew how much he would be paid in advance, and the dealer knew his costs.
Not too long ago futures markets consisted of only a few farm products, but now they have been joined by a huge number of tradable ‘commodities’. As well as metals like gold, silver and platinum; livestock like pork bellies and cattle; energies like crude oil and natural gas; foodstuffs like coffee and orange juice; and industrials like lumber and cotton, modern futures markets include a wide range of interest-rate instruments, currencies, stocks and other indices such as the Dow Jones, NASDAQ and S&P 500.
Who Trades Futures?
It didn’t take long for businessmen to realise the lucrative investment opportunities available in these markets. They didn’t have to buy or sell the ACTUAL commodity (wheat or corn, etc.), in order to trade the price movement of a commodity. As long as they exited the contract before the delivery date, the investment would be a simple trade. This was the start of speculation in the futures markets, and today, around 97% of futures trading are speculative by nature.