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A Guide to Understanding Opportunities and Risks in Futures Trading

from The National Futures Association

What is a Futures Contract?

There are two types of futures contracts, those that provide for physical delivery of a particular commodity and those that call for an eventual cash settlement. The commodity itself is specifically defined, as is the month when delivery or settlement is to occur. A July futures contract, for example, provides for delivery or settlement in July.

It should be noted that even in the case of delivery-type futures contracts, very few actually result in delivery. Not many speculators want to take or make delivery of 5,000 bushels of grain or 40,000 pounds of pork. Rather, the vast majority of both speculators and hedgers choose to realize their gains or losses by buying or selling an offsetting futures contract prior to the delivery date.

Selling a contract that was previously purchased liquidates a futures position in exactly the same way that selling 100 shares of IBM stock liquidates an earlier purchase of 100 shares of IBM stock. Similarly, a futures contract that was initially sold can be liquidated by making an offsetting purchase. In either case, profit or loss is the difference between the buying price and the selling price, less transaction expenses.

Cash settlement futures contracts are precisely that, contracts that are settled in cash rather than by delivery at the time the contract expires. Stock index futures contracts, for example, are settled in cash on the basis of the index number at the close of the final day of trading. Delivery of the actual shares of stock that comprise the index would obviously be impractical.

Next chapter: The Process of Price Discovery

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