When people think of stocks, bonds or Treasury bills, they can usually come up with a clear picture in their minds, and probably some examples as well. When the word is "derivatives," most people are lucky if they can conjure up anything but an indistinct fog.

Derivatives are generally placed in the realm of advanced or technical investing, but there is no reason why they should remain a mystery to common investors. This article will use a simple story of a fictional farm to explore the mechanics of derivatives.

The Definition
Derivatives are financial products with value that stems from an underlying asset or set of assets. These can be stocks, debt issues or almost anything. A derivative's value is based on an asset, but ownership of a derivative doesn't mean ownership of the asset. We will look at some examples.

The Future of Healthy Hen Farms
Gail, the owner of Healthy Hen Farms, is worried about the volatility of the chicken market, with all the sporadic reports of bird flu coming out of the east. Gail wants a way to protect her business against another spell of bad news. Gail meets with an investor who enters into a futures contract with her.

The investor agrees to pay $30 per bird when the birds are ready for slaughter in six months' time, regardless of the market price. If, at that time, the price is above $30, the investor will get the benefit as he or she will be able to buy the birds for less than market cost and sell them on the market at a higher price for a gain.

If the price goes below $30, then Gail will get the benefit because she will be able to sell her birds for more than the current market price, or more than what she would get for the birds in the open market.

By entering into a futures contract, Gail is protected from price changes in the market, as she has locked in a price of $30 per bird. She may lose out if the price flies up to $50 per bird on a mad cow scare, but she will be protected if the price falls to $10 on news of a bird flu outbreak.

By hedging with a futures contract, Gail is able to focus on her business and limit her worry about price fluctuations.

Gail has decided that it's time to take Healthy Hen Farms to the next level. She has already acquired all the smaller farms near her and is looking at opening her own processing plant. She tries to get more financing, but the lender, Lenny, rejects her.

The reason is that Gail financed her takeovers of the other farms through a massive variable-rate loan, and the lender is worried that, if interest rates rise, Gail won't be able to pay her debts. He tells Gail that he will only lend to her if she can convert the loan to a fixed-rate. Unfortunately, her other lenders refuse to change her current loan terms because they are hoping interest rates will increase too.

Gail gets a lucky break when she meets Sam, the owner of a chain of restaurants. Sam has a fixed-rate loan about the same size as Gail's and he wants to convert it to a variable-rate loan because he hopes interest rates will decline in the future.

For similar reasons, Sam's lenders won't change the terms of the loan. Gail and Sam decide to swap loans. They work out a deal in which Gail's payments go toward Sam's loan and his payments go toward Gail's loan. Although the names on the loans haven't changed, their contract allows them both to get the type of loan they want.

This is a bit risky for both of them because if one of them defaults or goes bankrupt, the other will be snapped back into his or her old loan, which may require a payment for which either Gail of Sam may be unprepared. However, it allows them to modify their loans to meet their individual needs.

Buying Debt
Lenny, Gail's financier, ponies up the additional capital at a favorable interest rate and Gail goes away happy. Lenny is pleased as well, because his money is out there getting a return, but he is also a little worried that Sam or Gail may fail in their business.

To make matters worse, Lenny's friend Dale comes to him asking for money to start his own film company. Lenny knows Dale has a lot of collateral and that the loan would be at a higher interest rate because of the more volatile nature of the movie industry, so he's kicking himself for loaning all of his capital to Gail.

Fortunately, for Lenny, derivatives offer another solution. Lenny spins Gail's loan into a credit derivative and sells it to a speculator at a discount to the true value. Although Lenny doesn't see the full return on the loan, he gets his capital back and can issue it out again to his friend Dale.

Lenny likes this system so much that he continues to spin out his loans as credit derivatives, taking modest returns in exchange for less risk of default and more liquidity.

Years later, Healthy Hen Farms is a publicly traded corporation (the ticker symbol is (obviously) HEN) and is America's largest poultry producer. Gail and Sam are both looking forward to retirement.

Over the years, Sam bought quite a few shares of HEN. In fact, he has more than $100,000 invested in the company. Sam is getting nervous because he is worried that another shock, perhaps another case of bird flu, might wipe out a huge chunk of his retirement money. Sam starts looking for someone to take the risk off his shoulders. Lenny, financier extraordinaire and an active writer of options, agrees to give him a hand.

Lenny outlines a deal in which Sam pays Lenny a fee to for the right (but not the obligation) to sell Lenny the HEN shares in a year's time at their current price of $25 per share. If the share prices plummet, Lenny protects Sam from the loss of his retirement savings.

Lenny is OK because he has been collecting the fees and can handle the risk. This is called a put option, but it can be done in reverse by someone agreeing to buy a stock in the future at a fixed price (called a call option).

The Bottom Line
Healthy Hen Farms remains stable until Sam and Gail have both pulled their money out for retirement. Lenny profits from the fees and his booming trade as a financier.

In this ideal tale, you can see how derivatives can move risk (and the accompanying rewards) from the risk averse to the risk seekers. Although Warren Buffett once called derivatives, "financial weapons of mass destruction," derivatives can be very useful tools, provided they are used properly. Like all other financial instruments, derivatives have their own set of pros and cons, but they also hold unique potential to enhance the functionality of the the overall financial system.

Related Articles
  1. Economics

    The Effect of Fed Fund Rate Hikes on Gold

    Explore the historical relationship between interest rate increases and the price of gold, and consider what effect a fed funds rate hike might have on gold.
  2. Investing

    The ABCs of Bond ETF Distributions

    How do bond exchange traded fund (ETF) distributions work? It’s a question I get a lot. First, let’s explain what we mean by distributions.
  3. Mutual Funds & ETFs

    Passively Managed Vs. Actively Managed Mutual Funds: Which is Better?

    Learn about the differences between actively and passively managed mutual funds, and for which types of investors each management style is best suited.
  4. Investing Basics

    3 Alternative Investments the Ultra-Rich Usually Own

    Learn about the ultra rich and what normally comprises their net worth; understand the top three alternative investments usually owned by the ultra rich.
  5. Stock Analysis

    The 5 Best Dividend Stocks in the Healthcare Sector

    Learn about the top five dividend stocks of companies operating in the health care sector that generate substantial cash flows to afford high payouts.
  6. Investing

    Baby Boomer Philanthropy Shifts Wealth Adviser Focus

    Wealth advisers who integrate philanthropy and finance planning can stand out with baby boomer clients.
  7. Investing

    How ETFs May Save You Thousands

    Being vigilant about the amount you pay and what you get for is important, but adding ETFs into the investment mix fits well with a value-seeking nature.
  8. Mutual Funds & ETFs

    Mutual Funds Millennials Should Avoid

    Find out what kinds of mutual funds are unsuitable for millennial investors, especially when included in millennial retirement accounts.
  9. Bonds & Fixed Income

    High Yield Bond Investing 101

    Taking on high-yield bond investments requires a thorough investigation. Here are looking the fundamentals.
  10. Mutual Funds & ETFs

    Top 3 Commodities Mutual Funds

    Get information about some of the most popular and best-performing mutual funds that are focused on commodity-related investments.
  1. How do hedge funds use equity options?

    With the growth in the size and number of hedge funds over the past decade, the interest in how these funds go about generating ... Read Full Answer >>
  2. Can mutual funds only hold stocks?

    There are some types of mutual funds, called stock funds or equity funds, which hold only stocks. However, there are a number ... Read Full Answer >>
  3. How do I read and analyze an income statement?

    The income statement, also known as the profit and loss (P&L) statement, is the financial statement that depicts the ... Read Full Answer >>
  4. Do mutual funds pay interest?

    Some mutual funds pay interest, though it depends on the types of assets held in the funds' portfolios. Specifically, bond ... Read Full Answer >>
  5. Why have mutual funds become so popular?

    Mutual funds have become an incredibly popular option for a wide variety of investors. This is primarily due to the automatic ... Read Full Answer >>
  6. Do mutual funds pay dividends?

    Depending on the specific assets in its portfolio, a mutual fund may generate income for shareholders in the form of capital ... Read Full Answer >>

You May Also Like

Hot Definitions
  1. Purchasing Power

    The value of a currency expressed in terms of the amount of goods or services that one unit of money can buy. Purchasing ...
  2. Real Estate Investment Trust - REIT

    A REIT is a type of security that invests in real estate through property or mortgages and often trades on major exchanges ...
  3. Section 1231 Property

    A tax term relating to depreciable business property that has been held for over a year. Section 1231 property includes buildings, ...
  4. Term Deposit

    A deposit held at a financial institution that has a fixed term, and guarantees return of principal.
  5. Zero-Sum Game

    A situation in which one person’s gain is equivalent to another’s loss, so that the net change in wealth or benefit is zero. ...
  6. Capitalization Rate

    The rate of return on a real estate investment property based on the income that the property is expected to generate.
Trading Center
You are using adblocking software

Want access to all of Investopedia? Add us to your “whitelist”
so you'll never miss a feature!