The difference between where a trade is entered and exited is the contract for difference (CFD). A CFD is a tradable instrument that mirrors the movements of the asset underlying it. It allows for profits or losses to be realized when the underlying asset moves in relation to the position taken, but the actual underlying asset is never owned. Essentially, it is a contract between the client and the broker. Trading CFDs has several major advantages, and these have increased the popularity of the instruments over the last several years.

How a CFD Works
If a stock has an ask price of $25.26 and 100 shares are bought at this price, the cost of the transaction is $2,526. With a traditional broker, using a 50% margin, the trade would require at least a $1,263 cash outlay from the trader. With a CFD broker, often only a 5% margin is required, so this trade can be entered for a cash outlay of only $126.30.

It should be noted that when a CFD trade is entered, the position will show a loss equal to the size of the spread. So if the spread is 5 cents with the CFD broker, the stock will need to appreciate 5 cents for the position to be at a breakeven price. If you owned the stock outright, you would be seeing a 5-cent gain, yet you would have paid a commission and have a larger capital outlay. Herein lies the tradeoff.

If the underlying stock were to continue to appreciate and the stock reached a bid price of $25.76, the owned stock can be sold for a $50 gain or $50/$1263=3.95% profit. At the point the underlying stock is at $25.76, the CFD bid price may only be $25.74. Since the trader must exit the CFD trade at the bid price, and the spread in the CFD is likely larger than it is in the actual stock market, a few cents in profit are likely to be given up. Therefore, the CFD gain is an estimated $48 or $48/$126.30=38% return on investment. The CFD may also require the trader to buy at a higher initial price, $25.28 for example. Even so, the $46 to $48 is a real profit from the CFD, where as the $50 profit from owning the stock does not account for commissions or other fees. In this case, it is likely the CFD put more money in the trader's pocket.

The Advantages:

  • Higher Leverage
    CFDs provide much higher leverage than traditional trading. Standard leverage in the CFD market begins as low as a 2% margin requirement. Depending on the underlying asset (shares for example), margin requirements may go up to 20%. Lower margin requirements mean less capital outlay for the trader/investor, and greater potential returns. However, increased leverage can also magnify losses.

Global Market Access from One Platform
Most CFD brokers offer products in all the world's major markets. This means traders can easily trade any market while that market is open from their broker's platform.

No Shorting Rules or Borrowing StockCertain markets have rules that prohibit shorting at certain times, require the trader to borrow the instrument before shorting or have different margin requirements for shorting as opposed to being long. The CFD market generally does not have short selling rules. An instrument can be shorted at any time, and since there is no ownership of the actual underlying asset, there is no borrowing or shorting cost.

Professional Execution With No Fees
CFD brokers offer many of the same order types as traditional brokers. These include stops, limits and contingent orders such as "One Cancels the Other" and "If Done". Some brokers even offer guaranteed stops. Brokers that guarantee stops either charge a fee for this service or attain revenue in some other way.
Very few, if any, fees are charged for trading a CFD. Many brokers do not charge commissions or fees of any kind to enter or exit a trade. Rather, the broker makes money by making the trader pay the spread. To buy, a trader must pay the ask price, and to sell/short, the trader must take the bid price. Depending on the volatility of the underlying asset, this spread may be small or large, although it is almost always a fixed spread.

No Day Trading Requirements
Certain markets require minimum amounts of capital to day trade, or place limits on the amount of day trades that can be made within certain accounts. The CFD market is not bound by these restrictions, and traders can day trade if they wish. Accounts can often be opened for as little as $1,000, although $2,000 and $5,000 are also common minimum deposit requirements.

Variety of Trading Options
There are stock, index, treasury, currency and commodity CFDs; even sector CFDs have emerged. Thus not only stock traders benefit - traders of many different financial vehicles can look to the CFD as an alternative.

The Disadvantages
While CFDs appear attractive, they also present some potential pitfalls. For one, having to pay the spread on entries and exits eliminates the potential to profit from small moves. The spread will also decrease winning trades by a small amount (over the actual stock) and will increase losses by a small amount (over the actual stock). So while stocks expose the trader to fees, more regulation, commissions and higher capital requirements, the CFD market has its own way of trimming traders' profits by way of larger spreads.

Also note that the CFD industry is not highly regulated. The credibility of the broker is based on reputation, life span and financial position. There are many fantastic CFD brokers, but it is important, as with any trading decision, to investigate whom to trade with and which broker best fulfills your trading needs.

The Bottom Line
Advantages to CFD trading include lower margin requirements, easy access to global markets, no shorting or day trading rules and little or no fees. However, high leverage magnifies losses when they occur, and having to continually pay a spread to enter and exit positions can be costly when large price movements do not occur. CFDs provide an excellent alternative for certain types of trades or traders, such as short- and long-term investors, but each individual must weigh the costs and benefits and proceed according to what works best within their trading plan.

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