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Fundamentally, forward and futures contracts have the same function: both types of contracts allow people to buy or sell a specific type of asset at a specific time at a given price. However, it is in the specific details that these contracts differ.

Exchange Traded Versus Private Agreements

First of all, futures contracts are exchange-traded and, therefore, are standardized contracts. Forward contracts, on the other hand, are private agreements between two parties and are not as rigid in their stated terms and conditions. Because forward contracts are private agreements, there is a high counterparty risk i.e. a chance that a party may default on its side of the agreement. Futures contracts have clearing houses that guarantee the transactions, which drastically lowers the probability of default to almost never.

Settlement of Contracts

Secondly, the specific details concerning settlement and delivery are quite distinct. For forward contracts, settlement of the contract occurs at the end of the contract. Futures contracts are marked-to-market daily, which means that daily changes are settled day by day until the end of the contract. Furthermore, settlement for futures contracts can occur over a range of dates. Forward contracts, on the other hand, only possess one settlement date.

Speculation and Hedging

Lastly, because futures contracts are quite frequently employed by speculators, who bet on the direction in which an asset's price will move, they are usually closed out prior to maturity and delivery usually never happens. On the other hand, forward contracts are mostly used by hedgers that want to eliminate the volatility of an asset's price, and delivery of the asset or cash settlement will usually take place.

For further reading, see Futures Fundamentals.

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