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Every morning before North American stock exchanges begin trading, TV programs and websites providing financial information will give the quotes for the S&P, Dow and Nasdaq futures contract. The quoted price movements of the futures contracts in early trading is used by some traders as a gauge for how the overall exchanges will perform at market open and over the trading day. If the index future is trading higher before the market opens, it generally means that the actual index will trade up in the early part of the day. This is because the index futures are closely tied to the actual indexes. These futures contracts mirror the underlying index and act as a precursor of the actual exchange index's direction.

A futures contract represents a legally binding agreement between two parties to pay or receive the difference between the predicted underlying price set when entering into the contract and the actual price of the underlying when the contract expires. Index futures trade with a multiplier that inflates the value of the contract to add leverage to the trade. The multiplier for the Dow is 10, for the Nasdaq it is 100 and it is 250 for the S&P.

For example, if a Dow Jones Index future is trading at 10,000, this means that if an investor purchased one futures contract, it would be worth $100,000. What this really means for the investor is that every one-point change in the Dow will cause a $10 change in real terms for the investor. If the Dow falls 100 points, the holder of the contract on the long side will lose $1,000.

Futures contracts are marked to market, meaning the change in value to the investor is shown in the investor's account at the end of each trading day until expiration. If the Dow falls 100 points in one trading day, at the end of the day, $1,000 will be taken out of the futures contract purchaser's account and placed into the seller's account. Because the index and the futures contract are so closely related both in price movement and value change, index futures are used to gauge the direction of the market.

For example, when the futures contracts on the S&P 500 trade higher, it means futures investors believe the actual exchange index will also trade higher once the markets open. DJIA futures contracts begin trading on the Chicago Board of Trade at 8:20am EST, just over an hour before the stock market opens for trading. The S&P 500 and Nasdaq 100 futures both open at 8:30am EST and trade on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

Major events and breaking news can occur during this one-hour window before the stock market opens; this news usually gets priced into the futures contracts, fluctuating like a normal index. This allows investors to use the futures prices to get a generalized view of market sentiment, and may help to position certain trading strategies before equity markets open.

(For a more in-depth look at futures, see our Futures Fundamentals Tutorial.)

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