Futures Fundamentals: The Players
The players in the futures market fall into two categories: hedgers and speculators.
Farmers, manufacturers, importers and exporters can all be hedgers. A hedger buys or sells in the futures market to secure the future price of a commodity intended to be sold at a later date in the cash market. This helps protect against price risks.
The holders of the long position in futures contracts (the buyers of the commodity), are trying to secure as low a price as possible. The short holders of the contract (the sellers of the commodity) will want to secure as high a price as possible. The futures contract, however, provides a definite price certainty for both parties, which reduces the risks associated with price volatility. Hedging by means of futures contracts can also be used as a means to lock in an acceptable price margin between the cost of the raw material and the retail cost of the final product sold.
A silversmith must secure a certain amount of silver in six months time for earrings and bracelets that have already been advertised in an upcoming catalog with specific prices. But what if the price of silver goes up over the next six months? Because the prices of the earrings and bracelets are already set, the extra cost of the silver can\'t be passed on to the retail buyer, meaning it would be passed on to the silversmith. The silversmith needs to hedge, or minimize her risk against a possible price increase in silver. How?
The silversmith would enter the futures market and purchase a silver contract for settlement in six months time (let\'s say June) at a price of $5 per ounce. At the end of the six months, the price of silver in the cash market is actually $6 per ounce, so the silversmith benefits from the futures contract and escapes the higher price. Had the price of silver declined in the cash market, the silversmith would, in the end, have been better off without the futures contract. At the same time, however, because the silver market is very volatile, the silver maker was still sheltering himself from risk by entering into the futures contract.
So that\'s basically what hedging is: the attempt to minimize risk as much as possible by locking in prices for future purchases and sales. Someone going long in a securities future contract now can hedge against rising equity prices in three months. If at the time of the contract\'s expiration the equity price has risen, the investor\'s contract can be closed out at the higher price. The opposite could happen as well: a hedger could go short in a contract today to hedge against declining stock prices in the future.
A potato farmer would hedge against lower French fry prices, while a fast food chain would hedge against higher potato prices. A company in need of a loan in six months could hedge against rising interest rates in the future, while a coffee beanery could hedge against rising coffee bean prices next year.
Other market participants, however, do not aim to minimize risk but rather to benefit from the inherently risky nature of the futures market. These are the speculators, and they aim to profit from the very price change that hedgers are protecting themselves against. Hedgers want to minimize their risk no matter what they're investing in, while speculators want to increase their risk and therefore maximize their profits.
In the futures market, a speculator buying a contract low in order to sell high in the future would most likely be buying that contract from a hedger selling a contract low in anticipation of declining prices in the future.
Unlike the hedger, the speculator does not actually seek to own the commodity in question. Rather, he or she will enter the market seeking profits by offsetting rising and declining prices through the buying and selling of contracts.
|The Hedger||Secure a price now to protect against future declining prices||Secure a price now to protect against future rising prices|
|The Speculator||Secure a price now in anticipation of declining prices||Secure a price now in anticipation of rising prices|
In a fast-paced market into which information is continuously being fed, speculators and hedgers bounce off of - and benefit from - each other. The closer it gets to the time of the contract's expiration, the more solid the information entering the market will be regarding the commodity in question. Thus, all can expect a more accurate reflection of supply and demand and the corresponding price.
The U.S. futures market is regulated by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) an independent agency of the U.S. government. The market is also subject to regulation by the National Futures Association (NFA), a self-regulatory body authorized by the U.S. Congress and subject to CFTC supervision.
A broker and/or firm must be registered with the CFTC in order to issue or buy or sell futures contracts. Futures brokers must also be registered with the NFA and the CFTC in order to conduct business. The CFTC has the power to seek criminal prosecution through the Department of Justice in cases of illegal activity, while violations against the NFA's business ethics and code of conduct can permanently bar a company or a person from dealing on the futures exchange. It is imperative for investors wanting to enter the futures market to understand these regulations and make sure that the brokers, traders or companies acting on their behalf are licensed by the CFTC.
In the unfortunate event of conflict or illegal loss, you can look to the NFA for arbitration and appeal to the CFTC for reparations. Know your rights as an investor!
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