Futures Fundamentals: Characteristics
In the futures market, margin has a definition distinct from its definition in the stock market, where margin is the use of borrowed money to purchase securities. In the futures market, margin refers to the initial deposit of "good faith" made into an account in order to enter into a futures contract. This margin is referred to as good faith because it is this money that is used to debit any day-to-day losses.
When you open a futures contract, the futures exchange will state a minimum amount of money that you must deposit into your account. This original deposit of money is called the initial margin. When your contract is liquidated, you will be refunded the initial margin plus or minus any gains or losses that occur over the span of the futures contract. In other words, the amount in your margin account changes daily as the market fluctuates in relation to your futures contract. The minimum-level margin is determined by the futures exchange and is usually 5% to 10% of the futures contract. These predetermined initial margin amounts are continuously under review: at times of high market volatility, initial margin requirements can be raised.
The initial margin is the minimum amount required to enter into a new futures contract, but the maintenance margin is the lowest amount an account can reach before needing to be replenished. For example, if your margin account drops to a certain level because of a series of daily losses, brokers are required to make a margin call and request that you make an additional deposit into your account to bring the margin back up to the initial amount.
Let's say that you had to deposit an initial margin of $1,000 on a contract and the maintenance margin level is $500. A series of losses dropped the value of your account to $400. This would then prompt the broker to make a margin call to you, requesting a deposit of at least an additional $600 to bring the account back up to the initial margin level of $1,000.
Word to the wise: when a margin call is made, the funds usually have to be delivered immediately. If they are not, the brokerage can have the right to liquidate your position completely in order to make up for any losses it may have incurred on your behalf.
Leverage: The Double-Edged Sword
In the futures market, leverage refers to having control over large cash amounts of commodities with comparatively small levels of capital. In other words, with a relatively small amount of cash, you can enter into a futures contract that is worth much more than you initially have to pay (deposit into your margin account). It is said that in the futures market, more than any other form of investment, price changes are highly leveraged, meaning a small change in a futures price can translate into a huge gain or loss.
Futures positions are highly leveraged because the initial margins that are set by the exchanges are relatively small compared to the cash value of the contracts in question (which is part of the reason why the futures market is useful but also very risky). The smaller the margin in relation to the cash value of the futures contract, the higher the leverage. So for an initial margin of $5,000, you may be able to enter into a long position in a futures contract for 30,000 pounds of coffee valued at $50,000, which would be considered highly leveraged investments.
You already know that the futures market can be extremely risky and,therefore, not for the faint of heart. This should become more obvious once you understand the arithmetic of leverage. Highly leveraged investments can produce two results: great profits or greater losses.
As a result of leverage, if the price of the futures contract moves up even slightly, the profit gain will be large in comparison to the initial margin. However, if the price just inches downwards, that same high leverage will yield huge losses in comparison to the initial margin deposit. For example, say that in anticipation of a rise in stock prices across the board, you buy a futures contract with a margin deposit of $10,000, for an index currently standing at 1300. The value of the contract is worth $250 times the index (e.g. $250 x 1300 = $325,000), meaning that for every point gain or loss, $250 will be gained or lost.
If after a couple of months, the index realized a gain of 5%, this would mean the index gained 65 points to stand at 1365. In terms of money, this would mean that you as an investor earned a profit of $16,250 (65 points x $250); a profit of 162%!
On the other hand, if the index declined 5%, it would result in a monetary loss of $16,250 - a huge amount compared to the initial margin deposit made to obtain the contract. This means you still have to pay $6,250 out of your pocket to cover your losses. The fact that a small change of 5% to the index could result in such a large profit or loss to the investor (sometimes even more than the initial investment made) is the risky arithmetic of leverage. Consequently, while the value of a commodity or a financial instrument may not exhibit very much price volatility, the same percentage gains and losses are much more dramatic in futures contracts due to low margins and high leverage.
Pricing and Limits
As we mentioned before, contracts in the futures market are a result of competitive price discovery. Prices are quoted as they would be in the cash market: in dollars and cents or per unit (gold ounces, bushels, barrels, index points, percentages and so on).
Prices on futures contracts, however, have a minimum amount that they can move. These minimums are established by the futures exchanges and are known as "ticks." For example, the minimum sum that a bushel of grain can move upwards or downwards is a quarter of one U.S. cent. For futures investors, it's important to understand how the minimum price movement for each commodity will affect the size of the contract in question. If you had a wheat contract for 5,000 bushels, the minimum price movement would be $12.50 ($0.0025 x 5,000).
Futures prices also have a price change limit that determines the prices between which the contracts can trade on a daily basis. The price change limit is added to and subtracted from the previous day's close and the results remain the upper and lower price boundary for the day.
Say that the price change limit on silver per ounce is $0.25. Yesterday, the price per ounce closed at $5. Today's upper price boundary for silver would be $5.25 and the lower boundary would be $4.75. If at any moment during the day the price of futures contracts for silver reaches either boundary, the exchange shuts down all trading of silver futures for the day. The next day, the new boundaries are again calculated by adding and subtracting $0.25 to the previous day's close. Each day the silver ounce could increase or decrease by $0.25 until an equilibrium price is found. Because trading shuts down if prices reach their daily limits, there may be occasions when it is NOT possible to liquidate an existing futures position at will.
The exchange can revise this price limit if it feels it's necessary. It's not uncommon for the exchange to abolish daily price limits in the month that the contract expires (delivery or "spot" month). This is because trading is often volatile during this month, as sellers and buyers try to obtain the best price possible before the expiration of the contract.
In order to avoid any unfair advantages, the CTFC and the futures exchanges impose limits on the total amount of contracts or units of a commodity in which any single person can invest. These are known as position limits and they ensure that no one person can control the market price for a particular commodity.
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