If you've ever watched financial television before or after the markets open you will probably notice that they often quote the latest index futures price on the "bug" in the bottom corner. The futures market is an important concept and can be used to gauge the trend of the market.
There are two types of futures contracts, financial and commodities. No matter which type of contract you buy the basic premise is the same. The buyer of the contract agrees to deliver the product (or cash for financial futures) at the contract price on the expiry date. A contract can be on anything from corn, wheat, oil or, in our case, a stock index. It should be noted that a majority of futures contracts get "closed out" before the delivery date and so no physical delivery actually takes place.
The Standard and Poor's 500 index (S&P 500) contains many of the largest companies in the world, so it only makes sense that movement in the direction of the S&P futures is one of the best indicators of overall short-term market direction (Note: The Nasdaq futures are considered a good indicator of technology stocks). The word futures might make this indicator sound confusing but it really isn't. If S&P futures are up, it's an indication that there is upward pressure on the market and the stock market will tend to rise. On the other hand, if S&P futures are down, it's a sign that there is downward pressure on the market and it will likely trend lower.
This rise or decline in the futures contract is usually calculated as a change from fair value. Fair value is the equilibrium price for a futures contract. This is equal to the spot price after taking into account compounded interest and dividends lost because the investor owns the futures contract rather than the physical stocks. This price is determined over the period of the futures contract.
Part of the reason that the markets follow the trend of futures contracts is because of arbitrageurs. An arbitrageur is someone who simultaneously purchases and sells a security (or index) in order to profit from a differential in the price, usually on different exchanges or marketplaces. For S&P futures contracts here is what happens: Suppose the futures contract is trading above fair value (higher), before the market is about to open. An arbitrageur will sell (short) the S&P futures contract and go long (buy) on the underlying stocks within the S&P 500 index. Therefore, the stock prices will increase until the S&P 500 index reaches fair value with S&P futures contract. This sounds like a lot of work but really isn't because of program trading. Using software that monitors both a stock index and futures contracts on the index, traders can be notified when there is a larger than normal gap. This strategy is commonly referred to as index arbitrage.
The main reason that S&P futures are so popular for detecting strength is because this contract trades 24 hours a day on financial exchanges around the world. It allows traders and brokers to gauge the futures level before the actual stock markets open for trading which gives a sense of where the market is likely trend at the start of trading.
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