The contract for differences (CFD) offers European traders and investors an opportunity to profit from price movement without owning the underlying asset. It's a relatively simple security calculated by the asset's movement between trade entry and exit, computing only the price change without consideration of the asset's underlying value. This is accomplished through a contract between client and broker and does not utilize any stock, forex, commodity, or futures exchange. Trading CFDs offers several major advantages that have increased the instruments' enormous popularity in the past decade.

Key Takeaways

  • A contract for differences (CFD) is an agreement between an investor and a CFD broker to exchange the difference in the value of a financial product between the time the contract opens and closes.
  • A CFD investor never actually owns the underlying asset but instead receives revenue based on the price change of that asset.
  • Some advantages of CFDs include access to the underlying asset at a lower cost than buying the asset outright, ease of execution, and the ability to go long or short.
  • A disadvantage of CFDs is the immediate decrease of the investor's initial position, which is reduced by the size of the spread upon entering the CFD.
  • Other CFD risks include weak industry regulation, potential lack of liquidity, and the need to maintain an adequate margin.

How a CFD Works

If a stock has an ask price of $25.26 and the trader buys 100 shares, the cost of the transaction is $2,526 plus commission and fees. This trade requires at least $1,263 in free cash at a traditional broker in a 50% margin account, while a CFD broker requires just a 5% margin, or $126.30.

A CFD trade will show a loss equal to the size of the spread at the time of the transaction. If the spread is 5 cents, the stock needs to gain 5 cents for the position to hit the break-even price. While you'll see a 5-cent gain if you owned the stock outright, you would have also paid a commission and incurred a larger capital outlay. 

If the stock rallies to a bid price of $25.76 in a traditional broker account, it can be sold for a $50 gain or $50/$1,263 = 3.95% profit. However, when the national exchange reaches this price, the CFD bid price may only be $25.74. The CFD profit will be lower because the trader must exit at the bid price and the spread is larger than on the regular market.

In this example, the CFD trader earns an estimated $48 or $48/$126.30 = 38% return on investment. The CFD broker may also require the trader to buy at a higher initial price, $25.28 for example. Even so, the $46 to $48 earned on the CFD trade denotes a net profit, while the $50 profit from owning the stock outright doesn't include commissions or other fees. Thus, the CFD trader ends up with more money in their pocket.

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Contract for Differences (CFD)

The Advantages of CFDs

Higher Leverage

CFDs provide higher leverage than traditional trading. Standard leverage in the CFD market is subject to regulation. It once was as low as a 2% maintenance margin (50:1 leverage), but is now limited in a range of 3% (30:1 leverage) and could go up to 50% (2:1 leverage). Lower margin requirements mean less capital outlay for the trader/investor and greater potential returns. However, increased leverage can also magnify losses.

Global Market Access From One Platform

Many CFD brokers offer products in all the world's major markets, allowing around-the-clock access. Investors can trade CFDs on a wide range of over 4,000 worldwide markets.

No Shorting Rules or Borrowing Stock

Certain markets have rules that prohibit shorting, require the trader to borrow the instrument before selling short, or have different margin requirements for short and long positions. CFD instruments can be shorted at any time without borrowing costs because the trader doesn't own the underlying asset.

Professional Execution With No Fees

CFD brokers offer many of the same order types as traditional brokers including stops, limits, and contingent orders like "one cancels the other" and "if done." Some brokers offering guaranteed stops will charge a fee for the service or recoup costs in another way.

Brokers make money when the trader pays the spread and most do not charge commissions or fees of any kind. To buy, a trader must pay the ask price, and to sell/short, the trader must pay the bid price. This spread may be small or large depending on the volatility of the underlying asset and fixed spreads are often available.

No Day Trading Requirements

Certain markets require minimum amounts of capital to day trade or place limits on the number of day trades that can be made within certain accounts. The CFD market is not bound by these restrictions and all account holders can day trade if they wish. Accounts can often be opened for as little as $1,000, although $2,000 and $5,000 are common minimum deposit requirements.

Variety of Trading Opportunities

Brokers currently offer stock, index, treasury, currency, sector, and commodity CFDs. This enables speculators interested in diverse financial vehicles to trade CFDs as an alternative to exchanges.

The Disadvantages of CFDs

Traders Pay the Spread

While CFDs offer an attractive alternative to traditional markets, they also present potential pitfalls. For one, having to pay the spread on entries and exits eliminates the potential to profit from small moves. The spread also decreases winning trades by a small amount compared to the underlying security and will increase losses by a small amount. So, while traditional markets expose the trader to fees, regulations, commissions, and higher capital requirements, CFDs trim traders' profits through spread costs.

Weak Industry Regulation

Also note the CFD industry is not highly regulated and the broker's credibility is based on reputation, longevity, and financial position rather than government standing or liquidity. There are excellent CFD brokers, but it's important to investigate a broker's background before opening an account.

Risks

CFD trading is fast-moving and requires close monitoring. There are liquidity risks and margins you need to maintain; if you cannot cover reductions in values, your provider may close your position, and you'll have to meet the loss no matter what subsequently happens to the underlying asset.

Leverage risks expose you to greater potential profits but also greater potential losses. While stop-loss limits are available from many CFD providers, they can't guarantee you won't suffer losses, especially if there's a market closure or a sharp price movement. Execution risks also may occur due to lags in trades.

Because of the risks involved and because the industry is not regulated, CFDs are banned and unavailable to residents in the U.S.

The Bottom Line

Advantages to CFD trading include lower margin requirements, easy access to global markets, no shorting or day trading rules, and little or no fees. However, high leverage magnifies losses when they occur, and having to pay a spread to enter and exit positions can be costly when large price movements do not occur. Indeed, the European Securities and Markets Authority (ESMA) has placed restrictions on CFDs to protect retail investors.