The earliest known futures exchange was established in Japan in 1710 for trading rice futures, although informal futures trading in metals took place in England as far back as 1571. The modern futures exchanges can be traced back to the beginning of agricultural commodity futures trading in the United States in the 1840s. The Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT) was formed in 1848 and remains one of the largest futures exchanges in the world.
Initially, the primary futures contracts traded were agricultural commodities and metal, but trading in financial products has surpassed basic commodity trading and accounts for the largest dollar volume of futures trading.
The main futures exchanges in the United States include the CBOT, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME), the New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX) and OneChicago, which trades futures on single stocks and exchange-traded funds (ETFs). The main futures exchanges in London are the London Metal Exchange (LME) and ICE Futures Europe.
Futures contracts are grouped by type. With the advent of trading in eurodollar futures in 1981, the CME quickly expanded trading in currency futures to include over 20 currencies. This initial trading on the CME is what eventually led to widespread foreign exchange trading worldwide.
Energy futures contracts, including crude oil and natural gas futures, are traded primarily on the (NYMEX).
Food and fiber futures products are also primarily traded on the NYMEX. This group of futures contracts includes coffee, cocoa, orange juice, sugar and cotton. Orange juice futures are heavily speculated upon during the winter months when unexpected freezes can damage significant portions of the expected crop. Cotton futures trading was a huge market in the U.S. beginning in the 19th century, and many of the most legendary speculators, such as Jesse Livermore and John "Bet a Million" Gates, made and lost fortunes trading cotton futures.
Nearly all of the main agricultural commodities are still traded on the CBOT. Although corn was the initial agricultural product traded on the CBOT, soybeans and wheat have supplanted it as the most widely traded crops.
Interest rate futures were first introduced by the CBOT in the 1970s and quickly became among the most heavily traded futures contracts. U.S. Treasury notes and bonds are now among the top five futures contracts traded in terms of both volume and dollar value.
Livestock, namely cattle and hog futures, are traded on the CME. Live cattle futures are one of the top 20 most heavily traded futures contracts.
Metals contracts, which include gold, silver and copper, are traded on the NYMEX. Gold futures remain one of the most popular futures contracts with speculators.
As of 2015, among the most recent additions to futures contract trading are stock index futures, including the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA), the S&P 500 Index and the Nasdaq 100 Index, along with a handful of real estate futures contracts. All of these are traded on the CME. The S&P 500 Index futures are the most heavily traded of this group.
Finally, weather futures contracts are traded in order to provide risk protection against conditions resulting from adverse weather conditions.