To calculate the notional value of a futures contract, the size of the contract is multiplied by the price per unit of the commodity represented by the spot price.

Notional value = Contract size x Spot price

For example, one soybean contract is comprised of 5,000 bushels of soybeans. At a spot price of $9, the notional value of a soybean futures contract is $45,000, or 5,000 bushels times the $9 spot price. The notional value calculation of a futures contract determines the value of the assets underlying the futures contract. The spot price is the current price of the commodity.

Notional Value Calculation

The notional value calculation reveals the total value of the underlying asset or commodity the contract controls. As with the soybean example, one soybean contract represents $45,000 of that asset. However, that number is not the same as the option market value, which is how much the option contract currently trades on the market.

Option market value = Option price x Claim on underlying assets

If the soybean contract in the above example is trading at $2 then the option market value would be $10,000, or the $2 option price times 5,000 bushels. The difference in notional value and option market value is due to the fact that options use leverage.

Futures Prices

Unlike stocks that can exist in perpetuity, futures have an expiration date and are limited in their duration. The front-month futures contract is the contract with the nearest expiration date and is usually the closest in value to the spot price.

The price of the front-month futures contract may be substantially different than the contract a few months out. This allows the market to attempt to predict supply and demand for a commodity further out.

Futures Contracts and the Market

There are two main participants in the futures markets: hedgers are seeking to manage their price risk for commodities, and speculators want to profit off of price fluctuations for commodities. Speculators provide a great deal of liquidity to the futures markets. Futures contracts allow speculators to take larger amounts of risk with less capital due to the high degree of leverage involved.

Futures contracts are financial derivatives with values based on an underlying asset. They are traded on centralized exchanges such as the CME Group or the ICE Exchange. The futures market began in the 1850s in Chicago with farmers seeking to hedge their crop production. Farmers could sell futures contracts to lock in a price for their crops. This allowed them to be unconcerned about daily price fluctuations of the spot price. The futures market has since expanded to include other commodities, such as energy futures, interest rate futures, and currency futures.

Why Notional Value Is Important

Notional value is key to managing risk. In particular, the notional value can be used to determine the hedge ratio, which lays out the number of contracts needed to hedge market risk. The hedge ratio calculation is:

Hedge ratio = Value at risk / Notional value

Value at risk is the amount of an investor’s portfolio that is “at risk,” or subject to loss related to a particular market. For example, an investor has a $5 million position in soybeans that they would like to hedge against future losses. They’ll use a futures contract to do so.

Continuing with the above soybean futures example, it would take roughly 111 of the above soybean futures contracts to hedge their position, or, $5 million divided by $45,000.

Notional value helps investors understand and plan for risk of loss. It may take a small amount of money to buy an option contract thanks to leverage, yet, movements in the underlying asset price can lead to a large swing in an investor’s account.