S&P 500 futures are a type of derivative contract that provides a buyer with an investment priced based on the expectation of the S&P 500 Index’s future value. S&P 500 futures are closely followed by all types of investors and the financial media as an indicator of market movements. Investors can use S&P 500 futures to speculate on the future value of the S&P 500 by buying or selling futures contracts. Investors have two choices when seeking S&P 500 futures. The Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) offers an S&P 500 futures contract known as the ‘big contract’ with a ticker symbol of SP. It also offers an E-mini contract with a ticker symbol of ES.

Key Takeaways

  • S&P 500 futures are one of the most liquid and most traded futures products in the U.S., tracking its namesake benchmark index.
  • S&P futures are cash-settled and listed by the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME).
  • Futures come in two "sizes", standard contracts with a 250x multiplier, and smaller e-mini contracts that trade electronically which are 1/5 the size of the full contract.

Index Futures Basics

Like a regular futures contract, an index futures contract is a legally binding agreement between a buyer and a seller. It allows traders to buy or sell a contract on a financial index and settle it at a future date. An index futures contract speculates on where prices move for indexes like the S&P 500.

As futures contracts track the price of the underlying asset, index futures track the prices of stocks in the underlying index. In other words, the S&P 500 index tracks the stock prices of 500 of the largest U.S. companies. Similarly, Dow and Nasdaq index futures contracts track the prices of their respective stocks. All of these index futures trade on exchanges.

The index futures contract mirrors the underlying cash index, and acts as a precursor for price action on the stock exchange where the index is used. Index futures contracts trade continuously throughout the market week, except for a 30-minute settlement period in the late afternoon U.S. central time, after stock markets close.  

Introduction to S&P 500 Futures

The CME introduced the first S&P 500 futures contracts in 1982. The CME added the E-mini option in 1997.

The SP contract is the base market contract for S&P 500 futures trading. It is priced by multiplying the S&P 500’s value by $250. For example, if the S&P 500 is at a level of 2,500, then the market value of a futures contract is 2,500 x $250 or $625,000.

E-mini futures were created to allow for smaller investments by a wider range of investors. The S&P 500 E-Mini Futures are one-fifth the value of the big contract. If the S&P 500 level is 2,500 then the market value of a futures contract is 2,500 x $50 or $125,000.

The ‘E’ in E-mini stands for electronic. Many traders favor the S&P 500 E-Mini ES over the SP not only for its smaller investment size but also for its liquidity. Like its name, the E-Mini ES trades electronically which can be more efficient than the open outcry pit trading for the SP.

Like with all futures, investors are only required to front a fraction of the contract value to take a position. This represents the margin on the futures contract. These margins are not the same as margins for stock trading. Futures margins show ‘skin in the game’ which must be offset or settled.

E-Mini vs. "Big" S&P Futures

There really is nothing a full-sized contract can do that an E-mini cannot do. Both are valuable tools traders that investors use for speculating and hedging. The only difference being that smaller players can participate with smaller commitments of money using E-minis.

All futures strategies are possible with E-minis, including spread trading. And E-minis are now so popular that their trading volumes are significantly greater than those of full-sized futures contracts. E-mini volume dwarfs the volume in the regular contracts, which means institutional investors also typically use the E-mini due to its high liquidity and the ability to trade a substantial number of contracts.

Electronic trading in E-Minis takes place between 6 p.m. Sunday and 5 p.m. Friday, with a trading pause between 4:15 and 4:30 p.m.

Cash Settlement of S&P 500 Futures

Industry experts created the cash settlement mechanism to resolve the massive logistical challenges presented by delivering the actual 500 stocks associated with an S&P 500 futures contract. Not only would the stocks have to be negotiated and transferred between holders, but they would have to be properly weighted to match their representation in the Index. Instead, an investor picks a long or short position, which is then subject to a mark-to-market. The investor pays any losses or receives profits each day in cash. Eventually, the contract expires, or is offset, and becomes cash-settled based on the spot value of the S&P 500 index.

Taking Bets

One of the often-proclaimed benefits of trading S&P 500 futures is each contract represents an immediate, indirect investment in the performance of the 500 stocks in the S&P 500 Index. Investors can take long or short positions depending on their expectations for future prices. Large institutions may use S&P 500 futures to hedge positions in the S&P 500 Index. With this approach, futures are often used to offset downside risks. Many investors use S&P 500 futures for speculation as it tends to lead the market’s major trends and is highly influenced by broad systematic factors.

S&P 500 Options

In addition to basic futures contracts, the CME also offers derivatives in the form of options contracts on the S&P 500. Just like with futures, S&P 500 options have a full value product and a mini. The full value product has a ticker symbol of SPX with a multiplier of $100. The mini has a ticker symbol of XSP with a multiplier that is one-tenth the SPX. S&P 500 option contracts are also cash-settled.

For an in-depth look at S&P 500 options, see our article: An Introduction to Options on S&P 500 Futures.