A:

The derivatives market is, in a word, gigantic – often estimated at more that $1.2 quadrillion on the high-end. Some market analysts estimate the derivatives market at more than 10 times the size of the total world gross domestic product, or GDP. The reason the derivatives market is so large is because there are numerous derivatives available on virtually every possible type of investment asset, including equities, commodities, bonds and foreign currency exchange. However, some analysts challenge estimates of the size of the derivatives market as vastly overstated.

Figuring the Range of Estimates

Determining the actual size of the derivatives market depends on what a person considers part of the market, and therefore what figures go into the calculation. The larger estimates of the market come from adding up the notional value of all available derivatives contracts. But analysts who disagree with the largest estimates of the market argue that such a calculation vastly overstates the reality of derivatives contracts, that the notional value of underlying assets does not accurately reflect the actual market value of derivative contracts based on those assets.

According to 2017 data from the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), it's estimated that the total notional amounts outstanding for contracts in the derivatives market is $542.4 trillion. Meanwhile, they report the gross market value of all contracts to be significantly less at approximately $12.7 trillion. 

An example that illustrates the vast difference between notional value and actual market value can be found in a popularly traded derivative, interest rate swaps. The large principal amounts of the underlying interest rate instruments, although usually included in the calculation of total swaps value, never actually trade hands in derivatives trading. The only money actually traded in an interest rate swap is the vastly smaller interest payment amounts – sums that are only a fraction of the principal amount.

When actual market value of derivatives (rather than notional value) is the focus, the estimate of the size of the derivatives market changes dramatically. However, by any calculation, the derivatives market is quite sizable and significant in the overall picture of worldwide investments.

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