What Is a Cash Settlement?

A cash settlement is a settlement method used in certain futures and options contracts where, upon expiration or exercise, the seller of the financial instrument does not deliver the actual (physical) underlying asset but instead transfers the associated cash position.

Key Takeaways

  • A cash settlement is a settlement method used in certain futures and options contracts where, upon expiration or exercise, the seller of the financial instrument does not deliver the actual (physical) underlying asset but instead transfers the associated cash position.
  • Derivative trades are settled in cash when physical delivery of an asset does not take place upon exercise or expiration.
  • Cash settlement has enabled investors to bring liquidity into derivative markets.
  • Cash-settled contracts require less time and costs to deliver upon expiration.

Understanding a Cash Settlement

Futures and options contracts are derivative instruments that have values based on an underlying asset, which can be an equity or a commodity. When a futures contract or options contract is expired or exercised, the conceptual recourse is for the holder of the contract to deliver the physical commodity or transfer the actual shares of stock. This is known as physical delivery and can be much more cumbersome than a cash settlement.

If an investor goes short on a futures contract for $10,000 worth of silver, for example, it is inconvenient at the end of the contract for the holder to physically deliver the silver to another investor. To circumvent this, futures and options contracts can be conducted with a cash settlement, where, at the end of the contract, the holder of the position is either credited or debited the difference between the initial price and the final settlement.

For example, the purchaser of a cash-settled cotton futures contract is required to pay the difference between the spot price of cotton and the futures price, rather than having to take ownership of physical bundles of cotton. This is in contrast to physical settlement, where delivery of the actual underlying instrument(s) does take place.

Traders and speculators in agricultural futures and options markets, who trade things such as cattle and other livestock, also generally prefer this kind of arrangement. These traders are not farmers or meat processors and only care about the market price. So, they do not wish to take delivery of a herd of live animals.

Most options and futures contracts are cash-settled. However, an exception is listed equity options contracts, which are often settled by delivery of the actual underlying shares of stock.

Benefits of a Cash Settlement

For sellers not wishing to take actual possession of the underlying cash commodity, a cash settlement is a more convenient method of transacting futures and options contracts. Cash-settled contracts are one of the main reasons for the entry of speculators and, consequently, bring more liquidity to derivatives markets.

Other advantages to cash settlements include:

  1. Reducing the overall time and costs required during a contract's finalization: Cash-settled contracts are relatively simple to deliver because they require only the transfer of money. An actual physical delivery has additional costs tacked onto it, such as transportation costs and costs associated with ensuring delivery quality and verification.
  2. Safeguards against a default: Cash settlement requires margin accounts, which are monitored daily to ensure that they have the required balances to conduct a trade.

Special Considerations

Cash settlement can become an issue at expiration because without the delivery of the actual underlying assets, any hedges in place before expiration will not be offset. This means that a trader must be diligent to close out hedges or roll over expiring derivatives positions in order to replicate the expiring positions. This issue does not occur with physical delivery.

Cash Settlement Example

Futures contracts are taken out by investors who believe a commodity will increase or decrease in price in the future. If an investor goes short a futures contract for wheat, they are assuming the price of wheat will decrease in the short term. A contract is initiated with another investor who takes the other side of the coin, believing wheat will increase in price.

An investor goes short on a futures contract for 100 bushels of wheat for a total of $10,000. This means at the end of the contract, if the price of 100 bushels of wheat drops to $8,000, the investor is set to earn $2,000.

However, if the price of 100 bushels of wheat increases to $12,000, the investor loses $2,000. Conceptually, at the end of the contract, the 100 bushels of wheat are "delivered" to the investor with the long position.

To make things easier, a cash settlement can be used. If the price increases to $12,000, the short investor is required to pay the difference of $12,000 - $10,000, or $2,000, rather than actually delivering the wheat. Conversely, if the price decreases to $8,000, the investor is paid $2,000 by the long position holder.