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What is a 'Forward Contract'

A forward contract is a customized contract between two parties to buy or sell an asset at a specified price on a future date. A forward contract can be used for hedging or speculation, although its non-standardized nature makes it particularly apt for hedging. Unlike standard futures contracts, a forward contract can be customized to any commodity, amount and delivery date. A forward contract settlement can occur on a cash or delivery basis. Forward contracts do not trade on a centralized exchange and are therefore regarded as over-the-counter (OTC) instruments. While their OTC nature makes it easier to customize terms, the lack of a centralized clearinghouse also gives rise to a higher degree of default risk. As a result, forward contracts are not as easily available to the retail investor as futures contracts.

BREAKING DOWN 'Forward Contract'

Consider the following example of a forward contract. Assume that an agricultural producer has 2 million bushels of corn to sell six months from now, and is concerned about a potential decline in the price of corn. It therefore enters into a forward contract with its financial institution to sell 2 million bushels of corn at a price of $4.30 per bushel in six months, with settlement on a cash basis.

In six months, the spot price of corn has three possibilities:

  1. It is exactly $4.30 per bushel: In this case, no monies are owed by the producer or financial institution to each other and the contract is closed.
  2. It is higher than the contract price, say $5 per bushel: The producer owes the institution $1.4 million, or the difference between the current spot price and the contracted rate of $4.30.
  3. It is lower than the contract price, say $3.50 per bushel: The financial institution will pay the producer $1.6 million, or the difference between the contracted rate of $4.30 and the current spot price.

The market for forward contracts is huge, since many of the world’s biggest corporations use it to hedge currency and interest rate risks. However, since the details of forward contracts are restricted to the buyer and seller, and are not known to the general public, the size of this market is difficult to estimate. The large size and unregulated nature of the forward contracts market means that it may be susceptible to a cascading series of defaults in the worst-case scenario. While banks and financial corporations mitigate this risk by being very careful in their choice of counterparty, the possibility of large-scale default does exist.

Another risk that arises from the non-standard nature of forward contracts is that they are only settled on the settlement date, and are not marked-to-market like futures. What if the forward rate specified in the contract diverges widely from the spot rate at the time of settlement? In this case, the financial institution that originated the forward contract is exposed to a greater degree of risk in the event of default or non-settlement by the client than if the contract were marked-to-market regularly.

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