What Is a Position Limit?

A position limit is a preset level of ownership established by exchanges or regulators that limits the number of shares or derivative contracts that a trader, or any affiliated group of traders and investors, may own.

Position limits are put in place to keep anyone from using their ownership control, directly or via derivatives, to exercise unilateral control over a market and its prices.

Key Takeaways

  • Position limits are established to preclude any entity from exerting undue control over a particular market.
  • The primary goal is to avoid the manipulation of prices for personal benefit at the expense of others.
  • These limits are commonly made with respect to total control of the number of shares of stock, options, and futures contracts.
  • Position limit sizes vary from market to market.

Understanding Position Limits

Position limits are ownership restrictions that most individual traders are never going to need to worry about breaching, yet they do form an important purpose in the derivatives world.

Most position limits are simply set too high for an individual trader to reach. However, individual traders should be grateful these limits are in place because they provide a level of stability in the financial markets by preventing large traders, or groups of traders and investors, from manipulating market prices and using derivatives to corner the market.

For instance, by buying call options or futures contracts, large investors, or funds, can build controlling positions in certain stocks or commodities without having to buy actual assets themselves. If these positions are large enough, the exercise of them can change the balance of power in corporate voting blocks or commodities markets, creating increased volatility in those markets.

For example, in 2010 a hedge fund called Armajaro Holdings purchased nearly a quarter-million tonnes of cocoa and caused a price move that was statistically uncharacteristic. Cocoa reached all-time highs early in the year and futures contracts were in their highest state of backwardation ever recorded.

Cocoa peaked in value early in 2011, but began declining from there. Six years later, the fund lost money on its cocoa investments as the price of cocoa fell 34% in 2016 on its way to making its lowest prices in a decade. The episode demonstrated two points of observation: cornering attempts can create statistically unusual price swings, and the effort is notoriously difficult and rarely worth the effort.

How Position Limits Are Determined

Position limits are determined on a net equivalent basis by contract. This means that a trader who owns one options contract that controls 100 futures contracts is viewed the same as a trader who owns 100 individual futures contracts. It's all about measuring the control a trader can exert over a market.

Position limits are applied on an intraday basis. While some financial rules apply to the number of holdings or exposure a trader has at the end of the trading day, position limits are applicable throughout the trading day. If at any time during the trading day a trader surpasses the position limit, they will be in violation of the limit.

Traders may receive an exemption from an imposed position limit from the Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) in some instances.

Special Considerations

Another form of limiting influence on market prices is the change in margin requirements. Increasing margin requirements may not hinder an individual investor or group of investors, but it will increase the capital reserves necessary to hold the same number of positions, making it much more expensive to corner the market.

For example, in 2011 the margin requirements for gold and silver were changed, leading the prices of both precious metals to fall after strong rallies.