In finance, a ‘futures contract’ (more colloquially, futures) is a standardized contract between two parties to buy or sell a specified asset of standardized quantity and quality for a price agreed upon today (the futures price) with delivery and payment occurring at a specified future date, the delivery date, making it a derivative product (i.e. a financial product that is derived from an underlying asset). The contracts are negotiated at a futures exchange, which acts as an intermediary between buyer and seller. The party agreeing to buy the underlying asset in the future, the “buyer” of the contract, is said to be “long“, and the party agreeing to sell the asset in the future, the “seller” of the contract, is said to be “short“.
While the futures contract specifies a trade taking place in the future, the purpose of the futures exchange is to act as intermediary and mitigate the risk of default by either party in the intervening period. For this reason, the futures exchange requires both parties to put up an initial amount of cash (performance bond), the margin. Margins, sometimes set as a percentage of the value of the futures contract, need to be proportionally maintained at all times during the life of the contract to underpin this mitigation because the price of the contract will vary in keeping with supply and demand and will change daily and thus one party or the other will theoretically be making or losing money.
To mitigate risk and the possibility of default by either party, the product is marked to market on a daily basis whereby the difference between the prior agreed-upon price and the actual daily futures price is settled on a daily basis. This is sometimes known as the variation margin where the futures exchange will draw money out of the losing party’s margin account and put it into the other party’s thus ensuring that the correct daily loss or profit is reflected in the respective account.
If the margin account goes below a certain value set by the Exchange, then a margin call is made and the account owner must replenish the margin account. This process is known as “marking to market“. Thus on the delivery date, the amount exchanged is not the specified price on the contract but the spot value (i.e., the original value agreed upon, since any gain or loss has already been previously settled by marking to market). Upon marketing the strike price is often reached and creates lots of income for the “caller“.
A closely related contract is a forward contract. A forward is like a futures in that it specifies the exchange of goods for a specified price at a specified future date. However, a forward is not traded on an exchange and thus does not have the interim partial payments due to marking to market. Nor is the contract standardized, as on the exchange. Unlike an option, both parties of a futures contract must fulfill the contract on the delivery date. The seller delivers the underlying asset to the buyer, or, if it is a cash-settled futures contract, then cash is transferred from the futures trader who sustained a loss to the one who made a profit. To exit the commitment prior to the settlement date, the holder of a futures position can close out its contract obligations by taking the opposite position on another futures contract on the same asset and settlement date. The difference in futures prices is then a profit or loss.