What is a futures contract?

Find out what futures contracts are and how you can trade them.

Futures, also known as futures contracts, are a type of derivative. With futures, a transaction must be made at a predetermined future date and price. It’s kind of like going into a shop and promising to purchase a pint of milk in a week’s time for the price they’ve got on display right now. If everyone agrees to it, you’ve got yourself a futures contract.

For example, if you agree to buy a pint of milk for £1 and in a week’s time it costs £1.20, then you can still have it for £1. If it’s 80p, that sucks, you gotta buy it for £1. And that’s not a choice – you have to fulfil your contract and purchase your milk at the agreed price.

The analogy kind of falls apart here since you could just go in with a fake moustache and buy a pint of milk for the bargain price of 80p but that’s the gist.

There are loads of different things you can get futures contracts for, such as the following:

  • Commodity futures, such as crude oil, natural gas, corn or wheat
  • Stock index futures, such as for the S&P 500
  • Currency futures, such as for the euro and pound
  • Precious metals futures, like gold or silver

What’s the difference between options and futures?

At a glance, these look like they’re the same thing, but there’s a key difference.

FuturesOptions
These are an obligation to buy or sell the underlying asset at a set price at expiration.These offer the right to buy or sell at a set price on a set date.
Once you’ve entered into a contract, you have to fulfil it at the price and on the date you agreed upon – much like when you exchange contracts on a house purchase.These are kind of like a voucher for a cheaper bar of chocolate. If you arrive at the supermarket to purchase it and the shelf price is a better price than your voucher, you can choose not to use it.

Pros and cons of futures

Pros

  • Futures let you speculate on the price movements – for example, it’s likely that people had futures contracts ahead of the Brexit vote on the price of the pound. Although, in this particular case, the unexpected result probably led to a lot of people losing money in this way.
  • Companies can hedge the price of raw materials from adverse price movements.
  • Futures may only require a deposit of a fraction of the contract price.

Cons

  • Due to leverage, there’s a risk that you can lose more than the money you originally invested.
  • Companies that hedge may lose out on favourable price movements.
  • Margin means that your losses may be amplified.

What's leverage?

Leverage means you don’t necessarily need to put down 100% of the contract value when you enter into a trade. This is what makes derivatives so dangerous – you could find yourself losing more money than you initially invested.

How do you actually make money with futures?

Futures can seem complicated, especially when you’re looking at physical items like commodities and precious metals. Surely if you’re not in the market for a bunch of milk, there’s no point buying it even if it is for a good price?

This is where the exchange comes into play. There are two ways this is dealt with: the product you are buying can be physically delivered or it can be cash settled.

Let’s say, for instance, that you own a sushi restaurant. You could choose to “lock in” a physical delivery of soybeans. This means that if the price goes up, you’ve got the better price. As your restaurant actually uses soybeans, you can have a physical delivery of soybeans and get that smug feeling when you get a better price (assuming it went your way).

Despite this being a nice way to save some money on your raw materials, this isn’t generally how investors use futures. Often, they are used to speculate on the cost, and your typical trader doesn’t actually want a bucket-load of soybeans rocking up on their doorstep. In these cases, the contract can be cash settled.

Going long vs going short

When taking out a futures contract, you can take a long or a short position. This is the same as it is with CFDs, where going short means you think the price will fall and going long means that you think the price will rise. If the price goes the way that you thought it would, then you make a profit. If it goes the other way, you make a loss.

Compare investment services

Table: sorted by promoted deals first
1 - 6 of 6
Name Product Price per trade Frequent trader rate Platform fees Brand description
eToro Free Stocks
£0
N/A
£0
Capital at risk. 0% commission but other fees may apply. The minimum deposit with eToro is $50.
IG Share Dealing
UK: £8
US: £10
EU: 0.1% (min €10)
UK: £3
US: £0
EU: 0.1% (min €10)
£0
Get 0% commission on US shares when you make 3+ trades in the previous month.
IG is good for experienced traders, and offers learning resources for beginners, all with wide access to shares, ETFs and funds. Capital at risk.
Hargreaves Lansdown Fund and Share Account
£11.95
£5.95
£0
Hargreaves Lansdown is the UK's number one platform for private investors, with the depth of features you'd expect from an established platform. The minimum deposit with HL is £1. Capital at risk.
Freetrade
Finder Award
Freetrade
£0
-
£0
Receive a free share worth at least £10 when you deposit £50 within 30 days into your account. Terms & conditions apply.
Degiro Share Dealing
UK: £1.75 + 0.014% (max £5)
US: €0
N/A
£0
Degiro is widely seen as one of the best low-cost share brokers, for people who are looking to trade regularly. The minimum deposit with Degiro is £0. Capital at risk.
interactive investor Trading Account
£5.99 (plus 1 free trade each month)
£3.99
£9.99 per month
Interactive Investor offers everything most investors need. Its flat fees makes it pricey for small portfolios, but cheap for big ones. The minimum deposit with ii is £0. Capital at risk.
loading

Compare up to 4 providers

All investing should be regarded as longer term. The value of your investments can go up and down, and you may get back less than you invest. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. If you’re not sure which investments are right for you, please seek out a financial adviser. Capital at risk.

More guides on Finder

  • How to buy EnSilica (ENSI) shares

    Learn more about EnSilica’s recent performance and where you can invest in EnSilica shares. We also run through some helpful rules of thumb for any investor

  • Ways to invest in Chelsea Football Club

    Chelsea FC isn’t publicly listed, so you can’t invest directly in the club – however, there are ways that you can invest indirectly.

  • How to buy Ithaca Energy (ITH) shares

    Everything we know about the Ithaca Energy IPO, plus information on how to buy shares.

  • How to open a stocks and shares ISA

    Looking to invest in an ISA and not sure how to open an account? Read our guide as we look what types are available and how to invest.

  • Do I have to pay tax on overseas investments?

    Thinking of expanding your investment portfolio overseas? Make sure you understand the tax rules for overseas investments.

  • Investing in overseas shares

    Investing in overseas markets can diversify your investment portfolio, and potentially reduce your overall investment risk.

  • Stock splits explained

    Find out exactly what a stock split and a reverse stock split means, why they happen and what impact it has on the price of shares.

  • Tax on investments

    We explain the different types of tax you may need to pay on investments, and the allowances that can help you keep investment tax to a minimum.

  • Investing in emerging markets

    Find out how to invest in emerging markets and learn about the best ETFs, funds and investment trusts available to UK investors.

  • How to buy RumbleON (RMBL) shares in the UK

    Ever wondered how to buy shares in RumbleON? We explain how and compare a range of providers that can give you access to many brands, including RumbleON.

Ask an Expert

You are about to post a question on finder.com:

  • Do not enter personal information (eg. surname, phone number, bank details) as your question will be made public
  • finder.com is a financial comparison and information service, not a bank or product provider
  • We cannot provide you with personal advice or recommendations
  • Your answer might already be waiting – check previous questions below to see if yours has already been asked

Finder.com provides guides and information on a range of products and services. Because our content is not financial advice, we suggest talking with a professional before you make any decision.

By submitting your comment or question, you agree to our Privacy and Cookies Policy and Terms of Use.

Questions and responses on finder.com are not provided, paid for or otherwise endorsed by any bank or brand. These banks and brands are not responsible for ensuring that comments are answered or accurate.
Go to site