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Jan 04

Futures – Advantages and Disadvantages

Before I can tell you the advantages and disadvantages of trading futures, it’s important to understand how it differs from trading stocks.

When you buy a stock, you own part of the company. That is, you share ownership with other investors. That’s why we say you buy shares.

Trading futures, on the other hand, requires a contract to buy or sell the commodity in the future. That’s why they are called futures.

You can buy or sell those futures contracts as easily as trading stocks. For that matter, you don’t even have to lay out the money. However, you do tie up resources in the form of margin.

The problem is that the margin held is nowhere near the actual value of the commodity if you were to purchase it. This is known as the Notional Value. It’s calculated as the market value multiplied by the leverage.

Okay, I just threw you two more terms that need definition:

The market value is the price that traders are willing to pay. In general, this is determined by supply and demand. The leverage is the number of units of the future index.

For example, the E-Mini SP& 500 Futures has a leverage of 50. As of this writing it’s trading near a market value of 2100. Multiply that by the leverage (50) and you get $105,000. That’s the Notional Value of the E-Mini S&P.

As you can see, if you buy one E-Mini S&P contract, you are controlling $105,000 in value. However, unlike stocks, you don’t own it. You just have a contract to buy or sell it, depending if you went long or short.

Low Margin Required

What did you actually pay? That’s known as the margin that the broker requires you to hold while that trade is active. It varies, but it’s around $5,000.

If you bought a stock valued at $105,000 you’d have to pay $105,000. If you used margin, it would still require a payment of half of that. The advantage with futures is that you only tie up a small fraction.

However, the disadvantage is that you need to know what you’re doing. If you let a Futures trade get away from you, you are liable for a huge investment. Remember, it’s a contract.

That’s why traders buy and sell Futures contracts without actually ever buying the commodity.

What’s the disadvantage?

When trading futures you have to apply your due diligence in knowing the notional value of the future contract.

If you don’t pay attention to the Notional Value, and a trade keeps going against you and you don’t close the trade at a small loss, it can get out of hand.

You could end up losing a lot of money in a short time. If you reach the limits of your margin, your broker will close the trade if you don’t. That means you’ve been taken out of the market and you may not have the resources to get back in. Game over!

For this reason, you need to stay small. Don’t add to bad trades hoping to lower your cost bases. Rather, just admit that you were wrong and you’ll be around to play another day when an opportunity arises.

Advantages?

There are many, and these are the reasons why I love futures over stocks. The rest of this article will briefly list the advantages with trading futures.

Trading Long and Short

Going short with Futures is just as easy as going long. It’s just a matter of deciding in which direction you think the market is headed.

No Day Trading Limits

There is no day trading limit with Futures. Stocks can only be traded three times in a day before the IRS considers you a day trader. Futures can be bought and sold any number of times in a day, allowing one to take quick profits and benefit from intraday swings.

No Wash Sales Penalties

The IRS does not penalize you for taking a loss and reentering the same trade within 30 days. When this is done with stocks it is considered a wash sale and you lose the benefit of deducting the loss unless you can carry it forward to a future gain on the same stock.

The reason why it’s not penalized for Futures is because Futures pricing are recorded as Marked to Market. I won’t get into that here. You can always do a Google search for the term if interested.

Trading 24 hours

Futures trade nearly around the clock, except on weekends and short periods in between for exchange record keeping.

European Style Trading

Stock Options follow the American Style that can be exercised anytime. When trading stock options, one needs to be careful to avoid being exercised if the option is in the money.

Most Futures Options trade European Style, which can’t be exercised before expiration. There are some exceptions, especially with weeklies. That’s beyond the scope of this article though.

Tax Advantage

Futures and Options on Futures are treated according to IRS Section 1256. That provides a tax advantage since 60% of all gains are considered Long Term. This is true even if held for just a few seconds.