Forward Contracts vs. Futures Contracts: An Overview

Forward and futures contracts are derivatives arrangements that involve two parties who agree to buy or sell a specific asset at a set price by a certain date in the future. Buyers and sellers can mitigate the risks associated with price movements down the road by locking in the purchase/sale price in advance.

A forward contract is an arrangement that is made over-the-counter (OTC) and settles just once at the end of the contract. Both parties involved in the agreement negotiate the exact terms of the contract. It is privately negotiated and comes with a degree of default risk since the counterparty is responsible for remitting payment.

Futures contracts, on the other hand, are standardized contracts that trade on stock exchanges. As such, they are settled on a daily basis. These arrangements come with fixed maturity dates and uniform terms. There is very little risk with futures, as they guarantee payment on the agreed-upon date.

Key Takeaways

  • Forward and futures contracts involve the agreement between two parties to buy and sell an asset at a specified price by a certain date.
  • A forward contract is a private and customizable agreement that settles at the end of the agreement and is traded over the counter.
  • A futures contract has standardized terms and is traded on an exchange, where prices are settled on a daily basis until the end of the contract.
  • There is no oversight with respect to forward contracts while futures are regulated by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.
  • There is more counterparty risk associated with forwards as opposed to futures, which are less risky as there is almost no chance for default.

Explaining Forward and Futures Contracts

Forward Contracts

The forward contract is a privately-negotiated agreement between a buyer and seller to trade an asset at a future date at a specified price. As such, they don’t trade on an exchange. Because of the nature of the contract, forward contracts have more flexible terms and conditions, including the number of units of the underlying asset and what exactly will be delivered, among other factors. Forwards have one settlement date: the end of the contract.

Many hedgers use forward contracts to cut down on the volatility of an asset’s price. Since the terms are set when it is executed, a forward contract is not subject to price fluctuations. That means if two parties agree to the sale of 1,000 ears of corn at $1 each (for a total of $1,000), the terms cannot change even if the price of corn goes down to 50 cents per ear. It also ensures that delivery of the asset or cash settlement (if specified) will take place.

Because of the nature of these contracts, forwards are not readily available to retail investors. The market for them is often hard to predict. That’s because the agreements and their details are generally kept between the buyer and seller, and are not made public. Since they are private agreements, there is a high degree of counterparty risk, which means there may be a chance that one party will default.

While forward contracts settle just once, the settlement for futures contracts can occur over a range of dates.

Futures Contracts

Like forwards, futures contracts involve the agreement to buy and sell an asset at a specific price at a future date. The futures contract, however, has some differences from the forward contract. Futures contracts are marked-to-market (MTM) daily, which means that daily changes are settled day by day until the end of the contract. The futures market is highly liquid, giving investors the ability to enter and exit whenever they choose to do so.

These contracts are frequently used by speculators, who bet on the direction in which an asset’s price will move, they are usually closed out prior to maturity and delivery usually never happens. In this case, a cash settlement usually takes place.

Because they are traded on an exchange, they have clearing houses that guarantee the transactions. This drastically lowers the probability of default to almost zero. Contracts are available on stock exchange indexes, commodities, and currencies. The most popular assets for futures contracts include crops like wheat and corn, and oil and gas.

Key Differences

One of the things that set forward contracts apart from futures contracts is how they’re regulated. Forward contracts aren’t regulated at all while futures are overseen by a central government body. The agency that provides oversight and regulation of futures contracts is the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC). The CFTC was established in 1974 to regulate the derivatives market, to ensure the markets run efficiently, and to protect the interests of investors by preventing fraud and manipulation.

Guarantees for each contract are also provided by different parties. Since forwards are privately negotiated, they provide the guarantee to settle the contract. Futures, on the other hand, have an institutional guarantee provided by the clearinghouses that back them. Unlike forwards, where there is no guarantee until the contract settles, futures require a deposit or margin. This acts as collateral to cover the risk of default.

The underlying assets associated with forward and futures contracts include financial assets (stocks, bonds, currencies, market indexes, and interest rates) and commodities (crops, precious metals, oil and gas-related products).

Forward Contracts vs. Futures Contracts Example

To show how these types of derivatives work, let’s look at a hypothetical example of each.

Forward Contract

Let’s assume that a producer has an abundant supply of soybeans and is concerned that the price of the commodity will drop in the near future. In order to hedge the risk, the producer negotiates a contract with a financial institution that involves the sale of three million bushels of soybeans at a price of $6.50 per bushel in six months. Both parties agree to settle the contract in cash.

Soybean prices have a few ways to move by the time the contract is ready for settlement:

  • The price is exactly as contracted. The contract is settled as per the agreement and neither party owes the other any additional money.
  • The price is lower than the negotiated price. Let’s say the price drops to $5 per bushel, the settlement still goes through at the agreed-upon price. This means the producer’s bet to hedge the risk of a price drop works.
  • The price is higher than the agreed-upon price. The contract is settled at the negotiated price, even though the producer may have profited from a higher price per bushel.

Futures Contract

Oil producers often use futures contracts to sell the commodity. This allows them to lock in a price to sell it and complete delivery once the expiration date hits. But let’s assume that Company A is afraid that demand will slow down and affect the price of oil on the market, which will impact its bottom line. The company enters into a futures contract to lock in the oil price at $75 a barrel, believing it will drop in six months.

If demand drops and the price drops to $65 per barrel, Company A can still settle the contract on the original promised price of $75 per barrel and make a profit of $10 per barrel. But if demand increases and the price rises to $85 a barrel, Company A stands to lose out on the potential for an additional $10 per barrel profit from the contract. Keep in mind that there is no risk if the price remains at the same level after the six-month period.

What Advantages Do Futures Contracts Have Over Forward Contracts?

Details of futures contracts are made public because they are traded on exchanges, unlike forwards, which are negotiated privately between counterparties. Because futures are regulated, they come with less counterparty risk than forward contracts. These contracts are also standardized, which means, they come with set terms and expiry date. Forwards, on the other hand, are customized to the needs of the parties involved.

Are Forward Contracts Marked-to-Market?

Forward contracts are not marked-to-market. That’s because they are settled only on the negotiated settlement date. This is in contrast to futures, which are marked-to-market on a daily basis.

What Are the Main Disadvantages of a Forward Contract?

There are several key disadvantages of a forward contract. For instance, their details are not made public as they are negotiated privately between the two parties involved and because they trade over-the-counter. As such, these derivatives aren’t regulated and come with a greater degree of risk. Settlement isn’t guaranteed until the contract’s maturity date.

The Bottom Line

Forwards and futures contracts share several important traits, but also have significant differences. A forward contract is privately made between two counterparties (OTC), where the settlement date and the amounts to be exchanged at maturity are set and are not marked-to-market in the interim. Since the forward contract is negotiated between two counterparties, there is the risk, albeit rare, that one of them may default and not fulfill the terms of the agreement, which is known as counterparty risk.

A futures contract, on the other hand, is a fixed contract traded on a futures exchange, like the Nymex (New York Mercantile Exchange), which has margin requirements that back-up the futures contract, effectively eliminating counterparty risk. Futures contracts are also traded every day the exchange is open and can be marked-to-market in real time.

What the two have in common is the ability for users to lock in a set price, amount, and expiration date for the exchange of the underlying asset. This allows the users to lock-in a future price and eliminate the risk of the market moving against them, also know as hedging.

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