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Even if you should decide to participate in futures trading in a way that doesn't involve having to make day-to-day trading decisions (such as a managed account or commodity pool), it is nonetheless useful to understand the dollars and cents of how futures trading gains and losses are realized. And, of course, if you intend to trade your own account, such an understanding is essential.

Dozens of different strategies and variations of strategies are employed by futures traders in pursuit of speculative profits. Here is a brief description and illustration of several basic strategies. Buying (Going Long) to Profit from an Expected Price Increase

Someone expecting the price of a particular commodity or item to increase over from a given period of time can seek to profit by buying futures contracts. If correct in forecasting the direction and timing of the price change, the futures contract can later be sold for the higher price, thereby yielding a profit.* If the price declines rather than increases, the trade will result in a loss. Because of leverage, the gain or loss may be greater than the initial margin deposit.

For example, assume it's now January, the July soybean futures contract is presently quoted at $6.00, and over the coming months you expect the price to increase. You decide to deposit the required initial margin of, say, $1,500 and buy one July soybean futures contract. Further assume that by April the July soybean futures price has risen to $6.40 and you decide to take your profit by selling. Since each contract is for 5,000 bushels, your 40-cent a bushel profit would be 5,000 bushels x 40 cents or $2,000 less transaction costs.

    Price per bushel Value of 5,000 bushel contract
January Buy 1 July soybean futures contract $6.00 $30,000
April Sell 1 July soybean futures contract $6.40 $32,000
  Gain $ .40 $ 2,000

  * For simplicity examples do not take into account commissions and other transaction costs. These costs are important, however, and you should be sure you fully understand them. Suppose, however, that rather than rising to $6.40, the July soybean futures price had declined to $5.60 and that, in order to avoid the possibility of further loss, you elect to sell the contract at that price. On 5,000 bushels your 40-cent a bushel loss would thus come to $2,000 plus transaction costs.

    Price per bushel Value of 5,000 bushel contract
January Buy 1 July soybean futures contract $6.00 $30,000
April Sell 1 July bean futures contract $5.60 $28,000
  Loss $ .40 $ 2,000


Note that the loss in this example exceeded your $1,500 initial margin. Your broker would then call upon you, as needed, for additional margin funds to cover the loss. (Going short) to profit from an expected price decrease The only way going short to profit from an expected price decrease differs from going long to profit from an expected price increase is the sequence of the trades. Instead of first buying a futures contract, you first sell a futures contract. If, as expected, the price declines, a profit can be realized by later purchasing an offsetting futures contract at the lower price. The gain per unit will be the amount by which the purchase price is below the earlier selling price. For example, assume that in January your research or other available information indicates a probable decrease in cattle prices over the next several months. In the hope of profiting, you deposit an initial margin of $2,000 and sell one April live cattle futures contract at a price of, say, 65 cents a pound. Each contract is for 40,000 pounds, meaning each 1 cent a pound change in price will increase or decrease the value of the futures contract by $400. If, by March, the price has declined to 60 cents a pound, an offsetting futures contract can be purchased at 5 cents a pound below the original selling price. On the 40,000 pound contract, that's a gain of 5 cents x 40,000 lbs. or $2,000 less transaction costs.
 

    Price per pound Value of 40,000 pound contract
January Sell 1 April livecattle futures contract 65 cents $26,000
March Buy 1 April live cattle futures contract 60 cents $24,000
  Gain 5 cents $ 2,000

  Assume you were wrong. Instead of decreasing, the April live cattle futures price increases--to, say, 70 cents a pound by the time in March when you eventually liquidate your short futures position through an offsetting purchase. The outcome would be as follows:

    Price per pound Value of 40,000 pound contract
January Sell 1 April live cattle futures contract 65 cents $26,000
March Buy 1 April live cattle futures contract 70 cents $28,000
  Loss 5 cents $ 2,000

In this example, the loss of 5 cents a pound on the futures transaction resulted in a total loss of the $2,000 you deposited as initial margin plus transaction costs.

Spreads


While most speculative futures transactions involve a simple purchase of futures contracts to profit from an expected price increase--or an equally simple sale to profit from an expected price decrease--numerous other possible strategies exist. Spreads are one example. A spread, at least in its simplest form, involves buying one futures contract and selling another futures contract. The purpose is to profit from an expected change in the relationship between the purchase price of one and the selling price of the other. As an illustration, assume it's now November, that the March wheat futures price is presently $3.10 a bushel and the May wheat futures price is presently $3.15 a bushel, a difference of 5 cents. Your analysis of market conditions indicates that, over the next few months, the price difference between the two contracts will widen to become greater than 5 cents. To profit if you are right, you could sell the March futures contract (the lower priced contract) and buy the May futures contract (the higher priced contract). Assume time and events prove you right and that, by February, the March futures price has risen to $3.20 and May futures price is $3.35, a difference of 15 cents. By liquidating both contracts at this time, you can realize a net gain of 10 cents a bushel. Since each contract is 5,000 bushels, the total gain is $500.

November Sell March wheat Buy May wheat Spread
  $3.10 Bu. $3.15 Bu. 5 cents
February Buy March wheat Sell May wheat  
  $3.20 $3.35 15 cents
  $ .10 loss $ .20 gain  

Net gain 10 cents Bu. Gain on 5,000 Bu. contract $500 Had the spread (i.e. the price difference) narrowed by 10 cents a bushel rather than widened by 10 cents a bushel the transactions just illustrated would have resulted in a loss of $500. Virtually unlimited numbers and types of spread possibilities exist, as do many other, even more complex futures trading strategies. These, however, are beyond the scope of an introductory booklet and should be considered only by someone who well understands the risk/reward arithmetic involved.


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