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Stock Futures: How to Start Trading Indices

Every trader worthy of the title knows about the stock futures market. Even those who are just getting started with the financial market likely have heard of the indexes so frequently mentioned in the news, including the S&P 500, Dow Jones Industrial Average, FTSE 100, Nikkei 225, DAX and the CAC 40 among others. But while it’s easy to recognize the index names, it’s far more important to know how to gain exposure to them. In this guide, we discuss this market and what you need to know to trade indices.


What Are Stock Futures?

Stock futures fall under a category of futures contracts that are used to trade stock indices. These indices bundle the shares of different companies based on specific criteria. This makes it easier to look at trends on the overall market based on the index level. That’s why stock (or equity) indices are often used as a suitable measure of investor sentiment in a specific market.

For example, a technology stock index tracks a bundle of technology stocks and will move with the overall performance of the stocks within it. Investors can then use this index to quickly gauge the performance of technology stocks. Either in the present or over a specific period of time.

Stock index futures have been on the investment map since they were introduced in the early 1980’s. The first stock index futures was launched in February 1982. Institutional traders originally used them as a hedging instrument to protect against sudden price reversals. The use case has since evolved to being used as a speculative tool among day trading private individuals. They are also used as a basis to arrive at pricing for CFD index futures.

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How Are They Used to Predict Market Movements?

Stock futures exchanges like the CME typically have longer trading hours than regular exchanges. There are also some futures contracts that are traded around the clock. This makes them useful for predicting where a stock index may move next. At least where speculators think an index will move by the time the underlying exchange opens for the day.

A good example is the FTSE 100 Index Futures. These futures contracts are traded from 1 AM to 9:00 PM London time, while the regular trading hours for the FTSE 100 market itself are from 8 AM to 5 PM. In this way, any news coming in outside of that period about the FTSE market can influence trading sentiment before the market opens.

Stock Index Futures Contracts

Before we explore how to trade stock futures, it’s essential to understand the structure of index futures contracts. Entering into an index futures contract means both parties are bound to an agreed value for the underlying index to be settled at a specified future date. This basically means that traders have the obligation, not the right as with options, to settle the contract at a future date. The value of a stock index contract is specified by the exchange where the index is traded.

Like any derivative, stock index futures are a zero-sum game — One party takes a long position and the other takes a short position. There’s no physical underlying asset to deliver so index futures are always settled in cash. At the time of settlement, the loser pays the winner the difference between the agreed index futures price and the closing value of the index.

Trading Stock Futures Contracts

You can trade stock index futures through a commodity futures broker who will facilitate the trade on both buy and sell orders. Just make sure that it is a reliable platform and you can afford their margin requirements.

You can visit the National Futures Association. to vet any potential brokers that you may be considering. Check their futures trading fees, complaints lodged against them, and their track records in generating fair, clean stock futures trades.

Just like trading traditional stock market securities, a buy order means taking a long position which profits from a rising stock index. A sell order results in a short position to realize profits from a declining index.

Stock Futures Contracts Explanation
Basic Breakdown of How Futures Contracts Work

As previously mentioned, stock index futures are purely cash-settled since there’s no possible way to physically deliver an index. The settlements also occur daily on a mark-to-market basis.

Like other futures contracts, traders are required to put up an initial margin to enter a position in index futures. There’s also a maintenance margin set for each contract and the value must not drop past a certain point or else the broker will initiate a margin call. This basically means that the trade will be forced to close or the investor will need to put up more money to get back to the broker’s margin requirement.

If the futures market seems a tad too complicated, you can also consider stock index exchange-traded funds (ETFs). These offer similar exposure as stock futures without having to deal with the relatively high risk typically associated with stand-alone stock index vehicles.

Calculating Profit or Loss in Stock Index Futures

The opening value of a futures trade is the price that you paid for the futures contract when placing the trade. The resulting profit or loss is then calculated from that value. To determine the size of your profit or loss, you’ll need to consider the number of futures contracts you traded in that session. As well as how much each contract is worth per point of movement in the index.

For example, one of the more popular indices available today is the S&P 500. Each point in a full-size S&P 500 futures contract has a fixed value of $250. Assuming the index is valued at 2,600 points when you buy the S&P futures contract, then it will be worth $650,000 (250 x 2,600).

If you buy one contract on a 10% margin, then you must put up $65,000 to initiate the position.

Suppose the underlying index swings by 20 points. Then you have the potential to gain or lose $5,000 ($250 x 20 points) depending on which direction the index moves.

You then add or subtract profit or loss on the trade from your margin deposit in your trading account.

As you can see, trading stock futures is neither for the faint-hearted nor for those with very little cash to spare. For this reason, some exchanges have developed E-mini and Micro E-mini contracts. They let traders with smaller funding can also participate in the futures market.

Stock Index Futures Trading Strategy

If you’re new to derivatives trading, it’s best to start simple. Remember the stock futures market lets you make some very high-risk, high-reward bets. Only do it if you know what you’re doing.

One simple strategy involves buying an index futures contract with a long-term expiration at the market price during a downturn.

For instance, let’s say you buy a one-year Dow Jones future contract after the market went down. Closer to the end of the one-year mark, let’s say the index appreciated. In this case, you could be in for some good gains at settlement.

Why Trade Index Futures?

The three biggest benefits of trading stock futures indices are:

  • Leverage – Opening a futures position means you get to enjoy a bigger total exposure than the capital you’ve put down when you opened your position. We refer to this capital as as margin requirement and typically ranges from 3 – 12% of the contract value. Essentially, you could make a large amount of money with a fraction of the capital.
  • Liquidity – Futures markets tend to be very liquid, which makes them easier to trade. Except during global downturn events, price movements tend to remain fairly stable too, especially as the futures contract nears maturity.
  • Hedging – If your portfolio contains a number of stocks that are part of a single index, you could hedge market specific risk. You might do it when you are concerned about systematic risk. This is the risk that the overall market may decrease in value. You could hold a short index futures position that can offset this risk. If the index does falls in value during a market downturn, your futures contract will earn a profit. This profit will counteract the loss from your individual stock positions.

Drawbacks of Trading Stock Index Futures

The three biggest benefits of trading stock futures indices are:

  • Leverage Risks – Leverage is a double edge sword and doesn’t discriminate between losses and gains. Same way as you could make considerable gains with little capital, you could also lose your entire investment if the market conditions do not swing in your favor.
  • Cash and Margins – To participate in the futures markets, you need to put up an appropriate amount of margin as required by the exchange and your broker. If your trade experiences a significant loss, then a margin call may be triggered. In this case, you’ll need to top up your account to meet the minimum margin required or your position will be liquidated.

The Bottom Line

Trading stock futures could be a great way to realize considerable profits for traders and speculators. It’s also a great tool to hedge your portfolio and minimize losses. Like any speculative market that deals with derivatives, stock index futures are not for everyone. But if you’re looking for a fast-moving trading opportunity and you know your way around the futures market, then this may be right for you. The key is to pay attention to technical analysis and any other factors that can influence the price of the underlying index. You should also consider fine-tuning your trading strategy so that you can limit your risk exposure.

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