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Mark to Market and Settling Futures Contracts

A trader’s activity mainly consists of tracking prices and striking the right deal, however, there’s another side to Futures trading that receives a lot less attention. The systems outlined earlier have mostly been automated. For brokerages the bulk of their actual daily work consists of clearing, contracts settlement, back office work as well as managing all the rules, regulations and procedures that are required for it. This is complicated further by the surprising reality that most of the global financial markets have vastly different rules for these processes.

The fact that we can purchase Futures for the Japanese yen or the Hang Seng index from the comfort from our own bedroom could lead us to believe, that the rules for settling contracts and issuing account statements in these countries are at least somewhat comparable to our own. The truth is that the USA’s laws & regulations are not in the least harmonized to those of other regions. Mutual Fund shares issued in Europe for example cannot be sold in the US or to US citizens. European citizens meanwhile are barred from purchasing the ETFs traded on the US stock market, however, the same restriction doesn’t apply to stocks or futures. The two regions are equally divided on the access of currencies and CFDs.

At first one would assume that this some kind of market protection measure. Although that’s part of the reason, it’s not the entirety of it. Consumer habits and the business strategies of individual brokerages also play a large role in the development of these conventions. There’s no doubt that the US is the center and origin of modern futures trading. It’s where Europe adapted most of its assets from so it made sense for them to try and recreate the same standards as Chicago. Unfortunately their investors didn’t have the same amount of available capital as their US counterparts so there was a significantly lower interest in the same large scale commodity contracts. Instead they chose to break down the larger contracts into smaller increments. This led to market makers basing their prices on the CBOT, CME & NYBOT while offering their own contract sizes in the form of Contracts For Differences. A contract on oil for example represents 1,000 physical barrels of oil so at a nominal value of $64 it has an actual value of $64,000. In this case the smallest movement, one tick, is 0.01 points or $10. To serve the needs of small investors the European CFDs were split into 10 and 100 barrel increments, resulting in margin requirements being reduced to one tenth or one hundredth respectively. This was possible because the investors’ trades never made it to the market, but instead stayed in the books of the market makers. Once the market maker had enough investors they’d use the ones with opposing positions to mitigate each-other, then either aggregate the rest into full size positions to place it themselves or keep it in their own books if the investors were unsuccessful. The resulting situation was a conflict of interest where the market maker profited when the trader lost. This led to a wave of brokerages offering CFDs being established in Europe’s financial offshore centers such as Malta, Cyprus, Switzerland and Liechtenstein. These providers often didn’t even forward contracts to the regulated markets, meaning they themselves weren’t bound by the same strict regulations.

The US opposed the domestic appearance of these CFD products from the onset, with the stated goal being to protect both its market and traders. US brokers also attempted to open the door for small investors. Their method was lowering margin requirements, however, these attempts were stopped short by the relevant supervisory. Instead they developed a system of mini & micro contracts, allowing them to keep investors within the regulated framework of the market. These mini & micro assets have been wildly successful, proving that it’s possible to remain flexible while being regulated.

These regulated assets still had one major drawback compared to CFDs, namely expiry. The latter are instruments with no explicit expiry, meaning the trader could hold them for as long as they chose. Index CFDs would even pay interest in many cases. This gave traders the option to hold their positions until they either reversed or the more likely scenario of the investor losing all their capital. At the same time they also lowered their base margin requirements to the point where brokers only liquidated these positions when their value only had cents left.

The US came up with a creative solution to resolve the issue of expiry. It did so by requiring the closing and physically settling of every futures contract at the end of each trading day. This process became known as Mark to Market. At first it’s uncomfortable, since the trader has to see their potential losses every day, however, their actual balance doesn’t change until the moment the position itself is closed. It’s merely a difference in optics. On the other hand when they see the position is settled on a day to day basis, they also become less concerned about simply opening a new position when the current one expires. In a sense it gives them the same sense of security they get from the continuous CFDs.

The final difference is that futures contracts can only be rolled over if the required initial margin is available in the trader’s balance. This amount tends to be higher than the regular maintenance margin required for (as the name implies) simply maintaining the contract. By extension this means that if the trader doesn’t have the required margin due to accumulated losses, the position will simply close on expiry. It’s worth asking whether this process is unfair or if it’s actually to the trader’s benefit. Obviously a trader who had to face a loss due to this settlement method could think that they lost the opportunity for their position to rebound, however, in reality there’s only a very slim chance for a poor position to suddenly and miraculously turn around. Approximately 75-80% of  traders who deal in CFDs tend lose money at the end of their trades and losing 95% of your capital should definitely sting more than only losing 70% of it. The US settlement model acts as a safety net for the vast majority of traders, even if some do fall through the cracks in the end.

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