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Security futures are among the potentially riskiest financial products available in the United States. This article describes what security futures are, how they differ from stock options, some of the risks they can pose, and how they are regulated. You should also read the Security Futures Risk Disclosure Statement and August and April supplements before trading security futures. Although discussed in greater detail below, security futures involve a high degree of risk and are not suitable for all investors.
As with any investment, if you don't understand it, you shouldn't buy it. You could lose a substantial amount of money in a very short period of time. The amount you may lose is potentially unlimited and can exceed the amount you originally deposit with your broker. This is because trading security futures is highly leveraged, with a relatively small amount of money controlling assets having a much greater value.
Investors who are uncomfortable with this level of risk should not trade security futures. Existing Futures Contracts Futures contracts have been around for some time. In addition to security futures, futures contracts exist for a variety of agricultural commodities and energy products, precious metals, foreign currencies, and financial instruments. A security futures contract is a legally binding agreement between two parties to buy or sell a specific quantity of shares of an individual stock or a narrow-based security index at a specified price, on a specified date in the future known as the settlement or expiration date.
If you buy a futures contract, you are entering into a contract to buy the underlying security and are said to be "long" the contract. Conversely, if you sell a futures contract, you are entering into a contract to sell the underlying security and are considered "short" the contract. Security Futures Contract Specifications Contract size —Typically, one single stock futures contract will represent shares of the underlying stock. A narrow-based index futures contract will represent the value of the index times a dollar amount set by the exchange.
Contract month —The month when the contract expires. There will be several different contract months available for trading at any one time, and the number of contract months may vary from exchange to exchange. Last trading day —The last day during the contract month when the contract will trade.
This is usually the third Friday in the month. Manner of settlement —Security futures may be settled by physical delivery of the underlying security or cash settlement. Most security futures contracts require physical delivery. Prior to expiration, you can realize your current gains or losses by executing an offsetting sale or purchase in the same contract i. Any futures contract that hasn't been liquidated by an offsetting transaction before the contract's expiration date will be settled at that day's settlement price see definition below.
The terms of the contract specify whether a contract will be settled by physical delivery—receiving or giving up the actual shares of stock—or by cash settlement. Where physical delivery is required, a holder of a short position must deliver the underlying security.
Conversely, a holder of a long position must take delivery of the underlying shares. Where cash settlement is required, the underlying security is not delivered. Rather, any security futures contracts that are open are settled through a final cash payment based on the settlement price.
Once this payment is made, neither party has any further obligations on the contract. When a brokerage firm lends you part of the funds needed to purchase a security, such as common stock, the term "margin" refers to the amount of cash, or down payment, the customer is required to deposit. By contrast, a security futures contract is an obligation not an asset and has no value as collateral for a loan.
When you enter into a security futures contract, you are required to make a payment referred to as a "margin payment" or "performance bond" to cover potential losses.
For a relatively small amount of money the margin requirement , a futures contract worth several times as much can be bought or sold. The smaller the margin requirement in relation to the underlying value of the futures contract, the greater the leverage. Because of this leverage, small changes in price can result in large gains and losses in a short period of time.
Thus, leverage can either benefit or harm an investor. Note that a 4 percent decrease in the value of the contract resulted in a loss of 20 percent of the margin deposited. Minimum margin requirements for security futures are set by law at 20 percent of the contract's value, calculated daily, although exchanges can increase this level or adopt different margin requirements based on risk.
In addition, brokers can and sometimes do establish margin requirements higher than these minimums. Adverse price movements that reduce the reserve below a specified level will therefore result in a demand that you promptly deposit additional margin funds to the account.
Because of the always-present possibility of margin calls, security futures contracts are not appropriate if you cannot come up with the additional funds on short notice to meet margin calls on open futures positions. If you fail to meet a margin call, your firm may close out your security futures position to reduce your margin deficiency.
If your position is liquidated at a loss, you will be liable for the loss. Thus, you can lose substantially more than your original margin deposit. Unlike stocks, gains and losses in security futures accounts are posted to your account every day. Each day's gains are determined by the settlement price set by the exchange. If due to losses your account falls below maintenance margin requirements, you will be required to place additional funds in your account to cover those losses.
The tax consequences of a security futures transaction may depend on the status of the taxpayer and the type of position that is, long or short, covered or uncovered.
For example, for most individual investors, security futures are not taxed as futures contracts. Short security futures contract positions are taxed at the short-term capital gains rate, regardless of how long the contract is held.
Long security futures contracts may be taxed at either the long-term or short-term capital gains rate, depending on how long they are held. For dealers, however, security future contracts are taxed like other futures contracts at a blend of 60 percent long-term and 40 percent short-term capital gains rates.
Depending on the type of trading strategy that is used, there can be additional or different tax consequences too. Taxes are a complicated matter. Consult your tax adviser before trading security futures. Contract specifications may vary from contract to contract.
For instance, most security futures contracts require you to settle by making physical delivery of the underlying security, as opposed to making a cash settlement. Carefully review the settlement and delivery conditions before entering into a security futures contract. Although security futures share some characteristics in common with stock options, these products differ significantly. Most importantly, an option buyer may choose whether or not to exercise the option by the exercise date.
Options purchasers who neither sell their options in the secondary market nor exercise them before they expire will lose the amount of the premium they paid for each option, but they cannot lose more than the amount of the premium. A security futures contract, on the other hand, is a binding agreement to buy or sell. Based upon movements in price of the underlying security, holders of a security futures contract can gain or lose many times their initial margin deposit.
All security futures contracts involve risk, and there is no trading strategy that can eliminate it. Strategies using combinations of positions, such as spreads see definition below , may be as risky as outright long or short futures positions. Trading in security futures requires knowledge of both the securities and the futures markets. And bear in mind the following specific risks involved when trading security futures contracts:.
As an individual investor, you cannot trade directly on an exchange. Security futures transactions for individual investors must be handled by a broker. Most brokers are honest, competent professionals — and there are regulators, like FINRA, to help make sure that the few who are not are identified and disciplined—sometimes even barred from the industry.
Before you do business with any security futures professional or firm, you should check out their background. These sites can provide a wealth of information about the professional background, business practices and conduct of firms and brokers.
Your state securities regulator also may have additional information about securities professionals. But there is more to finding a broker than knowing which ones might not be trustworthy. The key is finding the broker and firm that make you feel comfortable and best meet your personal financial needs. Security futures positions may be held in either a securities or futures account. The protections for your funds and security futures positions differ depending on whether the account is a securities account or a futures account.
Your brokerage firm must tell you whether your security futures positions will be held in a securities account or a futures account. You also may have a choice about which type of account to hold your funds and positions. You should thoroughly understand the regulatory protections available to your funds and positions if your firm fails.
The regulatory protections for your funds in a brokerage firm's failure will vary depending, for example, on whether you are trading through a securities account or a futures account. Protections for Securities Accounts —If you hold security futures contracts in a securities account, SEC rules prohibit a brokerage firm from using your funds and securities to finance its business. As a result, the brokerage firm is required to set aside funds equal to the net of all its excess payables to its customers money the firm owes customers over receivables from customers money customers owe the firm.
These rules also require the firm to segregate hold separately a customer's fully paid and excess margin securities. If the brokerage firm becomes insolvent, the Securities Investor Protection Corporation SIPC protects cash and security futures held in a securities account.
This coverage is limited to protecting funds and securities if the broker holding these assets becomes insolvent; these protections do not cover market losses. Protection for Futures Accounts —Cash held in a futures account must be held in segregation, i.
The firm cannot use your funds to margin or guarantee the transactions of another customer. Nor can the firm borrow or otherwise use your funds for its own purposes. The firm must add its own funds to the segregated account to cover another customer's debits or deficits.
If the firm becomes insolvent, you may not be able to recover the full amount of your funds. Your account is not insured; however, customers with funds in segregation receive priority in bankruptcy proceedings. If you believe you have been wronged or see a mistake in your account, act quickly. Immediately question any transaction you do not understand or did not authorize. Don't be timid or ashamed to complain.
The securities industry needs your help so it can operate successfully. Here are the steps you should take:. Be aware that certain state and federal laws limit the time you may have for filing a lawsuit, arbitration or CFTC reparation claim.