Trading index futures
Index futures are the primary way of trading stock indices.
All of the major stock indices have corresponding futures contracts that are traded on a futures exchange. The E-mini Dow is the main futures contract on the Dow Jones, for example.
Index futures are essentially the same, and trade in the same way, as all other futures contracts.
Taking a long position
This means that you are buying the index at a fixed price now, for expiry on a set date in the future. You would do this if you expected the price of the index to rise between now and the expiry date, so you could profit by selling for a higher price than you paid.
Taking a short position
This would mean that you are selling the index at a fixed price now, for expiry on a set date in the future. You would do this if you thought the price of the index would fall between now and the expiry date, so you could then profit by buying at a lower price.
Like other futures markets, index futures trade on leverage: you put down a margin of the total value of your contract, and this gives you magnified exposure to the market.
Example: the E-mini S&P 500
The E-mini S&P 500 is one fifth of the size of the standard S&P 500 contract, and closely tracks the performance of the larger index. If you think the S&P 500 is going to increase in value over the next three months, you might choose to buy index futures on the E-mini.
The contracts are priced at $50 x the E-mini (futures) price. So if the E-mini futures price is at 1000.00, your $50 contract has a full exposure worth $50,000 ($50 x 1000.00). Like all futures products, you only need to put down a fraction of the full value of the contract in order to open a position; in the case of index futures, this amount is known as a ‘performance bond’. If the market moves against you, you might need to add additional funds to maintain the necessary margin.
For every point the E-mini moves in your favour, you gain $50. For every point the E-mini moves against you, you lose $50.
Ticks are the minimum price movement of a futures contract. For the S&P 500 E-mini, the tick is 0.25 index points, which equates to $12.50 of a $50 contract; so if the E-mini price moves from 1000.00 to 1000.25, a buy position would gain $12.50 and a sell position would lose $12.50.
Why trade stock index futures
As a form of derivative, futures can fit into your overall trading strategy. In volatility trading, for instance, the aim is to take small but regular profits from a volatile market.
If you have a portfolio of shares, you can limit your exposure to unwanted risk by opening an opposite position as an index future. So if you had a number of long shares positions, you could take a short position on the relevant index future. This would help you to offset any losses if your shares moved against you.
Being leveraged products, stock index futures give you exposure to a stock market or sector as a whole for a much smaller amount of up-front capital, and without having to purchase the individual constituent shares directly.
Futures contracts are standardised by the exchange, which mean you must trade in a certain size. This size might not exactly match your needs, especially if you are hedging an existing portfolio.
As you are dealing with such a high-value and volatile asset, you’re likely to need to put down a fairly substantial figure as your margin payment. You’ll need to maintain this margin throughout the time your position is open.