What are derivatives? – Councilor Forbes

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A derivative is a financial instrument that derives its value from something else. Since the value of derivatives comes from other assets, professional traders tend to buy and sell them to offset risk. For less experienced investors, however, derivatives can have the opposite effect, making their investment portfolios much riskier.

What are derivatives?

Derivatives are complex financial contracts based on the value of an underlying asset, a group of assets or a benchmark. These underlying assets can include stocks, bonds, commodities, currencies, interest rates, market indices, or even cryptocurrencies.

Investors enter into derivative contracts that clearly set out the terms of their reaction, and that of another party, to future changes in the value of the underlying asset.

Derivatives can be traded over-the-counter (OTC), which means that an investor buys them through a network of brokers or on exchanges like the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, one of the largest derivatives markets in the world. .

While exchange traded derivatives are regulated and standardized, OTC derivatives are not. This means that you may be able to profit more from an OTC derivative, but you will also face increased counterparty risk, the possibility that one party will default on the derivative contract.

Types of derivatives

You are most likely to come across four main types of derivatives: futures, forwards, options, and swaps. However, as an ordinary investor, you will probably never deal directly with anything other than futures and options.

Futures contracts

With a futures contract, two parties agree to buy and sell an asset at a specified price at a future date.

Since futures contracts bind parties to a particular price, they can be used to offset the risk of an asset’s price going up or down, letting someone sell goods at a massive loss or buy them at a mark-up. important. Instead, futures contracts set a rate that is acceptable to both parties based on the information they currently have.

Notably, futures contracts are standardized, exchange-traded investments, which means that ordinary investors can buy them as easily as they can in stocks, even if you personally don’t need any property or money. ‘a particular service at a particular price. Gains and losses are settled daily, which means you can easily speculate on short-term price movements and don’t have to see the full length of a futures contract.

Since futures contracts are bought and sold on an exchange, there is much less chance that either party will default on the contract.


Futures contracts are very similar to futures contracts, except that they are over-the-counter, which means that they are usually private contracts between two parties. This means that they are not regulated, that they are much more at risk of default, and that average investors are not putting their money.

While they introduce more risk into the equation, futures contracts allow for more customization of terms, prices, and settlement options, which could potentially increase profits.


Options work like non-binding versions of futures contracts: they create an agreement to buy and sell something at a certain price at a certain time, although the party buying the contract is not obligated to use it. For this reason, options generally require you to pay a premium representing a fraction of the value of the deal.

The options can be American or European, which determines how you can apply them.

European options are non-binding versions of a futures or futures contract. The person who bought the contract can perform the contract on the day the contract expires, or they can leave it unused.

American options, on the other hand, can be adopted at any time until their expiration date. They are also non-binding and can be left unused.

Options can be traded on an exchange or over-the-counter. In the United States, options can be traded on the Chicago Board Options Exchange. When traded on an exchange, options are guaranteed by clearing houses and regulated by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), which decreases counterparty risk.

Like futures contracts, OTC options are private transactions that allow for more customization and risk.


Swaps allow two parties to enter into a contract to exchange cash flows or liabilities with the aim of either reducing costs or generating profits. This usually happens with interest rates, currencies, commodities and credit defaults, the latter of which gained notoriety during the housing market collapse of 2007-2008, when they were over-indebted and caused a major chain reaction of fault.

The exact way swaps play out depends on the financial asset being traded. For simplicity’s sake, suppose a business enters into a contract to swap an adjustable rate loan for a fixed rate loan with another business. The company that gets rid of its variable rate loan hopes to protect itself from the risk of an exponential rise in rates.

The company offering the fixed rate loan, meanwhile, is betting that its fixed rate will bring it a profit and cover any rate increases that result from the variable rate loan. If rates drop from where they are now, so much the better.

Swaps carry high counterparty risk and are generally only available over-the-counter to financial institutions and corporations, rather than to individual investors.

How are derivatives used?

Because they involve significant complexity, derivatives are generally not used as simple buy-sell-sell-high or buy-and-hold investments. Instead, parties involved in a derivative transaction can use the derivative to:

  • Cover a financial situation. If an investor is worried about where the value of a particular asset will go, they can use a derivative to hedge against potential losses.
  • Speculate on the price of an asset. If an investor believes that the value of an asset will change significantly, they can use a derivative to bet on their potential gains or losses.
  • Use funds more efficiently. Most derivatives are powered by margins, which means you may be able to get into them with relatively little of your own money. This is useful when you are trying to spread the money over many investments to maximize returns without committing a lot in one place, and it can also lead to much higher returns than you could get with your money alone. But it also means that you can be exposed to huge losses if you make the wrong bet with a derivatives contract.

Risks of derivatives

Derivatives can be incredibly risky for investors. Potential risks include:

  • Counterparty risk. The likelihood that the other party to a deal will default can be high with derivatives, especially when traded over-the-counter. Because derivatives have no value on their own, they are ultimately only worth the trustworthiness of the people or companies who accept them.
  • Changing conditions. Derivatives that contractually bind you to certain prices can lead to wealth or ruin. If you accept futures, futures, or swaps, you may be required to honor large losses, losses that can be amplified by the margin you have incurred. Even non-binding options are not without risk, as you have to shell out money to enter into contracts that you might not choose to execute.
  • Complexity. For most investors, derivatives, especially those based on types of investments they are unfamiliar with, can quickly become complicated. They also require a level of industry knowledge and active management that may not appeal to investors accustomed to traditional non-intervention and buy and hold strategies.

How to invest in derivatives

Derivative investing is incredibly risky and is not a good choice for beginner or even intermediate investors. Make sure you have your financial basics, like an emergency fund and pension contributions, before you embark on more speculative investments, like derivatives. And even then, you won’t want to allocate a substantial portion of your savings to derivatives.

That said, if you want to get into derivatives, you can easily do so by purchasing fund-based derivatives using a regular investment account.

You might consider, for example, a leveraged mutual fund or an exchange-traded fund (ETF), which can use options or futures to increase returns, or a reverse fund, which uses commodities. derivatives to make money for investors when the underlying market or index declines.

Derivatives based on funds like these help reduce some of the risks of derivatives, such as counterparty risk. But they are also usually not intended for long-term investments and can always magnify losses.

If you want more direct exposure to derivatives, you may be able to place options and futures as an individual investor. However, not all brokerage firms allow this, so make sure your platform of choice is equipped for derivatives trading.

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