Futures Markets: What, Why & Who

The frantic shouting and signaling of bids and offers on the trading floor of a futures exchange undeniably convey an impression of chaos. The reality however, is that chaos is what futures markets replaced. Prior to the establishment of central grain markets in the mid-nineteenth century, the nation farmers carted their newly harvested crops over plank roads to major population and transportation centers each fall in search of buyers. The seasonal glut drove prices to giveaway levels and, indeed, to throwaway levels as grain often rotted in the streets or was dumped in rivers and lakes for lack of storage. Come spring, shortages frequently developed and foods made from corn and wheat became barely affordable luxuries. Throughout the year, it was each buyer and seller for himself with neither a place nor a mechanism for organized, competitive bidding. The first central markets were formed to meet that need. Eventually, contracts were entered into for forward as well as for spot (immediate) delivery. So-called forwards were the forerunners of present day futures contracts.

Spurred by the need to manage price and interest rate risks that exist in virtually every type of modern business, today’s futures markets have also become major financial markets. Participants include mortgage bankers as well as farmers, bond dealers as well as grain merchants, and multinational corporations as well as food processors, savings and loan associations, and individual speculators.

Futures prices arrived at through competitive bidding are immediately and continuously relayed around the world by wire and satellite. A farmer in Nebraska, a merchant in Amsterdam, an importer in Tokyo and a speculator in Ohio thereby have simultaneous access to the latest market-derived price quotations. And, should they choose, they can establish a price level for future delivery—or for speculative purposes—simply by having their broker buy or sell the appropriate contracts. Images created by the fast-paced activity of the trading floor notwithstanding, regulated futures markets are a keystone of one of the world’s most orderly envied and intensely competitive marketing systems. Should you at some time decide to trade in futures contracts, either for speculation or in connection with a risk management strategy, your orders to buy or sell would be communicated by phone from the brokerage office you use and then to the trading pit or ring for execution by a floor broker. If you are a buyer, the broker will seek a seller at the lowest available price. If you are a seller, the broker will seek a buyer at the highest available price. That’s what the shouting and signaling is about.

In either case, the person who takes the opposite side of your trade may be or may represent someone who is a commercial hedger or perhaps someone who is a public speculator. Or, quite possibly, the other party may be an independent floor trader. In becoming acquainted with futures markets, it is useful to have at least a general understanding of who these various market participants are, what they are doing and why.

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