How Risky Are Futures? (2024)

A tidal wave of new trading has flooded the futures market, sparking fears that many are taking on catastrophic risks they don't understand. Futures trading grew almost one-and-a-half times in the previous decade to 29.2 billion contracts in 2023. This boom has been helped by individual investors—who make up about 10 to 15% of the futures market in the U.S.—looking to hit jackpots in the complex derivatives market. Regulators have been scrambling to warn retail and other investors about the potential losses facing those who trade in the futures market.

Fortunately, we now know far more through recent studies about the risks retail investors, in particular, face in this market. To help us unpack this research and figure out how risky futures are, we spoke with Scott Mixon, Ph.D., acting chief economist, and Alex Ferko, Ph.D., research economist, at the Commodity and Futures Trading Commission (CFTC). Along with Esen Onur, another CFTC economic researcher, they produced a February 2024 CFTC study that provided unprecedented insights into retail traders in futures. We also spoke with Jack D. Schwager, a leading expert on futures and bestselling author of the "Market Wizards" book series. While this article centers on the risks facing retail futures traders, we'll discuss the broader futures market while learning what both researchers like Mixon and Ferko and practitioners like Schwager can tell us about how risky the market is for those trading futures.

Key Takeaways

  • Futures are contracts between two parties to buy or sell an asset at a particular time in the future for a preset price.
  • Because futures traders can take advantage of greater leverage than the underlying assets, speculators can face increased risk and margin calls that magnify losses.
  • In the futures market, traders face basis, leverage, liquidity, market, and regulatory risks.
  • Recent research shows newer traders often struggle to navigate the complexities of futures trading, leading to poor decision-making and an increased risk of losses.

What Are Futures?

Before touching on their risks, let's first set out what futures are and why they matter. Futures are financial contracts that commit buyers and sellers to transact an underlying asset at a preset price on a specified future date. They play a critical role in finance and the economy as tools to manage uncertainty in commodity production, financial markets, and other areas. "Futures benefit everybody," Schwager told us. "The future markets provide a hedging vehicle so people, corporations, farmers, or even investment groups can reduce their risk in cash assets."

You can buy futures that cover commodities, financial securities, weather events, shipping rates, electricity, telecommunications bandwidth, real estate, and even political elections. Equity index futures are the most actively traded, accounting for 65% of volume as of 2024, followed by currencies and interest rates at 9%, and agricultural and metal futures at 5%.

Futures for Hedging

The traditional and most popular use for the futures market is for hedgers seeking to mitigate price risks. Major hedgers include farms, commodity producers/consumers, banks, and asset managers who would like to lock in prices in the future and reduce uncertainty.

For those who hedge with futures, Schwager said, these contracts "allow them to operate more efficiently, which has a clear economic benefit." For example, an airline might buy oil futures when prices are low to hedge against spikes in jet fuel expenses. These hedgers offset risks in their operations that could significantly swing revenues and expenditures if left unprotected from volatility. Futures provide stability in a world where prices are not.

Futures for Speculating

While speculators are often depicted in hostile terms, Schwager says they are necessary for the futures market. "The benefit of speculators is very simple: somebody has to be on the opposite side of those trades [for hedgers]. And there has to be a lot more trading going on than just large commercial" entities hedging for the future. Speculators range from retail traders to hedge funds.

Education

"It's easy to lose money [in futures]," Scott Mixon, the CFTC's acting chief economist, told us bluntly. "Traders should really understand what they're doing."

The Risks of Trading Futures

Let's unpack the forms of risk involved in futures and then compare them to those of other financial assets:

Basis risk: This is the chance that the price of the futures contract doesn't move the same way as the price of the asset. This means that even if your predictions play out with the prices for the underlying asset, you might not make out as well as expected.

Leverage risk: Futures provide leverage because they allow traders to enter into a position by putting up only a small percentage of the total contract value rather than its full cost. But leverage is double-edged. If prices move even slightly against the leveraged futures position, substantial losses can quickly accrue.

Liquidity risk: Some futures contracts, especially those with longer expiration dates or for less commonly traded commodities, may have less liquidity. This can make it difficult to enter or exit positions at the desired price, increasing the risk of slippage. This problem was more common before trading was digitized.

Market Risk: The most obvious risk with futures trading is that prices can be highly volatile, and changes are can be swift, adverse, and devastating. This is because the market risk is magnified by leverage, when there's already enough to worry about when supply and demand shift.

Regulatory risk: Changes in regulations or tax laws can impact the futures market. Traders need to stay informed about potential changes that could affect their trading strategies or the profitability of their trades.

Risks For Futures vs. Stocks vs. Options

To better understand the risks in futures, we need to compare them with other popular investments. However, let's make it unmistakably clear that much depends on the trader's experience, the underlying asset, the market backdrop, and more. That said, generally speaking, futures trading is often considered riskier than stock trading because of the high leverage and volatility involved that can expose traders to significant price moves.

Below, we compare the relative risks of these investments with the caveats noted above that can shift these simplified assumptions.

The Relative Risks of Futures, Options, and Stocks
Risk FactorFuturesOptionsStocks
Leverage RiskHigh (long and short)Moderate (predominantly long)Low (predominantly long)
Market RiskHigh (long and short)High (long and short)Moderate (long and short)
Liquidity RiskLow-moderate (long and short)High (long and short)Low (long and short)
Risk DurationLimited because of expiration (long and short)Limited because of expiration (long and short)Long-term hold mitigates risk (long)
Buyer RiskPotentially unlimited losses (long)Limited to premium paid (long)Initial investment (long)
Seller/Writer RiskPotentially unlimited losses (short)Potentially unlimited Losses (short)Potentially unlimited losses (short)
Complexity RiskModerate (long and short)High (long and short)Low (long and short)

The Risks For Retail Investors in Futures

Unlike commercial hedgers offsetting offset business risk, retail speculators voluntarily take on the price risk, enticed by the potential for outsized returns. Retail investors are generally defined by the CFTC as those with 50 trades a day or less, though specifying what's meant by the term proves tricky given the different definitions among market participants, as a 2022 World Federation of Exchanges (WFE) study analyzing their poll of exchanges showed.

Although participation in the futures market has grown exponentially, we shouldn't oversell retail traders' impact on the wider market. Retail numbers might spike the trading volumes, but much of the investment capital involved has long been from relatively few players, Ferko and Mixon said. "When we think about the bulk of the market and the commitments of traders, it's literally like 500 traders or 1,000 traders that we think about—they make up about 90% to 95% of that open interest." Still, Ferko added, retail investors are "sometimes the majority or a large fraction of the accounts actually trading."

Just because their trades are smaller doesn't make it less essential for stakeholders to safeguard them in the market. "For that individual, it might be 100% of their portfolio [at stake]. So we have to be mindful. For them, it's the full $1,000 of margin they have. That's the case for thousands of customers."

A dearth of data about retail trading has long been a problem for anyone looking at futures trading. Commitments of traders futures data primarily captures large institutional traders. "Below that [size] threshold, everything is left as a residual. It's just like, 'Here are some other people trading,'" Mixon said. This meant that regulators didn't have much visibility into the behavior and outcomes of retail investors.

New Data

Before the 2024 CFTC study, one of its authors said, "The only paper we've seen where you really had raw data on these smallest retail futures traders—it's almost literally 100 years old."

Fortunately, Mixon, Ferko, and Onur obtained recent account-level margin and position details initially collected for another purpose. Earlier CFTC research highlighted shifts in how futures are traded, raising worries that investor risks were growing. In the past, the market was dominated by major corporations hedging prices, but high-speed algorithms and a wider range of participants, including intermediaries like hedge funds alongside commercial hedgers, now trade futures. Regulators and researchers, including those at the CFTC, have been working to find out what this changing landscape means for traders large and small.

Ferko and Mixon's data concerned margins and positions for over 36,000 individual retail accounts from 2021 to 2022. (They say the year isn't an outlier and should be taken as representative of present trading.) It's worth noting that in most studies, retail investors, by definition nonprofessionals, don't come off as very astute. For example, the WFE analysis found clear patterns mentioned by the exchanges that saw significant differences between retail and other investors: retail investors trade in round numbers, overreact to volatility, and engage in herd behavior. The WFE also suggested that retail investors tend to trade too late, moving in light of volatility or news of stocks and derivatives going up after the market has already priced in any profits to be had. This may be due in no small part to a lack of knowledge. A 2022 Financial Industry Regulatory Authority study suggested the typical investor could correctly answer less than half the 10 questions in a basic investment knowledge quiz, with almost half answering "that the past performance of an investment is a good indicator of future results."

In line with the WTF analysis and previous research, Mixon and Ferko said that retail investors tend to behave as contrarians (though perhaps not on purpose), buying index futures when net buying is down, selling less than others when the trend goes the other way, and acting on loss aversion biases.

Their study also reveals how retail investors tend to trade futures in short bursts. These individuals lost money trading futures on average, with the median estimated losses ranging from $100 to $200 per event. While 40% of traders ended up profiting, the larger average losses outweighed the smaller average gains. The median retail investor had four separate trading "events" over the sample period, with the typical trader exiting the market for a week before reentering. Their trades concentrated on benchmark equity index micro-contracts like the Micro E-mini S&P 500. The median account maintained less than $4,000 in margin at any given time. Many retail traders, they show, are one-and-done. "We found evidence that bigger dollar losses on the first trade are significantly associated with leaving permanently," Ferko said.

The study highlights the challenges retail traders face, but it has limits. The researchers only had access to data for overnight futures trading, not day trading. "We're certainly looking to expand on this. ...We think there's definitely information we can get there" that would give them the full view of retail trading, Ferko said.

Warnings for Traders

Caution signals for retail investors are throughout these recent analyses. The WFE's researchers concluded, "Without minimum levels of financial literacy and education, retail investors may be easily driven into misleading investment strategies. If lacking adequate protection, investors may fall victims of financial scams."

For years, CFTC researchers have suggested two potential policy improvements to aid retail traders in futures markets:

  1. Strengthen standards around disclosures, suitability requirements, and other investor protections to safeguard less sophisticated traders, especially from the tactics of less scrupulous players.
  2. The CFTC's researchers have suggested adapting market rules to help curb predatory strategies explicitly aimed at broad-based retail involvement.

Nevertheless, not much can protect investors from being over their heads. "If traders don't have the proper skills, they could easily lose," Schwager said. "But it's their freedom of choice, and speculating is choosing to participate."

Managing Risk in Futures

Risk management is crucial in futures trading to protect investments and ensure long-term success. It's "more important than their particular approach in trading the markets, and that's something that retail investors and other traders don't really understand," Schwager told us. Here are the essentials:

Diversification: Traders can spread their risk by diversifying their investments across different futures contracts or asset classes. This reduces the effect of any single market movement on the overall portfolio.

Education and research: Staying informed about market conditions, economic indicators, and other relevant factors can help traders make more informed decisions and manage risk more effectively. This was a point that Ferko, Mixon, and Schwager all emphasized when speaking with us.

Hedging: Hedging involves taking a position in a futures contract opposite to a position held in the underlying asset. This can help protect against adverse price changes in the underlying asset.

Options: A more advanced move is buying put options on futures contracts. This can offer downside protection while still allowing for gains.

Position sizing: Traders should determine the appropriate size of their positions based on their account size and risk tolerance. This helps prevent any single trade from causing significant damage.

Regular monitoring: Futures markets can be volatile, so traders need to monitor their positions regularly and adjust their strategies as needed.

Risk-reward ratio: Traders should always be mindful of the potential reward of a trade relative to its risk. A favorable risk-reward ratio can help ensure that potential gains outweigh potential losses over time.

Stop-loss, limit, and trailing stop orders: Schwager said these are a trader's first and best line of defense when trading futures. A stop-loss order is an order to sell a security when it reaches a specific price. This can help limit losses on a position if the market moves against you. You can also employ a limit order to buy or sell a security at a specific price or better. This can help traders control the price at which they enter or exit a position. There are also trailing stops, which are stop-loss orders that move with the market price.

10 Steps for Retail Investors Managing Futures Risk

Retail traders face unique challenges in the futures market. So, in addition to the above important risk management strategies, here are 10 equally essential risk management moves:

  1. Start small: Begin with a small amount of capital and gradually increase your exposure as you gain experience. This can help you learn the ropes without risking significant amounts of money. Many wash out of the market after one trade; you want to avoid that.
  2. Be realistic: Schwager told us a big misconception about futures is that "it's an easy way to make a lot of money." Realize that, like learning anything worthwhile, those who improve the most tend to put in the work and practice. "It's a lot of trial and error before success," Schwager said.
  3. Learn and practice: Understanding the market, the instruments you're trading, and the strategies you're employing is crucial. Take advantage of educational resources, webinars, and simulate trading at Investopedia.
  4. Develop a trading plan: A well-defined trading plan can help you stay disciplined and avoid emotional decision-making. It should include entry and exit criteria, preset risk management rules, and profit targets.
  5. Avoid overleveraging: Leverage can magnify both gains and losses. Use it judiciously and ensure that you're not taking on too much. Never invest more than you can afford to lose.
  6. Regularly review your performance: Analyze your trades to identify what's working and what's not. This can help you refine your strategy and improve over time.
  7. Stay informed: Keep up with market news, economic reports, and other factors that can impact the futures market.
  8. But don't simply react to the news ticker: Since professional traders with sophisticated algorithms are quick to respond, this might cause the market to adjust before you can get your order in. Discipline and patience are the marks of a successful trader, not rash decisions and hoping for luck.
  9. Use risk management tools: Though professionals have a whole arsenal of tools to trade with, there is far more available to retail investors now at little or no cost. Your brokerage platform and other sites often provide free tools for calculating and working with stop losses, trailing stops, options for hedging, and position sizing. Take advantage of them.
  10. Know when to walk away: Don't be afraid to take a break if the market is too volatile or if you're on a long losing streak. There are, after all, other markets, other ways of trading, that might be more suitable for your level of experience or skills.

Don't Gamble—Invest

An additional point is well worth making. For some retail traders, trading apps, especially for newer vehicles marketed explicitly to them, can look indistinguishable from the sports betting apps that many also have. If you find yourself mentally thinking of your trades as bets or your volume of trading is outsized (initial test: how often do you look at your phone app?), it's time to step back. Also, it's best to avoid "gamblified" (an intensification of "gamified") investments. The Securities and Exchange Commission has started tightening regulations on this, but futures trading falls under the CFTC. A 2022 study defined a gamblified investment as follows:

  1. It mimics gambling by pushing a significant proportion of its investors toward looking for short-term profits.
  2. "It must elicit from investors who lose money similar behavior patterns as to those found in gamblers who experience harm."
  3. Its "key design principles" were "first honed by the gambling industry."

Can You Lose more Money Than You have in Futures?

Yes, it is possible to lose more money than you initially invested in futures trading. This is because futures contracts are leveraged, which means you can control a large position with a relatively small amount of investment upfront. While leverage can amplify your gains, it can also magnify your losses.

Can You Make a Living Trading Futures?

Some futures traders are self-directed and passionate about markets, while others are professional traders working for institutions and the education to match. Regardless of their background, they share a deep understanding of technical and fundamental analysis, have well-defined trading strategies, and rigorously manage their risk.

How Do I Calculate the Profit and Loss For Futures?

To calculate profit and loss in futures trading, you need to consider the difference between the price at which you entered the contract and the price at which you exited or plan to exit it. Here's the formula:

Profit or Loss = (Exit Price - Entry Price) x Contract Size x Number of Contracts

So, if you bought one contract of a futures market at $1,000 and later sold it at $1,050, and each contract represents 100 units, your profit would be $1,050 - $1,000 x 100 = $5,000.

What Is a Good Risk Percentage in Futures Trading?

A common rule of thumb in futures is to risk no more than 1% to 2% of your trading capital on any single trade. This means that if you have a $50,000 trading account, you should aim to risk no more than $500 to $1,000 on a single futures contract.

The Bottom Line

The promise of leveraging futures contracts to control a large dollar amount of an underlying asset is attracting many more people into the futures market. This leverage comes with risks that you don't have with investments, but there are stop losses and other techniques to manage them well.

Recent research shows that retail traders tend to lose money in normal times and panic sell when volatility strikes. Those with the patience, discipline, and risk management skills this area of finance demands are more likely to stay afloat long enough to have success. However, the research also shows that if you don't have these skills, the prudent choice would be to watch the currents of the futures market from the safety of the side lines.

How Risky Are Futures? (2024)

FAQs

How Risky Are Futures? ›

One of the simplest and commonest risks of futures trading is the price risk. For example, if you buy futures, you expect the price to go up. However, if the price goes down, you are at risk of loss. For futures traders, the biggest risks of futures trading come from the adverse movement of prices.

Are futures a good predictor? ›

In the Short Term

Index futures prices are often an excellent indicator of opening market direction, but the signal works for only a brief period. Trading is typically volatile at the opening bell on Wall Street, which accounts for a disproportionate amount of total trading volume.

How much should I risk per trade in futures? ›

One popular method is the 2% Rule, which means you never put more than 2% of your account equity at risk (Table 1). For example, if you are trading a $50,000 account, and you choose a risk management stop loss of 2%, you could risk up to $1,000 on any given trade.

Can you lose more than 100% in futures? ›

Trading security futures contracts may not be suitable for all investors. You may 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.

What is the success rate of futures traders? ›

Tradeciety provides clearer and more time-specific futures trading stats–namely, that 40% of all futures day traders quit in 4 months, 80% quit within a year, and that only 7% are able to last 5 years or more. Bear in mind that among the 20% who last over a year, not all of them are profitable, just persistent.

Are futures a risky investment? ›

Both futures and options are derivatives and are inherently riskier than trading stocks. Since both derive value from underlying assets, the price movements of the underlying assets determine the profit or loss on these contracts.

What is the most reliable stock predictor? ›

1. AltIndex – Overall Most Accurate Stock Predictor with Claimed 72% Win Rate. From our research, AltIndex is the most accurate stock predictor to consider today. Unlike other predictor services, AltIndex doesn't rely on manual research or analysis.

What is the 80% rule in futures trading? ›

Definition of '80% Rule'

The 80% Rule is a Market Profile concept and strategy. If the market opens (or moves outside of the value area ) and then moves back into the value area for two consecutive 30-min-bars, then the 80% rule states that there is a high probability of completely filling the value area.

What is the 80 20 rule in futures trading? ›

In investing, the 80-20 rule generally holds that 20% of the holdings in a portfolio are responsible for 80% of the portfolio's growth. On the flip side, 20% of a portfolio's holdings could be responsible for 80% of its losses.

What is the 2% rule in trading? ›

What Is the 2% Rule? The 2% rule is an investing strategy where an investor risks no more than 2% of their available capital on any single trade. To implement the 2% rule, the investor first must calculate what 2% of their available trading capital is: this is referred to as the capital at risk (CaR).

Why people don t trade futures? ›

Futures traders tend to do inadequate research.

They do a lot of day-trading for which they are undermargined; thus, they are unable to accept small losses. Many speculators use "conventional wisdom" which is either "local," or "old news" to the market.

Are futures riskier than stocks? ›

That said, generally speaking, futures trading is often considered riskier than stock trading because of the high leverage and volatility involved that can expose traders to significant price moves.

How many people lose money in futures? ›

The futures and options (F&O) market is a complex and risky market, and it is no surprise that 9 out of 10 traders lose money in it. There are many reasons for this, but some of the most common include: Lack of knowledge: Many traders enter the F&O market without a good understanding of how it works.

Do you need 25k to trade futures? ›

To apply for futures trading approval, your account must have: Margin approval (check your margin approval) An account minimum of $1,500 (required for margin accounts.) A minimum net liquidation value (NLV) of $25,000 to trade futures in an IRA.

Can you make a living trading futures? ›

By focusing on a single market, you can get up to speed quicker. Trading futures for a living is a compelling idea — but to do it successfully, you'll need sufficient startup capital and a well-designed trading plan.

Can I trade futures with $100? ›

This can be a risky form of trading, but it also has the potential to generate large profits. If you are starting with a small amount of capital, such as $10 to $100, it is still possible to make money on futures trading.

Why are futures a good indicator? ›

Futures look into the future to "lock in" a future price or try to predict where something will be in the future; hence the name. Since there are futures on the indexes (S&P 500, Dow 30, NASDAQ 100, Russell 2000) that trade virtually 24 hours a day, we can watch the index futures to get a feel for market direction.

Do futures prices predict spot prices? ›

How Do Futures Prices Affect Spot Prices? It's actually more the other way round: Spot prices influence futures prices. A futures contract price is commonly determined using the spot price of a commodity—as the starting point, at least.

Do futures predict next day? ›

The prices you see in the index futures market do not necessarily indicate where the index or stock will open in the next trading session. Use the Dow futures, S&P futures and Nasdaq futures to get a feel for where the market may be headed, not for exact predictions of pricing.

Are futures markets accurate? ›

The Risks of Trading Futures

Basis risk: This is the chance that the price of the futures contract doesn't move the same way as the price of the asset. This means that even if your predictions play out with the prices for the underlying asset, you might not make out as well as expected.

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