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What to know about derivatives and how they allow investors to hedge, leverage and speculate

  • Derivatives are contracts that derive their price from an underlying asset, index, or security.
  • There are two types of derivatives: over-the-counter derivatives and standardized derivatives.
  • Derivatives are used to hedge against risk and can be used to speculate.
  • Visit Insider’s Investing Reference library for more stories.

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When you think of investing, you may be more familiar with stocks and bonds. Another type of investment vehicle that you may not be as familiar with is derivatives. While all investing in the stock market comes with inherent risk, some types of investments tend to be riskier than others. Derivatives fall into that camp.

What is a derivative?

Derivatives are a contract that has a value that’s derived from an underlying asset or index — hence the name “derivative.” One example of a type of derivative are options because its value changes in relation to the price movement of the underlying stock.

There are two types of derivatives: over-the-counter derivatives, which are negotiated privately, as well as standardized derivatives that can be traded on a standardized exchange. Over-the-counter derivatives, also known as OTC derivatives, are well-known to have caused the Great Recession by creating heightened demand for underlying assets like mortgages. 

The start of the derivatives market began in 1865 when farmers and grain sellers came together to hedge risk against the corn market. These derivatives were used as part of hedging and speculating to lower risk, which can cause inflated prices that are subject to manipulation and fraud. These types of derivatives have been referred to as futures contracts, which we’ll cover later.

“Derivatives are unlike securities in that they are more of a bet than an investment. Most common derivative contracts have an expiration date, which means a limited time for them to achieve a profit,” explains Asher Rogovy, an SEC registered investment advisor and chief investment officer at Magnifina

“Securities, on the other hand, are either perpetual or repayable, so investors can simply hold them for the long-term. The key benefit of derivatives over securities is leverage. If a trader has conviction about a price move within a certain time frame, they can gain a much higher profit by trading derivatives instead of the underlying security. Of course, with this higher profit potential, comes higher risk.”

Types of derivative contracts

Derivatives can be complicated as there are various different types of derivative contracts. Some common types of derivatives include: 

  • Options — this type of derivative allows the investor the option to buy or sell a security at a set price with a specific timeframe. If you purchase a “call option” you get the right to purchase shares at a later date. A “put option” offers you the ability to sell shares at a later date.
  • SwapsThe United States Security Exchange Commission (SEC) states that “Swaps are financial contracts in which two counterparties agree to exchange or “swap” payments with each other as a result of such things as changes in a stock price, interest rate, or commodity price.”
  • Futures — this is an arrangement where an investor can purchase or sell a set amount of a specific commodity at a set price at a future date. Future contracts are available to trade on an standardized exchange and are settled each day and can be purchased or sold off at any time.
  • Forwards — forward contracts are very similar to futures contracts in that it is an arrangement to buy or sell a commodity at a set price, at a set time in the future. But it’s important to note that forward contracts are not traded on an exchange.

Derivative contracts can be traded either over-the-counter (OTC) or on exchanges such as the Chicago Mercantile Exchange Group (CME Group) or the Korea Exchange. 

How do derivatives work?

Derivatives can be used in a variety of ways to hedge against risk or used as speculative tools. As a financial instrument, the value of derivative transactions are at the mercy of market conditions such as credit, equity, and interest rates. 

According to the San José State University Department of Economics, derivatives and swaps play an important role in the economy by transferring risk. The risk is transferred to other parties who are willing to take it on for a fee. In this way, derivatives are similar to the insurance industry where you hedge against risks such as the price of a stock dropping. But instead of it being called “insuring” it’s known as hedging. 

You can hedge against risk with derivative contracts by purchasing a contract that has a valu

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