When you buy or sell a stock future, you're not buying or selling a stock certificate. You're entering into a stock futures contract -- an agreement to buy or sell the stock certificate at a fixed price on a certain date. Unlike a traditional stock purchase, you never own the stock, so you're not entitled to dividends and you're not invited to stockholders meetings [source: Thachuk]. In traditional stock market investing, you make money only when the price of your stock goes up. With stock market futures, you can make money even when the market goes down.
Here's how it works. There are two basic positions on stock futures: long and short. The long position agrees to buy the stock when the contract expires. The short position agrees to sell the stock when the contract expires. If you think that the price of your stock will be higher in three months than it is today, you want to go long. If you think the stock price will be lower in three months, then you'll go short.
Let's look at an example of going long. It's January and you enter into a futures contract to purchase 100 shares of IBM stock at $50 a share on April 1. The contract has a price of $5,000. But if the market value of the stock goes up before April 1, you can sell the contract early for a profit. Let's say the price of IBM stock rises to $52 a share on March 1. If you sell the contract for 100 shares, you'll fetch a price of $5,200, and make a $200 profit.
The same goes for going short. You enter into a futures contract to sell 100 shares of IBM at $50 a share on April 1 for a total price of $5,000. But then the value of IBM stock drops to $48 a share on March 1. The strategy with going short is to buy the contract back before having to deliver the stock. If you buy the contract back on March 1, then you pay $4,800 for a contract that's worth $5,000. By predicting that the stock price would go down, you've made $200.
What's interesting about buying or selling futures contracts is that you only pay for a percentage of the price of the contract. This is called buying on margin. A typical margin can be anywhere from 10 to 20 percent of the price of the contract.
Let's use our IBM example to see how this plays out. If you're going long, the futures contract says you'll buy $5,000 worth of IBM stock on April 1. For this contract, you'd pay 20 percent of $5,000, which is $1,000. If the stock price goes up to $52 a share and you sell the contract in March for $5,200, then you make $200, a 20 percent gain on your initial margin investment. Not too shabby.
But things can also go sour. If the stock price actually goes down, and ends up at $48 a share on April 1, then you have to sell the $5,000 contract for $4,800 -- a $200 loss. That's a 20-percent loss on your initial margin investment. If the stock drops considerably, it's possible to lose more than the price of the initial investment. That's why stock futures are considered high-risk investments.
When buying on margin, you should also keep in mind that your stockbroker could issue a margin call if the value of your investment falls below a predetermined level called the maintenance level [source: Money.net Inc.]. A margin call means that you have to pay your broker additional money to bring the value of the futures contract up to the maintenance level.
Now let's look at some of the most common investment strategies using stock futures.