What is Future Trading – Tutorial for beginners

Table of contents:


In professional trading, futures (along with options, shares, ETFs) are one of the most important trading instruments. Futures can be used in medium-term trading as well as in extremely short-term trading and for hedging. Since volatility does not play a direct role in the price development of futures, futures are easier to understand than options but are also less versatile.

The history of futures trading

Why are there futures at all?

First of all we clarify what a future actually is. For this purpose we will go back briefly to the 19th century:

What are futures?

What are the special features of futures?

Futures are standardized forward contracts with a leverage effect. The underlying value (underlying instrument) is usually a commodity, a currency, a bond, or a (stock) index. Futures are traded on futures exchanges and can be traded by anyone. By buying or selling a future, it is possible to buy or sell the underlying at the current market price for a delivery date in the future.

The leverage effect can generate considerable profits; however, the leverage effect also provides for the increased risk profile that futures have.

Difference: Forward contract vs. Future

Forward contracts are the predecessors of today’s futures. The difference between a forward contract and a futures contract is the standardization. In a forward contract, the two parties to the contract must/can renegotiate the specifications of the commodity each time it is traded.

Future contract between 2 person

A futures contract, on the other hand, is a standardized contract, i.e. the specifications of the commodity are precisely defined by the exchange on which the futures contract is traded.

Explanation & definition of a Futures Contract:

Futures are forward contracts. This means that futures can be used to determine in the present what price you will have to pay for an asset in the future. The name “futures contract” comes from the fact that all futures contracts have an expiry date. This distinguishes futures contracts from shares, which exist as long as the respective company exists in the legal form of a corporation.

The leverage effect of futures

Futures have a leverage effect, because you have to provide less money for the buying/selling of the future than the future is actually worth. Due to this leverage, large profits can be made in futures trading, but also large losses.

In this video we explain the leverage of futures in more detail:

Trading on futures exchanges

Another important difference is that forward contracts are traded in OTC (“over the counter”) trading, while futures contracts are traded on regulated futures exchanges.

The most well-known futures exchanges include, for example:

  • Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME)
  • Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT)
  • Eurex

Forward contracts as well as futures contracts can still be traded today. However, since the trading of forward contracts is only of importance in institutional trading, and this page is aimed at private investors, we will not go into the subject of forward contracts any further.

Our tip: use a professional software for futures trading

We recommend to use the software ATAS (advanced time and sales) for trading with futures.

  • Free test version
  • Orderbook (smart DOM & tape)
  • Footprint Charts
  • Market Profiles
  • Customized indicators
  • All chart types
  • Perfect for order flow reading
  • Our review: 5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

Read the full ATAS review

Options, Futures, and other derivatives – Most common terms:

The following important terms for future trading we want to discuss:

  • Outright Futures vs. Spreads
  • Contract Specifications
  • Contract Size
  • Trading Hours
  • Minimum Price Fluctuation
  • Product Code
  • Listed Contracts
  • Settlement Method
  • Settlement Procedures
  • Position Limits
  • Price Limits

Another important difference between forward contracts and futures contracts is the way they are settled. Forward contracts are only settled at the final maturity of the contract, whereas futures contracts are settled daily (mark to market).

Through this settlement mechanism, forward contracts influence the price of a future in practice.

If you want to deal with the topic of calculating futures prices in a very intensive and scientific way, the following book is recommended: John C. Hull – Options, Futures, and Other Derivatives, Pearson, 9th edition.

Note: To understand the formulas presented in the book, a sound knowledge of mathematics is essential. In order to be able to trade futures successfully in the private trader’s practice, an understanding of the mathematical calculation of the futures price is helpful, but not absolutely necessary].

Outright Futures vs Spreads

Basically, two types of futures can be distinguished: the “Outright Futures” and the “Spreads”. The “Outright Futures” are those futures that are traded most often and which, as an underlying, simply follow the price development of an asset (example: “YM” for the Dow Future, or “ZC” for the Corn Future).

If we go long in the Corn Future with a June expiry date and short in the Corn Future with a September expiry date, we create a spread trade consisting of two individual outright futures.

Contract Specifications

The contract specifications of the futures contain the most important information and conditions for trading the futures. You can usually find the contract specifications for the respective future using your broker’s software and on the websites of the futures exchanges.

Contract Size (Contract Unit)

Defines the value of the contract.

Trading Hours

Defines the time in which the future can be traded. Please note that most futures are not traded around the clock.

Minimum Price Fluctuation

Defines the value of a future per tick or point. For most futures, the smallest change in value is called a tick. This tick has a value set by the exchange. A point usually consists of several ticks.


ES (Future on the S&P500)

1 point = $50

1 point = 4 ticks

50/4 = $12.50 = 1 tick

Product Code

The abbreviation of the future. It usually consists of one, two or three letters.


YM = Abbreviation for the future on the Dow Jones Industrial Average

Listed Contracts

List showing which contracts are available. Many contracts follow a quarterly cycle, in which case there would be a “March Future”, a “June Future”, a “September Future” and a “December Future” for a given year.

Settlement Method

Determines whether the underlying is physically delivered (deliverable) or simply cash (financailly settled / cash settlement) from the contract onwards.


The YM (Future on the Dow Jones Industrial Average) is simply settled in cash, there is no delivery of any shares.

The ZC (Corn Future) is not settled in cash. If you hold the future at the delivery date, there will be an actual delivery of corn (Corn).

(Note: Brokers exclude the actual delivery of goods to private futures traders)

End of trading of the contract (Termination Of Trading): Determines until when the future can be traded, or when its exact expiry date is.


In YM, it is the third Friday of the month 09:30 ET.

Settlement Procedures

Here it is precisely defined how, where, when and in what quality the delivery of the underlying of the future can take place. For those interested, here is an example of the corn futute. However, private investors can ignore this point.

Position Limits

There are various position limits; for example, from which position size positions are reported to the CFTC. However, this topic is less important for private traders.

Price Limit (Price Limit or Circuit)

Price limits set a certain maximum trading range for one day. If this is reached, trading is interrupted.

Vendor codes

Data vendors that send the exchange’s data to the traders’ trading platforms (example: CQC) are called “vendors”. These vendors sometimes have different product codes for the futures.

The codes for all CME products can be downloaded as Excel files from this link.

The Margin System in Futures Trading

As you have already learned, futures are financial instruments with a leverage effect. When you open a futures position, you do not have to pay the full value of the futures, but only a margin.

In total, there are four margin terms, which are explained in more detail below:

  1. Initial Margin
  2. daytrade margin
  3. maintenance margin
  4. Variation Margin

Initial Margin

Initial Margin is the amount of Margin that must be paid when a Futures position is opened. However, most broker futures traders grant a “day trade spread”. This is during the trading day and often, but not always, ends around 21:40 German time.

Daytrade Margin

In this day trade margin, not the full initial margin but only a fraction of it has to be paid. This fraction is called daytrade margin.

For example, if a broker grants a daytrade margin of 25% and the initial margin of a future is $7000, only $1750 would have to be deposited as margin to open the position.

However, if you want to hold a future overnight for the first time, the initial margin must be deposited.

Mark To Market

Future contracts are settled daily, i.e. the broker checks daily whether a trader’s positions are in profit or loss. This process of daily settlement is called “Make to Market”.

Losses on a futute trader’s margin account may only take a certain amount, namely up to the limit of the maintenace margin.

Maintenance Margin

The maintenance margin is always lower than the initial margin.

Let us look at an example:

Initial Margin = $6930

Maintenance margin = $6300

In this example, we assume that the trader only holds one contract and that his trade is not going well so far. His margin account has dropped to $6200.

This amount of $6200 is below the maintenance margin of $6300 and the trader will now receive a margin call from his broker.

Margin Call with Futures:

As soon as a future position falls below the maintenance margin, the trader receives a margin call. He now has a clearly defined period of time to answer this call. To do so, the trader must now pay the variation margin.

Variation Margin

The variation margin is the amount that the trader must pay to answer the margin call. In our example from above, the variation margin would now be $730.

The variation margin is always the sum of the account balance and the initial margin. A Margin Call is always associated with costs, just like the forced closure of the position by the broker. In practice, one should always try to avoid margin calls if possible.

Forced closure of the position

If a margin call is left unanswered, the broker will force the position to close. The margin call is made well before the trader’s account falls to zero. However, it can happen that a future falls so quickly that the broker cannot close the position before the account falls below zero.

In this case you would lose more money than you originally deposited in the account and would have to close the account down to zero. This is the reason why futures are financial instruments with a high risk profile.

Product codes

To be able to call a futures contract on a trading platform, a product code is always required, followed by month and year details, or a month code.

The product codes of futures are usually two digits long.


Monthly Future Codes:

  • F – January
  • G – February
  • H – March
  • Y April
  • C May
  • M June
  • N July
  • Q August
  • U September
  • V October
  • X November
  • Z December

Market participants

Who trades everything on the future market?

As a trader, it is very important to know who is “taking part” in the game. Because the different market participants neither have the same intentions nor the same financial strength. Therefore it makes sense to keep an eye on how the different market participants are trading.

This is relatively easy on the futures and options markets with the help of the so-called CoT report (Commitments Of Traders).

The CoT Report

In the USA, market participants above a certain position size must report their transactions in the futures and options market to the regulatory authority CFTC. Based on the data received, the CFTC prepares the Commitments of Traders Report (COT Report), which is published every Friday.

COT Future Report

In the CoT Report, the market participants in the futures market are generally divided into 3 groups:

  • Commercials/Hedgers
  • Non-Commercials/Large Speculators
  • Non-Reportables/Small Speculators


The commercials – also known as hedgers – are all those market participants who hedge against price risks on the futures and options markets and are not interested in speculative profits. As a rule, these are companies/institutions that physically buy or sell or own the respective underlying (e.g. a wheat farmer, a coffee producer, commodity traders and processors, financial institutions, portfolio managers, etc.).

Expert Tip:

In most markets, the commercials are the financially strongest market participants and know the market best. They, therefore, receive special attention.


Non-Commercials – also known as Large Speculators – are all those market participants who pursue the goal of making speculative profits and are subject to reporting requirements due to their position sizes. (e.g. hedge funds, CPOs, CTAs etc.)

Non-Commercials can be seen as a “homogeneous mass” and are speculators who usually follow trends. In comparison to the commercials, however, the non-commercials usually control only a small part of the total open interest.


Non-reportable – including small speculators – are all those market participants whose position size is below the reporting requirement. However, the term “small speculators” is somewhat misleading, since not only – as is sometimes erroneously stated – only small speculators or private traders and private investors belong to this category, but also smaller commercials and institutions whose position sizes are below the reporting requirement.

The non-reportables are therefore not a “homogeneous mass”. In some markets they nevertheless provide relatively good anti-cyclical signals.

Strategies in Futures Trading

Futures can be used for hedging or speculation:

Hedging Strategy

Futures markets were once created to allow commercial market participants whose business is the production, trading, or processing of physical commodities to hedge against price risks or price fluctuations. The purpose of hedging is therefore not to make a speculative profit, but to hedge another transaction. (Hedging = hedge)


A company receives an order to deliver a large machine worth $25 million in 8 months. The manufacturing company is based in Germany, the client comes from Asia. The contracting parties agree on the US Dollar as currency for payment.

For the manufacturing company, there is now the risk that the EUR/USD exchange rate will change in the next 8 months. If it changes to the disadvantage of the company, less than the equivalent value of the order would actually be paid by the customer.

To hedge against this “currency risk”, both can enter into a “hedge” in a future, or option, on the EUR/USD currency pair.

(Note: there are other ways of hedging in practice. These are not relevant for this article)

Expert Tip:

Heding does not play a role for the speculative oriented trader at first. Nevertheless, it is necessary to understand how hedgers and commercials operate, as they have a major influence on the development of the market price.

Speculation Strategy

Any other type of trading that is not hedging is speculation. Within this group of “speculators”, however, there are again a very large number of completely different approaches, such as:

  • Swing Trading
  • Position Trading (Trend Trading)
  • Day trading
  • Arbitrage
  • Spread Trading

Various forms of high-frequency trading

The procedures are completely different with the concepts mentioned above; all of them are united only by the intention to achieve a speculative profit with their trade.

Strategies for private traders:

Which trading approaches make sense?

The private trader as speculator

The private trader will usually execute some kind of speculative transaction.

The private investor, on the other hand, can also act as a hedge, e.g. by hedging his portfolio with options or even futures against a correction on the stock markets.

It is difficult to say which strategies are suitable for the private trader and which are not. Basically, however, it is safe to say that the private trader has more chances to earn money with strategies from the area of swing and position trading.

Do not limit yourself to technical analysis!

Although we consider technical analysis to be very important in futures trading, it is equally important not to rely solely on it. In futures trading, it makes sense to take into account, among other things, the anylse of seasonality and the Commitments Of Traders data.

Day trading is not suitable for most private traders.

In the area of day trading, things are already getting harder. A lot of time, capital, and above all experience is necessary to have a chance to achieve really stable income with day trading.

Many private traders are often missing at least one of the three mentioned prerequisites.

High frequency trading is completely unsuitable for private traders!

However, we can only strongly advise private traders against trying to become a “high-frequency trader”. Against the expertise and the technological advantage of the employees (e.g. mathematician/physicist, IT-experts) you have no chance as a private trader! Unless you are an expert in the field yourself and have a capital of several million dollars, which is probably not the case in most cases of the private trader.

Find a good Futures Broker:

How to find the right futures broker?

To trade futures, you need a broker who can give you access to the futures exchanges where the most common futures are traded. With access to these exchanges you are usually well supplied:

  • EUREX: for example FDAX, BUND, etc.
  • CME: for example S&P 500, Nasdaq 100, EUR, AUD, etc.
  • NYMEX: e.g. WTI, natural gas, etc. (belongs to the CME Group)
  • COMEX: for example gold, silver, etc. (belongs to the CME Group)
  • CBOT: For example, corn, soybeans, etc. [belonging to CME Group]
  • ICE: for example sugar, coffee, etc.

Europe or USA

Futures trading is much more widespread in the USA than in Europe. This is mainly due to the fact that in this country the financial industry mainly advertises CFDs, certificates, warrants, etc in Europe. All these products are prohibited in the USA.

This means that there are considerably more futures brokers in the USA than in Europe. With a European broker, you have the advantage that he is on your site and offers support in your language, and is usually easier to reach by phone. In addition, a local broker, who is subject to your country legislation, is advantageous in the event of any problems.

With US brokers you have the advantage that you often have somewhat lower costs.

Below you will find an overview of European and American futures brokers:

Overview: Futures Brokers from Europe and USA (not completely)

European Brokers:

US brokers:

Trading software for Futures

Which software can be used for futures trading?

As a trader you need software to:

  • Transmit your orders to your broker or to the stock exchange
  • To analyze the markets (chart software)

Either you use a single software for both requirements, or you use two different software, i.e. one for analysis only, and one for order placement only. Both approaches are common among traders, depending on personal preference and requirements.

Usually your broker offers a software. Now you have to decide whether it meets your requirements or whether you want to use external software.

Detailed software introductions will follow in a separate article. Here is a list of known software for futures trading:

Our tip: use a professional software for futures trading

We recommend to use the software ATAS (advanced time and sales) for trading with futures.

  • Free test version
  • Orderbook (smart DOM & tape)
  • Footprint Charts
  • Market Profiles
  • Customized indicators
  • All chart types
  • Perfect for order flow reading
  • Our review: 5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

Read the full ATAS review

Required account size for Future Trading

How much capital is required for futures trading?

Some futures accounts can be opened with just a few hundred dollars of capital. However, this is clearly too little for trading with futures. From our experience, we recommend using more than $ 25,000.

Risk of undercapitalized accounts

Undercapitalized accounts are a very common problem for private traders and often lead to the loss of the account. The reason for this is that undercapitalized accounts increase the psychological pressure so massively that it becomes unbearable. However, as this happens subconsciously, we do not notice it and the loss of the account is thus partly pre-programmed.

The right account size

A very simple formula can be used to determine the required account size. This is:

Initial margin*25 = minimum account size

Since usually not only one market but several markets are to be traded, the highest initial margin must always be used when calculating the formula.

Here is an example:

Let us assume a trader plans to trade the futures markets ES, YM and ZC. Let us look at the respective margin rates for these three markets:

ES = $6930

YM = $6490

ZC = $154

The highest initial margin in this example is $6930.

So, it can be calculated: 6930*25 = 173,250. The minimum account size in this example is therefore $173,250.

Account size for private traders

We are well aware that many private traders do not have this capital at their disposal.

Therefore, it is advisable for private traders to specialize in markets and strategies with low margin requirements at the beginning of their future trading career.

Here is another example:

MES (Micro ES) = $693

M2K (Micro Russel) = $391

MGC (Micro Gold) = $374

In this example, the highest margin rate is only $693, so it is to be calculated:

693×25 = 15975

The required account size here would be only $15975.

See our other articles about futures:

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