A contract for difference (CFD) is a bet on the future value of a currency, an index, or a stock. If you buy a CFD and the price of the underlying vehicle rises, you’ll collect the difference from the company that sold you the contract, but if it falls, you’ll pay the difference. CFDs are derivatives that allow speculators to bet on rallies or declines. They are similar to spread betting, which is legal in the United Kingdom and Ireland, but not in the United States.

At the time of this writing, CFDs are available in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Ireland, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. They are prohibited in the United States, due to restrictions by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

CFDs were invented in the early 1990s by Brian Keelan and Jon Wood, both of UBS Warburg in London. Institutional traders began using them to hedge stock exposure and to avoid taxes. In the late 1990s, several firms began marketing CFDs to retail traders, touting their leverage and the exemption from UK taxes. Several provider firms expanded their offerings from the London Stock Exchange to global stocks, commodities, bonds, and currencies. Index CFDs, based on the major global indexes such as Dow Jones, S&P 500, FTSE, and DAX, quickly became the most popular vehicles of the group.

CFDs are contracts between individual traders and providers, who may offer different deal terms. Each CFD is created by opening a trade with a provider, based on some underlying instrument. Be prepared to pay large bid-ask spreads, commissions, and overnight financing. Trades are mostly short-term, although positions can be taken overnight. Financing charges and profits or losses are credited or debited daily. CFDs are traded on margin.

Among the pluses of CFDs are the tiny minimum sizes of those contracts, making them accessible to small traders. The absence of the expiration dates means there is no time decay. While financing is charged on long positions, it is paid out on short positions.

There are several serious misgivings about the CFDs. Commissions tend to be high relative to contract sizes. Bid-ask spreads are controlled by CFD issuers, who also control prices of contracts, which may deviate from prices of the underlying securities. In other words, a retail customer plays against a professional team that can move the goal posts during the game.

A client from New Zealand wrote: “Regarding CFDs and spread betting, it is worth understanding that with CFDs you are not just trying to beat the market but the casino too. CFD providers can set whatever prices they like for an instrument, as it is their instrument. The fact that sometimes it emulates what happens in the stock market does not mean it is the same as trading in the stock market.”

CFDs are heavily marketed to new and inexperienced traders, extolling their potential gains, while glossing over risks. The Australian financial regulator ASIC considers trading CFDs riskier than gambling on horses or in casinos. CFDs are banned in the United States where regulators haven’t forgotten the bucket shops that flourished at the turn of the twentieth century.

The stance of the SEC in this matter reminds me of another federal agency, the Food and Drug Administration, which kept Thalidomide, a drug for pregnant women, out of the United States. As a result, after the full scale of its horrible side effects became known, the U.S. population was spared an epidemic of deformed babies that was caused by that drug in Europe.


A future is a contract for delivery of a specific quantity of a commodity by a certain date at an agreed-upon price. Futures contracts differ from options by being binding on both the buyer and the seller. In options, the buyer has the right but not an obligation to take delivery. If you buy a call or a put, you can walk away if you like, but in futures, you have no such luxury. If the market goes against you, you have to get out of your trade at a loss or add to your margin.

Futures are stricter than options, but their responses to market volatility are much smoother, making them easier to trade. Another advantage of futures is that there are only a few dozen of them, making them easier to track. Futures are not nearly as correlated with each other as stocks. While stocks tend to move as a group, many futures move in unrelated trends, offering more trading choices.

Commodities are the irreducible building blocks of the economy. Wheat is a commodity, while bread isn’t because it includes multiple components. Old-timers used to joke that a commodity was something that hurt when you dropped it on your foot— gold, sugar, wheat, a barrel full of crude oil. In recent decades, many financial instruments began to trade like commodities—stock indexes, bonds, and currencies. Futures include financial instruments along with traditional commodities.

The person who buys a stock becomes a part owner of a company, but when you buy a futures contract, you don’t own anything. You enter into a binding contract for a future purchase of merchandise, be it a carload of wheat or a sheaf of Treasury bonds. The person who sells you that contract assumes the obligation to deliver. The money you pay for a stock goes to the seller, but in futures your margin money stays at the clearinghouse as a security, to ensure you’ll accept delivery when your contract comes due. That’s why they used to call margins “honest money.” While in stocks you pay interest for margin borrowing, in futures you can collect interest on your margin funds.

Each futures contract has a definite size and a settlement date. Most traders close out their contracts early, settling profits and losses in cash. Still, the existence of a delivery date forces people to act, providing a reality check. A person may sit on a losing stock for years, deluding himself that it’s only a paper loss. In futures, reality, in the form of the settlement date, always intrudes on a daydreamer.

Most futures have daily limits beyond which prices are not allowed to go. Limits are designed to interrupt hysterical moves and give people time to rethink their positions. A string of limit days can be very stressful when a losing trader is stuck and unable to get out while his account is being ground down. The globalization of the futures markets has created many emergency exits, allowing you to unwind a trade elsewhere. Just like when boarding a plane, a careful trader learns to identify those emergency exits before he needs them.

In stocks, most people buy and very few sell short. In futures, just like in options, the size of long and short positions is always equal because if someone buys a contract for future delivery, someone else has to sell it to him, i.e., go short. If you want to trade futures, it pays to be comfortable shorting.

The survival rate for new futures traders is low—nine out of ten newcomers are said to bust out in the first few months. It is important to understand that the danger is not in futures but in a gross lack of risk-management skills among beginners. Futures offer some of the best profit opportunities to serious traders but are deadly for amateurs. You must develop excellent money-management skills before venturing into futures.

Futures and Cash Trades

To compare a futures trade with a cash trade, let’s assume the following: it is February, gold is trading at $1,500 an ounce, and your analysis indicates that it’s likely to rise to $1,575 within weeks. With $150,000, you can buy a 100-oz gold bar from a dealer and store it in a safe. If your analysis is correct, in a few weeks your gold will be worth $157,500. You can sell it and take $7,500 profit, or 5% before commissions—nice. Now let’s see what happens if you trade futures based on the same analysis.

Since it is February, April is the next delivery month for gold. One futures contract covers 100 oz of gold, with a value of $150,000. The margin to trade this contract is only $7,500. In other words, you can control $150,000 worth of gold with a $7,500 deposit. If your analysis is correct and gold rallies $75 per ounce, you’ll make roughly the same profit as when you bought 100 oz of gold for cash; only now your return will be 100% on your investment instead of 5%, since your margin is only $7,500.

Many people, after seeing such numbers, feel a surge of greed and buy multiple contracts. A trader with $150,000 in his account has enough margin for 20 contracts. If he can double his money on a single contract, he can double it on 20. If he repeats it two or three times, he’ll quickly become a millionaire. Wonderful—but there is a catch.

Markets seldom move in a straight line. Your analysis may well be correct, and gold may rise from $1,500 to $1,575 within a few weeks, but it’s perfectly possible that it may dip to $1,450 along the way. That $50 dip would create a $5,000 paper loss if you bought 100 oz of gold for cash—unpleasant but not a tragedy. For a futures trader who bought multiple contracts, each on a $7,500 margin, that $50 decline would mean a wipeout. His broker would call demanding more margin, and if he has no reserves, the broker will sell him out at a loss.

Inexperienced traders keep buying too many contracts and keep getting kicked out by the first wiggle of their market. Their analysis may be correct—gold may rise to its target price—but the beginner is doomed because he commits too much of his  equity and has very thin reserves. Futures don’t kill traders—poor money management kills futures traders.

Futures can be very attractive for traders with strong money-management skills. High rates of return demand ice-cold discipline. A beginner is better off with slower-moving stocks. Once you’ve matured as a trader, you can take a closer look at futures. Also, read some introductory books. Winning in the Futures Market by George Angell is a good primer, to be followed by The Futures Game by Teweles and Jones.


Futures markets serve an important economic function: they permit commercial producers and consumers to hedge commodity price risks, giving them a competitive advantage. At the same time, futures offer speculators a gambling palace with more choices than any casino.

Hedging means opening a futures position opposite to one’s position in the actual commodity. For example, a major candy manufacturer knows months in advance how much sugar the firm is going to need. He buys a corresponding number of sugar futures in New York or London when prices are good enough for the firm. They’ll be needing trainloads of sugar several months from now, but meanwhile they hold sugar futures, which they plan to sell when they buy their cargoes.

If sugar prices go up and they have to pay more for the raw commodity, they will offset that loss by making roughly the same profit on their futures position. If sugar prices fall, they’ll lose money on their futures contracts but make it up in savings on the raw materials. Their unhedged competitors are taking chances. If sugar prices fall, they’ll buy on the cheap and reap a windfall, but if prices rise, they’ll be hung out to dry. Hedged consumers can concentrate on running their core businesses, insulated from future price swings. Airlines know years in advance how much jet fuel they’ll need, and buying oil futures protects them from price spikes that often occur in this volatile market.

Producers of commodities also benefit from hedging. An agribusiness can presell its wheat, coffee, or cotton when prices are high enough to assure profits. They sell short enough futures contracts to cover the size of their prospective crop. From that point on, they have no price risk. If prices go down, they’ll make up their losses on cash commodity by profits on short futures trades. If prices go up, they’ll lose money on their short futures positions but make it back selling the actual commodity at higher prices.

Hedging removes price risk from planning to buy or to deliver a cash commodity. It allows commercial interests to concentrate on their core businesses, offer stable consumer pricing, and obtain a long-term competitive advantage. Hedgers give up a chance of a windfall but insulate themselves from price risks. Survivors value stability. That why the Exxons, the Coca-Colas, and the Nabiscos of the world are among the major players in commodity markets.

Hedgers are the ultimate insiders, and a good hedging department not only buys price insurance, but also serves as a profit center. Hedgers transfer price risks to speculators who enter the markets, lured by the glitter of potential profits. It’s ironic that hedgers, who have inside information, are not fully confident about prices, while crowds of cheerful outsiders plunk down money to bet on futures.

The two largest groups of speculators are farmers and engineers. Farmers produce commodities, while engineers love to apply scientific methods to the futures game. Many farmers enter futures markets as hedgers but catch the bug and start speculating. It never ceases to amaze me how many farmers end up trading stock index futures. As long as they trade corn, cattle, or soybeans, their feel for the fundamentals gives them an edge over city slickers. But what’s their edge in the S&P500?

Supply, Demand, and Seasonality

Major bull and bear markets in futures are driven by supply or demand. Supply-driven markets tend to be fast and furious, while demand-driven markets tend to be quiet and slow. Why? Think of any commodity, say coffee, which grows in Africa and South America.

Changes in demand come slowly, thanks to the conservatism of human nature. The demand for coffee can increase only if drinking becomes more popular, with an espresso machine in every bar. The demand can fall off if coffee drinking becomes less popular, due to a deteriorating economy or in response to a health fad. Demand-driven markets move at a leisurely pace.

Now imagine that a major coffee growing area is hit by a hurricane or a freeze. Suddenly the world supply of coffee is rumored to be reduced by 10% and prices shoot up, cutting off marginal consumers. Imagine a new OPEC policy sharply curtailing crude oil supply or a general strike in a leading copper-mining country. When a commodity’s supply is reduced or even rumored to be reduced, its price climbs, reallocating tight supplies to those best able to afford them.

Grain prices often spike during spring and summer planting and growing seasons, as dry spells, floods, and pests threaten supplies. Traders say that a farmer loses his crop three times before harvesting it. Once the harvest is in and the supply is known, demand becomes the driving force. Demand-driven markets have narrower channels, with smaller profit targets, and lower risks. As seasons change, channels have to be redrawn, and trading tactics adjusted. A new trader may wonder why his tools stopped working. A smart trader gets out a new set of tools for the season and puts old ones in storage until next year—just as he swaps regular and snow tires on his car.

A futures trader must know the key supply and demand factors of the market he’s trading. For example, he must keep an eye on the weather during the critical growing and harvesting months in agricultural commodities. Trend traders in the futures markets tend to look for supply-driven markets, while swing traders can do just as well in demand-driven markets.

Most commodities fluctuate through the seasons. Freezing spells in the United States are bullish for heating oil futures. Orange juice futures used to have wild run-ups during the frost season in Florida, but have become much more sedate due to the increase of orange production in Brazil in the Southern hemisphere. Seasonal trades take advantage of such swings, but you have to be careful because those cycles are seldom identical. Be sure to put your seasonal trades through the filter of technical analysis.

Floors and Ceilings

Commodities, unlike stocks, rarely trade below certain price floors or above price ceilings. The floor depends on the cost of production. When the price of a commodity, be it gold or sugar, falls below that level, miners stop digging and farmers stop planting. Some third-world governments, desperate for dollars and trying to avoid social unrest, may subsidize production, paying locals in a worthless local currency and dumping their product on the world market. Still, if enough producers close up and quit, the supply will shrink, and prices will have to rise to draw in new suppliers. If you look at a 20-year chart of most commodities, you’ll see that the same price areas have served as a floor year after year.

The ceiling depends on the cost of substitution. If the price of a commodity rises, major industrial consumers will start switching away from it. If soybean meal, a major animal feed, becomes too expensive, the demand will switch to fishmeal, and if sugar becomes too costly, the demand will switch to corn sweeteners.

Why don’t more people trade against those levels? Why don’t they buy near the floor and short near the ceiling, profiting from what is similar to shooting fish in a barrel? First of all, neither the floor nor the ceiling is set in stone, and markets may briefly violate them. Even more importantly, the human nature works against those trades. Most speculators don’t have the courage to short a market that’s boiling near record highs or go long a market after it has crashed.

Contango, Inversion, and Spreads

All futures markets offer several contracts for different delivery months. For example, you can buy or sell wheat for delivery in September or December of this year, March of next year, and so on. Normally, the nearby months are cheaper than the remote ones, and that relationship is called a contango market. Higher prices for more remote deliveries reflect the “cost of carry”—financing, storing, and insuring a commodity. The differences between delivery months are called premiums, and hedgers closely watch them.

When supply tightens or demand increases, people start paying up for the nearby months, and the premium for the faraway months begins to shrink. Sometimes the front months become more expensive than faraway months—the market becomes inverted! There is a real shortage out there, and people are paying extra to get their stuff sooner. This so-called “inversion” is one of the strongest signs of a bull market in a commodity.

When you look for inversions, keep in mind that there is one market in which inversion is the norm. Interest rate futures are always inverted because those who hold cash positions keep collecting interest instead of paying finance and storage charges. Professionals don’t wait for inversions—they monitor the narrowing or widening of premiums. A good speculator can rattle off the latest prices, but a floor trader will quote you the latest premiums.

A savvy trader knows by heart the normal spreads between different delivery months. Hedgers tend to dominate the short side of the markets, most speculators are perpetual bulls, but floor traders love to trade spreads. Spreading means buying one delivery month and selling another in the same market. It also means going long one market while shorting a related one.

If the price of corn, a major animal feed, starts to rise faster than the price of wheat, at some point ranchers will start using wheat rather than corn. They’ll reduce their purchases of corn, while buying more wheat, pushing their spread back to-wards the norm. Spread traders bet against deviations and for a return to normalcy. In this situation, a spreader will short corn and buy wheat, instead of taking a directional trade in either market.

Spread trading is safer than directional trading and has lower margin requirements. Amateurs do not understand spreads and have little interest in these reliable but slow-moving trades. There is not a single book on spreads I can recommend, a sign of how well professionals have sown up this area of knowledge and kept the outsiders out. This is one of a handful of niches in the markets where professionals are earning high incomes without the benefit of a single good how-to book.

Commitments of Traders

Brokers report their clients’ positions to the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), which strips away personal data and releases summaries to the public. Their Commitments of Traders (COT) reports are among the best sources of information on what the smart money is doing in the futures markets.

COT reports reveal positions of three groups—hedgers, big traders, and small traders. Hedgers identify themselves to brokers because that entitles them to several advantages, such as lower margin deposits. Big traders are those who hold the number of contracts above the “reporting requirements,” set by the government. Whoever is not a hedger or a big trader is a small trader.

In the old days, big traders used to be the smart money. Today, the markets are bigger, the reporting requirements much higher, and big traders are likely to be commodity funds, most of them not smarter than run of the mill traders. The hedgers are today’s smart money, but understanding their positions isn’t as easy as it seems. For example, a COT report may show that in a certain market, hedgers hold 70% of shorts.

A beginner who thinks this is bearish may be completely off the mark if he doesn’t know that normally hedgers hold 90% of shorts in that market, making the 70% stance wildly bullish. Savvy COT analysts compare current positions to historical norms and look for situations where hedgers, or the smart money, and small traders, many of whom are gamblers, are dead set against each other. If you find that in a certain market the smart money is overwhelmingly on one side, while the small specs are mobbing the other, it is time to use technical analysis to look for entries on the side of hedgers.

Margins and Risk Control

Futures’ low margin requirements make them more rewarding than stocks but also much more dangerous. When buying stocks in the United States, you must put up at least half of their cash value with the broker giving you a margin loan for the rest. If you have $40,000 in your account, you may buy $80,000 worth of stocks, and no more. This margin limit was implemented after the Crash of 1929 when it became clear that low margins led to excessive speculation, which contributed to the viciousness of declines.

Prior to 1929, speculators could buy stocks on a 10% margin, which worked great in bull markets but forced them to liquidate when prices slid, pushing the market lower during bear markets. Margins of only three to five percent are common in the futures markets, allowing traders to make huge bets with little money. With $40,000 in your account, you may control about a million dollars’ worth of merchandise, be it pork bellies or stock index futures.

For example, if gold trades at $1,500/oz and you buy a 100-oz contract on a $7,500 margin and catch a $75 price move, you’ll gain 100%. A beginner looks at these numbers and exclaims, “where have I been all my life?” He thinks he’s found a royal road to riches. But there is a catch. Before that market rises $75, it may dip $50. That meaningless blip will trigger a margin call and force a small speculator’s account to go bust—despite his correct forecast.

Easy margins attract adrenaline junkies who quickly go up in smoke. Futures are very tradable—but only if you follow strict money management rules and don’t go crazy with easy margins. Professionals put on small initial positions and pyramid them if a trade moves in their favor. They keep adding new contracts while moving stops beyond breakeven.

When you become interested in futures, it’s a good idea to make your first steps in those markets where you know something about the fundamentals. If you are a cattle rancher, a house builder, or a loan officer, then cattle, lumber, or interest rate futures would be logical starting points. If you have no particular interests, make your first steps in relatively inexpensive markets. In the United States, corn, sugar, and, in a slow year, copper can be good markets for beginners. They are liquid, volatile, and not too expensive.

Futures traders with small accounts sometimes trade mini-contracts. For example, a regular contract of gold represents 100 oz of the yellow metal, but a mini-contract covers only 20 oz. Mini-contracts trade during the same hours as regular contracts and closely track their prices. Their commissions are similar to those for regular contracts, taking a proportionately bigger bite from each trade. Their slippage tends to be bigger due to lower volumes. The exceptions are stock index futures, where mini contracts have higher volumes than regular ones.


The currency market is the largest asset class in the world by trading volume, with a turnover of over $4 trillion per day. Currencies trade around the clock—from 20:15 GMT on Sunday to 22 GMT on Friday, stopping only on weekends. While some currency trades serve the hedging needs of importers and exporters, most transactions are speculative. The United States is the only country in the world where most people don’t think much about currencies.

The moment an American sets foot abroad, he realizes that everyone, from executives to taxi drivers, watches the exchange rates. When people outside the United States get their hands on a bit of trading capital, often their first idea is to trade forex. The forex market has no central location. Institutions deal in the interbank market, trading with each other using online platforms, such as Bloomberg or Reuters. Unless you can trade $10 million of spot forex at a pop, you’ll be trading retail, going through a broker.

Most beginners open accounts at forex shops where they immediately run into a fatal flaw—your broker is your enemy. When you trade stocks, futures, or options, your broker is your agent: he executes your trades for a fee, and that’s the end of it. Not so in most forex (as well as CFD) houses, where your broker is likely to take the opposite side of every trade. You and the forex house are now against each other: if you lose, your broker will profit, and if you win, he’ll lose. Since the house holdsmost of the cards, it has many ways to achieve the desired result.

Most forex houses “bucket” customer orders—accept them without executing any trades. They charge spreads, commissions, interest, etc. for non-existent trades. I received the clearest explanation of their game from a chatty head dealer at a major European forex house (which is now expanding worldwide, with branches in the United States—I see their billboards in New York). That forex house accepts any trade in any currency pair, whether long or short, but always shifts the bid-ask spread to put itself at an advantage from the get-go. Those so-called “trades” never go anywhere—they’re only kept as electronic entries in the firm’s books.

The forex house charges interest if its customers take their phantom “positions” overnight, even though there is never any position, since the house simply holds the opposite side of each trade. The only time the firm goes to the legitimate market is when multiple client orders cluster on the same side of the same currency pair in excess of a million dollars—that’s when the house hedges its own exposure in the real market. When you trade stocks, options, or futures, your broker buys or sells on your behalf, earning a commission for this service, and doesn’t care whether you win or lose. This is great, because he has no incentive to push you into losing. 

On the other hand, a forex house that buckets your orders wants you to lose, so that it can win. In addition to shifting bid-ask spreads and charging interest on non-existent positions, it may even charge a daily “resettlement fee”—the full bid-ask spread for every day you hold a trade. Forex shops help ensure their clients’ demise by offering homicidal leverage. I’ve seen them offer leverage of 100:1 and even 400:1. A newcomer who scrapes together a $1,000 stake can suddenly control a position worth a hundred thousand dollars. This means that the slightest price wiggle against him is guaranteed to wipe out his equity.

That’s why those shops confidently keep clients’ money in-house, never transmitting their trades to the real market—why share the loot with anyone else? They are so certain of their clients’ demise that many compensate employees with a percentage of the client deposits that they bring in—funds deposited with a forex house are as good as theirs.

“The market has long been plagued by swindlers preying on the gullible,” according to The New York Times. “The average individual foreign-exchange-trading victim loses about $15,000, according to CFTC records,” writes The Wall Street Journal. Currency trading “has become the fraud du jour,” according to Michael Dunn of the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission.

In August 2008, the CFTC set up a special task force to deal with growing foreign exchange fraud. In January 2010, the CFTC identified a “number of improper practices” in the retail foreign exchange market, “among them solicitation fraud, a lack of transparency in the pricing and execution of transactions, unresponsiveness to customer complaints, and the targeting of unsophisticated, elderly, low net worth and other vulnerable individuals.” It proposed new rules limiting leverage to 10 to 1.Frauds may include churning customer accounts, selling useless software, improperly managing “managed accounts,” false advertising, and Ponzi schemes. All the while, promoters claim that trading foreign exchange is a road to profits.

The real forex market is a zero sum game, in which well-capitalized professional traders, many of whom work for banks, devote full-time attention to trading. An inexperienced retail trader has a significant information disadvantage. The retail trader always pays the bid-ask spread, which lowers his odds of winning. Retail forex traders are almost always undercapitalized and subject to the problem of “gambler’s ruin.” Even in a fair game between two players, the one with the lower amount of capital has a higher probability of going bust in the long run.

Having observed forex shops for decades, I was amused to see what my best student did when he became interested in forex. This multimillionaire stock trader decided to check out forex houses by opening large accounts and then waiting for the night, when forex trading was at its thinnest. That’s when he placed his orders, always of a very unusual and atypical size, and watched the tape. There were only two houses that showed his orders on tape—the rest, apparently, got bucketed.

I enjoy trading currencies, but wouldn’t go near a forex house. Instead, I trade electronic currency futures. That’s what I recommend to anyone interested in trading foreign exchange. Futures brokers work for you, not against you; futures spreads are more narrow, commissions more reasonable, and no interest is charged for the privilege of holding a position. There are contracts for most major currency pairs and even mini-contracts for euro/dollar and yen/dollar.

One of the real challenges of currencies is that they move around the clock. You may enter a trade, analyze it in the evening, and decide to take profits the following day. When you wake up, there are no profits to be taken. The turning point you saw coming has already come and gone, only not in the United States, but in Asia or Europe. Someone had picked your pocket while you slept!

Major financial institutions deal with this problem by using the system of “passing the book.” A bank may open a position in Tokyo, manage it intraday, and then transfer it to its London branch before closing for the night. London continues to manage that and other positions, and in the evening passes the book to New York, which manages it until it passes it back to Tokyo. Currencies follow the sun, and small traders can’t keep up with it. If you trade currencies, you either need to take a very long-term view and ignore daily fluctuations, or else day-trade and avoid overnight positions.


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