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Risk Management Matters in Futures Trading

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The difference between great traders and the masses isn’t necessarily the ability to pick precision entries and exit points, but rather an understanding of risk and risk management. Managing risk in stocks is similar to managing the risk in futures, such as the exposure to price risk in the market. Unlike stocks, though, futures are derivatives contracts with expiry dates that require the delivery of the underlying asset. Using leverage on margin in futures is also more friendly since it can amplify both gains and losses. Below, we outline some of the unique risks that futures trading brings with it, and what you can do to minimize your exposure to them.

Key Takeaways

  • Futures contracts are popular financial instruments, but they differ in important ways from more traditional assets like stocks or bonds, and so your risk management will also differ.
  • Futures are highly marginable, so you can increase your leverage far more than when buying stocks.
  • This can lead to margin calls if you’re not careful about setting stops.

Why Is Risk Management Important?

Risk is an inherent part of investing This means that every type of investment comes with a certain degree of risk—some more than others. Risk management refers to the process of. keeping track of and dealing with different financial risks that come with investing. Individuals must be aware of what the risks are, analyze them, and make important decisions on what to do with that information.

Managing risk is sometimes an overlooked and misunderstood area of trading. It can sound boring compared to a discussion of stochastic patterns, Fibonacci sequences, and other matters of technical analysis. However, it is critical to any successful trading plan.

Even a simple trading strategy like the moving average crossover system can be problematic if risk management is not applied. This discussion of risk management will help you build a foundation of concepts you can apply to any trading plan.

A risk and money management plan will help you in another key area—discipline. Many investors don’t hesitate to enter a trade, but sometimes have little idea of what to do next and when. Having a plan in place will keep you disciplined and prevent emotions like fear and greed from taking over and causing you to experience failure.

Start From Square One

A good place to start is with the concept of risk control. Traders are attracted to futures because of the leverage provided—vast sums can be won on very little invested capital. However, the cost of that leverage is the fact that you can lose more than the balance of your account. So, how can you control that risk?

First, consider that the rules about trading on margin are about minimums. There are no rules that affect the maximum margin you can apply to a trade. In other words, if you are concerned with the leverage of potential losses of a market, apply more capital.

True, you will be reducing your overall return, but this also brings everything into balance. On the other hand, highly leveraged positions can quickly lead to margin calls if the futures market turns even slightly against you in short order.

Futures contracts are traded on margin using leverage and can be traded during extended trading hours. But, they are complex financial instruments with expiry dates that traders must manage closely. Failure to do so can result in contracts expiring worthless.

Plan Your Trading Risk

What is the right amount to risk on a trade? There is no hard and fast rule, but account size, risk tolerance, financial objectives, and how it fits the total trading plan should all be considered. There is quite a range, though. Conservative traders generally risk around 5% to 7% on a given trade, but this also requires either a larger amount of capital or precise entry and exit points.

Increasing that to a 12% risk allows for taking on a little more leverage and wider market swings. More than that amount isn’t necessarily wrong—it just depends on other factors of your plan. However, if you’re taking on bigger risks, you must also consider whether your profit objective is realistic. Consider this rule when you think about where your risk tolerance fits into this discussion: If you take a 50% loss on a trade, you need to achieve a 100% return to get it back.

For example, if you own 100 shares of a stock at $50 per share and it loses 50%, your $5,000 will drop to $2,500. You must now achieve a 100% return to get back to $5,000. Thinking about risk in this way can put your risk tolerance back into perspective.

Stop Runaway Trading Losses

The stop-loss order is as important as money management and cannot be overlooked. A predetermined stop keeps a trader disciplined in executing his or her money management. However, many traders don’t understand the how of stop placement. Stops cannot be placed arbitrarily—careful consideration must go into where to set a stop.

Traders sometimes set arbitrary stops, but this is generally a bad idea. This is when a trader says, “I am placing my stop at a risk of $500 per trade because that is what I am comfortable losing on a trade—no more.”

Let’s assume that this trader uses technical analysis and swing trading. The swing low of the market in question is a move of $750. Does this trader’s $500 stop make sense? No, it doesn’t. Moreover, it is probably as close to a guaranteed loss as you can get. What if the swing low was a $250 move? The $500 risk still doesn’t make sense because it is too much risk.

Keep in mind that when you set your stops, the stop price must fit the market. If the required risk is too much for the trader’s risk tolerance or account size, they should find a market that fits. It is foolish to trade a market with too little capital. There is an old saying that warns against bringing a knife to a gun fight. Likewise, if you come to a market with too little capital, you may as well save time and cut a check for the trade’s counterparty right then and there.

Example of Risk Management in Futures Trading

Let’s say corn trades at $3 per bushel and a contract is 5,000 bushels, then the full contract value of a single contract of corn is $15,000.

The exchange generally requires a minimum margin of around 5% to 7%, which would be between $750 and $1,050. This is the minimum. If our trading plan requires that we risk a $0.10 move in corn, we risk $500, or around 48% to 66% of our investment.

However, if half the contract value ($7,500) is applied to the trade, that same $0.10 move would account for only 6.6% of our invested capital. That’s quite a difference. Increase that to investing the full contract value and a trader on the long side (buy) removes the possibility of losing more than the initial investment.

How Does Futures Trading Work?

Futures contracts are standardized contracts between a buyer and seller. They allow the trader to buy or sell an underlying commodity at a specific price by the expiry date. These contracts are traded on an exchange, such as the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME). Traders often use futures as a way to speculate on or hedge against the price of the underlying asset. They also allow them to access the commodities market.

Why Is Risk Management Important?

Risk is inherent to any investment. Some vehicles come with greater risk than others. Risk management involves identifying and analyzing all of the risks associated with investing. Managing risk is a very important part of any investment strategy. Knowing the risks and managing them can help investors determine the upsides and downsides of their investments while mitigating their losses.

What Are Some of the Common Risks of Investing?

Most investment vehicles share similar risks, including interest rate, market, business, and inflation risk. Other risks are investment-specific. For instance, currencies may come with exchange rate and geopolitical risks while stocks often come with business and company risks. Derivatives, on the other hand, are commonly characterized by asset, counterparty, and leverage risk.

The Bottom Line

Make sure the markets that you are trading in fit with your account size and risk tolerance. Make sure the percentage you are willing to risk per trade fits the plan and the market. And remember that none of these components exists in a vacuum. Focus on one without the other and you are headed for trouble. Weigh these factors together and you will be putting yourself on the track to building a successful trading plan.

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