Calculating profit, loss and risk in the stock index futures complex.
Before Putting Your Money on the Line…You Should Know the Basics. If you are like most people, you work hard for your money and the last thing you want to do is see it evaporate in your trading account. Throughout my journey in the markets, I have yet to find a fool proof way to guarantee profitable trading, but what I am certain of is that you owe it to yourself to fully understand the products and markets that you intend to trade before risking a single dollar. What you will learn from this article is merely a stepping stone to getting started in trading stock index futures, but without fully understanding the basic calculations of profit, loss and risk in the futures markets, you may never lay the foundation necessary to become a successful commodity trader.
When most people think of the commodity markets, they imagine fields of grain or bars of gold. However, a futures contract may be written on any commodity in which the underlying asset can be considered fungible. The term fungible purely means “interchangeable”, or having the ability to “comingle”, in trade. For example, you wouldn’t prefer to have one bushel of corn over another. According to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange Group, corn is corn as long as it meets the CME Group definition of a deliverable grade.
Financial products can be thought of in much of the same way. One unit of the S&P 500 index is just as valuable (or not) as the next. Therefore, financial products can also be considered commodities and trade similarly on futures exchanges around the world.
Don’t make the mistake of assuming because you are familiar with the equity markets, you can automatically apply that knowledge to trading in the future markets. Despite the underlying asset of stock index futures being based on indices which are household names, the manner in which they trade and the risk they pose to traders is dramatically different than their stock market counterparts.
Stock Index Futures Markets
In the U.S. there are four primarily traded futures contracts based on domestic stock indices; the Dow Jones Industrial Average (or simply the Dow), NASDAQ 100, Russell 2000, and the S&P 500. There are several other stock index futures available, but as a speculator you want to be where the liquidity is and many of them simply don’t offer that.
While stock index futures are all highly correlated in price, they have very distinct personalities. As a trader it is vital to be comfortable with the specifics of the futures contracts that you are trading and eventually the price characteristics of the underlying asset itself.
S&P 500 Futures
The S&P 500 futures contract traded on the CME, sometimes referred to as the “big board”, represents the widely followed Standard & Poor’s 500 index. This index is seen as a benchmark of large capitalization stocks in the U.S and is the most commonly traded stock index futures contract.
There are currently two versions of the S&P 500 futures contracts traded on the CME division of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Although the CME has ceased trading in most open-outcry futures pits on July 1st 2015, to make way for fully electronic execution in the futures markets, the futures exchange opted to keep the full-sized S&P 500 futures contract trading in a pit. Accordingly, traders can opt to execute their S&P 500 futures orders in the open outcry pit using the “big” S&P, or electronically using the e-mini S&P 500 futures contract.
The full-sized S&P futures contract has a point value of $250 with a minimum tick of .10. Floor brokers often refer to an S&P point as a “dollar”. For every point, or dollar, that the price moves higher or lower a trader will be making or losing $250. Thus, the contract size of the index is calculated by multiplying the index value by $250. For example, if the futures contract is currently trading at 2050.00 then one full sized S&P 500 futures contract is valued at $512,500. Similarly, a trader that goes long an S&P futures contract at 2089.40 and is forced to sell it due to margin trouble at 2053.20 he would have sustained a loss in the amount of 36.2 points or $9,050 plus the commissions paid to get into the trade. Once again, many traders aren’t willing to accept this type of volatility in their trading account and opt for the benefits of the e-mini version of the contract.
The e-mini S&P 500 is one fifth the size of its full-sized counterpart and unlike the larger version, the minimum tick is a quarter of a point or .25. With that said, the point value is $50 and the contract size is also one fifth the size of the original contract. If the e-mini S&P is trading at 2050.00 the value of the contract would be $102,500. Now that is more like it. An e-mini S&P futures trader is exposed to risk but relative to the “Big Board” contract it is much more controllable. When it comes to leverage, less is sometimes “more”.
A trader that goes long the e-mini S&P from 2035.00 and is able to sell the position at 2052.25 would have realized a profit of 17.25 points or $862.50. Again, this is figured by subtracting the sale price from the purchase price and multiplying the difference by $50.
2052.25 – 2035.00 = 17.25
17.25 x $50 = $862.5
Dow Jones Industrial Average Futures
Dow futures are listed and traded on the Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT) division of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange Group. The CBOT’s futures version of the Dow index closely follows the infamous Dow Jones Industrial Average comprised of 30 blue chip stocks.
In the past, the futures exchange provided futures traders with the ability to speculate on the DJIA in three different increments of risk and reward. However, in recent years the product listing has been streamlined a single Dow futures contract to increase efficiency; the mini-sized Dow (futures symbol YM). The DJIA mini-sized futures contract is often referred to in the industry as the “nickel Dow” because each point of movement in the futures market is worth $5 to a trader.
Unlike some of the true commodity futures contracts, the contract size of a stock index is not fixed. In fact, there is no contract size; instead, the contract value fluctuates with the market and is calculated by multiplying the index value by the point value (which is $5 in the case of the mini Dow futures contract). Accordingly, if the mini-sized Dow futures contract settled the trading day at 17,520 the value of the contract at that particular moment would be $86,250 ($5 x 17,520). Keep in mind that the margin for the mini-sized Dow is far less than $57,600 making it a highly leveraged trading vehicle. Margins are subject to change at any time, but the average seems to be between $4,000 and $5,000. As you can imagine, being responsible for the gains and losses of a contract valued at nearly $90,000 with as little as $4,000 could create large amounts of volatility in your commodity trading account. However, it is this leverage that keeps traders coming back to the futures markets for more. Unfortunately, it is the same leverage that has resulted in many bitter ex-futures traders.
Calculating profit and loss in the mini-sized Dow is relatively easy. Unlike many other commodities, or even financial futures, the Dow doesn’t trade in fractions or decimals; one tick is simply one point. Consequently, if a trader is long a mini-Dow futures contract from 17,257 and is able to liquidate the trade the next day at 17,348, the realized profit would have been 91 points or $455 (91 x $5). This is figured by subtracting the purchase price from the sale price and multiplying the point difference by $5.
17,348 – 17,257 = 91
91 x $5 = $455 (minus commissions and fees)
Not bad for a day’s work; regrettably, it isn’t always that easy. Had the commodity trader taken the exact opposite position by selling the contract at 17,257 and buying it back at 17,348 the loss would have been $455 plus commissions and fees.
NASDAQ futures are listed on the CME division of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange Group; it closely tracks the NASDAQ 100 index which includes the 100 largest non-financial stocks listed on the NASDAQ stock exchange. Prior to the closure of the futures trading pits at the CME, the exchange provided traders with two alternatives in speculation on the NASDAQ, a full sized contract and an e-mini version. However, the NASDAQ 100 futures contract now only trades in an e-mini version. This is probably a positive development to the retail trading community, because the original NASDAQ futures contract (full-sized), at $100 per point, was too large and volatile for most speculators.
The e-mini NASDAQ 100 futures contract comes with a point value of $20 (one fifth of the original $100 full-sized contract) reducing the contract size considerably. With the futures market at 4520.00, an e-mini NASDAQ contract is equivalent to $90,400 of the underlying index.
An e-mini NASDAQ trader long from 4505.50 and subsequently able to sell the position at 4532.75 would have been profitable by 27.25 points or $545. This is figured by subtracting the exit price by the entry price and multiplying the difference by $20.
4532.75 – 4505.50 = 27.25
27.25 x $20 = $545 (minus commissions and fees)
Generally speaking, the e-mini NASDAQ is the tamest speculative vehicle in the stock index futures complex in regard to daily profit and loss per contract held. Further, it also comes with the lowest margin requirement. For this reason, some beginning traders opt to trade the e-mini NASDAQ futures when dipping their toe into the futures arena. With that said, the NASDAQ 100 is far more susceptible to price moves dependent on a single stock (such as Apple) than a broader index such as the S&P 500 futures might be.
Russell 2000 Mini Futures
The mini Russell 2000 futures contract trades on the Intercontinental Exchange (ICE Exchange). It is the one and only stock index listed on ICE; consequently, it is also the most treacherous in regard to volatility. The Russell is believed to be a market leader, and it typically is, but sometimes leading the pack of stock index futures means excessive volatility.
A commodity trader long or short the Russell futures will make or lose $100 per full point of price movement. On an average day, the Russell will see a move from 3 to 8 points but on a volatile day it isn’t out of the question to see 15 to 25 points in price movement. If you’ve done the math in your head, you’ve realized that this equates to $1,500 to $2,500 in profit and loss per contract.
For instance, a trader that goes short a mini Russell Futures at 1221.00 and places a stop loss order at 1235.00 would be risking 14 points, or $1,400 before commission and fees.
1235.00 – 1221.00 = 14.00
14.00 x $100 = $1,400
If you are looking for a lot of bang for your buck, the Russell might be for you. Nevertheless, the massive and sudden market movements make it a risky venture.