Commodity Futures, How They Work With Examples

Why Do Prices of the Things You Need the Most Change Every Day?

men grocery shopping

Doug Menuez/Getty Images

Commodities futures are agreements to buy or sell a raw material at a specific date in the future at a particular price. The contract is for a set amount. The three main areas of commodities are food, energy, and metals. The most popular food futures are for meat, wheat, and sugar. Most energy futures are for oil and gasoline. Metals using futures include gold, silver, and copper.

Buyers of food, energy, and metal use futures contracts to fix the price of the commodity they are purchasing. That reduces their risk that prices will go up. Sellers of these commodities use futures to guarantee they will receive the agreed-upon price. They remove the risk of a price drop.

Prices of commodities change on a weekly or even daily basis. Contract prices change as well. That’s why the cost of meat, gasoline, and gold changes so often.

How They Work

If the price of the underlying commodity goes up, the buyer of the futures contract makes money. He gets the product at the lower, agreed-upon price and can now sell it at today's higher market price. If the price goes down, the futures seller makes money. He can buy the commodity at today's lower market price and sell it to the futures buyer at the higher, agreed-upon price.

If commodities traders had to deliver the product, few people would do it. Instead, they can fulfill the contract by delivering proof that the product is in the warehouse. They can also pay the cash difference or provide another contract at the market price.


  • Ensures the commodity producer of a fixed sales price, come harvest or selling time.

  • In a price drop, the producer does not lose money. He gets the agreed-upon price.

  • Producers can limit their risk, in case of a price drop.

  • Producers or companies can make better production plans.


  • In the event of a price increase, producers can miss out on considerable gains. Contract prices are fixed.

  • Trading in these contracts is very risky. World commodity prices are highly volatile.

  • Commodity prices are influenced by world events, traders’ emotions, and market speculations, even when demand and supply remain at the same level.

  • This investment type is best left to experts.

How to Invest

The safest ways to invest in commodities futures are through commodity funds. They can be commodity exchange-traded funds or commodity mutual funds. These funds incorporate the broad spectrum of commodities futures that occur at any given time. 

Trading in commodity futures and options contracts is very complicated and risky. Commodities prices are very volatile. The market is rife with fraudulent activities. If you aren't completely sure of what you are doing, you can lose more than your initial investment.

Before you invest, read Commodities Profiles and Day Trading in Commodities Futures. In addition, review the Certificate in Trade Finance Compliance's or CTFC’s Guide to Fraudulent Activity and its Education Center.

How They Affect Prices

Commodities futures accurately assess the price of raw materials because they trade on an open market. They also forecast the value of the commodity into the future. The values are set by traders and their analysts. They spend all day every day researching their particular commodity. Forecasts instantly incorporate each day's news. For example, if Iran threatens to close the Strait of Hormuz, the commodities prices will change dramatically.

Sometimes commodities futures reflect the emotion of the trader or the market more than supply and demand. Speculators bid up prices to make a profit if a crisis occurs and they anticipate a shortage. When other traders see that the price of a commodity is skyrocketing, they create a bidding war. That drives the price even higher. But the basics of supply and demand haven't changed. When the crisis is over, prices will plummet back to earth.

Also, commodities are traded in U.S. dollars. There is an inverse relationship between the dollar and commodities. As the value of the dollar increases, the price of commodities falls. That's because traders can get the same amount of commodities for less money.


Oil. Traders take into account all information about oil supply and demand, as well as geopolitical considerations. This affects oil prices. It is these assumptions behind oil prices that affect the economy so significantly. The price of oil impacts every good and service produced in America.

For example, in 2008, oil prices skyrocketed. This occurred despite the fact that global demand was down and global supply was up. The Energy Information Administration reported that oil consumption decreased from 86.66 million barrels per day in the fourth quarter of 2007 to 85.73 million bpd in the second quarter of 2008. During this same period, supply rose 85.49 million bpd to 86.17 million bpd. According to the laws of supply and demand, prices should have decreased. Instead, prices rose almost 25% by May, from $87.79 to $110.21 per barrel of oil.

The EIA reported that the "flow of investment money into commodities markets" caused the trend. Traders diverted money from real estate or stocks into oil futures. Later that year, frenzied commodities traders drove the price up to its all-time high of $145 a barrel.

What makes oil prices so high? A devalued dollar and commodities traders’ actions are a few of the factors that influence the price of oil.

In 2011, oil prices didn't start rising until May, sending gas prices up immediately. That was a result of traders anticipating higher oil and gas prices due to higher demand from the summer driving season. Oil makes up 72% of the price of gas. When oil prices rise, it shows up in gas prices three to six weeks later. The pricing trends in commodities trading reflect how crude oil prices affect gas prices.

In 2012, Iran threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, one of the world’s most strategic oil shipping lanes. Traders worried that a potential closure of the Strait would limit oil supplies. They bid up oil prices in March, sending gas prices higher in April.

In January 2013, traders bid up oil prices early in the year. Iran created the fear by playing war games near the Strait. By February 8, oil prices had risen to $118.90/barrel, sending gas prices to $3.85 by February 25.

Metals. In 2011, gold hit an all-time high of $1,895 an ounce. Demand and supply hadn't changed, but traders bid up gold prices in response to fears of ongoing economic uncertainty. Gold is often bought in times of trouble because many people see it as a safe haven. Gold prices reflect the U.S. economy. An increase in gold investments, which consequently drives gold prices up, could indicate that the economy is doing poorly. On the other hand, a decrease in gold prices could signify some health gains for the economy.

In 2014, the dollar index rose 15%. By 2015, aluminum prices had fallen 19%, and copper prices were down 27%. Oil was hit the worst, as prices fell to a 6-year low.

Supply and demand had some impact as well. In 2015, China's economy started slowing, reducing demand for copper. As part of its economic reforms, China was shifting from construction to consumer spending. It wanted to rely less on exports and more on domestic demand. That further reduced the need for copper, since housing construction uses a lot more copper than consumer products. China's construction industry had used 3 million to 4 million tons a year. That's equal to what was used by the entire economies of the United States, Japan, Canada, and Mexico combined.

At the same time, China added to the supply of commodities, further lowering prices. In 2014, the country produced 52% of global aluminum. It boosted that amount in 2015, adding 10% to supply. That’s according to a Bloomberg BusinessWeek article, "Metal Meltdown," published October 11, 2015.

Food. In 2008, commodities traders created high food prices. That led to riots in less-developed countries. First, traders diverted funds from the failing stock market into wheat, corn, and other commodities. Second, they also diverted funds into oil prices. They created higher distribution costs for food

Key Takeaways

Commodities futures are contracts that stipulate these fixed buying or selling elements:

  • Price of a specific commodity.
  • Volume at which it is sold.
  • Date in the future.

Commodities fall under the three major categories: food, metals, and energy.