What Are Derivatives?

What Are the Risks vs Rewards?

Quant jocks ran complicated computer programs to create derivatives. Photo: Getty Images

Definition: A derivative is a financial contract that derives its value from an underlying asset. The buyer agrees to purchase the asset on a specific date at a specific price. 

Derivatives are often used for commodities, such as oil, gasoline or gold. Another asset class is currencies, often the U.S. dollar. There are derivatives based on stocks or bonds. Still others use interest rates, such as the yield on the 10-year Treasury note.


The contract's seller doesn't have to own the underlying asset. He can fulfill the contract by giving the buyer enough money to buy the asset at the prevailing price. He can also give the buyer another derivative contract that offsets the value of the first. This makes derivatives much easier to trade than the asset itself.

Derivatives Trading

In 2016, 25 billion derivative contracts were traded.  Asia commanded 36 percent of the volume, while North America traded 34 percent. Twenty percent of the contracts were traded in Europe. These contract were worth $570 trillion in 2016. That's six times more than the economic output of the world. (Sources: "Banks Face New Checks on Derivative Trading," The New York Times, January 3, 2013. "Global Derivatives Volume Survey, Market Voice, March 10, 2017. "Global OTC Derivatives Market: First Half of 2016," "Exchange-Traded Futures and Options, Q2 2016," Bank for International Settlements, April 20, 2017.)

More than 90 percent of the world's 500 largest companies use derivatives to lower risk. For example, a futures contract promises delivery of raw materials at an agreed-upon price. This way the company is protected if prices rise. Companies also write contracts to protect themselves from changes in exchange rates and interest rates.

(Source: "Banks Face New Checks on Derivative Trading," The New York Times, January 3, 2013.)

Derivatives make future cashflows more predictable. They allow companies to forecast their earnings more accurately. That predictability boosts stock prices. Businesses then need less cash on hand to cover emergencies. They can reinvest more into their business.

Most derivatives trading is done by hedge funds and other investors to gain more leverage. That’s because derivatives only require a small down payment, called “paying on margin.” Many derivatives contracts are offset, or liquidated, by another derivative before coming to term. That means these traders don't worry about having enough money to pay off the derivative if the market goes against them. If they win, they cash in.


More than 95 percent of all derivatives are traded between two companies or traders that know each other personally. These are called “over the counter” options. They are also traded through an intermediary, usually a large bank.


Just 4 percent of the world's derivatives are traded on exchanges. These public exchanges set standardized contract terms. They specify the premiums or discounts on the contract price.

This standardization improves the liquidity of derivatives. It makes them more or less exchangeable, thus making them more useful for hedging.

Exchanges can also be a clearing house, acting as the actual buyer or seller of the derivative. That makes it safer for traders, since they know the contract will be fulfilled. In 2010, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act required OTC derivatives be moved to an exchange. The details of how to do this are still being worked out. (Source: "Intro to Global Derivatives Market," Deutsche Bourse Group.)

The largest exchange is the CME Group. It's the merger between the Chicago Board of Trade, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (also called CME or the Merc) and the New York Mercantile Exchange. It trades derivatives in all asset classes.

Stock options are traded on the NASDAQ or the Chicago Board Options Exchange.

Futures contracts are traded on the Intercontinental Exchange. It acquired the New York Board of Trade in 2008. It focuses on agricultural and financial contracts, especially coffee, cotton and currency. These exchanges are regulated by the Commodities Futures Trading Commission or the Securities and Exchange Commission. For a list of exchanges, see Trading OrganizationsClearing Organizations and SEC Self-Regulating Organizations.

Types of Financial Derivatives

The most notorious derivatives are collateralized debt obligations. CDOs were a primary cause of the 2008 financial crisis. These bundle debt like auto loans, credit card debt or mortgages into a security. Its value is based on the promised repayment of the loans. There are two major types. Asset-backed commercial paper is based on corporate and business debt. Mortgage-backed securities are based on mortgages. When the housing market collapsed in 2006, so did the value of the MBS and then the ABCP.

The most common type of derivative is a swap. It is an agreement to exchange one asset (or debt) for a similar one. The purpose is to lower risk for both parties. Most of them are either currency swaps or interest rate swaps. For example, a trader might sell stock in the U.S. and buy it in a foreign currency to hedge currency risk. These are OTC, so not traded on an exchange. A company might swap the fixed-rate coupon stream of a bond for a variable-rate payment stream of another company's bond.

The most infamous of these swaps were credit default swaps. That’s because they also helped cause 2008 financial crisis. They were sold to insure against the default of municipal bonds, corporate debt or mortgage-backed securities. When the MBS market collapsed, there wasn't enough capital to pay off the CDS holders. That's why the federal government had to nationalize AIG. CDSs are now regulated by the CFTC.

Forwards are another OTC derivative. They are agreements to buy or sell an asset at an agreed-upon price at a specific date in the future. The two parties can customize their forward a lot. Forwards are used to hedge risk in commodities, interest rates, exchange rates or equities. (Source: "Overview of Derivatives," CBOE.)

Another influential type of derivative is a futures contract. The most widely used are commodities futures. Of these, the most important are oil price futures. That's because they set the price of oil and, ultimately, gasoline.

Another type of derivative simply gives the buyer the option to either buy or sell the asset at a certain price and date. The most widely-used are options. The right to buy a stock is a call option, and the right to sell is a put option

Another type of derivative simply gives the buyer the option to either buy or sell the asset at a certain price and date. The most widely-used are options. The right to buy is a call option, and the right to sell a stock is a put option

Four Risks of Derivatives

Derivatives have four large risks. The most dangerous is that it's nearly impossible to know any derivative's real value. That's because it's based on the value of one or more underlying asset. Their complexity makes them difficult to price. That's the reason mortgage-backed securities were so deadly to the economy. No one, not even the computer programmers who created them, knew what their price was when housing prices dropped. Banks become unwilling to trade them because they couldn't value them.

Another risk is also one of the things that makes them so attractive: leverage. For example, futures traders are only required to put 2-10 percent of the contract into a margin account to maintain ownership. If the value of the underlying asset drops, they must add money to the margin account to maintain that percentage until the contract expires or is offset. If the commodity price keeps dropping, covering the margin account can lead to enormous losses. For examples, see the CFTC Education Center.

The third risk is their time restriction. It's one thing to bet that gas prices will go up. It's another thing entirely to try to predict exactly when that will happen. No one who bought MBS thought housing prices would drop. That's because the last time they did was the Great Depression. They also thought they were protected by CDS. The leverage involved meant that when losses occurred, they were magnified throughout the entire economy. Furthermore, they were unregulated and not sold on exchanges. That’s a risk unique to OTC derivatives.

Last but not least is the potential for scams. The Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme was built on derivatives. Fraud is rampant in the derivatives market. To uncover the latest scams in commodities futures, see this CTFC advisory

Derivatives FAQ