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A derivative instrument is a contract between two parties that specifies conditions (especially the dates, resulting values of the underlying variables, and notional amounts) under which payments are to be made between the parties.
Derivatives can be used for speculation ("bets") or to hedge ("insurance"). For example, a speculator may sell deep in-the-money naked calls on a stock, expecting the stock price to plummet, but exposing himself to potentially unlimited losses. Very commonly, companies buy currency forwards in order to limit losses due to fluctuations in the exchange rate of two currencies.
Third parties can use publicly available derivative prices as educated predictions of uncertain future outcomes, for example, the likelihood that a corporation will default on its debts.
Derivatives facilitate the buying and selling of risk, and many financial professionals consider this to have a positive impact on the economic system. Although someone loses money while someone else gains money with a derivative, under normal circumstances, trading in derivatives should not adversely affect the economic system because it is not zero-sum in utility.
A stock derivative is any financial instrument which has a value that is dependent on the price of the underlying stock. Futures and options are the main types of derivatives on stocks. The underlying security may be a stock index or an individual firm's stock, e.g. single-stock futures.
Stock futures are contracts where the buyer is long, i.e., takes on the obligation to buy on the contract maturity date, and the seller is short, i.e., takes on the obligation to sell. Stock index futures are generally not delivered in the usual manner, but by cash settlement.
A stock option is a class of option. Specifically, a call option is the right (not obligation) to buy stock in the future at a fixed price and a put option is the right (not obligation) to sell stock in the future at a fixed price. Thus, the value of a stock option changes in reaction to the underlying stock of which it is a derivative. The most popular method of valuing stock options is the Black Scholes model. Apart from call options granted to employees, most stock options are transferable.
Hedging is the process of managing the risk of price changes in physical material by offsetting that risk in the futures market. Hedging can vary in complexity from a relatively simple activity, through to a highly complex strategies, including the use of options. The ability to hedge means that industry can decide on the amount of risk it is prepared to accept.
Derivatives allow risk related to the price of the underlying asset to be transferred from one party to another. For example, a wheat farmer and a miller could sign a futures contract to exchange a specified amount of cash for a specified amount of wheat in the future. Both parties have reduced a future risk: for the wheat farmer, the uncertainty of the price, and for the miller, the availability of wheat. However, there is still the risk that no wheat will be available because of events unspecified by the contract, such as the weather, or that one party will renege on the contract. Although a third party, called a clearing house, insures a futures contract, not all derivatives are insured against counter-party risk.
Hedging also occurs when an individual or institution buys an asset (such as a commodity, a bond that has coupon payments, a stock that pays dividends, and so on) and sells it using a futures contract. The individual or institution has access to the asset for a specified amount of time, and can then sell it in the future at a specified price according to the futures contract. Of course, this allows the individual or institution the benefit of holding the asset, while reducing the risk that the future selling price will deviate unexpectedly from the market's current assessment of the future value of the asset.
In broad terms, there are two groups of derivative contracts, which are distinguished by the way they are traded in the market:
Over-the-counter (OTC) derivatives are contracts that are traded (and privately negotiated) directly between two parties, without going through an exchange or other intermediary. Exchange-traded derivative contracts (ETD) are those derivatives instruments that are traded via specialized derivatives exchanges or other exchanges. A derivatives exchange is a market where individuals trade standardized contracts that have been defined by the exchange. A derivatives exchange acts as an intermediary to all related transactions, and takes initial margin from both sides of the trade to act as a guarantee.
Some of the common variants of derivative contracts are as follows:
Forwards: A tailored contract between two parties, where payment takes place at a specific time in the future at today's pre-determined price.
Futures: are contracts to buy or sell an asset on or before a future date at a price specified today. A futures contract differs from a forward contract in that the futures contract is a standardized contract written by a clearing house that operates an exchange where the contract can be bought and sold; the forward contract is a non-standardized contract written by the parties themselves.
Options: Options are contracts that give the owner the right, but not the obligation, to buy (in the case of a call option) or sell (in the case of a put option) an asset. The price at which the sale takes place is known as the strike price, and is specified at the time the parties enter into the option. The option contract also specifies a maturity date. If the owner of the contract exercises this right, the counter-party has the obligation to carry out the transaction. Options are of two types: call option and put option. The buyer of a Call option has a right to buy a certain quantity of the underlying asset, at a specified price on or before a given date in the future, he however has no obligation whatsoever to carry out this right. Similarly, the buyer of a Put option has the right to sell a certain quantity of an underlying asset, at a specified price on or before a given date in the future, he however has no obligation whatsoever to carry out this right.