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What are futures?


A 'Future' is a contract to buy or sell the underlying asset for a specific price at a pre-determined time. If you buy a futures contract, it means that you promise to pay the price of the asset at a specified time. If you sell a future, you effectively make a promise to transfer the asset to the buyer of the future at a specified price at a particular time. Every futures contract has the following features:

  • Buyer
  • Seller
  • Price
  • Expiry

Some of the most popular assets on which futures contracts are available are equity stocks, indices, commodities and currency.

The difference between the price of the underlying asset in the spot market and the futures market is called 'Basis'. (As 'spot market' is a market for immediate delivery) The basis is usually negative, which means that the price of the asset in the futures market is more than the price in the spot market. This is because of the interest cost, storage cost, insurance premium etc., That is, if you buy the asset in the spot market, you will be incurring all these expenses, which are not needed if you buy a futures contract. This condition of basis being negative is called as 'Contango'.

Sometimes it is more profitable to hold the asset in physical form than in the form of futures. For eg: if you hold equity shares in your account you will receive dividends, whereas if you hold equity futures you will not be eligible for any dividend.

When these benefits overshadow the expenses associated with the holding of the asset, the basis becomes positive (i.e., the price of the asset in the spot market is more than in the futures market). This condition is called 'Backwardation'. Backwardation generally happens if the price of the asset is expected to fall.

It is common that, as the futures contract approaches maturity, the futures price and the spot price tend to close in the gap between them ie., the basis slowly becomes zero.