Subject: Derivatives - Futures on a Single Stock

Last-Revised: 2 June 2009
Contributed-By: Jack Brynaur (http://www.quitecontrarian.com), Henry Robinson-Duff

A single-stock future is a contract to buy or sell 100 shares of a single stock on a future date at a price locked in when the contract is established. A single-stock future (SSF) falls in the category of Securities Futures, together with futures on ETFs and narrow index (two to nine stocks) futures. This article focuses on the single-stock futures contracts that trade on the OneChicago Exchange in the U.S. These securities began trading in 2002 but they are not yet widely known.

Like stock options, single-stock futures are structured as units called "contracts," each of which controls 100 shares. The single-stock futures traded on the OneChicago exchange are physically settled (not settled to cash). That means that actual shares change hands upon expiration. So a trader who buys a single contract and holds it to expiration agrees to take delivery and pay for 100 shares. A trader who sells a single-stock future (i.e., who opens a new short position) agrees to make delivery of 100 shares upon expiration. Unlike stock options, no "strike price" is associated with a single-stock futures contract.

Like commodity futures, a single-stock futures contract carries both

the right and the obligation to take delivery or to deliver the stock on the expiration date. Also like commodity futures, purchase or sale of a single-stock future locks in today's price of that stock. A trader who holds a futures contract (i.e., who is long) does not collect stock dividends, and a trader who sold a futures contract (i.e., who is short) is not obligated to pay stock dividends.

Like all futures contracts, single-stock futures contracts have an expiration date. At any one time approximately four expiration dates are available. These generally follow the quarterly cycle of March, June, September, and December. The expiries for the longest-term contracts range from six to eight months, depending on the time of the year.

Single-stock futures can be traded freely prior to their expiration dates, and pricing of the contracts varies according to supply and demand. The performance of single-stock futures contracts tracks the performance of the underlying stocks almost exactly, with a couple of caveats. For a long position, the price of this futures contract is generally equal to the current stock price, discounted for any dividends that are scheduled to occur prior to the expiration date, plus interest according to prevailing rates. Similarly, for a short position, the price is the current stock price, minus any dividends to be paid, plus interest. Unexpected changes in stock dividend payments can cause the performance of a futures contract to vary from the underlying to a certain extent. Thus, these contracts will never be a 100% perfect analog to the shares themselves.

Single-stock futures are typically traded on margin. Brokers generally require only 20% of the value of the underlying to be put up as collateral. Thus these securities can easily be used to create leveraged positions.

If you like to sell stocks short, you may want to consider selling a single-stock futures contract instead. Why is this? Because selling short has a number of disadvantages. For most stocks you must wait for an uptick in the price before you can enter the position (although some stocks have recently been exempted from this requirement). Then you must borrow the stock. If there's no stock available to borrow, you're out of luck. Further, if the stock moves against you and you don't have enough cash in your account to cover the loss, you will have to pay margin interest on the excess for as long as you hold the position.

Selling a single stock future contract eliminates these problems. There is no need to wait for an uptick or borrow the stock. And instead of potentially having to pay margin interest, you collect interest on the position. Lastly, only 20% of the price is tied up in margin. You can invest some or all of the remainder in a safe income instrument and collect even more interest. However, unlike a short position that can be kept open more or less indefinitely, a contract eventually expires.

Futures can also be helpful for tax management. Say you hold an appreciated position in a stock which you would like to sell, but you don't want to pay short-term capital gains taxes. You can instead sell a single stock future contract for the stock and lock in your return. You can then wait until the long-term capital gain cutoff, collecting market interest on the size of the position in the meantime. Once the minimum holding period has passed, you liquidate both positions, and collect your short-term profits while paying long-term capital gains tax. Since the future contract is a near-perfect analog to the underlying stock, you are protected from any losses while you wait. Of course there is a caveat: if the stock drops precipitously while you are holding, you might end up having to pay short term taxes on your profit from your short future position. No strategy is perfect, but it beats losing your gains.

Another common technique is to use futures to create "matched pair" positions. The matched pair strategy is a way of betting on the relative performance of two companies in the same industry. For example, say you think AMD will outperform INTL. You can buy AMD contracts and sell an equal dollar amount of INTL contracts. If AMD does better than INTL, you profit. If not, you will lose money. The interesting thing to note here is that you are protected from a number of risks many investors face. For example, if there is a collapse in the computer chip industry at large, it is likely that both AMD and INTL will suffer. You will likely remain unaffected, as their relative performance will remain unchanged. The same applies to a broad stock-market crash. Also, note that the interest component of the contracts cancel out, so you are protected from shifts in interest rates.

Single-stock futures have many other uses for creative investors. The OneChicago web site offers more detail:
http://www.onechicago.com/.

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