Guide to gold

Gold Futures

A future is simply a deal to trade gold at terms (i.e. amounts and prices) decided now, but with a settlement day in the future. That means you don't have to pay up just yet (at least not in full) and the seller doesn't need to deliver you any gold just yet either. It's as easy as that.

The settlement day is the day when the actual exchange takes place - i.e. when the buyer pays, and the seller delivers the gold. It's usually up to 3 months ahead.

Most futures traders use the delay to enable them to speculate - both ways. Their intention is to sell anything they have bought, or to buy back anything they have sold, before reaching the settlement day. Then they will only have to settle their gains and losses. In this way they can trade in much larger amounts, and take bigger risks for bigger rewards, than they would be able to if they had to settle their trades as soon as dealt.

Gold Futures & Margin

Delaying the settlement creates the need for margin, which is one of the most important aspects of buying (or selling) a gold future.

Margin is required because delaying settlement makes the seller nervous that if the gold price falls the buyer will walk away from the deal which has been struck, while at the same time the buyer is nervous that if the gold price rises the seller will similarly walk away.

Margin is the downpayment usually lodged with an independent central clearer which protects the other party from your temptation to walk away. So if you deal gold futures you will be asked to pay margin, and depending on current market conditions it might be anything from 2% to 20% of the total value of what you dealt.

Topping up the Margin

If you have bought and the gold price starts falling you will be obliged to pay more margin.

As a buyer you cannot get out of paying margin calls in a falling market until you sell, which is why buying futures sometimes costs people very much more than they originally invested.

Gold Leverage

Now you can see how futures provide leverage, sometimes known as gearing.

For example, suppose you had $5,000 to invest. If you buy gold bullion and settle you can only buy $5,000 worth. But you can probably buy $100,000 of gold futures! That's because your margin on a $100,000 future will probably be about 5% - i.e. $5,000.

If the underlying price goes up 10% you would make $500 from bullion, but $10,000 from gold futures.

Sounds good, but don't forget the flip side. If the price of gold falls 10% you'll lose just $500 with bullion, and your investment will be intact to earn you money if gold resumes its steady upwards trend.

But the same 10% fall will cost you $10,000 with futures, which is $5,000 more than you invested in the first place. You will probably have been persuaded to deposit the extra $5,000 as a margin top-up, and the pain of a $10,000 loss will force you to close your position, so your money is lost.

If you refused to top-up your margin you will be closed out by your broker, and your original $5,000 will be lost on a minor intra-day adjustment - a downwards blip in the long-term upward trend in gold prices.

You can see why futures are dangerous for people who get carried away with their own certainties. The large majority of people who trade futures lose their money. That's a fact. They lose even when they are right in the medium term, because futures are fatal to your wealth on an unpredicted and temporary price blip.

Gold Futures 'On-Exchange'

Big professional traders invent the contractual terms of their futures trading on an ad-hoc basis and trade directly with each other. This is called 'Over The Counter' trading (or OTC for short).

Fortunately you would be spared the pain (and the mathematics) of detailed negotiations because you will almost certainly trade a standardized futures contract on a financial futures exchange.

In a standardized contract the exchange itself decides the settlement date, the contract amount, the delivery conditions etc. You can make up the size of your overall investment buy buying several of these standard contracts.

Dealing standard contracts on a financial futures exchange will give you two big advantages:-

  • Firstly there will be deeper liquidity than with an OTC future - enabling you to sell your future when you like, and to anybody else. That is not usually possible with an OTC future.
  • Secondly there will be a central clearer who will guarantee the trade against default. The central clearer is responsible (among other things) for looking after margin calculations and collecting and holding the margin for both the buyer and the seller.

Futures expire

Note that gold futures are dated instruments which cease trading before their declared settlement date.

At the time trading stops most private traders will have sold their longs or bought back their shorts. There will be a few left who deliberately run the contract to settlement - and actually want to make or take delivery of the whole amount of gold they bought.

On a successful financial futures exchange those running the contract to settlement will be a small minority. The majority will be speculators looking to profit from price moves, without any expectation of getting involved on bullion settlements.

The suspension of dealing a few days before settlement day allows the positions to be sorted out and reconciled such that the people still holding the 'longs' can arrange to pay in full and the people holding the 'shorts' can arrange supply of the full amount of the gold sold.

Some futures brokers refuse to run customer positions to settlement. Lacking the facilities to handle good delivery gold bullion they will require their investors to close out their positions, and - should they want to retain their position in gold - re-invest in a new futures contract for the next available standardised settlement date.

These rollovers are expensive. As a rule of thumb if your gold position is likely to be held for more than three months (i.e. more than one rollover) it is cheaper to buy bullion than to buy futures.

Dealing Gold Futures

To deal gold futures you need to find yourself a futures broker. The futures broker will be a member of a futures exchange. The broker will manage your relationship with the market, and contact you on behalf of the central clearer to - for example - collect margin from you.

Your broker will require you to sign a detailed document explaining that you accept the significant risks of futures trading.

Account set-up will take a few days, as the broker checks out your identity and creditworthiness.

Hidden Financing Costs

It sometimes appears to unsophisticated investors (and to futures salesmen) that buying gold futures saves you the cost of financing a gold purchase, because you only have to fund the margin - not the whole purchase. This is not true.

It is vital you understand the mechanics of futures price calculations, because if you don't it will forever be a mystery for you where your money goes.

The spot gold price is the gold price for immediate settlement. It is the reference price for gold all over the world.

A gold futures contract will almost always be priced at a different level to spot gold. The differential closely tracks the cost of financing the equivalent purchase in the spot market.

Because both gold and cash can be lent (and borrowed) the relationship between the futures and the spot price is a simple arithmetical one which can be understood as follows:

"My future purchase of gold for dollars delays me having to pay a known quantity of dollars for a known quantity of gold. I can therefore deposit my dollars until settlement time, but I cannot deposit the gold - which I haven’t received yet. Since dollars in the period will earn me 1%, and gold will only earn the seller who's holding on to it for me 0.25%, I should expect to pay over the spot price by the difference 0.75%. If I didn't pay this extra the seller would just sell his gold for dollars now, and deposit the dollars himself, keeping an extra 0.75% overall. Clearly this 0.75% will fall out of the futures price day by day, and this represents the cost of financing the whole purchase, even though I only actually put down the margin."

You will notice that so long as dollar interest rates are higher than gold lease rates then - because of this arithmetic - the futures price will be above the spot price. There's a special word for this which is that the futures are in 'contango'. What it means is that a futures trade is always in a steady uphill struggle to profit. For you to profit the underlying gold commodity must rise at a rate faster than the contango falls to zero - which will be at the expiry of the future.

Note: If dollar interest rates drop below the gold lease rates the futures price will be below the spot price. Then the market is said to be in 'backwardation'.

The Stop-Loss

Many futures broking firms offer investors a stop loss facility. It might come in a guaranteed form or on a 'best endeavours' basis without the guarantee. The idea is to attempt to limit the damage of a trading position which is going bad.

The theory of a stop loss seems reasonable, but the practice can be painful. The problem is that just as trading in this way can prevent a big loss it can also make the investor susceptible to large numbers of smaller and unnecessary losses which are even more damaging in the long term.

On a quiet day market professionals will start to move their prices just to create a little action. It works. The trader marks his price rapidly lower, for no good reason. If there are any stop losses out there this forces a broker to react to the moving price by closing off his investor's position under a stop loss agreement.

In other words the trader's markdown can force out a seller. The opportunist trader therefore picks up stop loss stock for a cheap price and immediately marks the price up to try and 'touch off' another stop loss on the buy side as well. If it works well he can simulate volatility on an otherwise dull day, and panic the stop losses out of the market on both sides, netting a tidy profit for himself.

It should be noted that the broker gets commission too, and what's more the broker benefits by being able to control his risk better if he can shut down customers' problem positions unilaterally. Brokers in general would prefer to stop loss than to be open on risk for a margin call for 24 hours.

Only the investor loses, and by the time he knows about his 'stopped loss' the market - as often as not - is back to the safe middle ground and his money is gone.

Without wishing to slur anyone in particular the stop-loss is even more dangerous in an integrated house - where a broker can benefit himself and his in-house dealer by providing information about levels where stop-losses could be triggered. This is not to say anyone is doing it, but it would probably be the first time in history that such a conflict of interest did not attract a couple of unscrupulous individuals somewhere within the industry.

Investors can prevent being stopped out by resisting the temptation to have too big a position just because the futures market lets them. If the investment amount is lower and plenty of surplus margin cover is down, a stop loss is unnecessary and the broker's pressure to enter a stop loss order can be resisted.

A conservative investment strategy with smaller positions achieves the goal of avoiding catastrophic losses by not keeping all eggs in one basket. It also avoids being steadily stripped by stop loss executions. On the flip side you cannot get rich quickly with a conservative investment strategy (but then the chances of that were pretty small anyway).

Gold Futures Rollover

There is an acute psychological pressure involved in owning gold futures for a long time.

As a futures contract ends - usually every quarter - an investor who wants to keep the position open must re-contract in the new period by 'rolling-over'. This ‘roll-over’ has a marked psychological effect on most investors.

Having taken the relatively difficult step of taking a position in gold futures investors are required to make repeated decisions to spend money. There is no ‘do nothing’ option, like there is with a bullion investment, and rolling over requires the investor to pay-up, while simultaneously giving the opportunity to cut and run.

The harsh fact of life is that if investors are being whip-lashed by the regular volatility which appears at the death of a futures contract many of them will cut their losses. Alternatively they might attempt to trade cleverly into the next period, or decide to take a breather from the action for a few days ('though days frequently turn into weeks and months). Unfortunately every quarter lots of investors will fail the psychological examination and close their position. Many will not return. The futures markets tend to expel people at the time of maximum personal disadvantage.

Rollover Costs

Each quarter a futures investor receives an inevitable call from the broker who offers to roll the customer into the new futures period for a special reduced rate. To those who do not know the short term money rates and the relevant gold lease rates - or how to convert them into the correct differential for the two contracts - the price is fairly arbitrary and not always very competitive.

It can be checked - but only at some effort. Suppose that gold can be borrowed for 0.003% per day (1.095% per annum) and cash for 0.01% per day (3.65% per annum). The fair value for the next quarter's future should be 90 days times the daily interest differential of 0.007%. So you would expect to see the next future at a premium of 0.63% to the spot price. This is where you pay the financing cost on the whole size of your deal.

Running To Settlement

The professionals often aim to settle - a luxury not always available to the private investor.

A big futures player can probably arrange a short term borrowing facility for 4% and borrow gold for 1%, whereas a private investor cannot borrow gold and might pay 12%-15% for money which prices settlement out of his reach, even if he had the storage facility and other infrastructure in place to take delivery.

Beware of this imbalance. The big players can apply pressure at the close of a futures contract, and the small private player can do little about it. This does not happen to bullion owners.

Automatic Instability

Futures markets have structural features which are not natural in markets.

In normal markets a falling price encourages buyers who pressure the price up, and a rising price encourages sellers who pressure the price down. This is relatively stable. But successful futures exchanges offer low margin percentages (of about 2% for gold) and to compensate for this apparent risk the exchange's member firms must reserve the right to close out their losing customers.

In other words a rapidly falling market can force selling, which further depresses the price, while a rapidly rising price forces buying which further raises the price, and either scenario has the potential to produce a runaway spiral. This is manageable for extremely long periods of time, but it is an inherent danger of the futures set-up.

It was virtually the same phenomenon which was paralleled in 1929 by brokers loans. The forced selling which these encouraged as markets started to fall was at the heart of the subsequent financial disaster. In benign times this structure merely encourages volatility. In less benign times it can lead to structural failure.

Risk of Systemic Failure

Gold is bought as the ultimate defensive investment. Many people buying gold hope to make large profits from a global economic shock which might be disastrous to many other people. Indeed many gold investors fear financial meltdown occurring as a result of the over-extended global credit base - a significant part of which is derivatives.

The paradox in investing in gold futures is that a future is itself a 'derivative' instrument constructed on about 95% pure credit. There are many speculators involved in the commodities market and any rapid movement in the gold price is likely to be reflecting financial carnage somewhere else.

Both the clearer and the exchange could theoretically find themselves unable to collect vital margin on open positions of all kinds of commodities, so a gold investor might make enormous book profits which could not be paid as busted participants defaulted in such numbers that individual clearers and even the exchange itself were unable to make good the losses.

This sounds like panic-mongering, but it is an important commercial consideration. It is inevitable that the commodity exchange which comes to dominate through good times and healthy markets will be the one which offers the most competitive margin (credit) terms to brokers. To be attractive the brokers must pass on this generosity to their customers - i.e. by extending generous trading multiples over deposited margin. So the level of credit extended in a futures market will tend to the maximum which has been safe in the recent past, and any exchange which set itself up more cautiously will have already withered and died.

The futures exchanges we see around us today are those whose appetite for risk has most accurately trodden the fine line between aggressive risk taking and occasional appropriate caution. There is no guarantee that the next management step will not be just a bit too brave.

Gold Futures - Summary

Succeeding in the futures market is not easy. To be successful you need strong nerves and sound judgement. Investors should recognise that futures are at their best for market professionals and short term speculations in anticipation of big moves, which diminsh the effects of contango and rollover costs.

The investor should understand that there are problems when a market loses its transparency. Once a market can apply costs which are opaque and difficult to comprehend - and surely the futures market qualifies in this regard - the advantage shifts to professionals who are sophisticated enough to see through the fog.

Many individuals who have tried their luck in this market have been surprised at the speed at which their money has gone.

Please Note: This analysis is published to inform your thinking, not lead it. Previous price trends are no guarantee of future performance. Before investing in any asset, you should seek financial advice if unsure about its suitability to your personal circumstances.

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