Terminology and Symbols in Futures Trading

Date Modified: 26/03/2023

Like in every aspect of trading, in Futures trading there are a few key Futures trading terms that are worth knowing. Here’s a brief and resourceful dictionary one can refer to in order to grasp the Futures market better:

an illustration of a terminology book for Futures traders

Popular Key Terms to Know When Trading Futures

Spot Price

The spot price of an asset can also be referred to as the cash price, and it is the price at which the underlying or physical asset is bought or sold immediately.

Contract Size (Contract Unit)

A contract size or a contract unit refers to how much of an underlying asset is represented in a single futures contract. This relates to Stocks, Indices, and Commodities Futures among other types.

Contract Value (Notional Value)

In Futures trading, the contract value or notional value is calculated by multiplying the current Futures price by the contract size, and as the Futures price changes, so does the contract value.

Contract Expiration

Futures contracts all have expiration dates at which point any outstanding contracts are settled financially or physically delivered. Some assets have expirations every month, like Crude Oil, while others have fewer than 12 expirations per year, like Corn and the S&P 500. Multiple contract expirations are available to trade at any given time, but most trading occurs in a single expiration until it’s time to roll to the next.

Open Position

Buying or selling a Futures contract creates an open position until it expires or is liquidated.

Open Interest

In the Futures market, open interest refers to the total number of open positions for a particular underlying asset, which can include stocks, Indexes, commodities, and currencies.

Cost of Carry

The cost of carry is the difference between the cost of the Futures’ underlying asset and the returns it generates over a specific period of time. To put it another way, it is the net cost of maintaining a Futures position, with factors like the cost of holding a physical commodity, inventory costs, insurance, storage, and more coming into play.

Futures Margin

Margin refers to the amount of money required to trade Futures. In Futures trading, the margin is held by the broker as collateral against potential losses. Here are some of the most important types of margin and margin-related terms for Futures traders:

Initial Margin

Since Futures contracts can be maintained overnight, in order to do so, one must cover the initial margin, the exchange's minimum margin requirement per contract. This amount must be maintained in order to keep the open position overnight and accordingly it is also called the ‘overnight margin.’

Day Margin (Intraday Margin)

Day margin or intraday margin is the minimum deposit required to open a Futures position and it can differ from one Futures broker to another.

Maintenance Margin

After you meet the initial margin requirements, you will need to maintain a certain amount of money in your account to maintain your position.

SPAN Margin

SPAN is an acronym for Standardized Portfolio Analysis of Risk and refers to the calculation of volatility and risk scenarios based on sophisticated algorithms. When SPAN margins are calculated, they are used to determine margin requirements by assessing a trader's one-day risk based on risk scenarios.

Margin Call

Sometimes Futures contract prices change and shift against a client’s position, which may lead to a drop in their account balance. In such cases, a margin call tells a trader to add funds to maintain their position or reduce the position to lower their margin. In other words, a margin call is another way of saying to the trader that there is no excess margin left for them to maintain their position.

Understanding Futures Symbols

As important as it is to understand the above-mentioned Futures-related terms, it might also be helpful for traders to understand some common Futures symbols.

Contract Month Codes

In the Futures market, each month and the underlying asset have their own symbol, and in order to understand when a Futures contract expires, it is important to know the relevant symbols for each month which go as such:
January (F), February (G), March (H), April (J), May (K), June (M), July (N), August (Q), September (U), October (V), November (X), and December (Z).

Commodity Futures Symbols

There is a myriad of commodity Futures to trade from metals to agricultural commodities and Energy. Here are a few of the possibly most important Futures symbols to keep in mind for some of the most traded assets:

Metals

The metals market has some base and precious commodities. Some of which, like Gold, are considered safe-haven assets that traders go to in times of inflation and economic turmoil. Some of the most important metals and their accompanying symbols include Gold (GC), Silver (SI), Copper (HG), and Platinum (PL).

Energy

The energy market is one of the most crucial and traded markets in the world as it is nearly impossible to survive in our modern world without any of the below-mentioned energy commodities. Accordingly, here are some energy commodities and their relevant symbols. Crude Oil (CL), Heating Oil (HO), Natural Gas (NG), Brent Crude Oil (BZ), and RBOB Gasoline (RB).

Agricultural

The agriculture market is one of the oldest forms of Futures trading still in use to date. Some of the most important agricultural commodities include Corn (ZC), Live Cattle (LE), Soybeans (ZS), and Lean Hogs (HE) among other commodities all of which are offered for trading on Plus500’s Futures platform.

Indexes Futures Symbols

The Futures market offers access to important global market Indexes, some of which track the biggest companies in the world like the S&P 500 (ES) and the Nasdaq 100 (NQ).

Interest Rates Futures Symbols

Interest rates are key anticipated factors in the market and the economy as they directly affect inflation, deflation, and consumer prices. Benchmark rates change from time to time in order to control the aforementioned factors and through Futures contracts traders may potentially benefit from changes in key interest rates like the US Treasury Bond (ZB), Federal Funds Rate (ZQ), and the Eurodollar (GE), among others.

Forex Futures Symbols

The Forex market is considered the world’s largest financial market with some of the highest daily trading volumes and returns. It is also one of the most traded markets since people participate in it directly or indirectly. The Forex market is, therefore, a market sought by many and can also be accessed through Futures contracts. Some of the available Futures currencies include the Australian Dollar (6A), the Canadian Dollar (6C), the British Pound (6B), the Euro (6E), and the Swiss Franc (6S). Plus500 also offers micro Futures on some of the most traded Forex Futures pairs like the GBP/USD (M6B), and the EUR/USD (M6E).

What Are Trading Codes?

Futures contracts trading codes aim to provide adequate information about a contract with the least amount of words possible as it usually consists of one or more letters identifying the product and additional characters indicating the month and year of expiration. For example, a contract called “SIQ3” refers to a Silver Futures contract with an August 2023 expiration.
Nonetheless, one should keep in mind that many exchanges use different trading symbols and codes for certain products, and as such, trading codes can change and vary.