A Beginner’s Guide to Trading Derivatives


Derivatives are financial instruments that derive their value from an underlying asset, such as a stock, commodity, currency, or interest rate. They allow investors to manage risk, speculate on price movements, and generate returns. Derivatives come in several forms — including options, futures, forwards, and swaps — and each has its unique set of risks and advantages.

Derivatives are complex financial instruments that have become increasingly popular in recent years. Investors can use them to manage risks, speculate on market movements, and generate returns for investors. However, derivatives are also riskier due to their use of leverage and complex nature. As a result, it’s important for investors to understand the risks and potential rewards of trading derivatives before investing in them.

In this article, we’ll provide a beginner’s guide to trading derivatives, including what derivatives are, how they work, and the risks associated with them. We’ll also provide practical advice for trading derivatives, including the importance of thorough research and analysis, consultation with a financial advisor, and choosing a reputable broker.

What are derivatives?

Derivatives are financial instruments that derive their value from an underlying asset like a stock, bond, commodity, or market index. They allow investors to speculate on the future price movements of the underlying asset without actually owning it. Because they derive value from different assets, derivatives come in many different types, including futures, options, swaps, and forwards.

Investors can trade derivatives on exchanges or over-the-counter (OTC). Exchange-traded derivatives are standardized contracts that are bought and sold on exchanges, while OTC derivatives are customized contracts that trade directly between parties.

Types of derivatives

There are several different types of derivatives that investors can use to speculate on market movements, manage risks, or generate returns. Here are some of the most common types:

  1. Futures. Futures are standardized contracts that obligate the buyer or seller to purchase or sell an underlying asset at a specific price and date in the future. Investors can trade futures on exchanges, use them to hedge against market risks, or speculate on price movements.
  2. Options. Options give the holder the right, but not the obligation, to buy or sell an underlying asset at a specific price and date in the future. Investors can use options to hedge against market risks, speculate on price movements, or trade them on exchanges or over the counter.
  3. Swaps. Swaps involve the exchange of cash flows between parties. For example, an interest rate swap involves exchanging fixed and variable interest payments, while a currency swap involves exchanging cash flows denominated in different currencies.
  4. Forwards. Forwards are similar to futures, but they’re customized contracts between parties rather than standardized contracts traded on exchanges. Forwards can be used to manage risks or to speculate on price movements.
  5. Credit derivatives. Credit derivatives allow investors to trade credit risk associated with debt securities. For example, a credit default swap allows the buyer to hedge against the risk of default on a specific debt security.
  6. Commodity derivatives. Investors use commodity derivatives to speculate on the price movements of commodities such as gold, oil, or agricultural products.

Pro Tip

Each type of derivative has its own unique characteristics and risks, and it’s important for investors to consider the risks and potential rewards before investing in them. It’s also important to choose a reputable broker and to consult with a financial advisor if you are unsure about the risks involved.

How do derivatives work?

Derivatives derive their value from an underlying asset, but their value isn’t the same as the value of the underlying asset. Instead, the value of a derivative is determined by the price movements of the underlying asset.

Investors often use derivatives to control a larger amount of an underlying asset with a smaller amount of capital, which is known as leverage. For example, a futures contract on gold might require the buyer to put up a small percentage of the value of the gold. The buyer then borrows the remainder of this value from the broker. This allows the buyer to control a much larger amount of gold with a smaller amount of capital than needed to purchase the gold outright.

Thus, leverage magnifies the potential returns and risks of trading derivatives. A small change in the price of the underlying asset can result in a large gain or loss for the investor. Because of this complexity, understanding derivatives’ mechanics and potential risks requires a good deal of knowledge and experience.

Pros and cons of derivatives

While derivatives can be powerful tools for investors, they’re also associated with several risks that investors should be aware of before investing in them. Make sure to consider both the benefits and risks of derivatives (and any investment vehicle) before purchasing one.


Here is a list of the benefits and drawbacks to consider.

  • Flexibility
  • Hedging
  • Leverage
  • Diversification
  • Price discovery
  • Liquidity
  • Leverage risk
  • Counterparty risk
  • Potential liquidity risk
  • Market risk
  • Operational risk
  • Regulatory risk

Pros explained

  • Flexibility. Investors can customize derivatives to suit their specific needs. This allows them to manage risks or speculate on price movements in a way that fits their investment goals and risk tolerance.
  • Hedging. You can use derivatives to hedge against risks in other areas of your portfolio. For example, an investor with a large holding of stocks may buy put options to protect against a potential market downturn.
  • Leverage. As previously mentioned, derivatives allow investors to control a larger amount of an underlying asset with a smaller amount of capital. This can magnify potential gains, allowing investors to generate higher returns.
  • Diversification. Derivatives can provide access to a wide range of asset classes, including commodities, currencies, and interest rates. This can help investors diversify their portfolios and reduce overall risk.
  • Price discovery. Derivatives markets can be more efficient at determining the true value of an underlying asset than the underlying asset market itself. This can provide valuable information to investors and help them make more informed investment decisions.
  • Liquidity. Most derivatives are highly liquid, meaning they can be bought and sold quickly and easily. This can provide investors with greater flexibility in managing their portfolios.

Cons explained

  • Leverage risk. While leverage means derivatives can offer bigger gains, this strategy also magnifies potential losses. This can lead to significant losses if the trade goes against the investor.
  • Counterparty risk. Derivatives involve a contract between two parties, and each party is exposed to the other’s credit risk. If one party defaults on their obligation, the other party may not receive the expected payout.
  • Potential liquidity risk. Some types of derivatives, particularly those that trade over-the-counter, may be illiquid, meaning they may be difficult to sell at a fair price.
  • Market risk. The value of derivatives is derived from the price movements of the underlying asset. Therefore, if the market moves in an unexpected way, the value of the derivative may drop.
  • Operational risk. Derivatives trading involves complex processes and systems, which can be vulnerable to errors, malfunctions, or cyber-attacks.
  • Regulatory risk. The use of derivatives is subject to regulation by various governmental bodies, and changes in regulations can impact the value of derivatives or limit their availability.

It’s important for investors to consider the risks and advantages of derivatives before investing in them. Derivatives can be complex instruments, and it’s important to have a good understanding of how they work and how they fit into an investor’s overall investment strategy. If you’re considering investing in a derivative, consult a financial advisor or investment advisor (like those below) before investing.

Key Takeaways

  • Derivatives are financial instruments that derive their value from an underlying asset, such as a stock, commodity, currency, or interest rate.
  • While derivatives can be a great way for investors to diversify and grow their profits, these investments also come with significant risks.
  • Careful management and responsible use of derivatives can help investors manage risk and potentially achieve higher returns.
View Article Sources
  1. The Role of Financial Derivatives in Emerging Markets — International Monetary Fund
  2. Derivatives — Office of the Comptroller of the Currency
  3. Derivative Markets and Instruments — CFA Institute