Forward Contract Definition


A forward contract is a customized agreement between two parties to buy or sell an asset at a predetermined price on a future date. It serves both hedging and speculative purposes, offering flexibility for tailored transactions.

What is a forward contract?

A forward contract represents a bespoke contract forged between two parties with the intention of purchasing or selling a particular asset at a fixed price on a future date. While it holds the potential for speculation, its true strength lies in its customization for hedging strategies.

Understanding forward contracts

In contrast to standardized futures contracts, forward contracts allow for a personalized approach, involving the selection of commodities, quantities, and delivery dates. These commodities can encompass a range from grains and precious metals to energy sources like natural gas and oil, even extending to unique goods like poultry. The settlement of a forward contract can transpire either through cash or the actual delivery of the asset.

However, it’s crucial to note that forward contracts do not trade on a centralized exchange, marking them as over-the-counter (OTC) instruments. While this OTC characteristic facilitates customized terms, it also introduces a heightened level of default risk due to the absence of a centralized clearinghouse.

Forward contracts vs. futures contracts

Although both forward and futures contracts involve agreements to buy or sell assets at predetermined prices in the future, subtle distinctions set them apart. A forward contract doesn’t engage in exchange trading, whereas a futures contract does. Settlement for a forward contract occurs at the contract’s conclusion, whereas a futures contract settles daily. Notably, futures contracts are standardized, lacking the customization possible in forward contracts.

Example of a forward contract

Consider a scenario where an agricultural producer anticipates a potential drop in the price of corn. To safeguard against this, the producer enters a forward contract with its financial institution. The contract stipulates the sale of two million bushels of corn at $4.30 per bushel in six months, with settlement on a cash basis. When the settlement date arrives, three potential outcomes arise based on the spot price of corn:

  • The spot price aligns with the contract price, resulting in a closed contract with no monetary exchanges.
  • The spot price exceeds the contract price, obliging the producer to pay the institution the difference.
  • The spot price falls below the contract price, compelling the financial institution to compensate the producer for the disparity.

Risks of forward contracts

The forward contracts market holds immense importance for corporations managing currency and interest rate risks through hedging. Despite its significance, due to the confidential nature of contract details, its size remains challenging to estimate. This market’s substantial scale and lack of regulation could potentially lead to a chain of defaults in dire situations. While financial institutions take precautions when selecting counterparts, the risk of large-scale default persists.

Furthermore, the non-standard nature of forward contracts means they are only settled on the designated date and not marked-to-market like futures. If the forward rate substantially differs from the spot rate at settlement, the originating financial institution faces an elevated risk in case of default or non-settlement by the client compared to regularly marked-to-market contracts.


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

  • Customizable to specific commodities, quantities, and dates
  • Effective tool for hedging against price fluctuations
  • Offers flexibility for tailored transactions
  • Higher risk due to lack of centralized clearinghouse
  • Potential for large-scale defaults in unregulated market
  • Exposed to spot rate diverging from forward rate at settlement

Frequently asked questions

Is a forward contract standardized?

Unlike futures contracts, forward contracts are customizable to suit specific commodities, quantities, and delivery dates.

What is the key difference between forward and futures contracts?

While both involve agreements for asset transactions at predetermined prices, forward contracts lack exchange trading and settle at the contract’s end, while futures contracts settle daily on standardized terms.

Why are forward contracts considered riskier?

Forward contracts lack a centralized clearinghouse, exposing parties to a higher level of default risk.

What is the significance of the forward contracts market?

Corporations use forward contracts to hedge against currency and interest rate risks. However, due to their private nature, the market’s exact size is challenging to estimate.

Key takeaways

  • A forward contract is a tailored agreement between parties to buy or sell an asset at a fixed price on a future date.
  • Customization options include commodity choice, quantity, and delivery date.
  • Forward contracts lack a centralized exchange, posing increased default risk.
  • Differences between forward and futures contracts include trading venue and settlement frequency.
  • Forward contracts are essential for hedging currency and interest rate risks.
View Article Sources
  1. forward contract – Cornell Law School
  2. Forward contracts : pricing, default risk and optimal use – MASSACHUSETTS INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY
  3. Lecture 3: Forward Contracts – Stony Brook University
  4. Futures Trading in the Stock Market: A Comprehensive Guide to Definition, Examples, and Strategies – SuperMoney
  5. Contango vs. Backwardation: What is the Difference? – SuperMoney