Understanding Underlying Assets: Definition, Uses, and Examples


An underlying asset is the foundation upon which the value of a derivative is built. Derivatives, such as options and futures, derive their prices from these underlying assets. This article delves into the concept of underlying assets, their significance, and how they impact various financial instruments.

Understanding underlying assets

Underlying assets are the cornerstone of derivatives, serving as the reference point for their pricing. A derivative, in the financial world, is a contract with a value determined by an underlying asset. These assets are essential for traders and investors, as they play a pivotal role in shaping the derivative market.

Types of derivatives

Derivatives come in various forms, but they all share a common trait: their value is tied to an underlying asset. Let’s explore some of the most common derivatives and their respective underlying assets:

  • Options: Options contracts give the holder the right to buy or sell an underlying asset at a specific price until a predefined expiration date. For instance, an option on stock XYZ uses the stock of XYZ as the underlying asset.
  • Futures: Futures contracts obligate the buyer and the seller to trade the underlying asset upon contract expiration. These can include commodities like oil or financial assets like stock indices.
  • Forwards: Similar to futures, forward contracts involve the purchase or sale of the underlying asset at a predetermined future date and price.

Role of underlying assets in derivative contracts

The price of a derivative contract is intricately tied to the underlying asset’s value. Let’s take a closer look at how this connection works:

In an options contract, the writer of the contract must either buy or sell the underlying asset to the buyer at the agreed-upon price when the contract expires. The buyer, on the other hand, has the choice to exercise this right or not. If the contract approaches expiration and the underlying asset’s value hasn’t moved favorably, the buyer can choose to let it expire and lose the amount paid for the option.

For futures contracts, both the buyer and the seller are obligated to complete the transaction. The seller agrees to provide the underlying asset upon contract expiry, and the buyer agrees to buy it. The price is predetermined at the contract’s initiation, and it remains fixed, even if the underlying asset’s market price fluctuates. Many futures traders close their positions before expiry, but the value of the futures contract is always linked to the underlying asset’s price.

Significance of underlying assets

Underlying assets are crucial for several reasons:

Derivative valuation

They form the basis for valuing derivatives. Whether you are holding an option or a futures contract, understanding the value of the underlying asset is key to assessing the worth of your derivative.

Strategic decision-making

Traders and investors rely on the underlying asset’s performance to make strategic decisions. For example, they may decide to exercise an option if the underlying asset’s price is favorable or close out a futures contract for a profit.

Example of an underlying asset

Let’s look at a practical example to illustrate the concept of an underlying asset:

In the world of stock options, the underlying asset is typically the stock itself. For instance, if you hold an option to purchase 100 shares of Company X at a price of $100, the underlying asset is Company X’s stock. The value of this option is directly influenced by the stock’s price movements. If the stock’s value increases significantly, the option becomes more valuable, and the holder may choose to exercise it. On the other hand, if the stock’s value remains stagnant or decreases, the option’s value diminishes, and it may not be worth exercising.

However, underlying assets aren’t limited to stocks. They can also encompass currencies, market indices, commodities, or any other financial instrument that serves as the foundation for derivative contracts.

Common types of underlying assets

Underlying assets can take various forms, including:

  • Stocks: The underlying asset for stock options.
  • Currencies: Used as underlying assets in currency options and futures.
  • Commodities: Such as oil, gold, or agricultural products.
  • Market indices: Such as the S&P 500, which underlies index options.

Types of underlying assets

Underlying assets come in various forms, each with its unique characteristics. Here are some common types of underlying assets:

  • Bonds: Bonds can serve as underlying assets for derivatives like bond options and futures. Changes in interest rates and credit quality affect their value.
  • Real estate: Real estate properties can be underlying assets for real estate derivatives. These derivatives allow investors to speculate on property values or rental income.
  • Cryptocurrencies: The rise of digital currencies like Bitcoin has given birth to cryptocurrency derivatives. Bitcoin futures, for example, are linked to the price of Bitcoin itself.

Underlying assets in risk management

Underlying assets play a crucial role in risk management for various market participants. Here’s how they are utilized:

Hedging with derivatives

Businesses often use derivatives with underlying assets to hedge against price fluctuations. For example, an airline may use oil futures to lock in fuel prices, reducing the impact of volatile oil markets.

Speculation and investment

Investors and traders speculate on underlying assets through derivatives to potentially profit from market movements. They may take long or short positions based on their expectations.

Complex derivatives and their underlying assets

Some derivatives can have complex underlying assets, and their values depend on multiple factors. Here are a few examples:

Swaps and interest rate derivatives

Interest rate swaps and other rate derivatives involve underlying assets that are based on multiple interest rates. These instruments help manage interest rate risk for institutions and corporations.

Commodity baskets

Derivatives tied to a basket of commodities, rather than a single one, are used to diversify risk. These underlying assets are associated with various raw materials like oil, gold, and agricultural products.

Underlying assets and derivative trading strategies

Derivative traders employ various strategies depending on the type of underlying asset and market conditions. These strategies help them manage risk and seek profits:

Volatility trading

Traders may utilize derivatives on underlying assets with high volatility, such as tech stocks, to profit from price swings. Volatility trading strategies aim to benefit from rapid price changes.

Arbitrage opportunities

Arbitrageurs look for pricing differences between the underlying asset and its derivatives. By exploiting these differences, they can make risk-free profits.


Underlying assets are the bedrock of derivative contracts, shaping their value and influencing trading decisions. Whether you’re a seasoned trader or just getting started in the world of finance, understanding the role of underlying assets is essential for making informed investment choices.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the role of underlying assets in derivative markets?

Underlying assets provide the foundation for the value of derivative contracts. Derivatives, like options and futures, derive their prices from these assets. They serve as a reference point for pricing and are crucial for traders and investors to make informed decisions.

Can you explain the difference between options and futures in terms of underlying assets?

Options and futures are both derivative contracts, but they differ in how they handle underlying assets. In an options contract, the holder has the right, but not the obligation, to buy or sell the underlying asset. In a futures contract, both the buyer and seller are obligated to trade the underlying asset upon contract expiration.

How do underlying assets affect the valuation of derivatives?

The value of a derivative is intricately linked to the performance of the underlying asset. Understanding the behavior of the underlying asset is essential for evaluating the worth of your derivative. For instance, the price movements of the underlying asset can greatly influence the value of an option or futures contract.

Are underlying assets limited to stocks, or can they include other assets?

Underlying assets are not limited to stocks; they can encompass various financial instruments. These assets can be currencies, commodities, market indices, or even real estate properties. The choice of underlying asset depends on the type of derivative contract and the market it represents.

How do traders use underlying assets in derivative trading strategies?

Traders employ various strategies based on the type of underlying asset and market conditions. For example, they may engage in volatility trading when dealing with assets that exhibit high price swings. Additionally, arbitrageurs look for pricing differences between the underlying asset and its derivatives to make risk-free profits.

Key takeaways

  • Underlying assets are the foundation of derivative contracts.
  • Derivative values are intrinsically linked to the underlying asset’s performance.
  • Traders use the underlying asset’s behavior to make strategic decisions regarding their derivatives.
View article sources
  1. Derivatives – Investor.gov
  2. Undervalued Assets: Examples, Strategies, and Risks – SuperMoney
  3. Real Assets: A Comprehensive Exploration – SuperMoney
  4. CFM13030 – Understanding corporate finance: derivatives … – Gov.Uk