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Date: 2014
Encyclopedia of Business and Finance
From: Encyclopedia of Business and Finance(Vol. 1. 3rd ed.)
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 3
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Page 207


Derivative instruments are used as financial management tools to enhance investment returns and to manage such risks relative to interest rates, exchange rates, and financial instrument and commodity prices. Several U.S. banks and international banks, businesses, municipalities, and others have experienced significant losses with the use of derivatives. The use of derivatives, however, increased as an effort to control risk in complex situations.


In 1998 the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) issued Statement on Financial Accounting Standards No. 133 (SFAS 133), Accounting for Derivative Instruments and Hedging Activities, which is effective for companies with fiscal years beginning after June 15, 2000. SFAS 133 established new accounting and reporting rules for derivative instruments, including derivatives embedded in other contracts, and for hedging activities. It became a requirement that derivatives be reported at their fair values in financial statements. Also, gains and losses from derivative transactions were required to be reported currently in income, except from those transactions that qualified as effective hedges.

According to SFAS 133, a derivative instrument is defined as a financial instrument or other contract that represents rights or obligations of assets or liabilities with all three of the following characteristics:

  1. It has (1) one or more underlyings, and (2) one or more notional amounts or payment provisions or both. Those terms determine the settlement amount of the derivative. An underlying is a variable (e.g., stock price) or index (e.g., bond index) whose market movements cause the fair value market or cash flows of a derivative to change. The notional amount is the fixed amount or quantity that determines the size of the change caused by the change in the underlying; possibly a number of currency units, shares, bushels, pounds, or other units specified in the contract. A payment provision specifies a fixed or determinable settlement to be made if the underlying behaves in a specified manner.
  2. It requires no initial net investment or an initial net investment that is smaller than would be required for other types of similar instruments.
  3. Its terms require or permit net settlement (SFAS 133, paragraph 6).


The derivatives market serves the needs of several groups of users, including those parties who wish to hedge, those who wish to speculate, and arbitrageurs.

  • A hedger enters the market to reduce risk. Hedging usually involves taking a position in a derivative financial instrument, which has opposite return characteristics of the item being hedged, to offset losses or gains.
  • A speculator enters the derivatives market in search of profits, and is willing to accept risk. A speculator takes an open position in a derivative product (i.e., there is no offsetting cash flow exposure to offset losses on the position taken in the derivative product).
  • An arbitrageur is a speculator who attempts to lock in near riskless profit from price differences by simultaneously entering into the purchase and sale of substantially identical financial instruments.

Other participants include clearinghouses or clearing corporations, brokers, commodity futures trading commission, commodity pool operators, commodity trading advisers, financial institutions and banks, futures exchange, and futures commission merchants.

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Derivative instruments are classified as:

  • Forward contracts
  • Futures contracts
  • Options
  • Swaps

Derivatives can also be classified as either forward-based (e.g., futures, forward contracts, and swap contracts), option-based (e.g., call or put option), or combinations of the two. A forward-based contract obligates one party to buy and a counterparty to sell an underlying asset, such as foreign currency or a commodity, with equal risk at a future date at an agreed-on price. Option-based contracts (e.g., call options, put options, caps, and floors) provide the holder with a right, but not an obligation to buy or sell an underlying financial instrument, foreign currency, or commodity at an agreed-on price during a specified period or at a specified date.

Forward contracts. Forward contracts are negotiated between two parties, with no formal regulation or exchange, to purchase (long position) and sell (short position) a specific quantity of a specific commodity (e.g., corn and gold), foreign currency, or financial instrument (e.g., bonds and stock) at a specified price (delivery price), with delivery or settlement at a specified future date (maturity date). The price of the underlying asset for immediate delivery is known as the spot price.

Forward contracts may be entered into through an agreement without a cash payment, provided the forward rate is equal to the current market rate. Forward contracts are often used to hedge the entire price changed of a commodity, a foreign currency, or a financial instrument, irrespective of a price increase or decrease.

Futures contracts. Futures are standardized contracts traded on a regulated exchange to make or take delivery of a specified quantity of a commodity, a foreign currency, or a financial instrument at a specified price, with delivery or settlement at a specified future date. Futures contracts involve U.S. Treasury bonds, agricultural commodities, stock indexes, interest-earning assets, and foreign currency.

A futures contract is entered into through an organized exchange, using banks and brokers. These organized exchanges have clearinghouses, which may be financial institutions or part of the futures exchange. They interpose themselves between the buyer and the seller, guarantee obligations, and make futures liquid with low credit risk. Although no payment is made upon entering into a futures contract, because the underlying (e.g., interest rate, share price, or commodity price) is at the market, subsequent value changes require daily mark-to-marking by cash settlement (e.g., disbursed gains and daily collected losses). Similarly, margin requirements involve deposits from both parties to insure any financial liabilities.

Futures contracts are used to hedge the entire price change of a commodity, a foreign currency, or a financial instrument because the contract value and underlying price change symmetrically.

Options. Options are rights to buy or sell. For example, the purchaser of an option has the right, but not the obligation, to buy or sell a specified quantity of a particular commodity, a foreign currency, or a financial instrument, at a specified price, during a specified period (American option) or on a specified date (European option). An option may be settled by taking delivery of the underlying or by cash settlement, with risk limited to the premium.

The two main types of option contracts are call options and put options, while some others include stock (or equity) options, foreign currency options, options on futures, caps, floors, collars, and swaptions.

  • American call options provide the holder with the right to acquire an underlying product (e.g., stock) at an exercise or strike price, throughout the option term. The holder pays a premium for the right to benefit from the appreciation in the underlying.
  • American put options provide the holder with the right to sell the underlying product (e.g., stock) at a certain exercise or strike price, throughout the option term. The holder gains as the market price of the underlying (stock price) falls below the exercise price.
  • An interest rate cap is an option that allows a cap purchaser to limit exposure to increasing interest rates on its variable-rate debt instruments.
  • An interest rate floor is an option that allows a floor purchaser to limit exposure to decreasing interest rates on its variable-rate investments.

Generally, option contracts are used to hedge a one-directional movement in the underlying commodity, foreign currency, or financial instrument.

Swaps. A swap is a flexible, private, forward-based contract or agreement, generally between two counterparties to exchange streams of cash flows based on an agreed-on (or notional) principal amount over a specified period in the future. Swaps are usually entered into at-the-money (i.e., with minimal initial cash payments because fair value is zero), through brokers or dealers who take an upfront cash payment or who adjust the rate to bear default Page 209  |  Top of Articlerisk. The two most prevalent swaps are interest rate swaps and foreign currency swaps, while others include equity swaps, commodity swaps, and swaptions.

Swaptions are options on swaps that provide the holder with the right to enter into a swap at a specified future date at specified terms (stand-alone option in a swap) or to extend or terminate the life of an existing swap (embedded option on a swap).

Swap contracts are used to hedge entire price changes (symmetrically) related to an identified hedged risk, such as interest rate or foreign currency risk, because both counterparties gain or lose equally.


The main types of risk characteristics associated with derivatives are basis risk, credit risk, and market risk. Basis risk is the spot (cash) price of the underlying asset being hedged, less the price of the derivative contract used to hedge the asset. Credit risk or default risk evolves from the possibility that one of the parties to a derivative contract will not satisfy its financial obligations under the derivative contract. Market risk is the potential financial loss due to adverse changes in the fair value of a derivative. Market risk encompasses legal risk, control risk, and accounting risk.

Because of large-scale financial scandals, in particular those in the first decade of the 21st century, in 2010 the U.S. Congress passed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. Title VII of the act, also known as the Wall Street Transparency and Accountability Act, made changes to the regulations of derivatives. To increase transparency, under Title VII it became a requirement for most U.S. derivatives transactions, such as swaps, to be conducted through centralized clearinghouses or exchanges.


Financial Accounting Standards Board. (1998, June). Statement of financial accounting standards No. 133, Accounting for derivative instruments and hedging activities. Retrieved December 26, 2013, from

Hull, J. C. (2014). Fundamentals of futures and options markets (8th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education.

Kolb, R., & Overdahl, J. A. (2007). Futures, options and swaps (5th ed.). Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Lynch, A. B. (Ed.). (2011). Derivatives reform and regulation. New York, NY: Nova Science.

Olson, E. S. (2011). Zero-sum game: The rise of the world's largest derivatives exchange. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Peery, G. F. (2012). The post-reform guide to derivatives and futures. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Rechtschaffen, A. N. (2014). Capital markets, derivatives, and the law: Evolution after crisis. (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Patrick Casabona

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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3727500094