Written by True Tamplin, BSc, CEPF®

Reviewed by Editorial Team

Updated on March 22, 2023

What Is a Derivative?

A derivative is a financial instrument that gains value from the performance or price of an underlying asset, such as stocks, bonds, commodities, currencies, and indices. It is set between two or more parties and can be traded in exchange markets or over-the-counter (OTC).

Derivatives are used to protect from risk through hedging, to speculate on future prices, and to leverage investments. Derivative contracts are used to profit from an underlying asset's price movements without actually owning the particular asset.

These complex financial instruments are considered advanced investments. The most common derivatives are forwards, futures, options, and swaps.

History of Derivatives

Derivatives have been around since ancient times. People first used derivatives to protect themselves from the uncertainty of crop prices, climate, war, and other risks. In Ancient Greece, one of Aristotle's disciples is said to have used a forward contract to purchase olives.

The modern derivatives market began when the Chicago Board of Trade was founded in 1848. Farmers used it to hedge against crop prices, and the exchange enabled them to enter into agreements for future delivery at a predetermined price.

Soon the Chicago Mercantile Exchange opened, specializing in futures and options. Other exchanges followed, including the New York Mercantile Exchange, the ICE Futures Europe, and the Singapore International Monetary Exchange.

As technology advanced, derivatives became more sophisticated. The asset classes that can be used in derivatives expanded to include stocks, bonds, currencies, commodities, and real estate. There are even derivatives of derivatives, such as options on futures.

Today, derivatives have become an integral part of the global economy.

Types of Derivatives

Derivative transactions often fall under one of four categories: futures, forwards, options, or swaps.


Futures are derivative contracts that bind two parties, typically an investor and a seller, to buy or sell an asset at a predetermined price in the future. Parties must transact at the set price regardless of the underlying asset's current market value at the expiration date.

Futures typically involve physical commodities, like crude oil or gold, and financial instruments, such as stocks or bonds. These contracts can be used to speculate on asset prices or to hedge against potential losses.

Suppose you believe that the price of crude oil will rise in six months. You buy a futures contract now to make a profit at expiration. If you believe the price will fall, you may use a futures contract to fix the price of commodities you own to avoid taking losses when the price drops.

Futures are exchange-traded. As such, anyone can buy or sell them like stocks in a regulated market, decreasing the risk of one of the parties defaulting on the transaction.


These derivatives are similar to futures in that they allow two parties to trade an asset at a predetermined price in the future. Forward contracts can also be used to speculate on commodity prices or hedge losses.

The key difference is that forwards are privately traded, and contracts are set up over-the-counter.

Hence, forwards are customizable since both parties negotiate the contract terms. The amount and type of asset, expiration date, and other details can be tailored to meet each party's needs.

Forwards are not typically suitable for the average investor since they are unregulated and are more at risk of default.


Options contracts are considered non-binding versions of futures or forwards. An asset's price is fixed, and the expiration date is set, but the buyer is not obligated to use it. The buyer has the right or "option" to enact the contract or leave it unused.

There are two types of options: European and American. You can only enact a European option on the expiration date, while American options can be enacted anytime before the set date. By definition, both can be left unused.

Options contracts allow investors to speculate on asset prices and hedge risk without taking on too much financial burden. Options require investors to pay a premium that represents a fraction of the contract's value.

Options can be exchange-traded or OTC. Counterparty risk is higher for OTC options because they involve private transactions. Conversely, exchange-traded options carry less risk since they are government-regulated.


A swap is an OTC contract between two parties exchanging one asset for another with no money involved. Swaps are typically used to mitigate exposure to interest rate fluctuations and exchange risks.

These contracts involve specific terms and conditions negotiated by both parties, allowing them customization. Swaps can be very risky since they are OTC and unregulated by governments.

There are several types, including interest-rate, currency, and commodity swaps. To illustrate, an investor expecting a foreign exchange rate to drop may enter into a currency swap with another party to limit the potential losses associated with the transaction.

Swaps involve two parties exchanging cash flows on agreed-upon dates throughout the contract. As such, they often require collateral or creditworthiness evaluations to ensure that both parties can meet their contractual obligations.

Types of Derivative

Advantages of Derivatives

Derivatives allow investors to hedge against risk exposure, provide leverage, determine asset prices, and promote market efficiency.

Hedge Against Risk Exposure

Derivatives offer a mechanism for investors to protect themselves from volatile markets by allowing them to transfer risk exposures associated with price movements of an underlying asset, such as currency exchange rates or commodities, to another party.

Through a hedge, an investor can reduce their overall risk by decreasing potential losses and increasing potential gains.

For example, suppose a company is exposed to changes in the price of crude oil. In that case, it can use derivatives such as futures contracts or options to offset any instability associated. It will enable the company to remain profitable and competitive, even in an uncertain market.

Determine Price of Assets

Derivatives allow investors to determine the price of an asset without having to purchase it outright.

For example, a long-term investor may look at options contracts to get an idea of the future price of a security or commodity over time. It can be beneficial for determining whether or not investing in that particular asset would be profitable.

Additionally, derivatives can help traders take advantage of short-term fluctuations in the market by allowing them to make quick and informed decisions about when to buy or sell an underlying asset.

Market Efficiency

Derivatives can improve market efficiency by allowing traders and investors to identify and take advantage of market opportunities effortlessly. It can lead to increased market activity and more efficient allocation of resources.

By making it easier for people to enter and exit positions, derivatives help create a much more liquid market. It ultimately leads to lower transaction costs and better pricing power for traders.

Furthermore, by giving investors access to information on typically unavailable assets, such as interest rate swaps, derivatives allow them to assess their risk exposure more accurately. It helps ensure investments are made securely and have more significant profitability potential.


Derivatives also enable investors to gain exposure to more assets than they would with a traditional investment. It is known as leverage, allowing traders to amplify their returns using borrowed money.

For example, an investor may use options contracts to gain exposure to a stock price without putting up the full amount of capital required by traditional investments.

Likewise, derivatives can be used in complex strategies such as spread trading that can yield higher returns while limiting risk compared with simpler methods like holding and buying stocks.

Disadvantages of Derivatives

Here are specifics concerning the drawbacks of derivatives, including information about how speculative and volatile the derivatives market is.

Difficult to Value

Derivatives can be challenging to value, which creates uncertainty and risk. Since these contracts are complex instruments with multiple inputs, they must be precisely calculated to determine the correct market price.

Moreover, since derivatives involve speculation on future prices, their values may fluctuate significantly depending on underlying asset volatility and market sentiment.

Counterparty Risks

Some derivatives are at risk of counterparty defaults, especially OTC contracts like forwards, European options, and swaps. A default happens when one party does not have the required capital to fulfill their obligations, which can result in a loss for the other party.

Since OTC derivatives are private transactions, they are not regulated by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), increasing the possibility of default.


Derivatives can be complicated for new investors. They involve multiple variables with intricate mathematical calculations that must be factored in to determine the suitable price.

Derivatives also often involve a high degree of leverage, which increases the risk of loss if the underlying asset does not perform as expected. This complexity can lead to increased costs, such as higher transaction fees or brokerage commissions.

Vulnerable to Supply & Demand Factors

Derivatives prices can be affected by supply and demand factors, such as a rise in the underlying asset price or a sudden change in market sentiment. This increased volatility makes derivatives riskier than other investments, as values can swing significantly in either direction.

It is particularly true of financial derivatives tied to the performance of certain assets, such as stocks or bonds. These instruments are vulnerable to changes in the underlying markets, which could result in unexpected losses for investors.

How to Invest in Derivatives

Knowing the risks and rewards associated with these investments is essential. There are several ways that investors can get involved in derivative markets.

The most common way to invest in derivatives is through an investment broker or a financial institution. It involves opening an account with the firm and making trades through a broker. Firms may offer various investment products such as options, futures, and other complex instruments.

Investors need to understand the terms and conditions associated with their accounts before trading any derivative product.

Investors may also access online platforms that allow them to trade derivatives directly from their computers. These platforms provide access to the same financial instruments as traditional brokerages but with the added convenience of trading from home.

Finally, you can trade directly on exchanges. These are typically large and regulated markets open to investors who meet specific criteria and provide a secure trading environment.

Final Thoughts

Derivatives are financial instruments that obtain value from an underlying asset, including stocks, bonds, commodities, currencies, interest rates, and indices. These contracts usually come in the form of futures, forwards, options, and swaps.

Advantages include hedging against risk, market efficiency, determining asset prices, and leverage. However, derivatives have drawbacks, such as counterparty default, difficult valuation, complexity, and vulnerability to supply and demand.

You can invest in derivatives through brokers, financial institutions, online platforms, or directly through an exchange. Remember that derivative contracts are complex financial instruments, so you must always perform due diligence and invest cautiously.

It is best to consult a qualified financial advisor before investing in derivatives. An advisor can help you assess your investment goals, develop an appropriate strategy, and select suitable instruments that align with your risk tolerance and financial condition.

Derivatives FAQs

About the Author

True Tamplin, BSc, CEPF®

True Tamplin is a published author, public speaker, CEO of UpDigital, and founder of Finance Strategists.

True is a Certified Educator in Personal Finance (CEPF®), author of The Handy Financial Ratios Guide, a member of the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing, contributes to his financial education site, Finance Strategists, and has spoken to various financial communities such as the CFA Institute, as well as university students like his Alma mater, Biola University, where he received a bachelor of science in business and data analytics.

To learn more about True, visit his personal website, view his author profile on Amazon, or check out his speaker profile on the CFA Institute website.

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