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How Do Futures and Options Compare?

Although they are similar, futures and options have some important differences. Futures markets are the hub of capitalism. They provide the bases for prices at wholesale and eventually retail markets for commodities ranging from gasoline and lumber to key items in the food chain, such as cattle, pork, corn, and soybeans.

Just like futures contracts, options are securities that are subject to binding agreements. The key difference between options and futures contracts is that options give you the right to buy or sell an underlying security or asset without being obligated to do so, as long as you follow the rules of the options contract.

In addition, options are derivatives. A derivative is a financial instrument that gets its value not from its own intrinsic value but rather from the value of the underlying security and time. Options on the stock of IBM, for example, are directly influenced by the price of IBM stock.

A futures contract is a security, similar in concept to a stock or a bond while being significantly different. Whereas a stock gives you equity and a bond makes you a debt holder, a futures contract is a legally binding agreement that sets the conditions for the delivery of commodities or financial instruments at a specific time in the future.

Futures contracts are available for more than just mainstream commodities. You can contract stock index futures, interest rate products — bonds and Treasury bills, and lesser known commodities like propane. Some futures contracts are even designed to hedge against weather risk.

Futures markets emerged and developed in fits and starts several hundred years ago as a mechanism through which merchants traded goods and services at some point in the future, based on their expectations for crops and harvest yields. Now virtually all financial and commodity markets are linked, with futures and cash markets functioning as a single entity on a daily basis.