What Are Derivatives and Why Do They Exist in Financial Markets?

Derivatives, initially conceived as risk management tools, have gradually evolved into speculative instruments, occasionally contributing to the collapse of entire financial systems. This article aims to provide a comprehensive understanding of common derivative instruments.

Defining Derivatives

The term “derivative” refers to a type of financial contract whose value is dependent on an underlying asset, group of assets, or index. These instruments are created between two or more parties trading on centralized or over-the-counter (OTC) exchanges.

These contracts can be utilized to trade any type of asset and bear unique risk characteristics. The value of derivatives is derived from the fluctuations of the underlying assets. These securities are often used to access specific markets and can be traded for risk hedging purposes. Derivatives can be employed for risk mitigation (hedging) or risk-taking with the expectation of corresponding rewards (speculation). They facilitate the transfer of risk (and accompanying rewards) from risk-averse to risk-seeking parties.

What Are Derivatives and Why Do They Exist in Financial Markets?

Insight into Derivative Instruments

Derivatives are complex securities established between two or more parties. Investors utilize derivatives to access various markets and trade different types of assets. Typically, derivatives are considered as an advanced form of investment. The most common underlying assets for derivative instruments include stocks, bonds, commodities, currencies, interest rates, and market indices. The value of the contract depends on the price changes of the underlying asset.

Derivatives can be used for hedging a position, speculating on an underlying asset, or leveraging holdings. These assets are often traded on formal exchanges or OTC and are purchased through brokers. The Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) is one of the largest derivative exchanges globally.

It is essential to understand that when companies hedge, they are not speculating on commodity prices; rather, they are managing risk. Each party has profits or profit margins integrated into prices, and hedging helps protect those profits from market fluctuations.

OTC derivative instruments often carry higher counterparty risk. This involves the risk of one of the parties involved not fulfilling the agreement. These contracts often occur between two private parties and are not regulated. To mitigate this risk, investors may purchase a currency derivative instrument to lock in a specific exchange rate. Common derivative instruments include currency futures contracts and currency swaps.

Special Note

Derivatives were initially used to ensure stable exchange rates for international commodity trades. International traders required a system to reconcile varying currency values.

Examples of Derivative Instruments

Derivative instruments today are based on various types of transactions and serve multiple purposes. There are even derivatives based on weather data, such as rainfall or the number of sunny days in a region.

Many derivative instruments can be used for risk management, speculation, and leverage. The derivative market is continuously evolving to provide products suitable for almost any risk appetite or risk tolerance level.

There are two types of derivative products: “locks” and “options.” Locking derivatives (e.g., futures contracts, forwards, or swaps) bind involved parties immediately to the agreed terms throughout the contract’s duration. Options products (e.g., stock options) grant the holder the right, but not the obligation, to buy/sell the underlying asset or security at a specific price on or before the option’s expiration date. The most common derivative instruments include futures contracts, forward contracts, swap contracts, and options contracts.

Futures Contracts

A futures contract is an agreement between two parties to buy and deliver an asset at an agreed-upon price on a future date. Futures contracts are standardized contracts traded on an exchange. Investors use futures contracts to hedge risk or speculate on the price of an underlying asset. The parties involved are obligated to fulfill the commitment to buy or sell the underlying asset on the expiration date.

Forwards Contracts

Forward contracts are similar to futures contracts but are not traded on centralized exchanges. These contracts are traded over-the-counter. With a forward contract, the buyer and seller can customize terms, scale, and settlement procedures. As a decentralized product, forward contracts entail relatively high counterparty risk for both parties.

Swaps Contracts

Swaps contracts are another popular derivative instrument, often used to exchange one cash flow for another. For example, a trader may use an interest rate swap to convert from a floating interest rate loan to a fixed interest rate loan or vice versa.

Options Contracts

Options contracts, similar to futures contracts, involve an agreement between two parties to buy or sell an asset on a specified date in the future at a specific price. The key difference is that with options, the buyer is not obligated to execute the agreement to buy or sell. It is merely a right, not an obligation, unlike futures contracts. Like futures contracts, options can be used for hedging risk or speculating on the price of an underlying asset.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Derivative Instruments


As illustrated in the examples above, derivatives are valuable tools for businesses and investors due to the following factors:

Locking in prices Hedging against unfavorable exchange rate fluctuations Minimizing risk These advantages often come with a relatively low cost. Additionally, derivatives can be purchased on margin, meaning investors can control a large position with a relatively small investment.


Despite their advantages, derivatives also present certain risks:

Leverage risk: Derivatives often allow investors to control a large position with a relatively small investment. While this can magnify gains, it can also amplify losses. Counterparty risk: OTC derivatives, in particular, carry counterparty risk, as there is no centralized clearinghouse guaranteeing the performance of the contract. Complexity risk: Derivatives can be complex instruments, and investors may not fully understand the risks involved. Market risk: Like any financial instrument, derivatives are subject to market risk. If the market moves against the investor’s position, they may incur losses. Regulatory risk: Derivatives markets are subject to regulation, which can change over time, affecting the value and liquidity of derivative contracts. Overall, derivatives are powerful financial instruments that can be used for a variety of purposes, including risk management, speculation, and leverage. However, they also carry certain risks, and investors should carefully consider these risks before trading derivative contracts.


Derivatives are a vital component of modern financial markets, providing investors with a range of tools for managing risk, speculating on asset prices, and leveraging their investments. While derivatives offer many advantages, they also present risks that investors must carefully consider. By understanding the nature of derivative instruments and the risks involved, investors can use derivatives effectively to achieve their financial objectives.