Using Futures to Hedge Against Market Downturns

February 29, 2024 Beginner
Learn how futures contracts can help experienced traders and investors manage portfolio risk, including the use of a beta-weighted hedging strategy.

A futures contract is an agreement to buy or sell a predetermined amount of a commodity or financial product on a specified date. Futures are traded on exchanges and span a variety of asset classes: stock indexes, interest rates, currencies, and commodities.

Professional investors and traders can use futures to hedge1 against potential market downturns. For example, they may attempt to protect or insulate their portfolios against "black swan" events, such as a financial crisis or an unexpected election outcome. 

Individual investors might also use futures contracts linked to the S&P 500® index (/ES), Nasdaq-100® (/NQ), or other equity benchmarks to hedge their portfolios against market volatility and slumps. 

While futures can provide a potential hedge for some situations, they also carry risks like potentially reducing the overall increase of your portfolio value or creating significant loss. Futures can work for some investors and traders, but they're not for everyone, and not every account qualifies for futures trading. 

Hedging against a global event risk

Some stocks might seem like good investments over the long term, but current events can still lead to short-term losses. A futures-based hedging strategy offers the potential for investors to weather unforeseen events without having to part with shares they already hold.

Futures are typically highly leveraged, meaning that by putting a relatively small amount of money down, investors can establish positions in a relatively large amount of underlying value—often referred to as "notional" value. Because of this leverage, an investor can use a smaller amount of initial capital to hedge a large portfolio. However, that leverage can potentially magnify losses as well as enhance potential gains. So, a small amount of market movement can have a large effect—positive or negative—on an account's profit and loss.2

Futures are also available for trading nearly 24 hours a day, six days a week, offering an investor the ability to hedge their portfolio almost around the clock. Some investors find this valuable because events that occur outside U.S. equity market hours can affect the portfolio. Futures offer the flexibility to provide hedging capabilities when the equity market is closed.

Basics of beta weighting

One futures-based hedging approach involves calculating beta and applying beta weighting, the process of comparing the volatility of a stock and an index.  Beta measures the volatility of an individual asset or an entire portfolio in comparison to a benchmark, such as the SPX.

Applying beta weighting to hedging is usually an attempt to reduce your portfolio's delta. Delta is the approximation of the change in the price of a derivative relative to a change in the price of the underlying stock, with all other factors held constant. If a portfolio has positive delta, but the trader thinks the market might drop, they might consider reducing their delta exposure. One way to do this is by adding a position with negative delta like a short E-mini S&P 500 futures (/ES) contract.

If a trader knows how many positive deltas are in their overall portfolio and how many negative deltas a short E-mini S&P 500 futures contract has, it's possible to determine how many futures contracts to sell to hedge their portfolio.

For example, if a portfolio has 447 deltas, one E-mini S&P 500 futures contract would add negative 50 deltas. Based on these numbers, if the SPX fell one point, the original portfolio would fall an estimated $447. However, the portfolio with the futures hedge would only fall $397.

One of the main benefits of beta weighting is that it's possible to see the potential risk associated with each position expressed in the same unit. A bullish trader would want to see more positive deltas, while a bearish trader would want fewer positive, or even negative, deltas. This approach focuses on looking at how a portfolio would respond to an increase or decrease in the overall stock market.

Futures-based hedge example

Let's suppose an investor holds has a $925,000 stock portfolio that mostly aligns with the S&P 500 stock index (SPX). They're concerned about an upcoming economic report that could cause their portfolio to drop in value. They're considering hedging about 30% of that portfolio by selling (or shorting) one E-mini S&P 500 or ES futures contract. The ES is currently trading at $4,870 and has an initial margin requirement of $5,060. 

In order to determine the total amount of margin required, they must calculate how many contracts to short. They can do this by comparing the percentage of the portfolio to be hedged with the notional value of one contract. Hedging 30% of the portfolio means the hedge should have a notional value of $277,500 (925000 X 0.30). To calculate the notional value of the ES, they'll multiply the price of the contract to its multiplier of $50. Therefore, an ES contract has a notional value of $243,500 (4870 X 50). This means that they can short one contract. It won't be the entire 30% they had hoped for, but two contracts would be nearly half the value of the portfolio which would be a big hedge but also a big risk to the portfolio if the SPX rises instead of falls. 

So, with one contract, they'll put up the initial margin, which in this example is $5,060. 

Let's talk about how the hedge works. If the SPX dropped and the ES contract fell 50 points (about 1%), the investor might then consider buying back, or "closing out," that futures position to realize a gain of $2,500. That gain could help offset any unrealized losses in the stock portfolio. By taking a position in the futures contract, an investor gains similar notional exposure while tying up a lot less capital.

Long or short, futures can be a useful tool for hedging a portfolio. Keep in mind that short positions create unlimited risk as there is no limit to how high the price of the shorted position may go; in other words, if an investor has to buy to close that position, there is no limit to how much they may have to spend to close the short position. However, with an appropriately hedged strategy, some of that risk might also be offset by the rise in the portfolio's long positions.

1 Taking a position in an attempt to offset the risk of another position in stock or options.

2 Profit and loss of the aggregate total of all gains and losses over a specific period of time (e.g., day, month, year). Often confused with ROI, which is just the return on investment of a single trade or position.

​Futures and futures options trading involves substantial risk and is not suitable for all investors. Please read the Risk Disclosure Statement for Futures and Options prior to trading futures products.

Futures accounts are not protected by the Securities Investor Protection Corporation (SIPC).

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The information provided here is for general informational purposes only and should not be considered an individualized recommendation or personalized investment advice. The investment strategies mentioned here may not be suitable for everyone. Each investor needs to review an investment strategy for his or her own particular situation before making any investment decision. All expressions of opinion are subject to change without notice in reaction to shifting market conditions. Data contained herein from third-party providers is obtained from what are considered reliable sources. However, its accuracy, completeness, or reliability cannot be guaranteed. Examples provided are for illustrative purposes only and not intended to be reflective of results you can expect to achieve.