Derivative Instruments [Types, Examples, And Pros & Cons]

Updated On: 08/24/2023 is reader-supported. When you buy via links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission at no cost to you.

Let me ask you this: Have you ever faced unpredictable financial risks in your business or personal life? If so, it's high time to familiarize yourself with derivative instruments.

No need to feel overwhelmed or confused; we'll take this journey together to understand these financial tools.

A derivative instrument is a contract between two parties based on an underlying financial asset.

At their core, they're designed to help you manage risk, speculate on future prices, and as a cost-effective way to gain exposure to price movements without investing in the asset itself.

So don't worry about those uncertainties of future prices anymore; I'm here to help you grasp the potential of derivatives and how they can work in your favor.

What Are Derivative Financial Instruments?

In financial parlance, the term derivative refers to a contract originating from some underlying entity, also called the "underlying asset."

This asset could be a physical commodity or a financial instrument. The derivative's price does not come from its intrinsic value but is based on the underlying asset.

The primary forms of derivatives are swaps, futures, and options. As these are legal contracts, they have an obligation or right to sell or buy the asset at a predetermined price before or on a specific date.

Derivatives are primarily used for hedging risk (for risk management) and for speculative investment strategies--predicting price movements of an asset without actually owning them.

For instance, investors can take advantage of derivatives when they expect prices in volatile markets to fluctuate highly.

They lock in prices through derivatives to reduce risk and limit potential losses. The use of derivatives does involve risk factors, which will be covered further.

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Examples of Derivative Instruments

Examples of Derivative Instruments

Let's peel back the layers and delve deeper into some primary types of derivative instruments, including call options, put options, forwards, futures, and swaps.

Call Option

A call option gives you— the holder— the right (but not an obligation) to buy a specific asset at a predetermined price (known as the "strike" price) within a particular period.

It's loaded with potential because you predict that the price of underlying assets will increase. Your returns will pivot on how much higher the asset's price rises above your strike price.

This right to buy comes with an upfront cost called a premium. Even if the market moves against your expectations, your loss is limited to the premium you paid for purchasing that option.

Put Option

In contrast to a call option— which capitalizes on rising prices— a put option gives you the right to sell an asset at an agreed-upon price within a specific timeframe.

If you forecast a drop in the market prices of certain assets, putting options could help cushion that financial blow because you can still sell at your locked-in prices.

Like call options, put options also involve paying premiums upfront, and again, the maximum loss is restricted to this premium amount if markets move against predictions.

Forward Contract

A forward contract is tailor-made between two parties where one agrees to buy and the other agrees to sell an asset at a specified future date and price.

These contracts are not standardized or regulated like futures contracts (which we will discuss next). Hence, they carry more credit risk but offer higher flexibility and customization than futures.

Futures Contract

Futures are standardized contracts traded on regulated exchanges where buyers agree to purchase and sellers consent to deliver an asset — commodity or financial — at a specified future date and price.

Unlike forwards, which cater mainly to hedgers against price volatility, futures provide opportunities for speculation (rising or falling markets) and hedging.


A swap is an agreement between two parties to exchange sequential cash flows— often based on rate fluctuations or currency differences in international trade scenarios.

For instance, there are interest rate swaps where one party pays fixed-rate payments while receiving adjustable-rate payments from another, offsetting the risks involved in interest rate variations.

Each derivative type has unique features with different purposes based on risk tolerance levels and financial objectives.

You must understand these intricacies before engaging with them so as not only to safeguard your interests but also to leverage their benefits optimally.

How Derivative Instruments are Used

Derivatives serve a trio of core functions: risk management, price speculation, and gaining access to otherwise inaccessible markets.

Risk Management

This is the crux of why many companies use derivatives. They offset or hedge against potential losses from significant fluctuations in prices.

Companies lock in materials costs for future use, reducing the uncertainty around cost fluctuation.


Traders often utilize derivatives as a speculative tool. These instruments enable speculations on the future direction of price movements.

In other words, a trader could profit from buying a derivative like an option or future if they appropriately anticipate market movements.

Market Accessibility

Derivatives can also provide access to markets that may otherwise be inaccessible due to regulatory restrictions or high barriers to entry.

Therefore, understanding derivatives becomes critical for financial planning in businesses and personal investments.

Knowing derivative usage can boost your financial acumen and lay a strong foundation for sophisticated investment strategies, whether you aim at risk mitigation or strategic profit-making opportunities.

Also Read: Marketable Securities 2024 [Benefits, Risks, And Trading Processes]

Advantages of Derivatives

Advantages of Derivatives

Derivatives are powerful tools when used correctly. They offer many benefits that make financial planning and investment decision-making more predictable.

1. Price Lock-in

One primary advantage of derivatives is their ability to provide a price lock-in mechanism, offering stability and predictability in terms of costs.

For instance, futures contracts allow you to commit to buying or selling an asset at a predetermined price on a future date, regardless of market changes. This ensures protection against unexpected price fluctuations.

2. Safeguard against undesirable shifts in rates

Hedging plays a significant role in derivatives. It takes advantage of the derivative’s sensitivity to movements in the underlying asset to offset potential losses from unfavorable rate shifts.

3. Diversification

Adding derivatives to your investment mix can enhance portfolio diversification by giving you exposure to different markets without needing to purchase the actual assets, reducing risk due to market volatility.

4. Risk Mitigation

Perhaps one of the main attractions for many investors is that derivatives are an effective risk management tool.

They help reduce potential losses due to unforeseen market fluctuations and underperforming assets, helping secure your financial interests.

They offer arbitrage opportunities—the simultaneous buying and selling of securities in different markets—enabling individuals or firms to capitalize on price discrepancies for profit.

Disadvantages of Derivatives

Despite their benefits, using derivative instruments is often seen as complicated, particularly for beginners.

Complexity for Beginners

It requires a deep understanding of finance and markets to grasp the concepts behind these instruments fully.

Derivatives' complexity stems from their construct - a contract based on an underlying asset. If you don't understand how market forces impact that asset, investing in derivatives can feel like walking blindfolded.

Interest Rate Risk

Another risk involves interest rates. Since the price of derivatives depends on interest rates, these instruments can fluctuate wildly if there's significant movement in rates.

So, if you're not up to speed with this dynamic, your investment could take a nosedive overnight.

Asset Holding Costs

Let's highlight the holding costs associated with derivatives. This cost refers to expenses related to maintaining or storing an asset during its contract lifecycle, such as storage fees for commodities or stock dividends.

You need comprehensive financial knowledge and context before delving into derivative investments.

Enlisting professional help or seeking guidance from financial advisors becomes essential when dealing with such complex financial tools.

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How To Trade Derivative Instruments

How To Trade Derivative Instruments

Whether you're a risk manager or a speculative investor, trading derivatives requires an astute understanding of the market and financial instruments. Here's how you can start.

  • Open a Brokerage Account: You'll first need an account with a competent brokerage that provides access to derivatives markets. These may include futures or options exchanges.
  • Understand Underlying Assets: As derivatives rely on an underlying asset, have a clear understanding of these assets, their price movements, and market trends. This knowledge includes commodities, stocks, currencies, bonds, interest rates, and market indexes.
  • Choose Your Derivative Type: Whether it's futures contracts or Call/Put options that benefit your financial strategy, it will depend on your risk tolerance, knowledge level, and investment objectives.
  • Formulate Your Strategy: Once your derivative type is chosen, the next is to determine if you are hedging against potential loss or speculating on the asset's price move.
  • Execute Trades: Here's where your research pays off! Use your broker's online platform to execute orders to create or dissolve derivative contracts.
  • Monitor and Adjust: Always monitor your investments and adjust positions as necessary based on evolving market dynamics.

Trading in any investment vehicle requires diligence and preparation - invest in derivative instruments at this same stride, too.

FAQs About Derivative Instruments

What's an easy way to understand derivative instruments?

Derivative instruments are like betting on the future price of a stock or commodity without owning it. They can help manage financial risk but require careful handling.

Are derivative instruments suitable for all investors?

No, derivatives are complex and carry high risk, so they're generally more suitable for experienced investors who fully understand the financial implications.

How do derivative instruments aid in managing risk?

Derivatives allow investors to hedge (protect) against possible unfavorable price movements of an underlying asset, providing financial stability and predictability.

Can I make a profit from trading derivative instruments?

Yes. You can generate substantial profits by correctly predicting market trends through trading derivatives. However, incorrect predictions can lead to significant losses as well.

Who regulates the trading of derivative instruments in the US?

The Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) primarily regulates derivatives trading in the US.


To summarize, derivative instruments are powerful financial tools that serve multiple purposes. By providing a safety net against volatile economic movements, helping businesses and investors offset risk, and offering a platform for speculative trading, they introduce a precious layer of predictability and security to your financial planning.

These instruments are not without their challenges. Given their complexity and the high risks, thorough understanding and careful management are critical.

So, gear up and expand your financial knowledge to tame the uncertainties in the market with derivative instruments.

Michael Restiano

I support product content strategy for Salt Money. Additionally, I’m helping develop content strategy and processes to deliver quality work for our readers.

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