ARJUN RAY CHAUDHURI
The price of gold depends on a host of factors, which makes it very difficult to predict. In a fashion similar to shares, gold is an asset class by itself. In fact, in many villages and small towns of India, gold is preferred to bank deposits as a savings and investment instrument.
Till a year ago, to gain from price volatility, one would have to hoard and trade in gold physically. Not any more, however. With the commodity futures market operating in full swing, one has the option of not physically stocking gold to gain from its price movements.
Let us see how trading in futures is better than the option of hoarding gold. Firstly, there are several costs associated with the process of physically stocking gold. The costs include the cost of the gold itself, the cost of carrying, cost of physical storage, finance cost and last, but not the least, the safety element.
While futures might have some advantages, there is also a danger of losing big as your risks are also magnified and hence, one must tread carefully in this area.
In this context, if the going cost of gold is Rs 6000 per 10 grams, with an investment of Rs 6 lakh, one can buy 1kg of gold. Now, suppose, three months hence, when the going price of gold is Rs 6,500 per 10 grams, the person decides to sell the gold. The gross profit made by the person is Rs 500 for every 10 grams and hence, for 1 kg, it stands at Rs 50,000. To arrive at the net profit, one would have to deduct the cost of financing; the cost of storage in a bank and transaction costs, including sales taxes.
Now, lets see what the same Rs 6 lakh can achieve in a futures market, assuming the same sequence of prices. In Indian exchanges, currently, futures contracts up to four months are available. Lets assume that three-month gold futures are trading at a little over the spot price, with the market expecting gold prices to remain stable over the next three-month period. Let this price be Rs 6050.
Since a futures contract is an obligation to buy or sell a specific quantity of the commodity, one does not have to pay for the entire value of the commodity. Buying futures obligates one to take delivery of the underlying commodity at a particular date in the future. This is also known as taking a long position.
To trade in gold futures, one has to go to a brokerage house and open a trading account. A trading account involves keeping an initial deposit of Rs 50,000 to Rs 1 lakh. Part of the money accounts for the margin money, which is required by the exchange when one enters trading.
For a high amount, however, the deposit amount is usually waived by the brokerage house. The whole investment is then generally treated as margin money. For commodity futures, there is usually a lot size or the minimum volume of the commodity of which one has to buy a futures contract.
Lets assume, for our case, the minimum lot size is 1 kg (lot sizes are usually 100gm or 1 kg). Thus, if the going futures rate is Rs 6,050 per 10 grams, the minimum value of a contract is Rs 6,05,000. The beauty of a futures contract is that to trade in them, one has to only invest the margin money. If we assume a flat 5% margin rate for the contract (margin rates vary from 5-10%), the margin money for a single lot is Rs 30,250. Add to that, a brokerage amount, which is usually .1% to .25% and some start-up charges. Applying these rates, which are prevalent in the market currently, a single lot of gold futures contract should come at around Rs 32,000.
Thus, with Rs 6 lakh, one can buy 19 lots of gold futures. One can , however, expect margin calls from brokerage houses if the margin money falls short of the margin money required for trading in the exchange, determined at the end of the trading session each day.
Now, suppose that at the end of 3 months, the spot price of gold actually reaches Rs 6,500 per 10 grams.
The novelty of the futures market is that as long as there is sufficient liquidity in the markets, the futures price always converges to the price of the under lying. Such is the leverage of futures, that with the same investment of Rs 6 lakh, one is actually commanding 19 lots of gold futures or in effect, 19 kgs of gold.
Thus, at the end of three months, assuming the above-mentioned course of events, on an investment of Rs 6 lakh, one can make a gross profit that is almost 17 times the profit made by physically stocking gold.
At the same time, the downside risk is also multiplied. To avoid the hassles of delivery, one must offset the futures contract just before the maturity date is reached. Delivery would entail gold certification and accreditation by an exchange-appointed assayer and increased transaction costs in general, as various taxes come into the reckoning.
The above example is about a case of taking a bullish view on the price of gold and hence, gaining from the price rise by buying futures. One can gain from a futures market even by having a bearish view on the price of gold. This aspect of gain is absent in the physical market for gold. If one believes that the spot price of gold is going to fall in the near future, all he needs to do is to sell gold futures.
While all this seems pretty rosy, there are some things to be kept in mind. Firstly, any transaction in the futures market is possible only if a counter-party to the buy or sell order that is placed, exists. For unusually large investments, the exchange may find it difficult to find a counter-party and so it may take some time to match it. Also, with any futures, there may be a problem in exiting from a position by buying or selling when one would like to.