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Spread trading is a widely-used trading strategy in futures markets and offers some key advantages over outright futures trading (i.e., going long or short a single futures contract), including capital efficiencies with lower margin outlay and potentially superior risk-adjusted returns. This is particularly true for precious metals markets, where the underlying commodities demonstrate strong correlations with each other due to close economic links, but also distinct fundamental drivers that can create profitable spreading opportunities using the associated futures contracts.
Creating a Futures Spread
A spread trade using futures is created by buying a futures contract and simultaneously selling another futures contract against it. The spread acts as a hedging transaction, altering your exposure from an outright price fluctuation to the price differential between the individual legs of the spread trade. The profitability of a futures spread trade depends on the price direction, or differences in price movement, for the legs of the strategy.
Spread trades may be executed across many markets, but traders often look at similar contracts, or related markets, for spread trading opportunities. A closer relationship between the spread markets means the individual legs are more likely to move in tandem, enabling relatively stable price changes governed primarily by the pace of price moves between the legs (i.e., the relative performance of the legs), thereby reducing the level of risk for the trader. These strategies are referred to as relative value strategies.
Types of Spreads
Spreads may be broadly classified as intra-market spreads and inter-market spreads.
Intra-market spreads, also known as calendar spreads, are where a trader opens a long or short position in one contract month and then opens an opposite position in another contract month for the same futures market. Given the popularity of these spread trades, as well as their contribution to futures rollover activity, dedicated calendar spread markets are available on the CME Direct platform, which allows spread execution with no legging risk.
Inter-market spreads involve two separate, but related, futures markets with legs of the same maturity time frames. Inter-market spread strategies may have legging risk, but can be mitigated by using dedicated inter-market spread contracts or by selecting liquid underlying contracts for each leg in conjunction with using the auto-spreading functionality offered by some software vendor trading screens.
Benefits of Spread Trading
The main advantages of spread trading are reduced volatility and lower margin requirements, as the legs are generally in related markets at the same exchange.
Compared to outright futures, which can exhibit significant price swings, spreads can demonstrate extended trending price moves, making it easier for you to visualize patterns and take a directional view or implement a technical trading strategy.
Spread Trading with Precious Metals
The precious metals complex includes gold, silver, platinum and palladium contracts and offers trading opportunities to a global market through a wide variety of instruments. These markets not only provide highly correlated commodities, but also with unique price drivers that can create many attractive spread trading opportunities.
While you can choose from the range of instruments available for trade execution once you have identified your preferred strategies, the Precious Metals futures markets at CME Group offers highly liquid and deep markets that enable the fast, efficient execution of spread strategies, with the additional benefits of considerable margin savings (as all trades are centrally cleared through CME Clearing) and much alleviated legging risk.
More importantly, these futures contracts are predominantly electronically traded (over 90%) on CME Globex, which allows easy access for participants across the world and high-quality trade executions virtually 24 hours a day.
Gold-Platinum Spread Trade
Platinum is both a precious and industrial metal, widely used in catalytic converters in the automotive industry but also in jewelry and as an investment asset.
The price relationship and the price spread between gold and platinum may be useful as an indicator of shifts in the macro environment. Historically, platinum has been more expensive than gold since the white metal is about 15 times rarer than gold and has many industrial uses compared to the yellow metal. However, gold can become pricier during times of economic distress and political uncertainty when the yellow metal sees increased demand as a safe-haven asset. Conversely, during a positive economic cycle with increasing automobile sales, platinum’s premium over gold prices can rise even further as the metal will see increased industrial use. Since 2015 Gold has been trading at a premium to Platinum and the spread has been widening.
Platinum-Gold Price Spread (in U.S. dollars per troy ounce) Chart based on NYMEX Platinum and COMEX Gold Futures Prices
CME Group offers one of the most liquid Platinum futures, making it a convenient instrument to manage risk and instantly capture trading opportunities, such as the platinum-gold price spread strategy.
Platinum-Gold Spread Profit and Loss Example
On March 2, a trader expects platinum demand to increase in the short term due to higher car sales and the platinum-gold spread to narrow. The trader buys two April Platinum futures contracts at $988.40/oz and simultaneously sells one April Gold futures contract at $1,231.90/oz (the Platinum contract is half the size, 50 oz, of the 100-oz Gold contract).
The resulting notional amounts for the legs are $98,840 and $123,190, respectively. The trader has thus entered the spread trade at -$243.50 and is long the spread.
The tables below show the trader’s realized profit and loss (P&L) as negative spread, narrowed as both Gold and Platinum increased, but at different rates.
Platinum-Gold (negative) spread narrows when position is closed by selling two Platinum April contracts and buying one Gold April contract simultaneously on March 30.
|Platinum April||Notional Amt||Gold April||Notional Amt||Spread|
|Trade Enter Prices||Buy $988.40||$98,840||Sell $1,231.90||$123,190||($243.50)|
|Trade Exit Prices||Sell $1,056.40||$105,640||Buy $1244.20||$124,420||($187.80)|
|Strategy Leg P&L||$6,800||-$1,230|
One of the benefits of spread trading with futures is the reduced cost of margin, otherwise known as margin offset. Margin discounts can occur when CME Clearing scans the trader’s portfolio of futures positions looking for offsets.
In our example, we had a long Platinum position and a short Gold position. This spread position would have been identified as an offset and therefore would require less margin than the two outright positions.
Platinum-Palladium Spread Trade
Palladium, like platinum, is also a precious metal widely used in the automobile industry as an auto catalyst. The difference being palladium is predominantly used in petrol-engine vehicles, whilst platinum is used in diesel-engine vehicles. In the recent past, platinum has traded at a premium to palladium, but as the chart below illustrates, the premium has narrowed. The spread may cross, but the last time this happened was approximately 20 years ago. Traders can express a view on the platinum-palladium spread through trading individual outright futures contracts in a spread strategy like the ones demonstrated above.
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Peter Knight Advisor