The primary objectives of any investor are to maximise returns and minimise risks. Derivatives are contracts that originated from the need to minimise risk.
The word 'derivative' originates from mathematics and refers to a variable, which has been derived from another variable. Derivatives are so called because they have no value of their own. They derive their value from the value of some other asset, which is known as the underlying.
For example, a derivative of the shares of Infosys (underlying), will derive its value from the share price (value) of Infosys. Similarly, a derivative contract on soybean depends on the price of soybean.
Derivatives are specialised contracts which signify an agreement or an option to buy or sell the underlying asset of the derivate up to a certain time in the future at a prearranged price, the exercise price.
The contract also has a fixed expiry period mostly in the range of 3 to 12 months from the date of commencement of the contract. The value of the contract depends on the expiry period and also on the price of the underlying asset.
For example, a farmer fears that the price of soybean (underlying), when his crop is ready for delivery will be lower than his cost of production. Let's say the cost of production is Rs 8,000 per ton. In order to overcome this uncertainty in the selling price of his crop, he enters into a contract (derivative) with a merchant, who agrees to buy the crop at a certain price (exercise price), when the crop is ready in three months time (expiry period).
In this case, say the merchant agrees to buy the crop at Rs 9,000 per ton. Now, the value of this derivative contract will increase as the price of soybean decreases and vice-a-versa.
If the selling price of soybean goes down to Rs 7,000 per ton, the derivative contract will be more valuable for the farmer, and if the price of soybean goes down to Rs 6,000, the contract becomes even more valuable.
This is because the farmer can sell the soybean he has produced at Rs .9000 per tonne even though the market price is much less. Thus, the value of the derivative is dependent on the value of the underlying.
If the underlying asset of the derivative contract is coffee, wheat, pepper, cotton, gold, silver, precious stone or for that matter even weather, then the derivative is known as a commodity derivative.
If the underlying is a financial asset like debt instruments, currency, share price index, equity shares, etc, the derivative is known as a financial derivative.
Derivative contracts can be standardized and traded on the stock exchange. Such derivatives are called exchange-traded derivatives. Or they can be customised as per the needs of the user by negotiating with the other party involved.
Such derivatives are called over-the-counter (OTC) derivatives. Continuing with the example of the farmer above, if he thinks that the total production from his land will be around 150 quintals, he can either go to a food merchant and enter into a derivatives contract to sell 150 quintals of soybean in three months time at Rs 9,000 per ton. Or the farmer can go to a commodities exchange, like the National Commodity and Derivatives Exchange Limited, and buy a standard contract on soybean.
The standard contract on soybean has a size of 100 quintals. So the farmer will be left with 50 quintals of soybean uncovered for price fluctuations.
However, exchange traded derivatives have some advantages like low transaction costs and no risk of default by the other party, which may exceed the cost associated with leaving a part of the production uncovered.
Some of the most basic forms of Derivatives are Futures, Forwards and Options.