What is a CFD?
A contract for difference (CFD) is a popular form of derivative trading. CFD trading enables you to speculate on the rising or falling prices of fast-moving global financial markets (or instruments) such as shares, indices, commodities, currencies and treasuries. Some of the benefits of CFD trading are that you can trade on margin, and you can go short (sell) if you think prices will go down or go long (buy) if you think prices will rise. CFDs are tax efficient in the UK, meaning there is no stamp duty to pay*. You can also use CFD trades to hedge an existing physical portfolio.
How does it work?
With CFD trading, you don’t buy or sell the underlying asset (for example a physical share, currency pair or commodity). You buy or sell a number of units for a particular instrument depending on whether you think prices will go up or down. For every point the price of the instrument moves in your favour, you gain multiples of the number of CFD units you have bought or sold. For every point the price moves against you, you will make a loss. Please remember that losses can exceed your deposits.
What are the risks involved?
In finance, contracts for differences (CFDs) are categorized as leveraged products. This means that with a small initial investment, there is potential for returns equivalent to that of the underlying market returns. Instinctively, this would be an obvious investment for any trader. Unfortunately, margin trades can not only magnify profits but losses as well. The apparent advantages of CFD trading often mask the associated risks. Types of risk that are often overlooked are counterparty risk, market risk, client money risk and liquidity risk.
The counterparty is the company which provides the asset in a financial transaction. When buying or selling a CFD, the only asset being traded is the contract issued by the CFD provider. This exposes the trader to the provider’s other counterparties, including other clients the CFD provider conducts business with. The risk associated with counterparties is one which the counterparty fails to fulfill their financial obligations. If the provider is unable to meet these obligations then the value of the underlying asset is no longer relevant.
Contract for differences are derivative assets that a trader uses to speculate on the movement of underlying assets, like stock. If one believes the underlying asset will rise, the investor will choose a long position. Conversely, an investor will choose a short position if they believe the value of the asset will fall. You hope that the value of the underlying asset will move in the direction most favorable to you. In reality, even the most educated investors can be proven wrong. Unexpected information, changes in market conditions and government policy can result in quick changes. Due to the nature of CFDs, small changes may have a big impact on returns. An unfavorable effect on the value of the underlying asset may cause the provider to demand a second margin payment. If margin calls can’t be met, the provider may close your position or you may have to sell at a loss.
Client money risk
In countries where CFDs are legal, there are client money protection laws to protect the investor from potentially harmful practices of CFD providers. By law, money transferred to the CFD provider must be segregated from the provider’s money in order to prevent providers from hedging their own investments. However, the law may not prohibit the client’s money from being pooled into one or more accounts. When a contract is agreed upon, the provider withdraws an initial margin and has the right to request further margins from the pooled account. If the other clients in the pooled account fail to meet margin calls, the CFD provider has the right to draft from the pooled account with potential to affect potential returns.
Liquidity risks and gapping
Market conditions affect many financial transactions and may increase the risk of losses. When there are not enough trades being made in the market for an underlying asset, your existing contract can become illiquid. At this point a CFD provider can require additional margin payments or close contracts at inferior prices. Due to the fast moving nature of financial markets, the price of a CFD can fall before your trade can be executed at a previously agreed upon price, also known as gapping. This means the holder of an existing contract would be required to take less than optimal profits or cover any losses incurred by the CFD provider.