Futures markets were designed to solve the problems that exist in forward markets. A futures contract is an agreement between two parties to buy or sell an asset at a certain time in the future at a certain price. But unlike forward contracts, the futures contracts are standardized and exchange traded. To facilitate liquidity in the futures contracts, the exchange specifies certain standard features of the contract. A futures contract is standardized contract with standard underlying instrument, a standard quantity and quality of the underlying instrument that can be delivered, (or which can be used for reference purposes in settlement) and a standard timing of such settlement. A futures contract may be offset prior to maturity by entering into an equal and opposite transaction.
The standardized items in a futures contract are:
- Quantity of the underlying
- Quality of the underlying
- The date and the month of delivery
- The units of price quotation and minimum price change
- Location of settlement
The rationale for introducing currency futures in the Indian context has been outlined in the Report of the Internal Working Group on Currency Futures (Reserve Bank of India, April 2008) as follows;
The rationale for establishing the currency futures market is manifold. Both residents and non-residents purchase domestic currency assets. If the exchange rate remains unchanged from the time of purchase of the asset to its sale, no gains and losses are made out of currency exposures. But if domestic currency depreciates (appreciates) against the foreign currency, the exposure would result in gain (loss) for residents purchasing foreign assets and loss (gain) for non residents purchasing domestic assets. In this backdrop, unpredicted movements in exchange rates expose investors to currency risks.
Currency futures enable them to hedge these risks. Nominal exchange rates are often random walks with or without drift, while real exchange rates over long run are mean reverting. As such, it is possible that over a long – run, the incentive to hedge currency risk may not be large. However, financial planning horizon is much smaller than the long-run, which is typically inter-generational in the context of exchange rates. As such, there is a strong need to hedge currency risk and this need has grown manifold with fast growth in cross-border trade and investments flows. The argument for hedging currency risks appear to be natural in case of assets, and applies equally to trade in goods and services, which results in income flows with leads and lags and get converted into different currencies at the market rates. Empirically, changes in exchange rate are found to have very low correlations with foreign equity and bond returns. This in theory should lower portfolio risk. Therefore, sometimes argument is advanced against the need for hedging currency risks. But there is strong empirical evidence to suggest that hedging reduces the volatility of returns and indeed considering the episodic nature of currency returns, there are strong arguments to use instruments to hedge currency risks.