Contract for difference
|This article needs additional citations for verification. (January 2015)|
In finance, a contract for difference (CFD) is a contract between two parties, typically described as "buyer" and "seller", stipulating that the seller will pay to the buyer the difference between the current value of an asset and its value at contract time (If the difference is negative, then the buyer pays instead to the seller). In effect CFDs are financial derivatives, that allow traders to take advantage of prices moving up (long positions) or prices moving down (short positions) on underlying financial instruments and are often used to speculate on those markets.
CFDs are currently available in Australia, Austria, Canada, Cyprus, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, The Netherlands, Luxembourg, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, United Kingdom and New Zealand. They are not permitted in a number of other countries. In the United States, under the Dodd-Frank Act, CFDs are considered to be “swaps” or “security-based swaps,” depending on the nature of the underlier on which they are based, and are subject to the regulatory framework for those products established by Title VII of the Dodd-Frank Act. For example, a CFD on Apple common stock would be a security-based swap (SBS) subject to the regulatory framework for SBS established by the Dodd-Frank Act. Under the Dodd-Frank Act, among other things, transactions in SBS with or for retail investors (that is, persons who are not “eligible contract participants”) must be done on a registered national securities exchange and offers and sales of SBS to retail investors must be registered under the Securities Act of 1933.
- 1 History
- 2 Trading
- 3 Risks
- 4 CFDs compared to other products
- 5 Exchange traded CFDs in Australia
- 6 Criticism
- 7 See also
- 8 References
- 9 Further reading
CFDs were originally developed in the early 1990s in London as a type of equity swap that was traded on margin. The invention of the CFD is widely credited to Brian Keelan and Jon Wood, both of UBS Warburg, on their Trafalgar House deal in the early 90s.[need quotation to verify][not in citation given]
They were initially used by hedge funds and institutional traders to hedge cost-effectively their exposure to stocks on the London Stock Exchange, mainly because they required only a small margin and because no physical shares changed hands avoided the UK tax of stamp duty.
In the late 1990s CFDs were introduced to retail traders. They were popularised by a number of UK companies, characterised by innovative online trading platforms that made it easy to see live prices and trade in real time. The first company to do this was GNI (originally known as Gerrard & National Intercommodities); GNI and its CFD trading service GNI touch was later acquired by MF Global. They were soon followed by IG Markets and CMC Markets who started to popularise the service in 2000.
It was around 2000 that retail traders realised that the real benefit of trading CFDs was not the exemption from tax but the ability to leverage any underlying instrument. This was the start of the growth phase in the use of CFDs. The CFD providers quickly expanded their offering from London Stock Exchange (LSE) shares to include indices, many global stocks, commodities, bonds, and currencies. Trading index CFDs, such as the ones based on the major global indexes e.g. Dow Jones, NASDAQ, S&P 500, FTSE, DAX, and CAC, quickly became the most popular type of CFD that were traded.
Around 2001 a number of the CFD providers realised that CFDs had the same economic effect as financial spread betting in the UK except that spread betting profits were exempt from Capital Gains Tax. Most CFD providers launched financial spread betting operations in parallel to their CFD offering. In the UK the CFD market mirrors the financial spread betting market and the products are in many ways the same. However unlike CFDs which have been exported to a number of different countries, spread betting relying on a country specific tax advantage has remained primarily a UK and Irish phenomenon.
The CFD providers started to expand to overseas markets with CFDs being first introduced to Australia in July 2002 by IG Markets and CMC Markets. CFDs have since been introduced into a number of other countries; see list above.
Until 2007 CFDs had been traded exclusively over-the-counter (OTC); however, on 5 November 2007 the Australian Securities Exchange (ASX) listed exchange-traded CFDs on the top 50 Australian stocks, 8 FX pairs, key global indices and some commodities. There were originally 12 brokers offering ASX CFDs, but as of 2009 this had dropped to only five. As of June 2014 ASX ceased to offer CFDs.
In June 2009, the UK regulator the Financial Services Authority (FSA) implemented a general disclosure regime for CFDs to avoid them being used in insider information cases. This was after a number of high-profile cases where positions in CFDs were used instead of physical underlying stock to hide them from the normal disclosure rules related to insider information.
In October 2013, LCH.Clearnet in partnership with Cantor Fitzgerald, ING Bank and Commerzbank launched centrally cleared CFDs in line with the EU financial regulators’ stated aim of increasing the proportion of cleared OTC contracts.
CFDs are traded between individual traders and CFD providers. There are no standard contract terms for CFDs, and each CFD provider can specify their own, but they tend to have a number of things in common.
The CFD is started by making an opening trade on a particular instrument with the CFD provider. This creates a ‘position’ in that instrument. There is no expiry date. Once the position is closed, the difference between the opening trade and the closing trade is paid as profit or loss. The CFD provider may make a number of charges as part of the trading or the open position. These may include, bid-offer spread, commission, overnight financing and account management fees.
Even though the CFD does not expire, any positions that are left open overnight will be 'rolling'. This typically means that any profit and loss is realised and credited or debited to the client account and any financing charges are calculated. The position then carries forward to the next day. The industry norm is that this process is done at 10pm UK time.
CFDs are traded on margin, and the trader must maintain the minimum margin level at all times. A typical feature of CFD trading is that profit and loss and margin requirement is calculated constantly in real time and shown to the trader on screen. If the amount of money deposited with CFD broker drops below minimum margin level, margin calls can be made. Traders may need to cover these margins quickly otherwise the CFD provider may liquidate their positions.
To see how CFDs work in practice see the examples of typical CFD trades. The ‘margin percentage’, and ‘charges’ shown may vary from provider to provider, but are typical of CFD providers.
Example 1 - an Equity based CFD trade
In this example we show an equity based CFD trade. The share price of Apple Inc is $194.38. We believe that the share price will rise and so decide to take a long CFD position. Our CFD Provider is quoting a price of $194.36 bid and $194.42 offer.
|Step 1 Opening a position|
|Buy 100 Apple CFDs at offer price||100 x $194.42 = $19,442.00|
|Margin requirement is open position x margin percentage. Typical margin for equities is 3%-15% depending on the liquidity of the underlying instrument. In our example Apple CFDs require margin of 5%.||$19,442.00 x 0.05 = $972.10|
|You get charged commission of 0.1% on this transaction||$19,442.00 x 0.001 = $19.44|
|Step 2 Overnight Financing|
|To hold this position a financing charge is made each night. This is normally based on a benchmark rate per cent like LIBOR + broker margin per cent / 365. For simplicity we will assume the price of Apple shares stayed the same until the market close and so no P&L was generated on this day.||$19,442.00 x (0.0025 + 0.02) / 365 = $1.20|
|Step 3 Closing the position|
|The next day Apple share price has risen by $6.15. Our trade has moved in our favour and we decide to close the position and take profit.|
|Our CFD provider is quoting $200.50 bid and $200.58 offer.|
|Sell 100 Apple CFDs at bid price||100 x 200.50 = $20,050.00|
|The position is now closed and so margin requirement is now zero||$0.00|
|You get charged commission of 0.1% on this transaction||$20,050.00 x 0.001 = $20.05|
|Gross profit is difference between opening position and closing the position||$20,050.00 - $19,442.00 = $608|
|Net profit is gross profit less costs. The costs are commissions and overnight financing. In this example we have been charged commission twice, once to open the position and once to close it, and we have been charged one day overnight financing.||$19.44 + $20.05 + $1.20 = $40.69|
|Profit & Loss shows a profit after costs||$608.00 – $40.69 = $567.31|
In summary we have had to deposit $972.10 to cover margin on this trade and made a profit of $567.31. If the price of Apple shares had instead dropped by $6.15, we would have sustained a loss of $647.47 ($608 plus commissions).
Example 2 - An Index based CFD trade on the S&P 500 Index
In this example we show an index based CFD. The S&P 500 Index is at 1093.9. We believe that the Index will go down and so decide to take a 'short' position. Our CFD broker is quoting 1093.7 bid and 1094.1 offer.
|Step 1 Opening a position|
|Sell 10 S&P500 CFDs at bid price||10 x $1093.7 = $10,937|
|Margin requirement is open position x margin percentage. Typical value for major indices is 0.5%||10,937 x 0.005 = $54.68|
|Commission – typically no commission is charged on index CFDs|
|Step 2 Overnight Financing|
|To hold a position a financing charge is made, however as we are holding a short position we will instead receive the financing. The rate is normally based on a benchmark rate per cent like LIBOR, from this we subtract the broker margin and divide by 365 to get the daily financing. For simplicity lets assume the US interest rate is 4% and the broker margin is 2%.||$10,937 x (0.04 - 0.02) / 365 = +$0.60|
|Step 3 Closing the position|
|The next day the S&P has dropped by 10 points to 1083.7 bid and 1084.1 offer|
|Our trade has moved in our favour and we decide to take profit and close the position|
|Buy back the position at the lower price||10 x 1084.1 = $10,841|
|The position is now closed and so margin requirement is now zero|
|Gross profit is difference between opening position and closing the position||$10,937 - $10,841 = $96.00|
|Net profit is gross profit less costs. In this example financing is actually positive and there are no other costs. So we get a credit of||$0.60|
|Profit and Loss shows a Profit after costs||$96.00 + 0.60 = $96.60|
In summary we have had to deposit $54.68 to cover margin on this trade and made a profit of $96.60. If the S&P 500 Index had risen instead by 10 points we would have sustained a loss of $95.40 ($96.00 + Costs). Note that the amount of gain or loss was bigger than the margin requirement. In other words, you would have gained or lost more money than you deposited.
The contracts are subject to a daily financing charge, usually applied at a previously agreed rate linked to LIBOR or some other interest rate benchmark e.g. Reserve Bank rate in Australia. The parties to a CFD pay to finance long positions and may receive funding on short positions in lieu of deferring sale proceeds. The contracts are settled for the cash differential between the price of the opening and closing trades.
Traditionally, equity based CFDs are subject to a commission that is a percentage of the size of the position for each trade. Alternatively, a trader can opt to trade with a market maker, foregoing commissions at the expense of a larger bid/offer spread on the instrument.
Traders in CFDs are required to maintain a certain amount of margin as defined by the brokerage or market maker (usually ranging from 0.5% to 30%). One advantage to traders of not having to put up as collateral the full notional amount of the CFD is that a given quantity of capital can control a larger position, amplifying the potential for profit or loss. On the other hand, a leveraged position in a volatile CFD can expose the buyer to a margin call in a downturn, which often leads to losing a substantial part of the assets.
- Initial Margin - (normally between 3% and 30% for shares/stocks and 0.5% - 1% for indices, foreign exchange and commodities)
- Variation Margin - (which is then 'marked to market').
Initial margin is fixed at between 0.5% and 30% depending on the underlying product and overall perceived risk in the market at that time. For example, during and after 9/11 initial margins were massively hiked across the board to counter the explosion in volatility in the world's stock markets.
Many refer to initial margin as a deposit. For example, for large and highly liquid stocks such as Vodafone the initial margin will be nearer 3%, and depending on the broker and the client's relationship with the firm the deposit maybe even lower. However, with a smaller capitalised and less liquid stock the margin is likely to be at least 10% if not a lot higher.
Variation margin is applied to positions if they move against a client. For example, if a CFD trader were to buy 1,000 shares in ABC stock using CFDs at 100p and the price moved lower to 90p the broker would deduct £100 in variation margin (1,000 shares x 10p) from the client's account. Note, this is all done in real-time as the market moves lower, so called 'marked to market'. Conversely, if the share price moved higher by 10p the broker would credit the client's account with £100 in running profits.
Variation margin can therefore have either a negative or positive effect on a CFD trader's cash balance. But initial margin will always be deducted from a customer's account and replaced once the trade is covered.
One of the benefits (and risks) of trading CFDs is that they are traded on margin meaning that they provide the trader with leverage. Leverage involves taking a small deposit and using it as a lever to borrow and gain access to a larger equivalent quantity of assets. The margin requirements on CFDs are low meaning that only small amount of money is required to take large positions.
Stop loss orders
A stop loss order can be set to trigger an exit point as pre-determined by the trader e.g. Buy at $3.00 with a stop loss at $2.60. Once the stop loss is triggered, a sell signal is activated to the CFD provider and actioned in accordance with their terms of business and taking into account available liquidity to action the request. DMA providers typically receive the stop loss value via the phone or online ordering and will place the order in the market to be actioned at the pre-determined price to a limited price range e.g. to a maximum 6c further, and providing there is matching liquidity. If the stop loss price is triggered and the price then rapidly moves outside the 6c range in this example, or there is insufficient liquidity for your order and considering other people that have orders at that price point, your stop loss sell order may not be triggered and you remain in the position.
Market makers have the ability to manage the stop loss and when a stop loss order is triggered, they can close the position wherever they see that matching price and quantity are available. This increases your chances of getting out of a position that is going against you, albeit at a potentially inferior price to what you were expecting.
One of the problems with the price of a stop loss order is that it is only a target price. It depends if the market price actually trades at that level. If the underlying instrument price 'gaps' i.e. it moves past the stop price in one step, the stop will get executed at the next price that was traded or not at all depending on the CFD provider. This is normally not a problem on very actively traded products like indices and currencies, but can be an issue on equity prices, particularly for stocks that have low liquidity. It is also a problem when stock markets are closed, and the difference between the close on one day and the open on the next day is significant (for example: if there has been news about a stock overnight that impacts company profitability).
To mitigate this problem, some providers offer 'Guaranteed Stop Loss Orders' (GSLO) whereby the trader pays a premium for a price to be guaranteed should a stop loss price be triggered. As well as the additional charge, there are normally other restrictions. The closest a guaranteed stop loss order can be placed is typically 5% from the current price, and providers usually have specific terms and conditions on the orders. However, they can be effective if exiting at a set price is important.
CFDs are typically traded over-the-counter with a broker or market maker, known as a CFD provider. The CFD provider will define the contract terms, the margin rates and what underlying instruments it is willing to trade. They trade under two different models, which can have an impact on the price of the instrument traded:
- Market maker (MM): this is the most common method, and is where the CFD provider makes the price for the CFD on underlying and takes all orders onto its own book. Most CFD providers will hedge these positions based on their own risk model, which may be as simple as buying or selling the underlying, but may also be via portfolio hedges or by consolidating client positions and offsetting one client long with another client short position. This does not affect the CFD trade as no matter what the CFD provider does with its own market risk, the contract is always between the trader and the CFD provider. The main impact is that price can be different from the underlying physical market as the CFD provider can for example take into account other client positions it is holding. This does allow the CFD provider to be very flexible in the products and trading times it offers as it allows them to easily create hybrids and hedge using alternative instruments for example to allow trading out of normal market hours. In practice, the market maker price usually matches the underlying instrument as the CFD provider would otherwise be exposed to arbitrageurs, but some CFD providers add an additional written guarantee in the contract that all CFD prices will match that of the underlying instrument.
- Direct market access (DMA) was created in response to concerns that the price in the market-maker model may not match that of the underlying instrument. A DMA CFD provider guarantees that it will do a physical trade on the underlying market to match each CFD trade on a one-for-one basis. The contract is still between the traders and the CFD provider but through this method it is guaranteed that the CFD price is the same as the underlying price and that they will not be re-quoted. They will also be able to see their order in the underlying physical market order book. DMA only works where the underlying instrument can be readily bought and sold in the quantities that match the CFD and is most commonly used for shares CFDs. DMA CFDs can be more expensive as the CFD provider needs to cover the exchange transaction fees and may not be able get economies of scale by netting client orders together. The DMA model is much more like a traditional broker model and is preferred by professional and institutional traders as it avoids conflicts of interest with the CFD provider.
Corporate actions on equity based CFDs
Corporate actions such as dividend payments can have an effect on the share price and hence the price of an equity based CFD. However, a person who holds a CFD position has no ownership of the underlying instrument and so would not receive the dividend payment from the company that issued the shares.
In this case the CFD provider would pay the equivalent of the dividend to anyone holding a long CFD position and deduct the equivalent from anyone holding a short position. This would be done on ex-div date as that is when the economic effect is felt on the underlying share price. The general rule is that any economic effect of a corporate action on the underlying must be reflected in the CFD. This includes dividends, stock splits, rights issues etc. However, a CFD holder will never have access to non economic corporate actions such as voting rights.
The main risk is market risk as the contract is designed to pay the difference between the opening price and the closing price of the underlying asset. CFDs are traded on margin, and the leveraging effect of this increases the risk significantly. Margin rates are typically small and therefore a small amount of money can be used to hold a large position. It is this very risk that drives the use of CFDs, either to speculate on movements in financial markets or to hedge existing positions elsewhere.[contradiction] One of the ways to mitigate this risk is the use of stop loss orders. Users typically deposit an amount of money with the CFD provider to cover the margin and can lose much more than this deposit if the market moves against them.
If prices move against open CFD position additional variation margin is required to maintain the margin level. The CFD provider may call upon the party to deposit additional sums to cover this, and in fast moving markets this may be at short notice. If funds are not provided in time, the CFD provider may close/liquidate the positions at a loss for which the other party is liable.
Another dimension of CFD risk is counterparty risk, a factor in most over-the-counter (OTC) traded derivatives. Counterparty risk is associated with the financial stability or solvency of the counterparty to a contract. In the context of CFD contracts, if the counterparty to a contract fails to meet their financial obligations, the CFD may have little or no value regardless of the underlying instrument. This means that a CFD trader could potentially incur severe losses, even if the underlying instrument moves in the desired direction. OTC CFD providers are required to segregate client funds protecting client balances in event of company default, but cases such as that of MF Global remind us that guarantees can be broken. Exchange-traded contracts traded through a clearing house are generally believed to have less counterparty risk. Ultimately, the degree of counterparty risk is defined by the credit risk of the counterparty, including the clearing house if applicable.
CFDs compared to other products
There are a number of different financial products that have been used in the past to speculate on financial markets. These range from trading in physical shares either direct or via margin lending, to using derivatives such as futures, options or covered warrants. A number of brokers have been actively promoting CFDs as alternatives to all of these products.
Although no firm figures are available as trading is over-the-counter, it is estimated that CFD related hedging accounts for somewhere between 20% and 40% the volume on the London Stock Exchange (LSE). A number of people in the industry back the view that a third of all LSE volume is CFD related. The LSE does not monitor the numbers but the original 25% estimate as quoted by many people, appears to have come from a LSE spokesperson.
The CFD market most resembles the futures and options market, the major differences being:
- There is no expiry date, so no time decay;
- Trading is done over-the-counter with CFD brokers or market makers;
- CFD contract is normally one to one with the underlying instrument;
- CFDs are not available to US residents;
- CFDs are not available to HK residents;
- Minimum contract sizes are small, so it’s possible to buy one share CFD, low entry threshold;
- Easy to create new instruments, not restricted to exchange definitions or jurisdictional boundaries, very wide selection of underlying instruments can be traded.
Futures are preferred by professionals for indices and interest rate trading over CFDs as they are a mature product and are exchange traded. The main advantages of CFDs, compared to futures, is that contract sizes are smaller making it more accessible for small trader and pricing is more transparent. Futures contracts tend to only converge near to the expiry date compared to the price of the underlying instrument which does not occur on the CFD as it never expires and simply mirrors the underlying instrument.
Futures are often used by the CFD providers to hedge their own positions and many CFDs are written over futures as futures prices are easily obtainable. CFDs don't have expiry dates so when a CFD is written over a futures contract the CFD contract has to deal with the futures contract expiry date. The industry practice is for the CFD provider to 'roll' the CFD position to the next future period when the liquidity starts to dry in the last few days before expiry, thus creating a rolling CFD contract.
Options, like futures, are an established product, exchange traded and centrally cleared and used by professionals. Options, like futures, can be used to hedge risk or to take on risk to speculate. CFDs are only comparable in the latter case.[contradiction] The main advantage of CFDs over options is the price simplicity and range of underlying instruments. An important disadvantage is that a CFD cannot be allowed to lapse, unlike an option. This means that the downside risk of a CFD is unlimited, whereas the most that can be lost on an option is the price of the option itself. In addition, no margin calls are made on options if the market moves against the trader.
Compared to CFDs, option pricing is complex and has price decay when nearing expiry while CFDs prices simply mirror the underlying instrument. CFDs cannot be used to reduce risk in the way that options can.[contradiction]
Similar to options, covered warrants have become popular in recent years as a way of speculating cheaply on market movements. CFDs costs tend to be lower for short periods and have a much wider range of underlying products. In markets such as Singapore, some brokers have been heavily promoting CFDs as alternatives to covered warrants, and may have been partially responsible for the decline in volume of covered warrant there.
This is the traditional way to trade financial markets, this requires a relationship with a broker in each country, require paying broker fees and commissions and dealing with settlement process for that product. With the advent of discount brokers, this has become easier and cheaper, but can still be challenging for retail traders particularly if trading in overseas markets. Without leverage this is capital intensive as all positions have to be fully funded. CFDs make it much easier to access global markets for much lower costs and much easier to move in and out of a position quickly. All forms of margin trading involve financing costs, in effect the cost of borrowing the money for the whole position.
Margin lending also known as margin buying or leveraged equities have all the same attributes as physical shares discussed earlier, but with the addition of leverage, which means like CFDs, futures, and options much less capital is required, but risks are increased. Since the advent of CFDs, many traders have moved from margin lending to CFD trading. The main benefits of CFD versus margin lending are that there are more underlying products, the margin rates are lower, and it is easy to go short. Even with the recent bans on short selling, CFD providers who have been able to hedge their book in other ways have allowed clients to continue to short sell those stocks.
Exchange traded CFDs in Australia
The majority of CFDs are traded OTC using the direct market access (DMA) or market maker model, but from 2007 until June 2014 the Australian Securities Exchange (ASX) offered exchange traded CFDs. As a result a small percentage of CFDs were traded through the Australian exchange.
The advantages and disadvantages of having an exchange traded CFD were similar for most financial products and meant reducing counterparty risk and increasing transparency but costs were higher.
- Market Independence; the exchange had to make sure markets were fair, orderly, and transparent. ASX was independent of the parties with whom a customer received advice and deals through. This separation of responsibility between broker and exchange provided customers with choice as to whom they wished to execute their business, and with one standard contract specification for all ASX CFDs.
- Transparency; ASX reported on all ASX CFDs transacted, open positions, bids, offers and volumes. ASX CFDs were traded in the same way as other ASX traded contracts. ASX CFDs were offered on a separate market with a separate book to that of physical stock trading on the ASX. When trading ASX CFDs, the customer's order was entered directly via a Participant into the ASX CFD central market order book. This order book was available for the market to see. All orders were executed on a strict price/time priority.
- Counterparty risk; all settlement obligations were cleared and guaranteed by SFE Clearing Corporation (SFECC) which had a statutory obligation to operate "fair and efficient" facilities. These were monitored by both the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) and the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA). The ASX claimed this reduced counterparty risk as the payment is guaranteed by the exchange central clearer which had much larger capital reserves than any individual broker. By comparison, all over-the-counter CFD providers in Australia are required by law to hold an Australian Financial Services Licence issued by ASIC. This license includes the requirement to hold client funds in segregated accounts so that a company failure will limit the loss for clients. However, CFD providers may still be able to access this money to cover their own margin requirements, and if this resulted in overall company loss or foreclosure, a trader’s deposit could still be at risk.
- Higher costs; the exchange and the clearing house needed to earn money and so charge fees as well as the broker. In addition the broker’s administration costs tended to be higher to comply with exchange and clearing requirements.
- Limited products; Australian Securities Exchange only offered a small number of CFDs, did not cover all physical shares on its own exchange and did not offer CFDs on shares from any other country. It did offer a small number of global indices and some currencies. In contrast, CFD providers typically offer CFDs on thousands of underlying products from all over the world, including shares from all major markets as well as all major indices, commodities, currencies and treasuries. Unlike the ASX CFDS, the flexibility and ease of creating a new CFD on any underlying traded instrument as well as not being limited to exchange definitions has been seen as one of the strengths of CFDs.
- Pricing; one side effect of the separate order book for CFDs on the exchange was that prices and spreads were based on CFDs orders only. This meant that the price and spread of an ASX CFD could be different from that of its underlying instrument. In some instances, while the underlying instrument was liquid and heavily traded with a tight spread the ASX CFD based on that instrument may have had little or no liquidity and a wider spread. The viability of trading would depend on the ASX attracting enough participants to its CFD products to create a liquid market.
The disadvantages of the ASX exchange traded CFDs and lack of liquidity meant that most Australian traders opted for over-the-counter CFD providers.
Some financial commentators and regulators have expressed concern about the way that CFDs are marketed at new and inexperienced traders by the CFD providers. In particular the way that the potential gains are advertised in a way that may not fully explain the risks involved. In anticipation and response to this concern most financial regulators that cover CFDs specify that risk warnings must be prominently displayed on all advertising, web sites and when new accounts are opened. For example the UK FSA rules for CFD providers include that they must assess the suitability of CFDs for each new client based on their experience and must provide a risk warning document to all new clients, based on a general template devised by the FSA. The Australian financial regulator ASIC on its trader information site suggests that trading CFDs is riskier than gambling on horses or going to a casino. It recommends that trading CFDs should be carried out by individuals who have extensive experience of trading, in particular during volatile markets and can afford losses that any trading system cannot avoid.
There has also been concern that CFDs are little more than gambling implying that most traders lose money trading CFDs. It is impossible to confirm what the average returns are from trading as no reliable statistics are available and CFD providers do not publish such information, however prices of CFDs are based on publicly available underlying instruments and odds are not stacked against traders as the CFD is simply the difference in underlying price.
There has also been some concern that CFD trading lacks transparency as it happens primarily over-the-counter and that there is no standard contract. This has led some to suggest that CFD providers could exploit their clients. This topic appears regularly on trading forums, in particular when it comes to rules around executing stops, and liquidating positions in margin call. Although the incidence of these types of discussions may be due to traders' psychology where it is hard to internalise a losing trade and instead they try to find external source to blame. This is also something that the Australian Securities Exchange, promoting their Australian exchange traded CFD and some of the CFD providers, promoting direct market access products, have used to support their particular offering. They argue that their offering reduces this particular risk in some way. The counter argument is that there are many CFD providers and the industry is very competitive with over twenty CFD providers in the UK alone. If there were issues with one provider, clients could easily switch to another.
Some of the criticism surrounding CFD trading is connected with the CFD brokers' unwillingness to inform their users about the psychology involved in this kind of high-risk trading. Factors such as the fear of losing that translates into neutral and even losing positions become a reality when the users change from a demonstration account to the real one. This fact is not documented by the majority of CFD brokers.
Criticism has also been expressed about the way that some CFD providers hedge their own exposure and the conflict of interest that this could cause when they define the terms under which the CFD is traded. One article suggested that some CFD providers had been running positions against their clients based on client profiles, in the expectation that those clients would lose, and that this created a conflict of interest for the providers.
CFDs, when offered by providers under the market maker model, have been compared to the bets sold by bucket shops, which flourished in the United States at the turn of the 20th century. These allowed speculators to place highly leveraged bets on stocks generally not backed or hedged by actual trades on an exchange, so the speculator was in effect betting against the house. Bucket shops, colourfully described in Jesse Livermore's semi-autobiographical "Reminiscences of a Stock Operator", are illegal in the United States according to criminal as well as securities law.
- “Further Definition of ‘Swap,’ ‘Security-Based Swap,’ and ‘Security-Based Swap Agreement’; Mixed Swaps; Security-Based Swap Agreement Recordkeeping,” Securities and Exchange Commission Rel. No. 34-67453 (Jul. 18, 2012), 77 FR 48207, 48259-60 (Aug. 13, 2012), available at: http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2012-08-13/pdf/2012-18003.pdf
- Section 3(a)(65) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, as added by the Dodd-Frank Act, available at: http://www.sec.gov/about/laws/sea34.pdf, cross-referencing Section 1a(18) of the Commodity Exchange Act, available at: https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/html/uscode07/usc_sup_01_7_10_1.html
- Section 6(l) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, as added by the Dodd-Frank Act, available at: http://www.sec.gov/about/laws/sea34.pdf
- Section 5(e) of the Securities Act of 1933, as added by the Dodd-Frank Act, available at: http://www.sec.gov/about/laws/sa33.pdf
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