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.
For example, when applied to equities, such a contract is an equity derivative that allows traders to speculate on share price movements, without the need for ownership of the underlying shares.
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.
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, characterized 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 popularize the service in 2000.
It was around 2000 that retail traders realized 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 realized 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.
Attempt by Australian exchange to move to exchange trading
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 this had dropped to five by 2009 and by 2014 the ASX ceased to offer CFDs.
In 2014 the Australian securities exchange stopped offering exchange traded CFDs that they had launched in 2007, it had become clear that the majority of CFD trading occurred over-the-counter and the offering provided by the exchange was not attractive enough to create a viable on exchange market.
Insider trading regulations
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.
Attempt at central clearing
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.
European regulatory restrictions
in 2016 the European Securities and Markets Authority (ESMA) issued a warning on the sale of speculative products to retail investors that included the sale of CFDs. This was after they observed an increase in the marketing of these products at the same time as a rise in the number of complaints from retail investors who have suffered significant losses. Within Europe any provider based in any member country can offer the products to all member countries under MiFID and many of the European financial regulators responded with new rules on CFDs after the warning. The majority of providers are based in either Cyprus or the UK and both countries financial regulators were first to respond. CySEC the Cyprus financial regulator, where many of the firms are registered, increased the regulations on CFDs by limiting the maximum leverage to 50:1 as well prohibiting the paying of bonuses as sales incentives in November 2016. This was followed by the UK Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) issuing a proposal for similar restrictions on the December 6, 2016. The German regulator BaFin took a different approach and in response to the ESMA warning prohibited additional payments when a client made losses. While the French regulator Autorité des marchés financiers decided to ban all advertising of the CFDs. In March the Irish financial regulator followed suit and put out a proposal to either ban CFDs or implement limitations on leverage.
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 in other products.[contradictory] 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.