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An Introduction to CFDs

The contract for differences (CFD) offers European traders and investors an opportunity to profit from price movement without owning the underlying asset. It’s a relatively simple security calculated by the asset’s movement between trade entry and exit, computing only the price change without consideration of the asset’s underlying value.   This is accomplished through a contract between client and broker and does not utilize any stock, forex, commodity, or futures exchange. Trading CFDs offers several major advantages that have increased the instruments’ enormous popularity in the past decade.

Key Takeaways

  • A contract for differences (CFD) is an agreement between an investor and a CFD broker to exchange the difference in the value of a financial product between the time the contract opens and closes.
  • A CFD investor never actually owns the underlying asset but instead receives revenue based on the price change of that asset.
  • Some advantages of CFDs include access to the underlying asset at a lower cost than buying the asset outright, ease of execution, and the ability to go long or short.
  • A disadvantage of CFDs is the immediate decrease of the investor’s initial position, which is reduced by the size of the spread upon entering the CFD.
  • Other CFD risks include weak industry regulation, potential lack of liquidity, and the need to maintain an adequate margin.

How a CFD Works

If a stock has an ask price of $25.26 and the trader buys 100 shares, the cost of the transaction is $2,526 plus commission and fees. This trade requires at least $1,263 in free cash at a traditional broker in a 50% margin account, while a CFD broker requires just a 5% margin, or $126.30.

A CFD trade will show a loss equal to the size of the spread at the time of the transaction. If the spread is 5 cents, the stock needs to gain 5 cents for the position to hit the break-even price. While you’ll see a 5-cent gain if you owned the stock outright, you would have also paid a commission and incurred a larger capital outlay.

If the stock rallies to a bid price of $25.76 in a traditional broker account, it can be sold for a $50 gain or $50/$1,263 = 3.95% profit. However, when the national exchange reaches this price, the CFD bid price may only be $25.74. The CFD profit will be lower because the trader must exit at the bid price and the spread is larger than on the regular market.

In this example, the CFD trader earns an estimated $48 or $48/$126.30 = 38% return on investment. The CFD broker may also require the trader to buy at a higher initial price, $25.28 for example. Even so, the $46 to $48 earned on the CFD trade denotes a net profit, while the $50 profit from owning the stock outright doesn’t include commissions or other fees. Thus, the CFD trader ends up with more money in their pocket.

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