A Day in the Life … Of a Bond Trade

Trading bond futures may not be as risky as you think. A step-by-step guide that explains bond futures contract specs, pricing, and margin can go a long way. Walk through a 10-day bond trade and get a feel for day-to-day price action in the bond futures markets.

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5 min read
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Key Takeaways

  • What are bond futures and how can you trade them
  • Know Treasury futures contract specs, margin requirements, and how to calculate price changes
  • Go back in time and see how bond futures prices move

Perception is tricky. Reality is better. If you believe bonds are boring, risky, and complex, you’ve got a ton of company among retail traders. In reality, bond futures markets are actively traded, very liquid, have narrow bid/ask spreads, and provide a direct way to speculate on the bond market. Better yet, the value of the bond futures markets equals, or surpasses, equity markets. Great characteristics, all. Since reality is way more fun, let’s unravel the bond market mysteries and some of the mechanics behind Treasury futures.

What Are They?

A Treasury futures contract, like any futures contract, is an agreement between a buyer and seller to buy or sell an underlying at a certain price for delivery and payment at a specific date in the future. With Treasury futures, the underlying asset is a U.S. government–issued coupon security: bonds, notes, or bills.

The T-bond or “long bond” refers to the long-term, 30-year bond (symbol: /ZB on the thinkorswim® platform from TD Ameritrade). Treasury notes can have 10-year (/ZN), 5-year (/ZF), or 2-year (/ZT) maturities. Treasury bills have shorter maturities of one year or less, but they’re not widely traded.

Interest rates directly affect bond markets, which can likewise affect forex, commodity, and equity markets. For this reason, it’s a good idea to keep interest rates on your radar. And, bond prices and interest rates are inversely related. When interest rates or yields rise, bond prices fall. Why?

To understand this relationship, consider the nature of a bond, which is made up of a face value, an interest rate (coupon), and a maturity date. The interest rate is fixed. So, when expectations change, price is the only thing that moves. If interest rates rise, your fixed-rate bond is now yielding relatively less, so its price has to fall. But this price movement isn’t consistent across different contracts—which can make a bond future complex.

The Value of Price Moves

Treasury futures contracts come in five flavors with different maturities. Figure 1 shows these products and their price movement values. Think of it as a cheat sheet.

Most bond futures contracts have a $100,000 face value. One exception is /ZT, whose face value is twice as much. It has the shortest duration, which means those contracts won’t generally be impacted by interest rate movement. In other words, /ZT doesn’t move as much as the others. On the other hand, /ZB, /ZN, and /ZF are more actively traded. If you bring up /ZB on your thinkorswim platform from TD Ameritrade, and choose to display Active Only, the active contract will be identified.

Table displaying contract specs for treasury futures

FIGURE 1: TREASURY FUTURES CONTRACT SPECS. They’re all a bit different, but if you know the point values and tick values of each, price movements become easier to digest. For illustrative purposes only.

What’s Your Exposure?

Bonds are quoted in terms of their $1,000 multiplier. If the June /ZB contract is trading at 144’04, its value is (144 + 4/32), which works out to 144.125. Your exposure would be the contract multiplier $1,000, multiplied by $144.125, which works out to $144,125. But you don’t need to put up that entire amount. Instead, you put up a marginal amount, known as the initial margin requirement.

Many traders are drawn to trading futures because of leverage—the ability to commit a small amount of capital to control a large position. And that means small changes in an underlying future’s price could turn into large gains or losses. As with all financial instruments, it’s worth putting in the time to understand how margin and leverage work.

Leverage for futures is different than for stocks. Many traders will let cash-settled futures settle to cash. For physically settled contracts, such as crude oil (/CL), a trader must be out of the position before the settlement date or else a broker like TD Ameritrade, which doesn’t allow physical delivery, will trade out of the contract for you. Futures traders open and close positions before a contract’s settlement date, so they don’t need the contract’s full value in order to trade. (See figure 2 for an illustration of a bond future’s margin mechanics.) Keep in mind: margin requirements are subject to change. So check with the exchange, and/or your broker, before you trade.

Table showing how margin works in bond futures

FIGURE 2: BOND FUTURES MARGINS, EXPLAINED. For illustrative purposes only.

For $2,700, plus any transaction costs, you’re getting exposure to $100,000 of the 30-year Treasury bond. Now that you know how bonds are priced and how margin works, take a look at figure 3 to see an example of day-to-day action in bond prices. Calculating P/L is simple math. Say you buy one/ZB contract at 143’26 and sell one /ZB at 144’28. Your profit would be $1,062.50. On your thinkorswim platform, head over to the Analyze tab, thinkBack, Underlying & P/L Graph. Go back in time to see how bonds move. With initial capital of $2,700, it’s possible to trade bond futures and potentially earn a profit. But remember, things could go the other way. Which is why you should have a risk management strategy in place to prevent your account value from dropping below its maintenance margin.
Line chart showing 10-day price movement in bond futures

FIGURE 3: WATCH BOND PRICES MOVE. Here you see how /ZB moved between March 20, 2018, to April 3, 2018. For illustrative purposes only.

Big Doesn’t Have to Be Scary

Some may think bonds are complex, scary financial instruments that should be avoided. In point of fact, you don’t always need a huge capital outlay to trade bond futures—just a strong understanding of the pricing dynamics. And make sure you’re prudent about your trading account. Get to know bonds in your paperMoney® account. The reality may surprise you.
Jayanthi Gopalakrishnan is not a representative of TD Ameritrade, Inc. The material, views, and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and may not be reflective of those held by TD Ameritrade, Inc.

Key Takeaways

  • What are bond futures and how can you trade them
  • Know Treasury futures contract specs, margin requirements, and how to calculate price changes
  • Go back in time and see how bond futures prices move

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