Futures Broker

Futures trading is very fast paced. You will want a good futures broker which offers a fast data feed paired with a good futures trading software

There are a lot of benefits to futures trading:

1) Going short is as easy as going long (no special margin rates)

2) Offer huge leverage which can be a more efficient use of capital than stocks

3) Trading is 24hrs (so you can trade after work if you want!)

4) Highly liquid markets

However, futures trading is very risky! The leverage available can cause you to lose money and fast when a position moves against you. And if the market goes limit up or limit down, opposite to your trade, you may be stuck in that trade until its no longer locked up and free to trade...by that time you might have lost more than you can afford. 

Main point - you can lose more money than you funded into your account. Getting the proper education is important before starting. 

Here is a comparison of online brokers to help in your search...

  1. This commission is to open a position per contract. Round trip cost (i.e. a full trade - open and then closing the position) would cost twice the amount. Note that actual cost per trade for futures will be higher as there are exchange fees.
  2. This is the minimum amount you must fund when opening an account.
  3. Each broker offers the use of specific trading platforms.
  4. These are the lowest margins required for a few popular futures contracts. These are all initial intraday margins. 

Online Futures Broker

Trading Platform

Interactive Brokers

Tradestation

MB Trading

TD Ameritrade

OptionsXpress

Mirus Futures

Global Futures

Velocity Futures

TWS

Tradestation

MBT, MetaTrader4

Think or Swim - thinkDesktop

Virtual Trade

NT, MarketDelta, MultiCharts

NT, MarketDelta, MultiCharts

NT, Sierra Charts

Commission

When looking at commissions on broker websites, you will see they are usually noted on a per contract basis (also known as "per side"). This is the commission to open or close a contract. There might also be mention of "roundtrip" commissions which is the total cost charged by the broker to enter and exit the contract.

Note that all commissions reported in the table above are just the broker costs. There are also exchange fees and sometimes additional fees like clearing fees. These are around a few dollars per roundtrip. A typical round trip commission may cost you $6 - still relatively cheap. 

Commissions are usually reduced if you trade large volumes but unless you are trigger happy clicking and executing 2000+ trades per month, you likely will not have a meaningful discount.

That being said, Global futures is actually the one futures broker I found that does not report any commission pricing on their site. You can request a quote or even propose your own commission rate. 

Account Minimum

You will notice some futures brokers do not charge any account minimums. Regardless of the account minimum, you need to put up margin to enter into any futures contract so you need to research what is the minimum margin the broker requires you to trade. 

Putting up margin simply means in order to enter into a contract by either buying or selling, you need to have a certain amount of cash in the account. 

I have included typical margin rates needed for a few popular contracts in the table above. 

Trading Platform

Each futures broker offers a certain trading platform. Usually it will be their proprietary system such as "TWS" by Interactive Brokers. However, many offer the ability of using third party online trading systems.

Ninjatrader seems to be the most popular trading platform out there right now for futures trading. It offers a lot of functionality and I would definitely recommend it. 

Have a look at the trading platforms offered by clicking them above. The process of choosing a futures broker will be heavily dependent on the trading software you wish to use. 

Performance Bond (Margin)

Whether going long or short a futures contract, you need to put up a performance bond, a.k.a. margin. This is the amount of cash that needs to be in your futures account in order to trade the security. 

Over the years, futures brokers have been reducing the required margin for day trading to be more competitive in the marketplace. 

You'll notice Interactive Brokers, Tradestation and Think or Swim post the highest margin rates. My guess it's to keep out small players with little capital and rather have more savvy investors with lots of capital. 

The margins posted for Think or Swim above are actually the Chicago Mercantile Exchange ("CME ") overnight margins. You only need 25% of this if you are approved and have $15,000 in liquidity.

The more competitive margin rates are offered by smaller brokers like Global Futures, Velocity, Mirus Futures. These guys have very low day trading margins. 

TRADER TIP: Make sure you look at what time during the day the contract you want to open a position stops trading. All futures have a window where trading stops. This is so that money movement between accounts is settled and then they reopen. Holding it when it closes means holding overnight for which you need the large overnight margin amounts vs day trading margin amounts. 

e.g. the S&P 500 mini contract has a trading halt between 3:15pm - 3:30pm every day. If you have a contract open at this time it will be held "overnight" and when trading resumes there might be a big gap up or down...meaning you made or lost a lot of money so BE AWARE of all contract details!


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