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What are perpetual futures contracts and how to use them in crypto?

By Romeo F.
11 Aug 2023
8 min read

Perpetual futures contracts represent an innovative departure from traditional futures contracts, primarily due to their absence of an expiration date. Unlike traditional futures, which obligate traders to close positions before a set date, perpetual futures contracts allow traders to maintain their positions indefinitely.

This unique feature has garnered attention due to its potential to bridge the gap between spot and futures markets seamlessly.

For both seasoned traders and newcomers to the cryptocurrency market, understanding perpetual futures contracts is crucial. The complexities and opportunities presented by perpetual futures demand a comprehensive grasp of their mechanics.

Traders can utilize perpetual futures to leverage their positions, hedge against adverse market movements, and diversify their trading strategies.

Investors, on the other hand, need to appreciate the influence of perpetual futures on price discovery and market sentiment to make informed decisions about portfolio allocation.

(This article focuses specifically on Perpetual Futures Contracts. For Futures or other crypto derivative products, check out our DeFi Derivatives article.)

Understanding Perpetual Futures Contracts

Perpetual futures contracts, often referred to simply as "perpetuals," stand as a fascinating hybrid within the derivatives market. These contracts share similarities with traditional futures but possess distinct features that set them apart.

No Expiration Date

The most prominent divergence from traditional futures contracts lies in the absence of an expiration date. This perpetual nature means that traders can hold positions for as long as they choose, eliminating the need for periodic contract rollovers.

Funding Rates and Premium Index

Perpetuals employ a mechanism known as the funding rate to ensure that the contract price remains aligned with the underlying spot market. The funding rate is a recurring fee or payment transferred between long and short positions to maintain this alignment. The premium index is used to calculate this funding rate, taking into account the contract's price relative to the spot price.

Mechanisms to Maintain Price Alignment with Spot Market

To prevent significant deviations between the contract price and the spot price, perpetual futures employ a funding mechanism. When the contract price diverges from the spot price, the funding rate adjusts accordingly, creating incentives for traders to bring the contract price back in line with the spot market.

Perpetual future contracts diagram
Credit: Blockchain Simplified

Comparison with Traditional Futures Contracts

1. Absence of Expiry and Settlement: Unlike traditional futures contracts that have a fixed expiration date and require settlement, perpetual futures contracts offer continuous trading without the need for traders to roll over their positions. This characteristic simplifies trading strategies, as traders can maintain positions for as long as they wish.

2. Funding and Premium Implications: The funding mechanism inherent to perpetual adds a layer of complexity absent in traditional futures contracts. While the lack of expiry is advantageous, traders need to be mindful of funding rates, as they can impact the overall profitability of a position over time.

3. Use Cases and Advantages for Traders: Perpetual futures contracts offer traders several unique advantages. Leveraging positions, hedging strategies, and exploiting market inefficiencies become more streamlined due to perpetuals' uninterrupted trading nature. These contracts also allow traders to implement speculative strategies with precision and control.

Mechanics of Crypto Perpetual Futures Contracts

Funding Rates and Funding Intervals

The funding rate is a dynamic component of perpetual futures contracts, calculated periodically based on the premium index and market conditions.

When the contract price deviates significantly from the underlying spot price, the funding rate adjusts to encourage price convergence.

Traders with positions that contribute to the deviation are either paid or charged the funding rate. This mechanism aligns the contract price with the spot market.

For traders, funding rates introduce an element of cost or gain to their positions, even when the market is stable. Long positions pay funding to short positions when the premium index is positive, and the reverse occurs when the premium index is negative.

This dynamic funding process can influence trading strategies and add a layer of complexity to profit calculations.

Premium Index and Contract Price

The premium index plays a crucial role in ensuring that the perpetual futures contract price remains in line with the spot market price. It reflects the difference between the contract price and the underlying asset's spot price.

When the premium index strays from zero, it triggers funding rate adjustments that incentivize traders to engage in arbitrage activities, bringing the contract price back to equilibrium.

Funding rates impact the premium index and, subsequently, the contract price. High funding rates indicate a significant discrepancy between the contract price and the spot price, potentially prompting traders to adjust their positions to capitalize on funding incentives.

As funding rates fluctuate, they can introduce additional volatility into the market, affecting trader behavior and market sentiment.

Funding Rate Mechanics

The funding rate differentiates between long and short positions. If the premium index is positive, traders with long positions pay funding to those with short positions, and vice versa.

This process encourages traders to take positions that counteract any pricing discrepancies, promoting equilibrium between the contract price and the spot price.

In certain situations, the funding rate may deviate from the expected range due to market conditions or high volatility. Such deviations can trigger sudden shifts in sentiment, leading traders to reassess their positions and trading strategies.

These deviations can sometimes contribute to temporary price dislocations and offer both opportunities and challenges for traders seeking to exploit market imbalances.

Example of a Futures Contract Short in Use
Example of a Futures Contract Short in Use

Benefits and Risks for Traders and Investors

Benefits of Trading Perpetual Futures

1. Ability to Trade with Leverage: Perpetual futures contracts offer traders the opportunity to amplify their exposure to the market through leverage. This enables traders to control larger positions with a relatively smaller amount of capital, potentially magnifying gains. However, it's important to note that while leverage can enhance profits, it also increases the risk of losses.

2. Hedging Strategies and Risk Management: Perpetuals serve as effective tools for risk management. Traders can use these contracts to hedge against adverse price movements in the spot market. By taking offsetting positions in the perpetual futures market, traders can mitigate potential losses in their spot holdings, thus safeguarding their overall portfolio.

3. Exposure to Cryptocurrency Without Ownership: For investors seeking exposure to the cryptocurrency market without the responsibility of holding and managing digital assets, perpetual futures provide an avenue. This approach allows investors to capitalize on price movements without needing to navigate the complexities of securely storing and managing cryptocurrencies.

Risks Associated with Perpetual Futures Trading

1. High Volatility Amplifying Gains and Losses: While volatility can be advantageous for profit potential, it also exposes traders to higher risks. Rapid price fluctuations can result in substantial gains, but they can just as easily lead to significant losses. Traders need to exercise caution and employ risk management strategies to protect their capital.

2. Impact of Funding Rate Fluctuations: Funding rates, which play a key role in perpetual futures contracts, can be volatile and influence the cost of maintaining positions. Unpredictable fluctuations in funding rates can affect the profitability of long-term positions, potentially eroding gains and increasing costs.

3. Regulatory Risks: The evolving regulatory landscape surrounding cryptocurrencies introduces uncertainties. Regulatory changes can impact the trading environment, leading to sudden shifts in market dynamics. Additionally, perpetual futures markets are not immune to manipulation risks, such as trading strategies aimed at exploiting funding rate anomalies or creating artificial price movements.

Market Impact and Price Discovery

Role of Perpetual Futures in Price Discovery

Perpetual futures contracts exert a significant influence on the price discovery process of cryptocurrencies. These contracts provide a platform where traders express their views on future price movements, affecting the supply and demand dynamics of the cryptocurrency market.

The alignment of perpetual futures contract prices with spot prices is essential for efficient market functioning. Discrepancies between these prices trigger arbitrage opportunities.

Traders can exploit these opportunities by simultaneously buying the cryptocurrency in the spot market and shorting it in the perpetual futures market (or vice versa), contributing to price convergence.

Impact on Market Sentiment and Price Trends

Funding rates play a unique role in shaping trader behavior and market sentiment. When funding rates are significantly positive, long position holders pay short position holders, potentially incentivizing profit-taking from the short side.

Conversely, negative funding rates can encourage long positions, leading to shifts in market sentiment and trading strategies.

Funding rates can lead to a self-reinforcing cycle. High funding rates indicate a divergence between the contract and spot prices, potentially prompting traders to take positions that capitalize on the funding rate.

This influx of positions further impacts the premium index, influencing funding rates and contributing to market momentum.

How to Calculate PnL for Perpetual Futures Contract?

Calculating PnL for Long Positions

For long positions (buying with the expectation of a price increase):

PnL = Position Size × (Exit Price − Entry Price) × Leverage − Funding Cost

Calculating PnL for Short Positions

For short positions (selling with the expectation of a price decrease):

PnL = Position Size × (Entry Price − Exit Price) × Leverage − Funding Cost

Here, the funding cost refers to the net amount received or paid due to the funding rate over the holding period.

Positive funding rates contribute to long position holders and deduct from short position holders, and vice versa for negative funding rates.

Traders should also account for trading fees, slippage, and funding costs when calculating PnL, as these factors can impact the final results.

Wrapping Up

Perpetual futures contracts have become integral to the cryptocurrency derivatives landscape, offering traders and investors a range of opportunities to leverage, hedge, and speculate.

The interplay between perpetuals and the spot market contributes to price discovery, market sentiment, and trading behavior, shaping the cryptocurrency ecosystem's dynamics.

It’s important to note that the advantages of perpetual futures come hand-in-hand with risks, like any derivatives instrument.

As the crypto ecosystem continues to evolve, the future of perpetual futures contracts remains intriguing. Innovations such as decentralized platforms and algorithmic trading could reshape the landscape, influencing market behavior and expanding the possibilities of these instruments.

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