How to Trade a Futures Spread?

by Jennifer

Trading futures spreads is a sophisticated strategy used by traders to capitalize on the price differences between two related futures contracts. This article provides a comprehensive guide on how to trade a futures spread, covering the fundamentals, types of spreads, strategies, and practical steps for effective trading.

Understanding Futures Spreads

What is a Futures Spread?

A futures spread involves taking opposing positions in two different futures contracts with the goal of profiting from the relative price movements between them. This could mean going long (buying) one futures contract while going short (selling) another. The objective is to benefit from the difference in price changes rather than the price changes of the individual contracts themselves.


Benefits of Trading Futures Spreads

1. Reduced Risk: Spreads tend to be less volatile than outright futures positions because the two legs of the spread are often correlated.


2. Lower Margin Requirements: Exchanges often require lower margin deposits for spread positions compared to outright positions, making it a capital-efficient strategy.

3. Market Neutrality: Spread trading can be relatively immune to broad market movements, focusing instead on the price relationship between the two contracts.

Types of Futures Spreads

Intra-Commodity Spreads

Intra-commodity spreads involve contracts of the same underlying commodity but with different delivery months.

Calendar Spreads

A calendar spread (or time spread) involves buying and selling the same commodity with different delivery dates. For example, buying a March crude oil contract and selling a June crude oil contract.

Inter-Commodity Spreads

Inter-commodity spreads involve contracts of different but related commodities.

Crack Spread

A crack spread involves the price difference between crude oil and its refined products, like gasoline and heating oil. For example, buying crude oil futures and selling gasoline futures.

Crush Spread

A crush spread involves trading soybean futures against soybean meal and soybean oil futures. This spread reflects the profit margin of processing soybeans into its by-products.

Inter-Market Spreads

Inter-market spreads involve the same commodity but traded on different exchanges. This type of spread is less common due to the increased complexity and potential for regulatory issues.

Strategies for Trading Futures Spreads

Seasonal Spreads

Seasonal spreads take advantage of predictable patterns in commodity prices due to seasonal demand and supply factors. For instance, natural gas prices may rise in the winter due to increased heating demand, making a winter-summer spread a potentially profitable trade.


Hedging involves using futures spreads to offset potential losses in the cash market or another futures position. For example, a farmer might use a futures spread to hedge against adverse price movements in the crop he is growing.


Arbitrage opportunities arise when the price relationship between two futures contracts deviates from the historical norm. Traders can exploit this discrepancy by simultaneously buying and selling the futures contracts.


Speculative spread trading involves taking positions based on anticipated changes in the price relationship between two contracts. This could be driven by expected supply disruptions, demand changes, or macroeconomic events.

Practical Steps to Trade Futures Spreads

Step 1: Market Research and Analysis

Before entering any spread trade, thorough research and analysis are crucial. This includes understanding the fundamentals of the commodities involved, historical price relationships, seasonal trends, and macroeconomic factors.

Step 2: Selecting the Spread

Choose the type of spread that aligns with your trading strategy and market outlook. Consider factors like volatility, margin requirements, and liquidity.

Step 3: Entry and Exit Points

Determine your entry and exit points based on technical analysis, fundamental analysis, or a combination of both. Use charts to identify key support and resistance levels, trend lines, and patterns that indicate potential price movements.

Step 4: Risk Management

Implement a robust risk management strategy. This includes setting stop-loss orders to limit potential losses and defining the maximum amount of capital you are willing to risk on a single trade. Diversify your spread positions to mitigate the impact of adverse price movements in any single spread.

Step 5: Placing the Trade

Execute your spread trade through your brokerage platform. Ensure you understand the mechanics of placing spread orders, as they may differ slightly from outright futures orders. Monitor the trade closely, making adjustments as necessary based on market conditions.

Step 6: Monitoring and Adjusting

Continuously monitor your spread positions. Be prepared to adjust your strategy in response to market changes, news events, or economic reports. Use trailing stops to protect profits and consider scaling out of positions to lock in gains incrementally.

See Also: Can US traders trade futures?

Example of a Futures Spread Trade

Scenario: Calendar Spread in Crude Oil

1. Research: You anticipate that crude oil prices will rise in the near term due to geopolitical tensions, but you expect prices to stabilize or fall in the longer term as production increases.

2. Selection: You choose a calendar spread by buying a near-month crude oil futures contract (e.g., March) and selling a further-out month contract (e.g., June).

3. Entry: Based on technical analysis, you enter the spread when the price difference between the March and June contracts is relatively low, expecting it to widen.

4. Management: You set a stop-loss to exit the trade if the spread narrows further than expected, and a take-profit level to lock in gains if the spread widens significantly.

5. Monitoring: As the geopolitical tensions escalate, the near-month contract rises more than the further-out contract, widening the spread. You monitor the trade and adjust your stop-loss to protect profits.

6. Exit: When the spread reaches your target level, you exit the trade, securing your profit.

Tools and Resources for Futures Spread Trading

Trading Platforms

Several trading platforms specialize in futures and spread trading, offering advanced charting tools, real-time data, and order execution capabilities. Popular platforms include:

Thinkorswim by TD Ameritrade: Known for its powerful analysis tools and user-friendly interface.

NinjaTrader: Offers robust futures trading features and customizable charting.

TradeStation: Provides comprehensive futures trading tools and excellent support for spread trading.

Data Providers

Accurate and timely market data is crucial for successful spread trading. Consider using reputable data providers such as Bloomberg, Reuters, or CQG for real-time quotes, historical data, and news updates.

Educational Resources

Enhance your understanding of futures spread trading through educational resources. Books, online courses, webinars, and articles from reputable sources can provide valuable insights and strategies. Some recommended resources include:

Books: “Trading Spreads and Seasonals” by Joe Ross and “The Complete Guide to Futures Trading: What You Need to Know About the Risks and Rewards” by Refco Private Client Group.

Online Courses: Websites like Udemy, Coursera, and Investopedia offer courses on futures trading and spread strategies.

Webinars: Many brokerage firms and trading platforms offer free webinars on futures trading topics.

Professional Advice

Consulting with a financial advisor or trading mentor can provide personalized guidance and help you develop a robust trading plan. Experienced professionals can offer insights based on their expertise and help you avoid common pitfalls.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

Lack of Research

Entering a spread trade without adequate research can lead to poor decision-making and losses. Always conduct thorough analysis and stay informed about market conditions.

Ignoring Risk Management

Failing to implement risk management strategies can result in significant losses. Always use stop-loss orders, diversify your positions, and never risk more capital than you can afford to lose.


Trading too frequently can lead to increased transaction costs and emotional decision-making. Focus on quality trades with a clear strategy rather than trying to capture every market move.

Neglecting Market Correlations

Assuming that two contracts are perfectly correlated without verifying the relationship can lead to unexpected losses. Always analyze the historical correlation between the contracts in your spread.

Unrealistic Expectations

Expecting immediate and significant profits can lead to disappointment and poor trading decisions. Futures spread trading requires patience, discipline, and a long-term perspective.


Trading futures spreads is a sophisticated strategy that offers various benefits, including reduced risk, lower margin requirements, and market neutrality. By understanding the different types of spreads, developing effective trading strategies, and following a disciplined approach, traders can capitalize on the price relationships between futures contracts. Whether you are hedging, speculating, or arbitraging, futures spread trading provides a versatile toolset for navigating the complexities of the futures market. Always conduct thorough research, implement robust risk management, and continuously monitor your positions to succeed in this dynamic trading environment.

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