Futures Calendar Spreads on Interactive Brokers

Trading futures calendar spreads is a good way to express a long or short opinion an underlying index or commodity, without the volatility and margin requirements of a fully directional naked future contract. We are using Interactive Brokers (IB) to trade future calendar spreads, but many other future brokers offer this. Here we can review an example Natural Gas /NG bullish calendar spread, that should benefit from a rise in the commodity price. This bull future spread means long a front month future contract, and short a back month future contract.

To describe trade entry and exit on this bull future spread we will use the IB “buy” and “sell” terminology as follows:
Trade entry – means to “sell” the spread (go long front month, then short back month)
Trade exit – means to “buy” the spread (short front month and go long back month). This is the exact logical opposite of trade entry.

Futures Calendar Spreads – Demo Account

Before you place any real trades here it is highly recommended use the IB demo trading mode of Paper Trading. Click “Try the demo” link below from the IB login screen. The IB future trading interface is somewhat non intuitive and requires a reasonable learning curve to fully understand what futures positions are being represented.

Interactive Brokers Paper Trading Login - Futures Calendar Spreads

Trade Entry

Trade Entry was on 27th Feb 2018

NG Feb 2018 Short Futures Calendar NGM8 - NGQ8 20180227 Trade Entry

These are screenshots of entering the order from the demo system. Using the demo system for dummy order execution avoids accidental executions with “real” money. Please note that the market has moved so that the demo system screenshots do not match the above “real” trade entry executions – however the process to follow remains identical.

For some historical context, this is the 1 year chart of the spread:
NG Feb 2018 Short Futures Calendar NGM8 - NGQ8 20180227 Trade Entry - Chart 1 Year

This is where to select the relevant menu item from the SpreadTrader utility:
NG Feb 2018 Short Futures Calendar NGM8 - NGQ8 20180227 Trade Entry - SpreadTrader Start menu

This is how to select the front month and back month. Importantly can not select just one calendar spread, must select two or more spreads otherwise the “Finish” button does not appear.

NG Feb 2018 Short Futures Calendar NGM8 - NGQ8 20180227 Trade Entry - SpreadTrader Configure Futures Spreads

Click on the relevant “ask” for the calendar spread and the following order entry will appear.
As we are selling, make sure the limit price starts higher than current Ask.

NG Feb 2018 Short Futures Calendar NGM8 - NGQ8 20180227 Trade Entry - SpreadTrader Order Entry

Followed by this order display:
NG Feb 2018 Short Futures Calendar NGM8 - NGQ8 20180227 Trade Entry - SpreadTrader Order Display

Walk down the limit price downwards (because we are selling) by 0.001 increments on the order until you achieve a fill.

Trade Update

This trade update was on 18th April 2018 to enter a GTC order to allow possible trade exit after the time frame for the 30 day rule has elapsed.

Identify the long future leg in the front month from the Account Positions, and select Contract Description menu:

NG Feb 2018 Short Futures Calendar NGM8 - NGQ8 20180418 Trade Update - Long Leg

Review the contract description and note the symbol. In this case the symbol is NGM8. Verify that the futures contract named month and actual expiration date are as expected.
NG Feb 2018 Short Futures Calendar NGM8 - NGQ8 20180418 Trade Update - Long Leg Contract Description

Repeat process for the short future leg in the back month from the Account Positions, and select Contract Description menu:
NG Feb 2018 Short Futures Calendar NGM8 - NGQ8 20180418 Trade Update - Short Leg

Review the contract description and note the symbol. In this case the symbol is NGQ8.
NG Feb 2018 Short Futures Calendar NGM8 - NGQ8 20180418 Trade Update - Short Leg Contract Description

Now look at the chart to identify a target exit price. Create a new chart of the calendar futures spread that is the long near month contract minus the short back month contract
Cut and paste NGM8-NGQ8 into the chart symbol entry text box and press ENTER. In this example NGM8 Jun 18 is the near month and NGQ8 Aug 18 is the back month.
Important – note that the label shown on the chart is the exact OPPOSITE way to what was entered!

NG Feb 2018 Short Futures Calendar NGM8 - NGQ8 20180418 Trade Update - Chart 2 Months

Now create limit order exit trade to Buy. Right click on the chart and select Buy and drag down the line significantly underneath the chart. Click the “T” on the order.

To exit this trade need to sell the near month (that is long Jun 18 position) and buy back the far month (that is short Aug 18 position). IB defines this exit trade as a Buy 1 Calendar Spread. Since we are buying, start limit order with a low limit price, so that it can be cancel and corrected (updated) multiple times to achieve a better price. In this example started at 0.038. See the screenshots below for an example order.

Order Entry:
NG Feb 2018 Short Futures Calendar NGM8 - NGQ8 20180418 Trade Update - SpreadTrader Order Entry

Order Preview:
NG Feb 2018 Short Futures Calendar NGM8 - NGQ8 20180418 Trade Update - Short Leg Order Preview

Active Orders:
NG Feb 2018 Short Futures Calendar NGM8 - NGQ8 20180418 Trade Update - Orders

Trade Summary

Looking at the chart, trying to achieve the lowest price makes sense, as we wish the difference between the near month Jun 18 and far month Aug 18 to shrink not expand. This can be a good til cancelled (GTC) order that can be hung out there until a price target is achieved – historically there seems to be support at 0.040 to 0.030 range, so that could be a good starting target (but you can obviously adjust for your trading style). If you want to get an immediate fill on a trade exit today, then just cancel and correct the order in 0.001 increments until it fills. Alternatively you can leave the order out there for the trading day to see if anyone nibbles at it, then get more aggressive on closing it nearer the end of the day.

NG Feb 2018 Short Futures Calendar NGM8 - NGQ8 20180418 Trade Update - Chart 6 Month Limit Order

In theory most futures calendar spreads are mean reverting, so we are looking for a move back towards the long term mean to capture some gain. We are not looking to make a killing on the directional trade – even though this is a “long” natural gas trade it usually a pretty slow moving spread. Additionally the spread may only go into that range for a few hours or days during its remaining trade lifecycle into end of May expiration, so we just want to grab a good price with a GTC if it’s there. Also we don’t want to hang around for the unpredictable spread volatility for the 2 weeks or so prior to expiration, so if it is still open at that time we’d probably just close when it gets too close to expiration.

Natural Gas – Bullish Short Futures Calendar – Trade Entry – 22-Apr-2016

Trade entry was a Natural Gas /NG Bullish Short Futures Calendar entered on 22-Apr-2016. The following marked up chart shows the original trade entry on April 22nd with some historical context on the last months trading action:

Natural Gas April 2016 Short Futures Calendar NGN6 - NGM6 20160504 Chart

Trade Opinion

The aim is to be bullish natural gas, with the assumption that the nearer term month future will go up faster than the far month future. The near month future has about 45 days to go to expiration, so has time for the 30 days to pass, so it can be liquidated under the 30 day rule (as a spread).

The circled “random” chart prints on the chart image can be ignored, because presumably they are not real trades – however this does show that the spread is relative illiquid. This means that should always use limit orders for trade entry and trade exit, to avoid potentially large slippage. Even on 1 contract trade, this could be as much as $100 (0.01) either way throughout a trading day (check the chart) – so it can be significant to overall strategy profitability.

The spread can also move around between $100 and $200 (0.01 and 0.02) per day, but that is still within a manageable range on 1 future contract trade. The trade is a relative value mean reverting trade, so in theory it is not that likely to move massively in opposite direction for a long period of time – it will theoretically tend to move back into long term averages – so big spikes up or down tend to mean revert over time. The risk is that the “in theory” part is understated and the spread will lose more money than comfortable for a single portfolio position. In our portfolio this is managed by trading small enough (1 contract) to stay in the trade without worrying too much about temporary adverse moves over a few days.

Natural Gas Current Trade position on May 4th

The original position was entered as follows:

Natural Gas April 2016 Short Futures Calendar NGN6 - NGM6 20160422 Trade Entry

The unrealised gain loss on 4th May was:
Natural Gas April 2016 Short Futures Calendar NGN6 - NGM6 20160504 Unreleased Gain Loss

Summary

Need to stay another 2.5 weeks in this trade because of 30 day rule, but then can re-evaluate. If some mean reversion has occurred and the Natural Gas /NG price has risen, the spread could come back to profitability. It is currently in an expected range, so no need to adjust yet.

Futures Options and Calendars near expiration

Trading futures options vertical spreads and futures calendar spreads can have their own nuances when the trade gets close to expiration. Here we look at some real life examples from our Natural Gas /NG trades in the past few months.

Future Options Vertical spreads

What happens when both legs of a natural gas spread trade expire in the money at expiration ? Unfortunately in our case here this was full loss on a bull put spread, however given that the natural gas /NG price moved about 14% against the position, we are grateful for the protection afforded by the spread to limit the loss.

NG Mar 2016 Bull Put Spread 20160328 Trade Exit Chart

Both legs of the bull put spread got assigned into their respective futures positions at the option strike price, then they immediately get liquidated because they cancel each other out. This is literally buying and selling the same futures contract at the same time at two different prices. This results in an instant profit or loss, depending on what the spread was. The following trades highlighted in red show this exact process. Note that the trade times are all identical, because this was instantly matched by the futures clearing system.

NG Mar 2016 Bull Put Spread 20160328 Trade Exit

Although the future is assigned to the underlying commodity, these are options on futures that settle to the futures. Importantly the options expire a few days before their underlying future does. This gives you a few days so you don’t end up the proud owner of 10,000 million British thermal units (mmBtu) of Natural Gas!

Fear of Futures Settlement

There are several important dates: option expiration date and futures expiration date. On option expiration if your option is in the money, will be assigned into the futures contract.

If you own the underlying future on the future expiration date and it is NOT cash settled, then you could theoretically be made to deliver or receive the contract amount of the underlying commodity. In practice many brokers will monitor their clients positions and start contacting you if you have a commodity futures contract that requires physical settlement expiring in the next week. For example Interactive Brokers will email you 7 days before the futures contract expires to remind you of your responsibility. They additionally point out that they will liquidate the position on the final trading day if it looks like you are in danger of taking physical delivery.

Obviously for something like natural gas that is (probably) not desirable. However it is conceivable that someone might wish to talk delivery of precious metals, but most future brokers won’t let you.

Futures Calendar Spreads

Futures Calendar spread are buying one futures contract in one month at the same underlying, then at the same selling the same underlying futures contract in a different month. Typically “buying” the calendar spread is short near month, long far month. “Selling” the calendar spread is buying the near month and selling the far month. Typically being long the near month implies a bullish position on the underlying price. Being short the near month implies a bearish position in the underlying. With a futures calendar spread you are looking for it to move in a particular direction. The actual credit or debit received isn’t at relevant as the value you can take it off for. You are literally playing the near month contract against the far month contract, as a relative trade. That is of you are bullish you are betting that the near term contract goes up faster than the far month contract. Obviously they will be correlated and almost definitely move in the same direction, but you are playing the rate of change in the spread between the two contracts – basically a very highly correlated pairs trade but that can still move enough to profit.
Traditionally this is seen as a less risky way to express direction on an underlying. For example a natural gas futures contract for the near month could have a range of $5k a month, but the spread would only move up to $1000. This is reflected in the margin for a calendar spread which can be only a few hundred dollars, so the return on capital can be very good, even if the risk is controlled.

Also calendar spreads seem to see wilder less predictable swings into expiration. These do not always reflect the original trade result, even if the underlying moves as you actually expected. Usually a long near month, short far month futures calendar is typically bullish the underlying. For the example the following chart shows a recent /NG calendar, that was originally trading nicely with our original bullish intent up to about a week before expiration.

NG Mar 2016 Short Futures Calendar NGK6 - NGN6 20160422 Trade Exit

Then the spread suddenly reversed course, even though the underlying near and far month natural gas price went up. The differential between the near and far month changed from as expected in the early part of the month, to significantly inverse in the last few days. This actually ruined a profitable trade very quickly which was unfortunate. Moving from $360 profit to $110 loss (that could have been worse it went as low as $360 loss before we traded out of it). It is important to note again that the underlying price went up, which is what we were hoping for – yet the spread reacted opposite to what we expected. Lesson learned : take a spread profit when it is there, and don’t hang around too long into unpredictable expiration to squeeze out the last little bit of profit.

BTW – This chart was created after our trade has expired using this free historical future calendar online charting tool. This is really useful for checking historical performance quickly, especially to observe historical future calendar spread behaviour into expiration – so you know potentially what to expect in the future.

So what is the conclusion here?

The liquidity for futures contracts typically dries up a lot in the last few trading days of it’s life. This is typically because many traders have rolled their positions to the next futures month.

Combine that with the threat of broker liquidation at unfavorable prices, there is typically not much to recommend trading the final 5 days of a futures option or future contract.