The Commodity Futures Trading Commission, already under criticism from members of Congress who fear it is permitting futures trading to expand too rapidly, yesterday approved a controversial new type of contract, commodity futures options.
By purchasing a futures option, a speculator buys the right to purchase or sell a futures contract at a specified price at some future date. The futures contract, in turn, permits the purchase of the commodity itself at a predetermined time and price.
As part of a three-year pilot program for options trading on futures contracts, the futures commission approved programs developed by the Chicago Board of Trade for Treasury bonds, the Coffee, Sugar & Cocoa Exchange for sugar, the MidAmerica Commodity Exchange for gold, and the Commodity Exchange Inc. of New York for gold.
The commission approved each option by a 4-0 vote. Former chairman James Stone voted "present."
Four other options futures are pending before the CFTC.
The Securities and Exchange Commission traditionally has had authority over all options trading, but the SEC and the CFTC reached an agreement late last year that gave the commodity agency jurisdiction over options trading on futures contracts.
Several congressional critics -- including the House subcommittee on Commerce, consumer and monetary affairs headed by Rep. Benjamin Rosenthal (D-N.Y.) -- have asked the agency to go slow on new contracts because they are worried that trading in new contracts is growing too fast for the regulators to keep up with.
In approving the four contracts yesterday, the CFTC said the three-year pilot program will enable the agency to gather data and information so it can "determine whether, and in which manner, exchange option trading should be permitted to continue after the pilot program has ended." The four exchanges may begin futures options trading on Oct. 1.
For the last 10 years, investors have been able to buy stock options -- the right to buy or sell a particular stock at a specified price for a specified period of time.
Options can be used by investors to reduce the risk of some stock or commodity transactions and also to provide a low-cost method of speculating in the markets.
The chief difference between a futures contract and a commodity option is that the amount risked in options trading is predetermined. If a speculator buys a futures contract for 5,000 bushels of wheat and the price drops $1 a bushel, the loss is $5,000. An options buyer who guesses wrong about the direction wheat prices are going will lose only the premium paid for the option.