Lawrence Kaplin
Chief Market Strategist at Equals Money
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Lawrence's Key Takeaways:

  • A forward margin is a deposit paid (in most cases by default) by the owner of a forward contract, which vests against the trade and is subtracted from the outstanding value of the trade upon completion of the contract.
  • The initial forward margin requirement is typically a percentage of the underlying value of the contract.
  • An additional margin may be required if the marked-to-market (present value) profit and loss of the contract is valued as negative, by more than the initial margin.

In the complex world of finance, understanding the intricacies of market mechanisms is crucial for businesses and investors alike. Among these mechanisms, the concept of forward margin, encompassing both initial and variation margins, plays a pivotal role in the derivatives market. This article aims to demystify these terms, providing a comprehensive overview suitable for a UK business audience.

Understanding Forward Contracts

Before delving into the specifics of forward margins, it is essential to grasp the basics of forward contracts. A forward contract is a financial derivative, a mutual agreement to buy or sell an asset at a future date for a price agreed upon today. These contracts are tailored to the needs of the contracting parties, making them a popular choice for hedging and speculation.

Role in Hedging and Speculation

Businesses often use forward contracts to hedge against price fluctuations in commodities, currencies, and other assets. By locking in prices, companies can protect themselves from adverse market movements. Conversely, speculators use forward contracts to profit from their market predictions, accepting the risk of price movements contrary to their expectations.

Non-Standardised Nature

Unlike futures contracts, which are traded on exchanges, forward contracts are over-the-counter (OTC) derivatives. This non-standardised nature allows for customisation but also introduces counterparty risk, as there is no central clearinghouse to guarantee the contract's performance.

Initial Margin in Forward Contracts

The initial margin refers to the collateral deposited by both parties at the start of a forward contract. This requirement aims to mitigate the risk of default, ensuring that both parties have a financial stake in the fulfilment of the contract.

Purpose and Calculation

The primary purpose of the initial margin is to provide security against potential losses arising from default by either party. The amount is usually a percentage of the contract's value, determined based on the asset's volatility and the creditworthiness of the parties involved.

Impact on Liquidity

While the initial margin serves as a risk management tool, it also impacts the liquidity of the parties involved. Businesses must ensure they have sufficient liquid assets to meet the initial margin requirements without hampering their operational cash flow.

Margin Call Procedures

When the margin balance falls below a certain level, a margin call is triggered. This requires the party with the lower margin balance to top up their account to meet the required margin level. Failure to do so may lead to the liquidation of the position to cover the outstanding margin.

Variation Margin in Forward Contracts

The variation margin, on the other hand, involves the daily settling of gains and losses due to market price movements. This mechanism ensures that the contract reflects the current market value of the underlying asset.

Calculation and Settlement

At the end of each trading day, the forward contract is marked-to-market and the variation margin is calculated as the difference between the contract price and the current market price. If the market price moves against a party, they must deposit additional funds to cover the loss, maintaining the margin at the required level.

Reducing Counterparty Risk

By adjusting the contract value daily, the variation margin significantly reduces counterparty risk. This dynamic process ensures that both parties remain committed to the contract, with the margin acting as a buffer against default.

Margin Efficiency Strategies

Market participants often employ margin efficiency strategies to optimise their use of initial and variation margins. Techniques such as portfolio netting, where offsetting positions are consolidated to reduce margin requirements, can enhance capital efficiency and reduce overall margin costs.

Regulatory Considerations

In the UK, forward contracts and their associated margins are subject to regulatory oversight to ensure market stability and protect participants. The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) sets out rules and guidelines for the management of margins in derivative contracts.

Initial Margin Rules

The FCA mandates the collection of initial margins for non-centrally cleared derivatives, including forward contracts. These rules aim to align UK regulations with international standards, promoting financial stability and reducing systemic risk.

Variation Margin Requirements

Similarly, the FCA requires the daily exchange of variation margins for forward contracts, ensuring that market values are accurately reflected. This requirement enhances transparency and fairness in the OTC derivatives market.

Reporting and Compliance

Market participants are also required to report their margin positions and comply with regulatory guidelines on margin calculations and disclosures. This transparency enhances market surveillance and helps regulators monitor systemic risks effectively.


Understanding the roles of initial and variation margins in forward contracts is essential for businesses engaged in hedging and speculative activities. These mechanisms not only provide security against default but also ensure that contracts remain aligned with market values. As the financial landscape evolves, staying informed about regulatory changes and margin requirements will be crucial for market participants. This knowledge enables businesses to navigate the complexities of the derivatives market effectively, safeguarding their interests and contributing to overall market stability.

Equals Money can only offer forward contracts to facilitate payments for goods and services. You are committed to the rate you’ve booked regardless of any movements after contract agreement, presenting a potential disadvantage in choosing a forward contract.

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