Absent a clearinghouse, traders would interact directly, and this would introduce two problems. First, traders. concerns about their counterparty's credibility would impede trading. For example, Trader A might refuse to sell to Trader B, who is supposedly untrustworthy.
Second, traders would lose track of their counterparties. This would occur because traders typically settle their contractual obligations by offset â€“ traders buy/sell the contracts that they sold/bought earlier. For example, Trader A sells a contract to Trader B, who sells a contract to Trader C to offset her position, and so on.
The clearinghouse eliminates both of these problems. First, it is a guarantor of all trades. If a trader defaults on a futures contract, the clearinghouse absorbs the loss. Second, clearinghouse members, and not outside traders, reconcile offsets at the end of trading each day. Margin accounts and a process called marking-to-market all but assure the clearinghouse's solvency.
A margin account is a balance that a trader maintains with a commission merchant in order to offset the trader's daily unrealized loses in the futures markets. Commission merchants also maintain margins with clearinghouse members, who maintain them with the clearinghouse. The margin account begins as an initial lump sum deposit, or original margin.
To understand the mechanics and merits of marking-to-market, consider that the values of the long and short positions of an existing futures contract change daily, even though futures trading is a zero-sum game â€“ a buyer's gain/loss equals a seller's loss/gain. So, the clearing house breaks even on every trade, while its individual members. positions change in value daily.
With this in mind, suppose Trader B buys a 5,000 bushel soybean contract for $9.70 from Trader S. Technically, Trader B buys the contract from Clearing house Member S and Trader S sells the contract to Clearing house Member B. Now, suppose that at the end of the day the contract is priced at $9.71. That evening the clearinghouse marks-to-market each member's account. That is to say, the clearinghouse credits Member B's margin account $50 and debits Member S's margin account the same amount.
Member B is now in a position to draw on the clearinghouse $50, while Member S must pay the clearing house a $50 variation margin â€“ incremental margin equal to the difference between a contractâ€™s price and its current market value. In turn, clearing house members debit and credit accordingly the margin accounts of their commission merchants, who do the same to the margin accounts of their clients (i.e., traders). This iterative process all but assures the clearing house a sound financial footing. In the unlikely event that a trader defaults, the clearing house closes out the position and loses, at most, the traderâ€™s one day loss.