For example, the June 2008 live cattle futures contract was listed for trading on January 2, 2007 and its last day of trading (or maturity date or expiry date or expiration date—all terms for the same thing) was June 30, 2008. The life of contract for June 2008 live cattle futures refers to the 18-month period of time between those two dates.
If on July 1, 2008 an analyst said the life-of-contract high was $105.50, it would refer to the highest price during the 18-month period. But if someone mentions a life-of-contract high or low while the contract is still trading, then it means for the period from contract listing only up until that date.
Depending on the underlying asset, there are significant differences in the lives of contracts. For example, each Japanese yen contract is listed for 18 months, while each S&P 500 contract is listed for 24 months. At the other extreme are contracts such as eurodollars and crude oil.
Eurodollars typically has a 10-year life of contract while crude oil can be as much as 8 years. These differences are driven by differences in the demand for trading in the specific contracts.
For example, in the case of eurodollars, because swap dealers are entering into OTC swap contracts with institutions that go out for 10 years and since they need to often hedge the risk associated with these contracts, they need instruments that go out for a similar period of time.
In the case of stock indexes, on the other hand, even if an individual needs protection or exposure for a longer period of time the historical tendency is to take advantage of good liquidity in the nearby months and if, by the time the front month contract expires, the trader still needs exposure or protection, then the trader engages in what is referred to as a roll.
A roll involves moving one’s position to a more distant month by of setting the position in the nearby month and simultaneously establishing a new position in the more distant month.
the context in which life of contract is typically used is when referring to price statistics, like high and low. Traders are interested in the high and low prices during the previous trading day, possibly during the previous week or month, and certainly during the life of contract.
In addition, when one is analyzing futures data for different purposes, especially when one is engaging in technical analysis, a decision must be made about whether to look at the life of contract data, which is of course limited to the length of the life of that contract, or continuous (or continuation) data.
Continuous data is created by splicing together the prices for the nearby contracts during their last few months of life, but stopping usually a few weeks before the contracts expire. Stringing nearby prices together allows you to analyze many years of prices.
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