A futures exchange or futures market is a central financial exchange where people can trade standardized futures contracts; that is, a contract to buy specific quantities of a commodity or financial instrument at a specified price with delivery set at a specified time in the future. These types of contracts fall into the category of derivatives. Such instruments are priced according to the movement of the underlying asset (stock, physical commodity, index, etc.). The aforementioned category is named "derivatives" because the value of these instruments is derived from another asset class.
One of the earliest written records of futures trading is in Aristotle's Politics. He tells the story of Thales, a poor philosopher from Miletus who developed a "financial device, which involves a principle of universal application". Thales used his skill in forecasting and predicted that the olive harvest would be exceptionally good the next autumn. Confident in his prediction, he made agreements with local olive-press owners to deposit his money with them to guarantee him exclusive use of their olive presses when the harvest was ready. Thales successfully negotiated low prices because the harvest was in the future and no one knew whether the harvest would be plentiful or pathetic and because the olive-press owners were willing to hedge against the possibility of a poor yield. When the harvest-time came, and a sharp increase in demand for the use of the olive presses outstripped supply, he sold his future use contracts of the olive presses at a rate of his choosing, and made a large quantity of money. It should be noted, however, that this is a very loose example of futures trading and, in fact, more closely resembles an option contract, given that Thales was not obliged to use the olive presses if the yield was poor.
The first modern organized futures exchange began in 1710 at the Dojima Rice Exchange in Osaka, Japan.
The United States followed in the early 19th century. Chicago has the largest future exchange in the world, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Chicago is located at the base of the Great Lakes, close to the farmlands and cattle country of the Midwest, making it a natural center for transportation, distribution, and trading of agricultural produce. Gluts and shortages of these products caused chaotic fluctuations in price, and this led to the development of a market enabling grain merchants, processors, and agriculture companies to trade in "to arrive" or "cash forward" contracts to insulate them from the risk of adverse price change and enable them to hedge. In March 2008 the Chicago Mercantile Exchange announced its acquisition of NYMEX Holdings, Inc., the parent company of the New York Mercantile Exchange and Commodity Exchange. CME's acquisition of NYMEX was completed in August 2008.
For most exchanges, forward contracts were standard at the time. However, most forward contracts were not honored by both the buyer and the seller. For instance, if the buyer of a corn forward contract made an agreement to buy corn, and at the time of delivery the price of corn differed dramatically from the original contract price, either the buyer or the seller would back out. Additionally, the forward contracts market was very illiquid and an exchange was needed that would bring together a market to find potential buyers and sellers of a commodity instead of making people bear the burden of finding a buyer or seller.