Like stocks and other exchange-traded instruments, futures and futures options use a system of shorthand symbols to easily identify contracts traded. A commodity symbol has three different parts: the letters that identify the commodity or financial instrument, the monthly code, and the yearly code. Futures and security futures (aka single stock futures) mirror each other in terms of contract symbol identification, e.g., the first letters refer to the underlying contract, the symbol for the month follows, and finally the year.
A number of futures contracts offer trading further into the future than just the current year; thus specifying the year can be crucial. The CME Eurodollar futures contract (ED) is a prime example, with trading conceivably available up to 10 years in the future.
If you’re used to looking at stock symbols, futures ticker symbols will be similar. The only difference is that a letter is added to the end of the futures ticker symbols to show in which month the futures contract expires. H indicates March expiration, M is June, U is September, and Z is December.
Although the Mar/Jun/Sept/Dec quarterly cycle dominates futures delivery months stemming from the way CBOT grain futures delivery months were established long ago, there are definitely different cycles. In addition, serial months that are listed for trading in between quarterly expiration months are available for the convenience of users for many futures products.
As an example, trading in NYMEX (COMEX) silver is "conducted for delivery during the current calendar month; the next two calendar months; any January, March, May, and September falling within a 23-month period; and any July and December falling within a 60-month period beginning with the current month." Thus, contract specifications and monthly cycles vary and are not as easily discernible as they once might have been.
Many contracts have expanded the number of contract months from four per year, which through the early 1980s was typical. One example, and only one, is when CME in 2003 introduced serial futures contracts for Live Cattle. Essentially, that meant contracts would be available for each month of the year, with the benefit of potential reduction in basis risk. Realistically, however, in many products with serial months (and, thus, a great deal of choice), liquidity begins to concentrate in specific months. But with serial months, that concentration is up to the market users, rather than the exchanges.
Full listing of monthly symbols
|F = January|
|G = February |
|H = March |
|J = April |
|K = May |
|M = June |
|N = July |
|Q = August |
|U = September |
|V = October |
|X = November |
|Z = December |
Examples: The letters "GC" represent gold, and the letters "AAPL" represent Apple. Note that for single stock futures, the root for the contract mirrors the stock ticker symbol.
|2009 Sep Eurodollar futures||EDU09|
|2008 Mar NYMEX Crude Oil||CLH07|
|2008 June CME Group (CBOT) Soybeans||SM08|
|2007 Dec COMEX Gold||GCZ07|
|2008 Dec Apple Computer single stock futures||AAPLZ08|
|2008 Sep McDonald's single stock futures||MCDU08|
- "Using Serial (Odd) Month Live Cattle Futures Contracts ”. South Dakota State University, 2003.