Open Interest (OI) is the number of contracts outstanding in the marketplace.
Open Interest only applies to futures and option contracts. Changes in open interest may confirm price action or act as a warning of a potentially weakening trend.
A hypothetical situation is given next to help grasp the concept of Open Interest:
- A new futures contract expiration month is opened for trading. Currently, no one has bought or sold a futures contract.
- A trader (Trader #1) buys a futures contract, but in order for this to happen, someone has to sell that trader the future. Therefore, for every buyer there is an equal and opposite seller (Trader #2). When this transaction occurs, the open interest is increased from zero to one. There is now one contract outstanding in the marketplace.
- Trader #3 decides to sell a future and subsequently another trader (Trader #4) has to buy that futures contract; therefore, open interest is now at two.
- Trader #1 goes to the marketplace and sells his/her futures contract. Trader #3 decides to buy back his/her short future. After the transaction takes place, Trader #1 no longer owns a futures contract. Similarly, Trader #3 no longer owns a futures contract. Effectively, the marketplace has one less futures contract outstanding. The open interest went down to one.
Generally open interest increases over the life of the futures contract (note: futures contracts expire, same with options).
When futures contract months or quarters transition from one month or quarter to the next month or quarter, the future closest to expiration (called the “front month”) decreases in open interest and the next futures contract (called the “back month”) increases. This is shown with the chart of the E-mini S&P 500 Futures contract above.
The chart above of the E-mini S&P 500 Futures contract shows both the March S&P 500 future and the June S&P 500 future as the futures near March expiration. Note how the March and June futures contract open interest rises steadily over time; this is normal over the life of a futures contract.
Also note the dramatic decrease in the open interest of the March S&P future as the contract is nearing expiration. In contrast, note the dramatic increase of the June S&P futures contract as futures traders “roll over” their futures positions to the next futures expiration contract (June).
Interpreting Open Interest is up next.
Interpreting Open Interest
Open Interest is a helpful tool in analyzing the strength of a price move. There are four main interpretations of Open Interest:
- If price increases and open interest increases, then there is strength behind the price move higher.
- If price decreases and open interest increases, then there is strength behind the price move lower.
- If price increases and open interest decreases, then there is weakness behind the price move higher.
- If price decreases and open interest decreases, then there is weakness behind the price move lower.
The chart below of the Dow Jones Industrial Average mini-Dow futures contract illustrates two examples of price increases with corresponding increases in open interest:
In the chart above of the mini-Dow future, there is a strong increase in price with an equally bullish strong increase in open interest.
Notice that after the first sharp run up, open interest decreased during the price retracement. Seemingly, there was not much strength behind the price decrease.
The second strong bullish green candle occurred with a sharp increase in open interest, interpreted as a strong bullish signal that price increases might occur in the future.
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