What is a synthetic asset?
The term “synthetic asset” refers to a mix of assets that have the same value as another asset. Traditionally, synthetics combine various derivative products — options, futures or swaps — that simulate an underlying asset — stocks, bonds, commodities, indexes, currencies or interest rates.
For example, rather than purchasing a stock, an investment firm may purchase a call option and sell a put option on the same stock. The use of synthetic assets here allows the firm to make use of multiple financial vehicles rather than a single investment asset.
The high-end estimate for the value of all derivative contracts is upwards of $1.2 quadrillion — a number exponentially bigger than global real estate ($217 trillion), the global debt ($215 trillion), global stock markets ($73 trillion) and the world’s supply of gold ($7.7 trillion).
On one hand, derivatives can be used to help take price risk out of a variety of assets like commodities to debt. On the other hand, derivatives can promote and exacerbate market inefficiencies, encouraging a zero-sum game among traders rather than creating true market value. The use of derivative products allows investors to earn returns without a physical settlement, arbitrage trade, transfer risk and hedge against price fluctuations.