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Forex (FX) is a portmanteau of foreign currency and exchange. Foreign exchange is the process of changing one currency into another for a variety of reasons, usually for commerce, trading, or tourism. According to a 2019 triennial report from the Bank for International Settlements (a global bank for national central banks), the daily trading volume for forex reached $6.6 trillion in 2019.1
Trading currencies can be risky and complex. Because there are such large trade flows within the system, it is difficult for rogue traders to influence the price of a currency. This system helps create transparency in the market for investors with access to interbank dealing.
Retail investors should spend time learning about the forex market and then researching which forex broker to sign up with, and find out whether it is regulated in the United States or the United Kingdom (U.S. and U.K. dealers have more oversight) or in a country with more lax rules and oversight. It is also a good idea to find out what kind of account protections are available in case of a market crisis, or if a dealer becomes insolvent.
Read on to learn about the forex markets, what it’s used for, and how you can get started trading.
The foreign exchange market is where currencies are traded. Currencies are important because they allow us to purchase goods and services locally and across borders. International currencies need to be exchanged to conduct foreign trade and business.
If you are living in the United States and want to buy cheese from France, then either you or the company from which you buy the cheese has to pay the French for the cheese in euros (EUR). This means that the U.S. importer would have to exchange the equivalent value of U.S. dollars (USD) for euros.
The same goes for traveling. A French tourist in Egypt can’t pay in euros to see the pyramids because it’s not the locally accepted currency. The tourist has to exchange the euros for the local currency, in this case the Egyptian pound, at the current exchange rate.
One unique aspect of this international market is that there is no central marketplace for foreign exchange. Rather, currency trading is conducted electronically over the counter (OTC), which means that all transactions occur via computer networks among traders around the world, rather than on one centralized exchange. The market is open 24 hours a day, five and a half days a week, and currencies are traded worldwide in the major financial centers of Frankfurt, Hong Kong, London, New York, Paris, Singapore, Sydney, Tokyo, and Zurich—across almost every time zone. This means that when the U.S. trading day ends, the forex market begins anew in Tokyo and Hong Kong. As such, the forex market can be extremely active anytime, with price quotes changing constantly.
Note that you’ll often see the terms FX, forex, foreign exchange market, and currency market. These terms are synonymous and all refer to the forex market.
In its most basic sense, the forex market has been around for centuries. People have always exchanged or bartered goods and currencies to purchase goods and services. However, the forex market, as we understand it today, is a relatively modern invention.
After the Bretton Woods accord began to collapse in 1971, more currencies were allowed to float freely against one another. The values of individual currencies vary based on demand and circulation and are monitored by foreign exchange trading services.2
Commercial and investment banks conduct most of the trading in forex markets on behalf of their clients, but there are also speculative opportunities for trading one currency against another for professional and individual investors.
There are two distinct features of currencies as an asset class:
An investor can profit from the difference between two interest rates in two different economies by buying the currency with the higher interest rate and shorting the currency with the lower interest rate. Prior to the 2008 financial crisis, it was very common to short the Japanese yen (JPY) and buy British pounds (GBP) because the interest rate differential was very large. This strategy is sometimes referred to as a carry trade.
Currency trading was very difficult for individual investors prior to the Internet. Most currency traders were large multinational corporations, hedge funds, or high-net-worth individuals (HNWIs) because forex trading required a lot of capital. With help from the Internet, a retail market aimed at individual traders has emerged, providing easy access to the foreign exchange markets through either the banks themselves or brokers making a secondary market. Most online brokers or dealers offer very high leverage to individual traders who can control a large trade with a small account balance.
The FX market is where currencies are traded. It is the only truly continuous and nonstop trading market in the world. In the past, the forex market was dominated by institutional firms and large banks, which acted on behalf of clients. But it has become more retail-oriented in recent years, and traders and investors of many holding sizes have begun participating in it.
An interesting aspect of world forex markets is that there are no physical buildings that function as trading venues for the markets. Instead, it is a series of connections made through trading terminals and computer networks. Participants in this market are institutions, investment banks, commercial banks, and retail investors.
The foreign exchange market is considered more opaque than other financial markets. Currencies are traded in OTC markets, where disclosures are not mandatory. Large liquidity pools from institutional firms are a prevalent feature of the market. One would presume that a country’s economic parameters should be the most important criterion to determine its price. But that’s not the case. A 2019 survey found that the motives of large financial institutions played the most important role in determining currency prices.
Forex is traded primarily via three venues: spot markets, forwards markets, and futures markets. The spot market is the largest of all three markets because it is the “underlying” asset on which forwards and futures markets are based. When people refer to the forex market, they are thus usually referring to the spot market. The forwards and futures markets tend to be more popular with companies or financial firms that need to hedge their foreign exchange risks out to a specific date in the future.
Forex trading in the spot market has always been the largest because it trades in the biggest underlying real asset for the forwards and futures markets. Previously, volumes in the forwards and futures markets surpassed those of the spot markets. However, the trading volumes for forex spot markets received a boost with the advent of electronic trading and the proliferation of forex brokers.
The spot market is where currencies are bought and sold based on their trading price. That price is determined by supply and demand and is calculated based on several factors, including current interest rates, economic performance, sentiment toward ongoing political situations (both locally and internationally), and the perception of the future performance of one currency against another. A finalized deal is known as a spot deal. It is a bilateral transaction in which one party delivers an agreed-upon currency amount to the counterparty and receives a specified amount of another currency at the agreed-upon exchange rate value. After a position is closed, the settlement is in cash. Although the spot market is commonly known as one that deals with transactions in the present (rather than in the future), these trades actually take two days for settlement.
A forward contract is a private agreement between two parties to buy a currency at a future date and at a predetermined price in the OTC markets. A futures contract is a standardized agreement between two parties to take delivery of a currency at a future date and at a predetermined price. Futures trade on exchanges and not OTC.
In the forwards market, contracts are bought and sold OTC between two parties, who determine the terms of the agreement between themselves. In the futures market, futures contracts are bought and sold based upon a standard size and settlement date on public commodities markets, such as the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME).
In the United States, the National Futures Association (NFA) regulates the futures market. Futures contracts have specific details, including the number of units being traded, delivery and settlement dates, and minimum price increments that cannot be customized. The exchange acts as a counterparty to the trader, providing clearance and settlement services.
Both types of contracts are binding and are typically settled for cash at the exchange in question upon expiry, although contracts can also be bought and sold before they expire. The currency forwards and futures markets can offer protection against risk when trading currencies. Usually, big international corporations use these markets to hedge against future exchange rate fluctuations, but speculators take part in these markets as well.
In addition to forwards and futures, options contracts are also traded on certain currency pairs. Forex options give holders the right, but not the obligation, to enter into a forex trade at a future date and for a pre-set exchange rate, before the option expires.
Unlike the spot market, the forwards, futures, and options markets do not trade actual currencies. Instead, they deal in contracts that represent claims to a certain currency type, a specific price per unit, and a future date for settlement. This is why they are known as derivatives markets.
Companies doing business in foreign countries are at risk due to fluctuations in currency values when they buy or sell goods and services outside of their domestic market. Foreign exchange markets provide a way to hedge currency risk by fixing a rate at which the transaction will be completed.
To accomplish this, a trader can buy or sell currencies in the forward or swap markets in advance, which locks in an exchange rate. For example, imagine that a company plans to sell U.S.-made blenders in Europe when the exchange rate between the euro and the dollar (EUR/USD) is €1 to $1 at parity.
The blender costs $100 to manufacture, and the U.S. firm plans to sell it for €150—which is competitive with other blenders that were made in Europe. If this plan is successful, then the company will make $50 in profit per sale because the EUR/USD exchange rate is even. Unfortunately, the U.S. dollar begins to rise in value vs. the euro until the EUR/USD exchange rate is 0.80, which means it now costs $0.80 to buy €1.00.
The problem facing the company is that while it still costs $100 to make the blender, the company can only sell the product at the competitive price of €150—which, when translated back into dollars, is only $120 (€150 × 0.80 = $120). A stronger dollar resulted in a much smaller profit than expected.
The blender company could have reduced this risk by short selling the euro and buying the U.S. dollar when they were at parity. That way, if the U.S. dollar rose in value, then the profits from the trade would offset the reduced profit from the sale of blenders. If the U.S. dollar fell in value, then the more favorable exchange rate would increase the profit from the sale of blenders, which offsets the losses in the trade.
Hedging of this kind can be done in the currency futures market. The advantage for the trader is that futures contracts are standardized and cleared by a central authority. However, currency futures may be less liquid than the forwards markets, which are decentralized and exist within the interbank system throughout the world.
Factors like interest rates, trade flows, tourism, economic strength, and geopolitical risk affect the supply and demand for currencies, creating daily volatility in the forex markets. An opportunity exists to profit from changes that may increase or reduce one currency’s value compared to another. A forecast that one currency will weaken is essentially the same as assuming that the other currency in the pair will strengthen because currencies are traded as pairs.
Imagine a trader who expects interest rates to rise in the United States compared to Australia while the exchange rate between the two currencies (AUD/USD) is 0.71 (i.e., it takes $0.71 USD to buy $1.00 AUD). The trader believes higher U.S. interest rates will increase demand for USD, and the AUD/USD exchange rate therefore will fall because it will require fewer, stronger USDs to buy an AUD.
Assume that the trader is correct and interest rates rise, which decreases the AUD/USD exchange rate to 0.50. This means that it requires $0.50 USD to buy $1.00 AUD. If the investor had shorted the AUD and went long on the USD, then they would have profited from the change in value.
Trading forex is similar to equity trading. Here are some steps to get yourself started on the forex trading journey.
1. Learn about forex: While it is not complicated, forex trading is a project of its own and requires specialized knowledge. For example, the leverage ratio for forex trades is higher than for equities, and the drivers for currency price movement are different from those for equity markets. There are several online courses available for beginners that teach the ins and outs of forex trading.
2. Set up a brokerage account: You will need a forex trading account at a brokerage to get started with forex trading. Forex brokers do not charge commissions. Instead, they make money through spreads (also known as pips) between the buying and selling prices.
For beginner traders, it is a good idea to set up a micro forex trading account with low capital requirements. Such accounts have variable trading limits and allow brokers to limit their trades to amounts as low as 1,000 units of a currency. For context, a standard account lot is equal to 100,000 currency units. A micro forex account will help you become more comfortable with forex trading and determine your trading style.
3. Develop a trading strategy: While it is not always possible to predict and time market movement, having a trading strategy will help you set broad guidelines and a road map for trading. A good trading strategy is based on the reality of your situation and finances. It takes into account the amount of cash that you are willing to put up for trading and, correspondingly, the amount of risk that you can tolerate without getting burned out of your position. Remember, forex trading is mostly a high-leverage environment. But it also offers more rewards to those who are willing to take the risk.
4. Always be on top of your numbers: Once you begin trading, always check your positions at the end of the day. Most trading software already provides a daily accounting of trades. Make sure that you do not have any pending positions to be filled out and that you have sufficient cash in your account to make future trades.
5. Cultivate emotional equilibrium: Beginner forex trading is fraught with emotional roller coasters and unanswered questions. Should you have held onto your position a bit longer for more profits? How did you miss that report about low gross domestic product (GDP) numbers that led to a decline in overall value of your portfolio? Obsessing over such unanswered questions can lead you down a path of confusion. That is why it is important to not get carried away by your trading positions and cultivate emotional equilibrium across profits and losses. Be disciplined about closing out your positions when