History of the Forex Market
The Foreign Exchange market, also referred to as the “Forex” or “FX” market is the largest financial market in the world, with a daily average turnover of well over US$1 trillion — 30 times larger than the combined volume of all U.S. equity markets.
“Foreign Exchange” is the simultaneous buying of one currency and selling of another. Currencies are traded in pairs, for example Euro/US Dollar (EUR/USD) or US Dollar/Japanese Yen (USD/JPY).
There are two reasons to buy and sell currencies. About 5% of daily turnover is from companies and governments that buy or sell products and services in a foreign country or must convert profits made in foreign currencies into their domestic currency. The other 95% is trading for profit, or speculation.
For speculators, the best trading opportunities are with the most commonly traded (and therefore most liquid) currencies, called “the Majors.” Today, more than 85% of all daily transactions involve trading of the Majors, which include the US Dollar, Japanese Yen, Euro, British Pound, Swiss Franc, Canadian Dollar and Australian Dollar.
A true 24-hour market, Forex trading begins each day in Sydney, and moves around the globe as the business day begins in each financial center, first to Tokyo, London, and New York. Unlike any other financial market, investors can respond to currency fluctuations caused by economic, social and political events at the time they occur – day or night.
The FX market is considered an Over The Counter (OTC) or ‘interbank’ market, due to the fact that transactions are conducted between two counterparts over the telephone or via an electronic network. Trading is not centralized on an exchange, as with the stock and futures markets.
Understanding Forex Quotes
Reading a foreign exchange quote may seem a bit confusing at first. However, it’s really quite simple if you remember two things: 1) The first currency listed first is the base currency and 2) the value of the base currency is always 1.
The US dollar is the centerpiece of the Forex market and is normally considered the ‘base’ currency for quotes. In the “Majors”, this includes USD/JPY, USD/CHF and USD/CAD. For these currencies and many others, quotes are expressed as a unit of $1 USD per the second currency quoted in the pair. For example, a quote of USD/JPY 120.01 means that one U.S. dollar is equal to 120.01 Japanese yen.
When the U.S. dollar is the base unit and a currency quote goes up, it means the dollar has appreciated in value and the other currency has weakened. If the USD/JPY quote we previously mentioned increases to 123.01, the dollar is stronger because it will now buy more yen than before.
The three exceptions to this rule are the British pound (GBP), the Australian dollar (AUD) and the Euro (EUR). In these cases, you might see a quote such as GBP/USD 1.4366, meaning that one British pound equals 1.4366 U.S. dollars.
In these three currency pairs, where the U.S. dollar is not the base rate, a rising quote means a weakening dollar, as it now takes more U.S. dollars to equal one pound, euro or Australian dollar.
In other words, if a currency quote goes higher, that increases the value of the base currency. A lower quote means the base currency is weakening.
Currency pairs that do not involve the U.S. dollar are called cross currencies, but the premise is the same. For example, a quote of EUR/JPY 127.95 signifies that one Euro is equal to 127.95 Japanese yen.
When trading forex you will often see a two-sided quote, consisting of a ‘bid’ and ‘offer’. The ‘bid’ is the price at which you can sell the base currency (at the same time buying the counter currency). The ‘ask’ is the price at which you can buy the base currency (at the same time selling the counter currency).
Forex is a true 24-hour market, which offers a major advantage over equities trading. Whether it’s 6pm or 6am, somewhere in the world there are always buyers and sellers actively trading foreign currencies. Traders can always respond to breaking news immediately, and P&L is not affected by after hours earning reports or analyst conference calls.
After hours trading for U.S. equities brings with it several limitations. ECN’s (Electronic Communication Networks), also called matching systems, exist to bring together buyers and sellers – when possible. However, there is no guarantee that every trade will be executed, nor at a fair market price. Quite frequently, traders must wait until the market opens the following day in order to receive a tighter spread.
With a daily trading volume that is 50x larger than the New York Stock Exchange, there are always broker/dealers willing to buy or sell currencies in the FX markets. The liquidity of this market, especially that of the major currencies, helps ensure price stability. Traders can almost always open or close a position at a fair market price.
Because of the lower trade volume, investors in the stock market are more vulnerable to liquidity risk, which results in a wider dealing spread or larger price movements in response to any relatively large transaction.
100:1 leverage is commonly available from online FX dealers, which substantially exceeds the common 2:1 margin offered by equity brokers. At 100:1, traders post $1000 margin for a $100,000 position, or 1%.
While certainly not for everyone, the substantial leverage available from online currency trading firms is a powerful, moneymaking tool. Rather than merely loading up on risk as many people incorrectly assume, leverage is essential in the Forex market. This is because the average daily percentage move of a major currency is less than 1%, whereas a stock can easily have a 10% price move on any given day.
The most effective way to manage the risk associated with margined trading is to diligently follow a disciplined trading style that consistently utilizes stop and limit orders. Devise and adhere to a system where your controls kick in when emotion might otherwise take over.
Lower Transaction Costs
It is much more cost-efficient to trade Forex in terms of both commissions and transaction fees. Forex charges NO commissions or fees whatsoever, while still offering traders access to all relevant market information and trading tools. In contrast, commissions for stock trades range from $7.95-$29.95 per trade with online discount brokers up to $100 or more per trade with full service brokers.
Another important point to consider is the width of the bid/ask spread. Regardless of deal size, forex dealing spreads are normally 5 pips or less (a pip is .0005 US cents).** In general, the width of the spread in a forex transaction is less than 1/10 that of a stock transaction, which could include a .125 (1/8) wide spread.
Trading Potential In Both Rising And Falling Markets
In every open FX position, an investor is long in one currency and short the other. A short position is one in which the trader sells a currency in anticipation that it will depreciate. This means that potential exists in a rising as well as a falling market.
The ability to sell currencies without any limitations is another distinct advantage over equity trading. In the US equity markets, it is much more difficult to establish a short position due to the Zero Uptick rule, which prevents investors from shorting a stock unless the immediately preceding trade was equal to or lower than the price of the short sale.
Forex Vs. Equities
If you are interested in trading currencies online, you will find that the Forex market offers several advantages over equities trading.
Forex Vs. Futures
The global foreign exchange market is the largest, most active market in the world. Trading in the forex markets takes place nearly round the clock with over $1 trillion changing hands every day. It is the main event.
The benefits of forex over currency futures trading are considerable. The dissimilarities between the two instruments range from philosophical realities such as the history of each, their target audience, and their relevance in the modern forex markets, to more tangible issues such as transactions fees, margin requirements, access to liquidity, ease of use and the technical and educational support offered by providers of each service. These differences are outlined below:
- More Volume = Better Liquidity. Daily currency futures volume on the CME is just 1% of the volume seen every day in the forex markets. Incomparable liquidity is one of many advantages that forex markets hold over currency futures. Truth be told, this is old news. Any currency professional can tell you that cash has been king since the dawn of the modern currency markets in the early 1970’s. The real news is that individual traders from every risk profile now have full access to the opportunities available in the forex markets.
- Forex markets offer higher leverage and lower margin rates than those found in currency futures trading. When trading currency futures, traders have one margin rate for “day” trades and another for “overnight” positions. These margin rates can vary depending on transaction size. Forex currency trading gives the customer one rate all the time, day and night.
- Forex markets offer tighter bid to offer spreads than currency futures markets. By inverting the futures price to compare it to cash, you can readily see that in the USD/CHF example above, inverting the futures dealing price of .5894 – .5897 results in a cash price of 1.6958 – 1.6966, 8 pips vs. the 5-pip spread available in the cash markets.
- Forex trades executed through Forex are commission free. Currency futures have the added baggage of trading commissions, exchange fees and clearing fees. These fees can add up quickly and seriously eat into a trader’s profits.
- Forex markets utilize easily understood and universally used terms and price quotes. Currency futures quotes are inversions of the cash price. For example, if the cash price for USD/CHF is 1.7100/1.7105, the futures equivalent is .5894/ .5897; a methodology followed only in the confines of futures trading. Currency futures prices have the added complication of including a forward forex component that takes into account a time factor, interest rates and the interest differentials between various currencies. The forex markets require no such adjustments, mathematical manipulation or consideration for the interest rate component of futures contracts.
In contrast, currency futures are a small part of a much larger market; one that has undergone historical changes over the last decade.
- Currency futures contracts (called IMM contracts or international monetary market futures) were created at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange in 1972.
- These contracts were created for the market professionals, who at that time, accounted for 99% of the volume generated in the currency markets.
- While some intrepid individuals did speculate in currency futures, highly trained specialists dominated the pits.
- Rather than becoming a hub for global currency transactions, currency futures became more of a sideshow (relative to the cash markets) for hedgers and arbitragers on the prowl for small, momentary anomalies between cash and futures currency prices.
- In what appears to be a permanent rather than cyclical change, fewer and fewer of these arbitrage windows are opening these days. And, when they do, they are immediately slammed shut by a swarm of professional dealers.
These changes have significantly reduced the number of currency futures professionals, closed the window further on forex vs. futures arbitrage opportunities and so far, have paved the way to more orderly markets. And while a more level playing field is poison to the P&L of a currency futures trader, it’s been the pathway out of the maze for individuals trading in the forex markets.
See also Get A Basic Forex Education Before You Start Trading to learn more about the Forex market and the Forex broker.