Saturday, July 3, 2010

What is Foreign Exchange?

The Foreign Exchange market, also referred to as the "Forex" market, is the largest financial market in the world, with a daily average turnover of approximately US$1.2 trillion. Foreign Exchange is the simultaneous buying of one currency and selling of another. The world's currencies are on a floating exchange rate and are always traded in pairs, for example Euro/Dollar or Dollar/Yen.

When is the FX market open for trading?

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, then 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.

Origins of foreign exchange

In order to gain a complete understanding of what foreign exchange market is, it is useful to examine the reasons that lead to its existence in the first place. Exhaustively detailing the historical events that shaped the foreign exchange market into what it is today is of no great importance to the fx trader and therefore we happily will omit lengthy explanations of historical events such as the Bretton Woods accord in favor of a more specific insight into the reasoning behind foreign exchange as a medium of exchange of goods and services.Originally our ancestors conducted trading of goods against other goods this system of bartering was of course quite inefficient and required lengthy negotiation and searching to be able to strike a deal. Eventually forms of metal like bronze, silver and gold came to be used in standardized sizes and later grades (purity) to facilitate the exchange of merchandise. The basis for these mediums of exchange was acceptance by the general public and practical variables like durability and storage. Eventually during the late middle ages, a variety of paper IOU started gaining popularity as an exchange medium.The obvious advantage of carrying around 'precious' paper versus carrying around bags of precious metal was slowly recognized through the ages. Eventually stable governments adopted paper currency and backed the value of the paper with gold reserves. This came to be known as the gold standard. The Bretton Woods accord in July 1944 fixed the dollar to 35 USD per ounce and other currencies to the dollar. In 1971, president Nixon suspended the convertibility to gold and let the US dollar 'float' against other currencies.Since then the foreign exchange market has developed into the largest market in the world with a total daily turnover of about 1.5 trillion USD. Traditionally an institutional (inter-bank) market, the popularity of online currency trading offered to the private individual is democratising foreign exchange and widening the retail market.

Market participants

In the last years, the foreign exchange market has expanded from one where banks would execute transactions between themselves to one in which many other kinds of financial institutions like brokers and market-makers participate including non-financial corporations, investment firms, pension funds and hedge funds.Its' focus has broadened from servicing importers and exporters to handling the vast amounts of overseas investment and other capital flows that currently take place. Lately foreign exchange day trading has become increasingly popular and various firms offer trading facilities to the small investor.Foreign exchange is an 'over the counter' (OTC) market, that means that there is no central exchange and clearing house where orders are matched. Geographic trading 'centers' exist around the world however and are: (in order of importance) London, New York, Tokyo, Singapore, Frankfurt, Geneva & Zurich, Paris and Hong Kong. Essentially foreign exchange deals are made between participants on the basis of trust and reputation to deliver on an agreement. In the case of banks trading with one another, they do so solely on that basis. In the retail market, customers demand a written legally accepted contract between themselves and their broker in exchange of a deposit of funds on which basis the customer may trade.Some market participants may be involved in the 'goods' market, conducting international transactions for the purchase or sale of merchandise. Some may be engaged in 'direct investment' in plant and equipment, or may be in the 'money market,' trading short-term debt instruments internationally. The various investors, hedgers, and speculators may be focused on any time period, from a few minutes to several years. But, whether official or private, and whether their motive be investing, hedging, speculating, arbitraging, paying for imports, or seeking to influence the rate, they are all part of the aggregate demand for and supply of the currencies involved, and they all play a role in determining the exchange rate at that moment.

Main forex markets

Foreign exchange is traded essentially in two distinctive ways. Over an organized exchange and 'over the counter'. Exchange traded foreign exchange represents a very small portion of the total foreign exchange market the great majority of foreign exchange deals being traded between banks and other market participants 'over the counter'.1. Exchange traded currenciesIn the case of an organized exchange like the Chicago Mercantile exchange (CME) in the US, standardized currency contract sizes that represent a certain monetary value are traded in the International money market (IMM). A central clearing house organizes matching of transactions between counter-parties. There are various disadvantages to trading currency futures as outlined in the chapter Advantages of trading FX.2. Forex marketIn comparison the over the counter market is traded around the world by a multitude of participants and price quality, reputation and trading conditions determine who a participant wishes to trade with. It is probably the most competitive market in the world and brokers like ACM must insure they live up to the highest standards of service and be compliant with market standards and practices if they want to acquire new customers and retain their existing ones. In 1998 a survey under the auspices of the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), global turnover of reporting dealers was estimated at about USD 1.49 trillion per day. In comparison, currency futures turnover was estimated at USD 12 billion.Among the various financial centers around the world, the largest amount of foreign exchange trading takes place in the United Kingdom, even though that nation's currency, the British pound is less widely traded in the market than several others. As shown in the graph underneath, the United Kingdom accounts for about 32 percent of the global total; the United States ranks a distant second with about 18 percent, and Japan is third with 8 percent.

Market dynamics

The breadth, depth, and liquidity of the market are truly impressive. It has been estimated that the world's most active exchange rates like EURUSD and USDJPY can change up to 18,000 times during a single day.Somewhere on the planet, financial centers are open for business, and banks and other institutions are trading the dollar and other currencies, every hour of the day and night, aside from possible minor gaps on weekends. In financial centers around the world, business hours overlap; as some centers close, others open and begin to trade.The foreign exchange market follows the sun around the earth. Each business day arrives first in the Asia-Pacific financial centers; first Wellington, New Zealand, then Sydney, Australia, followed by Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Singapore. A few hours later, while markets remain active in those Asian centers, trading begins in Bahrain and elsewhere in the Middle East. Later still, when it is late in the business day in Tokyo, markets in Europe open for business. Subsequently, when it is early afternoon in Europe, trading in New York and other U.S. centers starts. Finally, completing the circle, when it is middle or late afternoon in the United States, the next day has arrived in the Asia-Pacific area, the first markets there have opened, and the process begins again.The graph underneath displays not only the currency trading time cycle but also the average 'depth' of trading at different times during the day in the various business hours.1. Spot rateA spot transaction is a straightforward (or outright) exchange of one currency for another. The spot rate is the current market price or 'cash' rate. Spot transactions do not require immediate settlement, or payment 'on the spot'. By convention, the settlement date, or value date, is the second business day after the deal date on which the transaction is made by the two parties.2. Bid & askIn the foreign exchange market (and essentially in all markets) there is a buying and selling price. It is important to perceive these prices as a reflection of market condition.A market maker is expected to quote simultaneously for his customers both a price at which he is willing to buy (the bid) and a price at which he is willing to sell (the ask) standard amounts of any currency for which he is making a market.ACM quotes very competitive spreads to customers, to site an example if a trader is interested in a transaction in EURUSD then he can trade on a bid/ask of say 0.9150 / 0.9153. This means that ACM is willing to buy from him a pre-determined amount at 0.9150 or inversely to sell to him at 0.9153.Generally speaking the difference between the bid and ask rates reflect the level of liquidity in a certain instrument. On a normal trading day, the major currency pairs EURUSD, USDJPY, USDCHF and GBPUSD are traded by a multitude of market participant every few seconds. High liquidity means that there is always a seller for your buy and a buyer for your sell at actual prices.3. Base currency and counter currencyEvery foreign exchange transaction involves two currencies. It is important to keep straight which is the base currency and which is the counter currency. The counter currency is the numerator and the base currency is the denominator. When the counter currency increases, the base currency strengthens and becomes more expensive. When the counter currency decreases, the base currency weakens and becomes cheaper. In telephone trading communications, the base currency is always stated first. For example, a quotation for USDJPY means the US dollar is the base and the yen is the counter currency. In the case of GBPUSD (usually called 'cable') the British pound is the base and the US dollar is the counter currency.4. Quotes in terms of base currencyTraders always think in terms of how much it costs to buy or sell the base currency. When a quote of 0.9150 / 53 is given that means that a trader can buy EUR against USD at 0.9153. If he is buying EURUSD for 1'000'000 at that rate he would have USD 915'300 in exchange for his million Euro. Of course traders are not actually interested in exchanging large amounts of different currency, their main focus is to buy at a low rate and sell at higher one.5. Basis points or 'pips'For most currencies, bid and offer quotes are carried down to the fourth decimal place. That represents one-hundredth of one percent, or 1/10,000th of the counter currency unit, usually called a 'pip'. However, for a few currency units that are relatively small in absolute value, such as the Japanese yen, quotes may be carried down to two decimal places and a 'pip' is 1/100th of the terms currency unit. In foreign exchange, a 'pip' is the smallest amount by which a price may fluctuate in that market.6. Euro cross & cross ratesEuro cross rates are currency pairs that involve the Euro currency versus another currency. Examples of Euro crosses are EURJPY, EURCHF and GBPEUR. Currency pairs that involve neither the Euro nor the US dollar are called cross rates. Examples of cross rates are GBPJPY and CHFJPY. Of course hundreds of cross rates exist involving exotic currency pairs but they are often plagued by low liquidity. Ever since the Euro the number of liquid cross rates have decreased and have been replaced (to a certain extent) by Euro crosses.

Where is the central location of the FX Market?

FX Trading is not centralized on an exchange, as with the stock and futures markets. 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 networ