Research & Analysis
The foreign exchange market (Forex, FX, or currency market) is a global decentralized or over-the-counter (OTC) market for the trading of currencies. This market determines foreign exchange rates for every currency. It includes all aspects of buying, selling and exchanging currencies at current or determined prices. In terms of trading volume, it is by far the largest market in the world, followed by the credit market.
The main participants in this market are the larger international banks. Financial centers around the world function as anchors of trading between a wide range of multiple types of buyers and sellers around the clock, with the exception of weekends. Since currencies are always traded in pairs, the foreign exchange market does not set a currency's absolute value but rather determines its relative value by setting the market price of one currency if paid for with another. Ex: US$1 is worth X CAD, or CHF, or JPY, etc.
The foreign exchange market works through financial institutions and operates on several levels. Behind the scenes, banks turn to a smaller number of financial firms known as "dealers", who are involved in large quantities of foreign exchange trading. Most foreign exchange dealers are banks, so this behind-the-scenes market is sometimes called the "interbank market" (although a few insurance companies and other kinds of financial firms are involved). Trades between foreign exchange dealers can be very large, involving hundreds of millions of dollars. Because of the sovereignty issue when involving two currencies, Forex has little (if any) supervisory entity regulating its actions.
The foreign exchange market assists international trade and investments by enabling currency conversion. For example, it permits a business in the United States to import goods from European Union member states, especially Eurozone members, and pay Euros, even though its income is in United States dollars. It also supports direct speculation and evaluation relative to the value of currencies and the carry trade speculation, based on the differential interest rate between two currencies.
In a typical foreign exchange transaction, a party purchases some quantity of one currency by paying with some quantity of another currency.
The modern foreign exchange market began forming during the 1970s. This followed three decades of government restrictions on foreign exchange transactions under the Bretton Woods system of monetary management, which set out the rules for commercial and financial relations among the world's major industrial states after World War II. Countries gradually switched to floating exchange rates from the previous exchange rate regime, which remained fixed per the Bretton Woods system.
The foreign exchange market is unique because of the following characteristics:
- Its huge trading volume, representing the largest asset class in the world leading to high liquidity;
- Its geographical dispersion;
- Its continuous operation: 24 hours a day except for weekends, i.e., trading from 22:00 GMT on Sunday (Sydney) until 22:00 GMT Friday (New York);
- The variety of factors that affect exchange rates;
- The low margins of relative profit compared with other markets of fixed income;
- The use of leverage to enhance profit and loss margins and with respect to account size.
As such, it has been referred to as the market closest to the ideal of perfect competition, notwithstanding currency intervention by central banks.
According to the Bank for International Settlements, the preliminary global results from the 2019 Triennial Central Bank Survey of Foreign Exchange and OTC Derivatives Markets Activity show that trading in foreign exchange markets averaged $6.6 trillion per day in April 2019. This is up from $5.1 trillion in April 2016. Measured by value, foreign exchange swaps were traded more than any other instrument in April 2019, at $3.2 trillion per day, followed by spot trading at $2 trillion.
The $6.6 trillion break-down is as follows:
- $2 trillion in spot transactions.
- $1 trillion in outright forwards.
- $3.2 trillion in foreign exchange swaps.
- $108 billion currency swaps
- $294 billion in options and other products.
Market size and liquidity
The foreign exchange market is the most liquid financial market in the world. Traders include governments and central banks, commercial banks, other institutional investors and financial institutions, currency speculators, other commercial corporations, and individuals. According to the 2019 Triennial Central Bank Survey, coordinated by the Bank for International Settlements, average daily turnover was $6.6 trillion in April 2019 (compared to $1.9 trillion in 2004). Of this $6.6 trillion, $2 trillion was spot transactions and $4.6 trillion was traded in outright forwards, swaps, and other derivatives.
Foreign exchange is traded in an over-the-counter market where brokers/dealers negotiate directly with one another, so there is no central exchange or clearing house. The biggest geographic trading center is the United Kingdom, primarily London. In April 2019, trading in the United Kingdom accounted for 43.1% of the total, making it by far the most important center for foreign exchange trading in the world. Owing to London's dominance in the market, a particular currency's quoted price is usually the London market price. For instance, when the International Monetary Fund calculates the value of its special drawing rights every day, they use the London market prices at noon that day. Trading in the United States accounted for 16.5%, Singapore and Hong Kong account for 7.6% and Japan accounted for 4.5%.
Turnover of exchange-traded foreign exchange futures and options was growing rapidly in 2004-2013, reaching $145 billion in April 2013 (double the turnover recorded in April 2007). As of April 2019, exchange-traded currency derivatives represent 2% of OTC foreign exchange turnover. Foreign exchange futures contracts were introduced in 1972 at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and are traded more than to most other futures contracts.
Most developed countries permit the trading of derivative products (such as futures and options on futures) on their exchanges. All these developed countries already have fully convertible capital accounts. Some governments of emerging markets do not allow foreign exchange derivative products on their exchanges because they have capital controls. The use of derivatives is growing in many emerging economies. Countries such as South Korea, South Africa, and India have established currency futures exchanges, despite having some capital controls.
Foreign exchange trading increased by 20% between April 2007 and April 2010 and has more than doubled since 2004. The increase in turnover is due to a number of factors: the growing importance of foreign exchange as an asset class, the increased trading activity of high-frequency traders, and the emergence of retail investors as an important market segment. The growth of electronic execution and the diverse selection of execution venues has lowered transaction costs, increased market liquidity, and attracted greater participation from many customer types. In particular, electronic trading via online portals has made it easier for retail traders to trade in the foreign exchange market. By 2010, retail trading was estimated to account for up to 10% of spot turnover, or $150 billion per day (see below: Retail foreign exchange traders).
Unlike a stock market, the foreign exchange market is divided into levels of access. At the top is the interbank foreign exchange market, which is made up of the largest commercial banks and securities dealers. Within the interbank market, spreads, which are the difference between the bid and ask prices, are razor sharp and not known to players outside the inner circle. The difference between the bid and ask prices widens (for example from 0 to 1 pip to 1–2 pips for currencies such as the EUR) as you go down the levels of access. This is due to volume. If a trader can guarantee large numbers of transactions for large amounts, they can demand a smaller difference between the bid and ask price, which is referred to as a better spread. The levels of access that make up the foreign exchange market are determined by the size of the "line" (the amount of money with which they are trading). The top-tier interbank market accounts for 51% of all transactions.From there, smaller banks, followed by large multi-national corporations (which need to hedge risk and pay employees in different countries), large hedge funds, and even some of the retail market makers. According to Galati and Melvin, “Pension funds, insurance companies, mutual funds, and other institutional investors have played an increasingly important role in financial markets in general, and in FX markets in particular, since the early 2000s.” (2004) In addition, he notes, “Hedge funds have grown markedly over the 2001–2004 period in terms of both number and overall size”. Central banks also participate in the foreign exchange market to align currencies to their economic needs.
An important part of the foreign exchange market comes from the financial activities of companies seeking foreign exchange to pay for goods or services. Commercial companies often trade fairly small amounts compared to those of banks or speculators, and their trades often have a little short-term impact on market rates. Nevertheless, trade flows are an important factor in the long-term direction of a currency's exchange rate. Some multinational corporations (MNCs) can have an unpredictable impact when very large positions are covered due to exposures that are not widely known by other market participants