Foreign Exchange Market
The foreign exchange (currency or forex or FX) market exists wherever one currency is traded for another. It is by far the largest market in the world, in terms of cash value traded, and includes trading between large banks, central banks, currency speculators, multinational corporations, governments, and other financial markets and institutions. Retail traders (small speculators) are a small part of this market. They may only participate indirectly through brokers or banks and may be targets of forex scams.
Foreign exchange markets are unique in the financial world in that exchange rates are highly sensitive to a great variety of factors, many different types of investors have access to the market, the market is very liquid, and currencies are traded around the clock. The main international banks continually provide the market with both bid (buy) and ask (sell) offers.
In the foreign exchange market there is little or no 'inside information'. Exchange rate fluctuations are usually caused by actual monetary flows as well as anticipations on global macroeconomic conditions. Significant news is released publicly so, at least in theory, everyone in the world receives the same news at the same time.
Currencies are traded against one another. Each pair of currencies thus constitutes an individual product and is traditionally noted XXX/YYY, where YYY is the ISO 4217 international three-letter code of the currency into which the price of one unit of XXX currency is expressed. For instance, EUR/USD is the price of the euro expressed in US dollars, as in 1 euro = 1.2045 dollar.
Some of the participants in this market are simply seeking to exchange a foreign currency for their own, like multinational corporations which must pay wages and other expenses in different nations than they sell products in. However, a large part of the market is made up of currency traders, who speculate on movements in exchange rates, much like others would speculate on movements of stock prices. Currency traders try to take advantage of even small fluctuations in exchange rates. Sometimes they are able to profit from arbitrage.
The interbank market caters for both the majority of commercial turnover and large amounts of speculative trading every day. A large bank may trade billions of dollars daily. Some of this trading is undertaken on behalf of customers, but much is conducted by proprietary desks, trading for the bank's own account.
Until recently, foreign exchange brokers did large amounts of business, facilitating interbank trading and matching anonymous counterparts for small fees. Today, however, much of this business has moved on to more efficient electronic systems, such as EBS, Reuters Dealing 3000 Matching (D2), the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, Bloomberg and TradeBook(R). The broker squawk box lets traders listen in on ongoing interbank trading is heard in most trading rooms, but turnover is noticeably smaller than just a few years ago.
An important part of this 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 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 companies can have an unpredictable impact when very large positions are covered due to exposures that are not widely known by other market participants.
National central banks play an important role in the foreign exchange markets. They try to control the money supply, inflation, and/or interest rates and often have official or unofficial target rates for their currencies. They can use their often substantial foreign exchange reserves, to stabilize the market. Milton Friedman argued that the best stabilization strategy would be for central banks to buy when the exchange rate is too low, and to sell when the rate is too high - that is, to trade for a profit. Nevertheless, central banks do not go bankrupt if they make large losses, like other traders would, and there is no convincing evidence that they do make a profit trading.
The mere expectation or rumor of central bank intervention might be enough to stabilize a currency, but aggressive intervention might be used several times each year in countries with a dirty float currency regime. Central banks do not always achieve their objectives, however. The combined resources of the market can easily overwhelm any central bank. Several scenarios of this nature were seen in the 1992-93 ERM collapse, and in more recent times in South East Asia.
Investment Management Firms
Investment Management firms (who typically manage large accounts on behalf of customers such as pension funds, endowments etc.) utilise the Foreign exchange market to facilitate transactions in foreign securities. For example, an investment manager with an international equity portfolio will need to buy and sell foreign currencies in the 'spot' market in order to pay for, and redeem, purchases and sales of foreign equities. Since these transactions are secondary to the actual investment decision, they are not seen as speculative or aimed at profit-maximisation.
Some investment management firms also possess specialist Currency Overlay units, which have the specific objective of managing clients' currency exposures with the aim of generating profits whilst limiting risk. Whilst the number of dedicated currency managers is quite small, the size of their assets under management (AUM) can be quite significant, which can lead to large trades.
Foreign Exchange Market