The Forex

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The foreign exchange market (forex, FX, or currency market) is a worldwide decentralized over-the-counter financial market for the trading of currencies. Financial centers around the world function as anchors of trading between a wide range of different types of buyers and sellers around the clock, with the exception of weekends. The foreign exchange market determines the relative values of different currencies.
The primary purpose of the foreign exchange market is to assist international trade and investment, by allowing businesses to convert one currency to another currency. For example, it permits a US business to import British goods and pay Pound Sterling, even though the business's income is in US dollars. It also supports speculation, and facilitates the carry trade, in which investors borrow low-yielding currencies and lend (invest in) high-yielding currencies, and which (it has been claimed) may lead to loss of competitiveness in some countries.

In a typical foreign exchange transaction a party purchases a quantity of one currency by paying a quantity of another currency. The modern foreign exchange market started forming during the 1970s when countries gradually switched to floating exchange rates from the previous exchange rate regime, which remained fixed as per the Bretton Woods system.

The foreign exchange market is unique because of its
  • huge trading volume, leading to high liquidity
  • geographical dispersion
  • continuous operation: 24 hours a day except weekends, i.e. trading from 20:15 GMT on Sunday until 22:00 GMT Friday
  • 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 margins with respect to account size

As such, it has been referred to as the market closest to the ideal of perfect competition, not with standing market manipulation by central banks. According to the Bank for International Settlements, average daily turnover in global foreign exchange markets is estimated at $3.98 trillion, as of April 2010 a growth of approximately 20% over the $3.21 trillion daily volume as of April 2007.

The $3.21 trillion break-down is as follows:
$1.005 trillion in spot transactions
$362 billion in outright forwards
$1.714 trillion in foreign exchange swaps
$129 billion estimated gaps in reporting

Market size and liquidity

Main foreign exchange market turnover, 1988–2007, measured in billions of USD. The foreign exchange market is the largest and most liquid financial market in the world. Traders include large banks, central banks, currency speculators, corporations, governments, and other financial institutions. The average daily volume in the global foreign exchange and related markets is continuously growing. Daily turnover was reported to be over US$3.2 trillion in April 2007 by the Bank for International Settlements. Since then, the market has continued to grow. According to Euromoney's annual FX Poll, volumes grew a further 41% between 2007 and 2008.

Of the $3.98 trillion daily global turnover, trading in London accounted for around $1.36 trillion, or 34.1% of the total, making London by far the global center for foreign exchange. In second and third places respectively, trading in New York City accounted for 16.6%, and Tokyo accounted for 6.0%. In addition to "traditional" turnover, $2.1 trillion was traded in derivatives.

Exchange-traded FX futures contracts were introduced in 1972 at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and are actively traded relative to most other futures contracts.

Several other developed countries also permit the trading of FX derivative products (like currency futures and options on currency futures) on their exchanges. All these developed countries already have fully convertible capital accounts. Most emerging countries do not permit FX derivative products on their exchanges in view of prevalent controls on the capital accounts. However, a few select emerging countries (e.g., Korea, South Africa, India; ) have already successfully experimented with the currency futures exchanges, despite having some controls on the capital account.

FX futures volume has grown rapidly in recent years, and accounts for about 7% of the total foreign exchange market volume, according to The Wall Street Journal Europe

Foreign exchange trading increased by 38% between April 2005 and April 2006 and has more than doubled since 2001. This is largely due to the growing importance of foreign exchange as an asset class and an increase in fund management assets, particularly of hedge funds and pension funds. The diverse selection of execution venues have made it easier for retail traders to trade in the foreign exchange market. In 2006, retail traders constituted over 2% of the whole FX market volumes with an average daily trade volume of over US$50-60 billion (see retail trading platforms).

Because foreign exchange is an OTC market where brokers/dealers negotiate directly with one another, there is no central exchange or clearing house. The biggest geographic trading centre is the UK, primarily London, which according to IFSL estimates has increased its share of global turnover in traditional transactions from 31.3% in April 2004 to 34.1% in April 2007. Due to London's dominance in the market, a particular currency's quoted price is usually the London market price. For instance, when the IMF calculates the value of its SDRs every day, they use the London market prices at noon that day.

The ten most active traders account for 77% of trading volume, according to the 2010 Euromoney FX survey. These large international banks continually provide the market with both bid (buy) and ask (sell) prices. The bid/ask spread is the difference between the price at which a bank or market maker will sell ("ask", or "offer") and the price at which a market taker will buy ("bid") from a wholesale or retail customer. The customer will buy from the market-maker at the higher "ask" price, and will sell at the lower "bid" price, thus giving up the "spread" as the cost of completing the trade. This spread is minimal for actively traded pairs of currencies, usually 0–3 pips. For example, the bid/ask quote of EURUSD might be 1.2200/1.2203 on a wholesale broker. Minimum trading size for most deals is usually 100,000 units of base currency, which is a standard "lot".

These spreads might not apply to retail customers at banks, which will routinely mark up the difference to say 1.2100/1.2300 for transfers, or say 1.2000/1.2400 for banknotes or travelers' checks. Spot prices at market makers vary, but on EURUSD are usually no more than 3 pips wide (i.e., 0.0003). Competition is greatly increased with larger transactions, and pip spreads shrink on the major pairs to as little as 1 to 2 pips.

Top 10 currency traders:

% of overall volume, May 2010 Rank Name Market Share

  1. Deutsche Bank 18.06%
  2. UBS AG 11.30%
  3. Barclays Capital 11.08%
  4. Citi 7.69%
  5. Royal Bank of Scotland 6.50%
  6. JPMorgan 6.35%
  7. HSBC 4.55%
  8. Credit Suisse 4.44%
  9. Goldman Sachs 4.28%
  10. Morgan Stanley 2.91%

Most traded currencies:

(Symbol) % daily share(April 2010)

  1. United States dollar USD ($) 84.9%
  2. Euro EUR (€) 39.1%
  3. Japanese yen JPY (¥) 19.0%
  4. Pound sterling GBP (£) 12.9%
  5. Australian dollar AUD ($) 7.6%
  6.  Swiss franc CHF (Fr) 6.4%
  7. Canadian dollar CAD ($) 5.3%
  8. Hong Kong dollar HKD ($) 2.4%
  9. Swedish krona SEK (kr) 2.2%
  10. New Zealand dollar NZD ($) 1.6%
          Other Currencies 18.6%
          Total 200%