Forex is short for foreign exchange, but the actual asset class we are referring to is currencies. Foreign exchange is the act of changing one country’s currency into another country’s currency for a variety of reasons, usually for tourism or commerce. Due to the fact that business is global, there is a need to transact with other countries in their own particular currency.
After the accord at Bretton Woods in 1971, when currencies were allowed to float freely against one another, the values of individual currencies have varied, which has given rise to the need for foreign exchange services. This service has been taken up by commercial and investment banks on behalf of their clients, but it has simultaneously provided a speculative environment for trading one currency against another using the internet. (If you want to start trading forex, check out Forex Basics: Setting Up an Account.)
Forex as a Hedge
Commercial enterprises doing business in foreign countries are at risk due to fluctuations in the currency value when they have to buy or sell goods or services to another country. Hence, the foreign exchange markets provide a way to hedge the risk by fixing a rate at which the transaction will be concluded at some time in the future. To accomplish this, a trader can buy or sell currencies in the forward or swap markets, at which time the bank will lock in a rate so that the trader knows the exact exchange rate in order to mitigate his or her company’s risk. To some extent, the futures market can also offer a means to hedge currency risk, depending on the size of the trade and the actual currency involved. The futures market is conducted in a centralized exchange and is less liquid than the forward markets, which are decentralized and exist within the interbank system throughout the world.[Traditional puts and calls are the most common options and hedging tools available to retail forex traders. Learn more about options, and how they apply to stocks, through Investopedia Academy’s Options for Beginners course.]
Forex as Speculation
Since there is constant fluctuation between the currency values of countries due to varying supply and demand factors such as interest rates, trade flows, tourism, economic strength and geopolitical risk, an opportunity exists to bet against these changing values by buying or selling one currency against another in the hopes that the currency you buy will gain in strength or that the currency you sell will weaken against its counterpart. (For additional reading, see Top 6 Questions About Currency Trading.)
Currency as an Asset Class
There are two distinct features to currency as an asset class:
- You can earn the interest rate differential between two currencies.
- You can gain value in the exchange rate.
Why We Can Trade Currencies
Until the advent of the internet, currency trading was limited to interbank activity on behalf of their clients. Gradually, the banks themselves set up proprietary desks to trade for their own accounts, which was followed by large multinational corporations, hedge funds and high net worth individuals.
With help from the internet, a retail market aimed at individual traders has emerged, providing easy access to the foreign exchange markets, either through the banks themselves or brokers making a secondary market. (For more on the basics of forex, check out 8 Basic Forex Market Concepts.)
Forex Trading Risks
Trading currencies can cause some confusion related to risk due to its complexities. Much has been said about the interbank market being unregulated and therefore very risky due to a lack of oversight. This perception is not entirely true, though. A better approach to the discussion of risk would be to understand the differences between a decentralized market versus a centralized market and then determine where regulation would be appropriate.
The interbank market is made up of several banks trading with each other around the world. The banks themselves have to determine and accept sovereign risk and credit risk, and for this they have many internal auditing processes to keep them as safe as possible. The regulations are industry- imposed for the sake and protection of each participating bank.
Since the market is made by each of the participating banks providing offers and bids for a particular currency, the market pricing mechanism is derived from supply and demand. Due to the huge flows within the system, it is almost impossible for any one rogue trader to influence the price of a currency. In today’s high-volume market, with between $2 trillion and $3 trillion being traded per day, even the central banks cannot move the market for any length of time without the full coordination and cooperation of other central banks. (For more on the interbank system, read The Foreign Exchange Interbank Market.)
Attempts are being made to create an Electronic Communication Network (ECN) to bring buyers and sellers into a centralized exchange so that pricing can be more transparent. This is a positive move for retail traders who will gain a benefit by seeing more competitive pricing and centralized liquidity. Banks of course do not have this issue and can, therefore, remain decentralized. Traders with direct access to the forex banks are also less exposed than those retail traders who deal with relatively small and unregulated forex brokers, which can (and sometimes do) re-quote prices and even trade against their own customers. It seems that the discussion of regulation has arisen because of the need to protect the unsophisticated retail trader who has been led to believe that forex trading is a surefire profit-making scheme. (See also: Why It’s Important to Regulate Foreign Exchange.)
For the serious and educated retail trader, there is now the opportunity to open accounts at many of the major banks or the larger, more liquid brokers. As with any financial investment, it pays to remember the caveat emptor rule – “buyer beware!” (For more on the ECN and other exchanges, check out Getting to Know the Stock Exchanges.)
Pros and Potential Cons of Trading Forex
If you intend to trade currencies, in addition to the previous comments regarding broker risk, the pros and potential cons of trading forex are laid out as follows:
Pro: The forex markets are the largest in terms of volume traded in the world and therefore offer the most liquidity, thus making it easy to enter and exit a position in any of the major currencies within a fraction of a second.
Potential Con: As a result of the liquidity and ease that a trader can enter or exit a trade, banks and/or brokers offer leverage, which means that a trader can control quite large positions with relatively little money of their own. Leverage in the range of 100:1 is a high ratio, but not uncommon. Of course, a trader must understand the use of leverage and the risks that leverage can impose on an account. Leverage has to be used judiciously and cautiously if it is to provide any benefits. A lack of understanding or wisdom in this regard can easily wipe out a trader’s account. (For more on leverage, check out Forex Leverage: A Double-Edged Sword.)
Pro: Another advantage of the forex markets is the fact that they trade 24 hours around the clock, starting each day in Australia and ending in New York. The major centers are Sydney, Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo, Frankfurt, Paris, London and New York.
Potential Con: Trading currencies is a “macroeconomic” endeavor. A currency trader needs to have a big-picture understanding of the economies of the various countries and their inter-connectedness in order to grasp the fundamentals that drive currency values. For some, it is easier to focus on economic activity to make trading decisions than to understand the nuances and often closed environments that exist in the stock and futures markets where microeconomic activities need to be understood. However, an understanding of a company’s management skills, financial strengths, market opportunities and industry-specific knowledge are not necessary in forex trading. (Take a look at Economic Factors That Affect the Forex Market to learn more.)
[One of the underlying tenets of technical analysis is that historical price action predicts future price action. Since the forex market is a 24-hour market, there tends to be a large amount of data that can be used to gauge future price movements. This makes it the perfect market for traders that use technical tools. If you want to learn more about technical analysis from one of the world’s most widely followed technical analysts, check out Investopedia Academy’s technical analysis course.]
Two Ways to Approach Forex Trading
For most investors or traders with stock market experience, there has to be a shift in attitude to transition into or add currencies as a further opportunity for diversification.
1. Currency trading has been promoted as an “active trader’s” opportunity. This type of opportunity suits brokers because it means they earn more due to the nimbleness that accompanies active trading.
2. Currency trading is also promoted as leveraged trading, and therefore, it is easier for a trader to open an account with a small amount of money than is necessary for trading in the stock market.
Besides trading for a profit or yield, currency trading can be used to hedge a stock portfolio. For example, if someone builds a stock portfolio in a country where there is potential for the stock to increase in value, but there is downside risk in terms of the currency (i.e., the U.S. in recent history), a trader could own the stock portfolio and short the dollar against another currency such as the Swiss franc or euro. In this way, the portfolio value will increase, and the negative effect of the declining dollar will be offset. This is true for those investors outside the U.S. who will eventually repatriate profits back to their own currencies. (For a better understanding of risk, read Understanding Forex Risk Management.) Opening a forex account and day trading or swing trading is most common with this profile in mind.
A second approach to trading currencies is to understand the fundamentals and the long-term benefits. It is beneficial to a trader when a currency is trending in a specific direction and offering a positive interest differential that provides a return on the investment plus an appreciation in currency value. This type of trade is known as a “carry trade.” For example, a trader can buy the Australian dollar against the Japanese yen. If the Japanese interest rate is .05% and the Australian interest rate is 4.75%, a trader can earn 4%. (For more, read The Fundamentals of Forex Fundamentals.)
However, if the Australian dollar is strengthening against the yen, then it is appropriate to buy the AUD/JPY and to hold it in order to gain in both the currency appreciation and the interest yield.
The Bottom Line
For traders, especially those with limited funds, day trading or swing trading in small amounts can be a good way to play the forex markets. For those with longer-term horizons and larger fund pools, a carry trade may be an appropriate alternative.