Foreign Exchange Trading, often shortened to ‘Forex’, or ‘FX’ trading, essentially involves buying and selling currencies.
At a simple level, Brits who exchange pounds for a foreign currency at a bureau de change, bank, Post Office or travel agent before heading off on holiday abroad are carrying out Forex transactions. Forex traders do a similar thing, but on a grander scale.
The march of technology means it’s also a market that offers opportunities, for those with the right aptitude, to private investors and traders. Here’s a deeper look at Forex and the key points to bear in mind.
Forex trading involves the speculative buying and selling of currencies in quest of profit - trading is a risky activity and losses could occur. It can also be used to ‘hedge’ existing currency trades against a backdrop of exchange rate fluctuations. (Hedging is where you protect a financial position against the potential of making a loss.)
Converting a few hundred pounds of holiday spending money might not seem like a big deal to any of us individually. But FX is not only the largest market in the world, it’s also the most actively traded.
The numbers are eye-popping. According to the latest triennial (three-year) report from the Bank for International Settlements, global Forex trading stood at $6.6 trillion daily in 2019. To put such a sum in context, the amount is more than double the UK’s annual gross domestic product (the measure of the sum total of a country’s entire goods and services).
Open all hours - Individual stock exchanges, such as those in London, Frankfurt and Hong Kong, each work to specific opening hours and are therefore stop-start in nature.
In contrast, Forex is an around-the clock market with four main trading hubs working across different time zones: London, New York, Tokyo and Sydney. When trading has stopped in one location, the Forex market will continue to operate in another. Forex is also traded in Zurich, Frankfurt, Hong Kong, SIngapore and Paris.
Unlike the holidaymaker who needs foreign notes and coins to pay for a cocktail by the pool, Forex traders aren’t necessarily looking to take physical delivery of the currencies.
Most Forex trading takes place between institutional traders working on behalf of individuals, banks and other financial organisations, and multinational companies.
Before the internet, only institutions and wealthy individuals could play the Forex market. Times have moved on, however, and private investors now make up a small part of the Forex market.
Forex is carried out for a number of reasons, for example, to hedge against international currency and interest rate risk. This is topical at the moment, as world economies grapple with inflation concerns and where interest rate levels have come under particular scrutiny.
Forex is also used to speculate on the impact of geo-political events such as the increase in tensions between Russia and the West over Ukraine. Political events and natural disasters have the potential to alter the strength of a country’s currency significantly, leading to potential trading gains or losses.
Companies make use of Forex as well. For example, a multinational headquartered in one location might use the Forex market to hedge currency risk resulting from transactions carried out by subsidiaries around the world.
Forex is also a means of providing diversification within an investment portfolio. Because the Forex market is open 24 hours a day, five days a week, it provides traders with the opportunity to react to news that might not impact a particular country’s stock exchange till much later.
Economic indicators used to analyse the Forex market include:
Forex trading takes place ‘over the counter’ (OTC), which means there’s no physical exchange of the underlying currency. A global network of banks and other financial institutions effectively oversee the market instead.
In the past, those without the necessary means to trade Forex directly may have used a broker to trade currencies on their behalf. But thanks to advances in technology, the evolution of smartphones and a plethora of online trading platforms, it’s now possible to trade currencies directly as an individual.
Note: whether you should consider Forex trading depends on your financial circumstances as well as your market knowledge and appetite for risk. As with any market-based speculative venture, there’s always the possibility that trades can go against you and that you lose money as a result.
The main aim of Forex trading is to predict if the value of one currency will increase or decrease relative to another.
A trader might buy a currency thinking its value will increase with the aim of selling it at a profit. This is known as ‘going long’. Or a trader may sell a currency today on the basis it could decrease in value tomorrow and subsequently be bought back at a cheaper rate. This is known as ‘going short’.
Each of the world’s currencies has a three-letter code. These are similar to the symbols used on stock exchanges to identify a particular company, such as DGE for Diageo on the London market.
The most-traded currency worldwide is the US dollar, which has the ticker USD. The second most popular is the euro (EUR), followed by the Japanese Yen (JPY), the British pound (GBP), the Australian dollar (AUD), Canadian dollar (CAD), Swiss franc (CHF) and the New Zealand dollar (NZD). There are more than 170 currencies in all worldwide.
In Forex, currencies are always traded as ‘currency pairs’. This is because when you buy one currency, you simultaneously sell the other.
The following currency pairs are known as the ‘majors’ and account for about three-quarters of all trading in the Forex market:
‘Minors’ are all the other combinations of the world’s biggest currencies, such as GBP/EUR.
Each currency pair comprises two elements. The first is the ‘base currency’. When listed in a trading quote, this part is always equal to 1. The second element is the ‘quote currency’.
For example, consider the currency pair GBP/EUR = 1.19. The base currency is pound sterling (GBP) and the quote currency is euros (EUR). The pairing means that £1 is worth 1.19 euros if you decide to buy. Put another way, it would cost €1.19 to buy £1.
When you buy a currency pair, the price you pay is called the ‘ask’ and when you sell it’s called the ‘bid’.
There are three main ways to trade Forex at scale:
You can choose from a number of online platforms run by Forex brokers as well as several trading apps. Make sure your provider is regulated by the UK’s financial watchdog, the Financial Conduct Authority or other such Authorities in your country of residence. Funds should be held in a segregated account so that, if your broker goes bankrupt, your money will be safe.
Have a clear idea about the sorts of trades you might want to do and find out how much it’s going to cost with the platform or app provider of your choice. The more obscure the currency pair, the wider the spread is likely to be to execute a trade.
Some of the most popular platforms have forums where you can speak to other users. If you’re a completely novice trader, look out for providers that offer online tutorials or the option to practise trades on demonstration accounts with virtual money.
As the FX market is one that never sleeps (except at the weekend), 24-hour support from your platform provider is extremely useful. Some services will allow you to automatically open and close positions once certain levels of trading have been reached, ensuring your account is not on the receiving end of a nasty surprise.
To have a chance of making a return, it’s essential to research your chosen currencies. For example, you’ll need to know in advance the dates when countries make public their key economic announcements concerning GDP figures, balance of payments, inflation rates and so on.
Equity markets, interest rates and important news developments also have a role to play in determining a currency’s strength or weakness.