5 Basic Forex Market Concepts

You don't have to be a daily trader to take advantage of the forex market—every time you travel overseas and exchange your money into a foreign currency, you are participating in the foreign exchange, or forex, market. In fact, the forex market is the quiet giant of finance, dwarfing all other capital markets in its world.

Despite this market’s overwhelming size, when it comes to trading currencies, the concepts are simple. Let’s take a look at some of the basic concepts that all forex investors need to understand.

Key Takeaways

  • The forex market is the largest capital market in the world, larger than the stock or bond markets.
  • Although there are hundreds of currencies, most forex trades happen in a handful of major currency pairs.
  • Forex markets offer very high leverage, providing the opportunity for extremely fast profits–or losses.
  • Many traders try to profit on the differences between interest rates among various currencies. These are called carry trades.
  • Forex markets allow extremely high leverage, offering the potential for rapid gains—or losses.

Eight Majors of Forex

Unlike the stock market, where investors have thousands of stocks to choose from, in the currency market you only need to follow eight major economies. Informally known as The Majors, these eight economies and their currencies make up the vast majority of forex transactions.

These economies have the largest and most sophisticated financial markets in the world, and their currencies dominate the forex market. For example, the U.S. dollar accounted for 88.3% of all forex trades, and the euro was used in 32.3 percent. The smaller currencies–the Australian, Canadian, and New Zealand dollars–are known as commodity block currencies, because they tend to reflect changes in global commodity markets.

By strictly focusing on these eight countries, we can take advantage of earning interest income on the most creditworthy and liquid instruments in the financial markets. Economic data is released from these countries on an almost daily basis, allowing investors to stay on top of the game when it comes to assessing the health of each country and its economy. 

Predicting Price Movements

When you trade in the foreign exchange spot market, you are actually buying and selling two underlying currencies. All currencies are quoted in pairs because each currency is valued in relation to another. For example, if the EUR/USD pair is quoted as 1.2200 that means it costs $1.22 to purchase one euro. 

One of the most straightforward Forex trades is to bet on future currency movements, either on the spot market or the futures market. If a trader believes that the economy of the European Union is likely to outgrow the United States, they may choose to sell dollars in anticipation of a stronger euro. Conversely, someone who believes that the U.S. will outperform the other majors may sell other currencies for dollars.

Currency futures work in the same way. In a futures contract, traders agree to exchange currencies at a future date at a pre-agreed price. If the actual price of the currency on that date is different from the futures price, one of the traders will earn a profit.

Forex markets allow much higher leverage than the stock market. This means you can quickly make extremely high profits—or losses!

Forex Yield and Return

When it comes to trading currencies, the key to remember is that yield drives return.Every currency comes with an interest rate set by that country's central bank. A currency trader can accrue interest on the difference between the interest rate of the currency they sold and the currency they bought.

This dynamic allows one of the most popular forex strategies: the carry trade. Carry traders hope to earn money not only by currency appreciation, but also from the different interest rates between currencies.

For example, if New Zealand has an interest rate of 8% and Japan has an interest rate of 0.5%, a trader who decides to go long on the NZD/JPY pair could earn 8% in annualized interest. From that, they would have to pay 0.5% for a net return of 7.5%.

Forex trading isn't just about predicting how prices will change. Carry trading is a technique where traders profit on the interest rate differential between two currencies.

Using Leverage in Forex Trades

The forex market also offers tremendous leverage—often as high as 100:1—which means that you can control $10,000 worth of assets with as little as $100 of capital. By comparison, stock traders are limited to 2:1 leverage. However, leverage is a double-edged sword: it can create massive profits when you are correct, but may also generate huge losses when you are wrong.

Even with relatively conservative 10:1 leverage, the 7.5% yield on NZD/JPY pair would translate into a 75% return on an annual basis. So, if you were to hold a 100,000 unit position in NZD/JPY using $5,000 worth of equity, you would earn $9.40 in interest every day.

That’s $94 dollars in interest after only 10 days, or $3,760 annually—unless, of course, the value of the New Zealand dollar were to fall, causing the trader to lose all their collateral. By contrast, a bank savings account would offer minimal interest, but it would be risk-free.

The use of leverage exacerbates any sort of market movements. However, these losses can be capped through the use of stops. Furthermore, almost all forex brokers offer the protection of a margin watcher—a piece of software that watches your position and automatically liquidates it once margin requirements are breached. This process ensures that your account will never post a negative balance and your risk will be limited to the amount of money in your account.

How to Win with Carry Trades

The key to a successful carry trade is not simply to pair up a currency with a high interest rate against a currency with a low one. It is far more important to observe how the spread is changing: a successful carry trader would pair a currency with a rising interest rate against a currency whose interest rate is falling.

This requires a good understanding of the underlying economics of the countries in question. Generally speaking, countries that are performing very well, with strong growth rates and increasing inflation will probably raise interest rates to tame inflation and control growth.

The most profitable way to carry trades that benefit not only from a positive and growing yield, but that also have the potential to appreciate in value. This is important because just as currency appreciation can increase the value of your carry trade earnings, currency depreciation can erase all of your carry trade gains—and then some

The Bottom Line

Thanks to the widespread availability of electronic trading networks, forex trading is now more accessible than ever. The largest financial market in the world offers vast opportunities for investors who take the time to get to understand it and learn how to mitigate the risk of trading.

When Does the Forex Market Open?

The global forex market runs 24 hours a day, thanks to the overlapping time zones in the key trading centers. However, it closes on weekends. The market opens at 5 p.m. EST on Sunday afternoon and closes at 4 p.m. EST on Friday.

How Does the Forex Market Work?

The forex market is a worldwide network of exchanges, brokers, banks, and institutional investors, and retail traders, who buy, sell, borrow, or lend different currencies throughout the trading day. Each currency is regulated by a central bank that determines the supply and interest rate for that currency. Traders seek to profit from the changing interest rates and relative values of the eight major currencies.

How Much Is the Forex Market Worth?

The forex market is the largest and most liquid market in the world. In 2020, it was valued at $2.4 quadrillion dollars.

Article Sources
Investopedia requires writers to use primary sources to support their work. These include white papers, government data, original reporting, and interviews with industry experts. We also reference original research from other reputable publishers where appropriate. You can learn more about the standards we follow in producing accurate, unbiased content in our editorial policy.
  1. Bank for International Settlements. "Triennial Central Bank Survey: Foreign Exchange Turnover in April 2019." Page 5. Accessed Feb. 13, 2022.

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