The forex market is the largest and most liquid market in the world. It's a truly global currency market, open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, everywhere.
As if forex was not dynamic enough, cryptocurrencies like bitcoin have added a fascinating new dimension to currency trading. In recent years, many forex brokers have begun to accept bitcoins for currency trading, with some accepting a variety of other digital currencies as well.
Should you jump in and begin using your hard-mined bitcoins in the forex markets? Find out the risks and benefits first.
- The forex market is dedicated to trading in the world's currencies.
- Many forex brokers now accept bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.
- Bitcoin trades benefit from the anonymity and decentralized valuation system the currency represents.
- They add a new layer of risk to forex trading, exacerbated by the extreme volatility of crypto-currencies.
A Standard Forex Trade
Before you consider whether to trade forex using bitcoin, it's helpful to understand how a conventional forex trade works.
A forex trade is simply an exchange of one currency for another at its current rate. Unlike tourists who exchange their home currency for local spending money, forex traders are trying to make money off the continual fluctuations in the real value of one currency against another.
Trading a 'Pair'
Imagine you are an American trader betting that the British pound will lose value compared to the U.S. dollar. This is called trading on the British pound/U.S. dollar currency pair (GBP/USD).
You deposit $100 with a forex broker. Assuming the rate of $1 = £0.5, you will receive £50 for your $100. If the GBP/USD rate changes to 0.45, you close the position to 50/0.45 = $111.11. That is, you make an 11.11% profit over your initial $100 deposit.
Most forex trading is conducted in a decentralized fashion via over-the-counter markets. However, the fact that the forex market is decentralized and that bitcoin is considered to be a decentralized digital currency does not mean that the two are equivalent.
The Impact of Decentralization
The key distinction is that, though forex exchanges might be decentralized, the currencies themselves are backed by central banks in the countries that issue them. It's the job of those banks to stabilize the value of their currencies and keep them stable.
Bitcoin and most other cryptocurrencies do not have that support.
A Forex Trade Using Bitcoin
Now consider an example of a forex trade using bitcoin. First, you open a forex trading account with a broker who accepts bitcoins. These include AvaTrade, eToro, and LiteForex. You then transfer 2 bitcoins from your digital wallet to the forex broker’s digital wallet.
If you want to trade using bitcoin, use only a locally regulated forex brokerage. And avoid using leverage until you know what you're doing.
Assuming the current bitcoin to U.S. dollar rate is 1 bitcoin = $7,500, your deposit of 2 bitcoins is worth $15,000. Now, assume that you want to take a position in British pounds. If the exchange rate is £0.5 = $1, you will receive £7,500. After some time, the GBP/USD rate changes to 0.45, and you square off your position to get $1,666.65 in your trading account. You have made a tidy 11.11% profit and you are ready to cash out.
The Bitcoin Effect
However, suppose that the bitcoin to U.S. dollar rate has changed during this period of time to 1 bitcoin = $8,500. When you withdraw your money in bitcoins, you receive ($16,666.65/$8,500) = 1.961 bitcoins.
The range in value of a bitcoin over the year ending in July 2020.
Despite the fact that your bet on British pounds earned you an 11.11% profit (from $15,000 to $16,666.65), the fluctuation in the bitcoin to U.S. dollar rate means that you sustain a loss of 0.039 bitcoin or about -2.%. (Initial deposit of 2 bitcoins — 1.961 bitcoins = .039 bitcoin).
However, had the bitcoin to U.S. dollar exchange rate changed to 1 bitcoin = $7,000, you would realize a profit from both the forex trade and the bitcoin exchange. You would have received ($16,666.65/$7,000) = 2.381 bitcoins, a profit of 19.1%.
This hypothetical example illustrates the big reason to exercise caution when using digital currencies for forex trading. Even the most popular and widely used cryptocurrency, the bitcoin, is highly volatile compared to most traditional currencies.
In the year ending July 24, 2020, the value of a bitcoin ranged from $5,532 to $11,982.
This unpredictability means that the risks associated with trading forex using bitcoin are that much greater.
Beyond the exchange rate fluctuations impacting profit and loss, there are other benefits and risks to consider before trading forex with bitcoin.
Benefits of Trading Forex With Bitcoin
- Decentralized Valuations: A major advantage of trading forex with the bitcoin is that the bitcoin is not tied to a central bank. Digital currencies are free from central geopolitical influence and from macroeconomic issues like country-specific inflation or interest rates.
- High Leverage: Many forex brokers offer leverage for bitcoin trades. Experienced traders can use this to their benefit. However, such high margins should also be approached with great caution as they magnify the potential for losses.
- Low Deposit Amount: A trader can start with as little as $25 with some bitcoin forex trading firms. A few forex trading firms have even offered promotions like a matching deposit amount. Traders should check that the broker is legitimate and appropriately regulated.
- Low Cost of Trading: Most forex brokers that accept cryptocurrency are keeping brokerage costs very low to attract new clients.
- Security: You don’t need to reveal your bank account or credit card details to make a bitcoin transaction. This is a big advantage in terms of cost and financial security.
- No Global Boundaries: Bitcoin transactions have no global boundaries. A trader based in South Africa can trade forex through a broker based in the United Kingdom. Regulatory challenges may remain a concern, but if both traders and brokers are willing to transact, there are no geographical boundaries.
Risks of Trading Forex with Bitcoin
- Different Exchange Rates: Bitcoin trades on multiple exchanges and exchange rates vary. Traders must ensure they understand which bitcoin exchange rates the forex broker will be using.
- U.S. Dollar Rate Risk: While receiving bitcoin deposits from clients, almost all brokers instantly sell the bitcoins and hold the amount in U.S. dollars. Even if a trader does not take a forex trade position immediately after the deposit, they are still exposed to the bitcoin-to-U.S. dollar rate risk from deposit to withdrawal.
- Danger of Volatility: Historically, bitcoin prices have exhibited high volatility. In the absence of regulations, volatility can be used by unregulated brokers to their advantage and a trader’s disadvantage. For example, assume the intraday bitcoin rate fluctuates from $5,000 to $5,300 U.S. dollars per bitcoin. For an incoming deposit of 2 bitcoins, the unregulated broker may apply the lowest rates to credit the trader $10,000 (2 bitcoins * $5,000 = $10,000). However, once the trader is ready to make a withdrawal, the broker may use the lowest exchange rate. Instead of the original 2 bitcoins deposited, the trader receives only 1.88679 bitcoins ($10,000/$5,300 = 1.88679 bitcoins). The unregulated broker may be exchanging bitcoins and dollars at, say, $5,150, and pocketing the difference at the expense of the client.
- Security Risks Inherent to Bitcoin: Deposited bitcoins are prone to theft by hacking, even from a broker’s digital wallet. To reduce this risk, look for a broker who has insurance protection against theft.
- Risk of Leverage: Using leverage is risky for new traders who may not understand the exposure. This risk is not unique to cryptocurrency forex trading and comes into play in traditional forex transactions as well.
- Asset Class Mixing: Cryptocurrency is a different asset class altogether and has its own valuation mechanism. Trading forex with bitcoins essentially introduces a new intermediate currency which can impact profit and loss in unexpected ways. Any money that is not locked down in a trader’s base currency is a risk.
The Bottom Line
Although cryptocurrencies like bitcoin are gaining popularity, there are still many associated risks. In forex trading, dealing in a decentralized currency that offers global transactions with no fees is an advantage. But the tradeoff is essentially adding a third currency to what was a trading pair.
Traders who want to take on that risk should use only a locally regulated forex brokerage.