Investors can trade almost any currency in the world through foreign exchange (forex). In order to make money in forex, you should be aware that you are taking on a speculative risk. In essence, you are betting that the value of one currency will increase relative to another. The expected return of currency trading is similar to the money market and lower than stocks or bonds. However, it is possible to increase both returns and risk by using leverage. Currency trading is generally more profitable for active traders than passive investors.

Key Takeaways

  • It is possible to make money trading money when the prices of foreign currencies rise and fall.
  • Currencies are traded in pairs.
  • Buying and selling currency can be very profitable for active traders because of low trading costs, diverse markets, and the availability of high leverage.
  • Exchanging currency is not a good way for passive investors to make money.
  • It is easy to get started trading money at many large brokerages and specialized forex brokers.

Buying and Selling Currency Explained

It is important to note that currencies are traded and priced in pairs. For example, you may have seen a currency quote for a EUR/USD pair of 1.1256. In this example, the base currency is the euro. The U.S. dollar is the quote currency.

In all currency quote cases, the base currency is worth one unit. The quoted currency is the amount of currency that one unit of the base currency can buy. Based on our previous example, all that means is that one euro can buy 1.1256 U.S. dollars. An investor can make money in forex by appreciation in the value of the quoted currency or by a decrease in value of the base currency.

1:32

How Do You Make Money Trading Money?

Another perspective on currency trading comes from considering the position an investor is taking on each currency pair. The base currency can be thought of as a short position because you are "selling" the base currency to purchase the quoted currency. In turn, the quoted currency can be seen as a long position on the currency pair.

In our example above, we see that one euro can purchase $1.1256 and vice versa. To buy the euros, the investor must first go short on the U.S. dollar to go long on the euro. To make money on this investment, the investor will have to sell back the euros when their value appreciates relative to the U.S. dollar.

For instance, let's assume the value of the euro appreciates to $1.1266. On a lot of 100,000 euros, the investor would gain $100 ($112,660 - $112,560) if they sold the euros at this exchange rate. Conversely, if the EUR/USD exchange rate fell from $1.1256 to $1.1246, then the investor would lose $100 ($112,460 - $112,560).

Advantages for Active Traders

The currency market is a paradise for active traders. The forex market is the most liquid market in the world. Commissions are often zero, and bid-ask spreads are near zero. Spreads near one pip are common for some currency pairs. It is possible to frequently trade forex without high transaction costs.

With forex, there is always a bull market somewhere. The long-short nature of forex, the diversity of global currencies, and the low or even negative correlation of many currencies with stock markets ensures constant opportunities to trade. There is no need to sit on the sidelines for years during bear markets.

Although forex has a reputation as risky, it is actually an ideal place to get started with active trading. Currencies are generally less volatile than stocks, as long as you don't use leverage. The low returns for passive investment in the forex market also make it much harder to confuse a bull market with being a financial genius. If you can make money in the forex market, you can make it anywhere.

Finally, the forex market offers access to much higher levels of leverage for experienced traders. Regulation T sharply limits the maximum leverage available to stock investors in the United States. It is usually possible to get 50 to 1 leverage in the forex market, and it is sometimes possible to get 400 to 1 leverage. This high leverage is one of the reasons for the risky reputation of currency trading.

New forex traders should not use high leverage. It is best to start using little or no leverage and gradually increase it as profits and experience grow.

Disadvantages for Passive Investors

Passive investors seldom make money in the forex market. The first reason is that returns to passively holding foreign currencies are low, similar to the money market. If you think about it, that makes sense. When U.S. investors buy euros in the forex market, they are really investing in the EU's money market. Money markets around the world generally have low expected returns, and so does forex.

The benefits of the forex market for active traders are usually useless or even harmful for passive investors. Low trading costs mean very little if you do not trade very much. Using high leverage without a stop-loss order can lead to large losses. On the other hand, using stop-loss orders essentially turns an investor into an active trader.

Getting Started With Forex

The forex market was once much less accessible to average investors, but getting started is easy now. Many large brokerages, such as Fidelity, offer forex trading to their customers. Specialized forex brokers, such as OANDA, make sophisticated tools available to traders with balances as low as one dollar.