What Is a Cambist?

Cambist is an antiquated term that refers to a financial professional who is considered an expert in the international currency exchange markets. It is also sometimes used to refer to a reference manual that lists currency exchange values and other information useful for conducting international trade. Today, the term is mostly a throwback to describe an earlier generation of professional currency traders.

Key Takeaways

  • Cambist is an old term referring to experts or manuals that provided foreign exchange information.
  • The term is rarely used today, but is sometimes used to refer to those involved in exchange, such as bankers, brokers, traders, or even change machines.
  • Today, cambists are no longer needed as real-time foreign exchange rates are available to everyone, online, often for free. Banks, brokers, currency houses, or trading floors can therefore exchange currencies quickly at negotiated rates without the use of a cambist.

Understanding Cambists

The term “cambist” comes from the Latin word “cambiere”, which means “to exchange”. With the advent of the Internet and electronic trading platforms, physical manuals detailing exchange rates quickly became redundant. Similarly, currency traders ceased being relied upon for their personal knowledge of exchange rates and other facts, since this information can now be found readily online. 

These days, the only place you are likely to find the term cambist is on a crossword puzzle, but there was once a time when cambists were a critical asset to any organization involved in international commerce. Although cambists have been replaced by new technologies, the term is still occasionally used to describe professionals who are involved in the forex market, such as bankers, brokers, currency traders, or even change machines.

In the past, books with titles such as “The Universal Cambist and Commercial Instructor” would contain information such as the major cities and transfer points used in international trade. The names of each country’s currency would be arranged alphabetically, with useful information such as whether coins or banknotes were available, the quantity of gold or silver contained in the coins, and the commercial weights for each denomination of coin. These books also describe the types of measurements used by the local community, such as their measures of distance, land, and—perhaps most importantly—of wine and beer. Some cambist publications also included charts of duties, allowance, and the types of products commonly imported or exported from each location.

Real World Example of a Cambist

Today, the cambists of the past have effectively been replaced by sophisticated electronic trading platforms. Traders can access real-time price information for all of the world’s major trading currencies and can generally trade them at low cost from their laptops or smartphones. Professional traders can access a slew of non-standard data through subscription services and hardware such as the Bloomberg Terminal.

Despite the fact that forex prices and other information are now available prolifically throughout the world, there is no central marketplace for currency exchange. Instead, the forex market consists of a vast network of banks, brokers, and traders located throughout the world. Major financial centers providing much of the global trade in currencies include London, New York, Tokyo, Zürich, Frankfurt, Hong Kong, Singapore, Paris, Toronto, and Sydney. Modern cambists, therefore, are any of the various actors involved in this large and important marketplace.