What is 'Foreign Exchange'

Foreign exchange is the exchange of one currency for another or the conversion of one currency into another currency. Foreign exchange also refers to the global market where currencies are traded virtually around the clock.

BREAKING DOWN 'Foreign Exchange'

Foreign exchange transactions encompass everything from the conversion of currencies by a traveler at an airport kiosk to billion-dollar payments made by corporations, financial institutions and governments. Transactions range from imports and exports to speculative positions with no underlying goods or services. Increasing globalization has led to a massive increase in the number of foreign exchange transactions in recent decades.

The Basics of Foreign Exchange

The global foreign exchange market is the largest and the most liquid financial market in the world, with average daily volumes in the trillions of dollars. Foreign exchange transactions can be done for spot or forward delivery. There is no centralized market for forex transactions, which are executed over the counter and around the clock.

The largest foreign exchange markets are located in major financial centers like London, New York, Singapore, Tokyo, Frankfurt, Hong Kong and Sydney. 

The term foreign exchange is usually abbreviated as "forex" and occasionally as "FX." 

Size of the Foreign Exchange Market

The foreign exchange market is unique for several reasons, mainly because of its size. Trading volume in the forex market is generally very huge. As an example, trading in foreign exchange markets averaged $5.1 trillion per day in April 2016, according to the Bank for International Settlements, which is owned by 60 central banks, and is used to work in monetary and financial responsibility. 

The largest trading centers are London, New York, Singapore and Tokyo.

Trading in the Foreign Exchange Market

The market is open 24 hours a day, five days a week across major financial centers across the globe. This means that you can buy or sell currencies at any time during the day.   

The foreign exchange market isn't exactly a one-stop shop. There are a whole variety of different avenues that an investor can go through in order to execute forex trades. You can go through different dealers or through different financial centers which use a host of electronic networks

From a historic standpoint, foreign exchange was once a concept for governments, large companies and hedge funds. But in today's world, trading currencies is as easy as a click of a mouse — accessibility is not an issue, which means anyone can do it. In fact, many investment firms offer the chance for individuals to open accounts and to trade currencies however and whenever they choose. 

When you're making trades in the forex market, you're basically buying or selling the current of a particular country. But there's no physical exchange of money from one hand to another. That's contrary to what happens at a foreign exchange kiosk — think of a tourist visiting Times Square in New York City from Japan. He may be converting his (physical) yen to actual U.S. dollar cash (and may be charged a commission fee to do so) so he can spend his money while he's traveling. But in the world of electronic markets, traders are usually taking a position in a specific currency, with the hope that there will be some upward movement and strength in the currency that they're buying (or weakness if they're selling) so they can make a profit. 

How Forex Markets Differ From Others

There are some fundamental differences between the foreign exchange and other markets. First of all, there are fewer rules, which means investors aren't held to strict standards or regulations as those in the stock, futures or options markets. That means there are no clearing houses and no central bodies that oversee the forex market. Second, since trades don't take place on a traditional exchange, you won't find the same fees or commissions that you would on another market. Next, there's no cut off as to when you can and cannot trade. Because the market is open 24 hours a day, you can trade at any time of day. Finally, because it's such a liquid market, you can get in and out whenever you want and you can buy as much currency as you can afford. 

Spot Market

Spot for most currencies is two business days; the major exception is the U.S. dollar versus the Canadian dollar, which settles on the next business day. Other pairs settle in two business days. During periods that have multiple holidays, such as Easter or Christmas, spot transactions can take as long as six days to settle. The price is established on the trade date, but money is exchanged on the value date.

The U.S. dollar is the most actively traded currency. The most common pairs are the USD versus the euro, Japanese yen, British pound and Swiss franc. Trading pairs that do not include the dollar are referred to as crosses. The most common crosses are the euro versus the pound and yen.

The spot market can be very volatile. Movement in the short term is dominated by technical trading, which focuses on direction and speed of movement. People who focus on technicals are often referred to as chartists. Long-term currency moves are driven by fundamental factors such as relative interest rates and economic growth.

Forward Market

A forward trade is any trade that settles further in the future than spot. The forward price is a combination of the spot rate plus or minus forward points that represent the interest rate differential between the two currencies. Most have a maturity less than a year in the future but longer is possible. Like with a spot, the price is set on the transaction date, but money is exchanged on the maturity date.

A forward contract is tailor-made to the requirements of the counterparties. They can be for any amount and settle on any date that is not a weekend or holiday in one of the countries.

Futures Market

A futures transaction is similar to a forward in that it settles later than a spot deal, but is for a standard size and settlement date and is traded on a commodities market. The exchange acts as the counterparty.

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