Forex, or foreign exchange, can be explained as a network of buyers and sellers, who transfer currency between each other at an agreed price. It is the means by which individuals, companies and central banks convert one currency into another – if you have ever travelled abroad, then it is likely you have made a forex transaction.
While a lot of foreign exchange is done for practical purposes, the vast majority of currency conversion is undertaken with the aim of earning a profit. The amount of currency converted every day can make price movements of some currencies extremely volatile. It is this volatility that can make forex so attractive to traders: bringing about a greater chance of high profits, while also increasing the risk.
A Brief History of Forex
Unlike stock markets, which can trace their roots back centuries, the forex market as we understand it today is a truly new market. Of course, in its most basic sense—that of people converting one currency to another for financial advantage—forex has been around since nations began minting currencies. But the modern forex markets are a modern invention. After the accord at Bretton Woods in 1971, more major currencies were allowed to float freely against one another. The values of individual currencies vary, which has given rise to the need for foreign exchange services and trading.
Commercial and investment banks conduct most of the trading in the forex markets on behalf of their clients, but there are also speculative opportunities for trading one currency against another for professional and individual investors.
How do currency markets work?
Unlike shares or commodities, forex trading does not take place on exchanges but directly between two parties, in an over-the-counter (OTC) market. The forex market is run by a global network of banks, spread across four major forex trading centers in different time zones: London, New York, Sydney and Tokyo. Because there is no central location, you can trade forex 24 hours a day.
There are three different types of forex market:
Spot forex market: the physical exchange of a currency pair, which takes place at the exact point the trade is settled – ie ‘on the spot’ – or within a short period of time Forward forex market: a contract is agreed to buy or sell a set amount of a currency at a specified price, to be settled at a set date in the future or within a range of future dates Future forex market: a contract is agreed to buy or sell a set amount of a given currency at a set price and date in the future. Unlike forwards, a futures contract is legally binding Most traders speculating on forex prices will not plan to take delivery of the currency itself; instead they make exchange rate predictions to take advantage of price movements in the market.
What is a base and quote currency?
A base currency is the first currency listed in a forex pair, while the second currency is called the quote currency. Forex trading always involves selling one currency in order to buy another, which is why it is quoted in pairs – the price of a forex pair is how much one unit of the base currency is worth in the quote currency.
Each currency in the pair is listed as a three-letter code, which tends to be formed of two letters that stand for the region, and one standing for the currency itself. For example, GBP/USD is a currency pair that involves buying the Great British pound and selling the US dollar.
So in the example below, GBP is the base currency and USD is the quote currency. If GBP/USD is trading at 1.35361, then one pound is worth 1.35361 dollars.
If the pound rises against the dollar, then a single pound will be worth more dollars and the pair’s price will increase. If it drops, the pair’s price will decrease. So if you think that the base currency in a pair is likely to strengthen against the quote currency, you can buy the pair (going long). If you think it will weaken, you can sell the pair (going short).
To keep things ordered, most providers split pairs into the following categories:
- Major pairs. Seven currencies that make up 80% of global forex trading. Includes EUR/USD, USD/JPY, GBP/USD, USD/CHF, USD/CAD and AUD/USD
- Minor pairs. Less frequently traded, these often feature major currencies against each other instead of the US dollar.
- Includes: EUR/GBP, EUR/CHF, GBP/JPY
Exotics. A major currency against one from a small or emerging economy. Includes: USD/PLN (US dollar vs Polish zloty) , GBP/MXN (Sterling vs Mexican peso), EUR/CZK
Regional pairs. Pairs classified by region – such as Scandinavia or Australasia. Includes: EUR/NOK (Euro vs Norwegian krona), AUD/NZD (Australian dollar vs New Zealand dollar), AUD/SGD
What moves the forex market?
The forex market is made up of currencies from all over the world, which can make exchange rate predictions difficult as there are many factors that could contribute to price movements. However, like most financial markets, forex is primarily driven by the forces of supply and demand, and it is important to gain an understanding of the influences that drives price fluctuations here.
Supply is controlled by central banks, who can announce measures that will have a significant effect on their currency’s price. Quantitative easing, for instance, involves injecting more money into an economy, and can cause its currency’s price to drop.
Commercial banks and other investors tend to want to put their capital into economies that have a strong outlook. So, if a positive piece of news hits the markets about a certain region, it will encourage investment and increase demand for that region’s currency.
Unless there is a parallel increase in supply for the currency, the disparity between supply and demand will cause its price to increase. Similarly, a piece of negative news can cause investment to decrease and lower a currency’s price. This is why currencies tend to reflect the reported economic health of the region they represent.
Market sentiment, which is often in reaction to the news, can also play a major role in driving currency prices. If traders believe that a currency is headed in a certain direction, they will trade accordingly and may convince others to follow suit, increasing or decreasing demand.
Economic data is integral to the price movements of currencies for two reasons – it gives an indication of how an economy is performing, and it offers insight into what its central bank might do next.
Say, for example, that inflation in the eurozone has risen above the 2% level that the European Central Bank (ECB) aims to maintain. The ECB’s main policy tool to combat rising inflation is increasing European interest rates – so traders might start buying the euro in anticipation of rates going up. With more traders wanting euros, EUR/USD could see a rise in price.
Investors will try to maximise the return they can get from a market, while minimising their risk. So alongside interest rates and economic data, they might also look at credit ratings when deciding where to invest.
A country’s credit rating is an independent assessment of its likelihood of repaying its debts. A country with a high credit rating is seen as a safer area for investment than one with a low credit rating. This often comes into particular focus when credit ratings are upgraded and downgraded. A country with an upgraded credit rating can see its currency increase in price, and vice versa.