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MGT604 - Management of Financial Institutions - Lecture Handout 31

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Foreign Exchange & Financial Institutions

The foreign exchange (currency or forex or FX) market exists wherever one currency is traded for another. It is by far the largest financial market in the world, and includes trading between large banks, central banks, currency speculators, multinational corporations, governments, and other financial markets and institutions. The average daily trade in the
global forex and related markets currently is over US$ 3 trillion. Retail traders (individuals) are a small fraction of this market and may only participate indirectly through brokers or banks, and are subject to forex scams.

Market size and liquidity

The foreign exchange market is unique because of

  • its trading volume,
  • the extreme liquidity of the market,
  • the large number of, and variety of, traders in the market,
  • its geographical dispersion,
  • its long trading hours: 24 hours a day (except on weekends),
  • The variety of factors that affect exchange rates.
  • the low margins of profit compared with other markets of fixed income (but profits can be high due to very large trading volumes)

According to the BIS, average daily turnover in traditional foreign exchange markets is estimated at $3,210 billion. Daily averages in April for different years, in billions of US dollars, are presented on the chart below:

This $1.88 trillion in global foreign exchange market "traditional" turnover was broken down as follows:

  • $1,005 billion in spot transactions
  • $362 billion in outright forwards
  • $1,714 billion in forex swaps
  • $129 billion estimated gaps in reporting

In addition to "traditional" turnover, $2.1 trillion was traded in derivatives.

Exchange-traded forex futures contracts were introduced in 1972 at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and are actively traded relative to most other futures contracts. Forex futures volume has grown rapidly in recent years, and accounts for about 7% of the total foreign exchange market volume, according to The Wall Street Journal Europe (5/5/06, p. 20).

Average daily global turnover in traditional foreign exchange market transactions totaled $2.7 trillion in April 2006 according to IFSL estimates based on semi-annual London, New York, Tokyo and Singapore Foreign Exchange Committee data. Overall turnover, including non-traditional foreign exchange derivatives and products traded on exchanges, averaged around $2.9 trillion a day. This was more than ten times the size of the combined daily turnover on all the world’s equity markets. Foreign exchange trading increased by 38% between April 2005 and April 2006 and has more than doubled since 2001. This is largely due to the growing importance of foreign exchange as an asset class and an increase in fund management assets, particularly of hedge funds and pension funds. The diverse selection of execution venues such as internet trading platforms has also made it easier for retail traders to trade in the foreign exchange market.

Because foreign exchange is an OTC market where brokers/dealers negotiate directly with one another, there is no central exchange or clearing house. The biggest geographic trading center is the UK, primarily London, which according to IFSL estimates has increased its share of global turnover in traditional transactions from 31.3% in April 2004 to 32.4% in April 2006. RPP

The ten most active traders account for almost 73% of trading volume, according to The Wall Street Journal Europe, (2/9/06 p. 20). These large international banks continually provide the market with both bid (buy) and ask (sell) prices. The bid/ask spread is the difference between the price at which a bank or market maker will sell ("ask", or "offer") and the price at which a market-maker will buy ("bid") from a wholesale customer. This spread is minimal for actively traded pairs of currencies, usually 0–3 pips. For example, the bid/ask quote of EUR/USD might be 1.2200/1.2203. Minimum trading size for most deals is usually $100,000.

These spreads might not apply to retail customers at banks, which will routinely mark up the difference to say 1.2100 / 1.2300 for transfers, or say 1.2000 / 1.2400 for banknotes or travelers' checks. Spot prices at market makers vary, but on EUR/USD are usually no more than 3 pips wide (i.e. 0.0003). Competition has greatly increased with pip spreads shrinking on the major pairs to as little as 1 to 2 pips.

Market participants

Unlike a stock market, where all participants have access to the same prices, the forex market is divided into levels of access. At the top is the inter-bank market, which is made up of the largest investment banking firms. Within the inter-bank market, spreads, which are the difference between the bids and ask prices, are razor sharp and usually unavailable, and not known to players outside the inner circle. As you descend the levels of access, the difference between the bids and ask prices widens (from 0-1 pip to 1-2 pips only for major currencies like the Euro). This is due to volume. If a trader can guarantee large numbers of transactions for large amounts, they can demand a smaller difference between the bid and ask price, which is referred to as a better spread. The levels of access that make up the forex market are determined by the size of the “line” (the amount of money with which they are trading). The top-tier inter-bank market accounts for 53% of all transactions. After that there are usually smaller investment banks, followed by large multi-national corporations (which need to hedge risk and pay employees in different countries), large hedge funds, and even
some of the retail forex market makers. According to Galati and Melvin, “Pension funds, insurance companies, mutual funds, and other institutional investors have played an increasingly important role in financial markets in general, and in FX markets in particular, since the early 2000s.” (2004) In addition, he notes, “Hedge funds have grown markedly over the 2001–2004 period in terms of both number and overall size” Central banks also participate in the forex market to align currencies to their economic needs.

Banks

The inter-bank market caters for both the majority of commercial turnover and large amounts of speculative trading every day. A large bank may trade billions of dollars daily. Some of this trading is undertaken on behalf of customers, but much is conducted by proprietary desks, trading for the bank's own account.

Until recently, foreign exchange brokers did large amounts of business, facilitating interbank trading and matching anonymous counterparts for small fees. Today, however, much of this business has moved on to more efficient electronic systems, such as EBS (now owned by ICAP), Reuters Dealing 3000 Matching (D2), the Chicago Mercantile Exchange,
Dukascopy - Swiss FX Marketplace, FXMarketSpace, Bloomberg, and TradeBook(R). The broker squawk box lets traders listen in on ongoing inter-bank trading and is heard in most trading rooms, but turnover is noticeably smaller than just a few years ago.

Central banks

National central banks play an important role in the foreign exchange markets. They try to control the money supply, inflation, and/or interest rates and often have official or unofficial target rates for their currencies. They can use their often substantial foreign exchange reserves to stabilize the market. Milton Friedman argued that the best stabilization strategy
would be for central banks to buy when the exchange rate is too low, and to sell when the rate is too high — that is, to trade for a profit based on their more precise information. Nevertheless, the effectiveness of central bank "stabilizing speculation" is doubtful because central banks do not go bankrupt if they make large losses, like other traders would, and
there is no convincing evidence that they do make a profit trading.

The mere expectation or rumor of central bank intervention might be enough to stabilize a currency, but aggressive intervention might be used several times each year in countries with a dirty float currency regime. Central banks do not always achieve their objectives. The combined resources of the market can easily overwhelm any central bank. Several
scenarios of this nature were seen in the 1992–93 Enron collapse, and in more recent times in Southeast Asia.

Investment management firms

Investment management firms (who typically manage large accounts on behalf of customers such as pension funds and endowments) use the foreign exchange market to facilitate transactions in foreign securities. For example, an investment manager with an international equity portfolio will need to buy and sell foreign currencies in the spot market in order to
pay for purchases of foreign equities. Since the forex transactions are secondary to the actual investment decision, they are not seen as speculative or aimed at profit-maximization.

Some investment management firms also have more speculative specialist currency overlay operations, which manage clients' currency exposures with the aim of generating profits as well as limiting risk. Whilst the number of this type of specialist firms is quite small, many have a large value of assets under management (AUM), and hence can generate large trades.

Hedge funds

Hedge funds, such as George Soros's Quantum fund have gained a reputation for aggressive currency speculation since 1990. They control billions of dollars of equity and may borrow billions more, and thus may overwhelm intervention by central banks to support almost any currency, if the economic fundamentals are in the hedge funds' favor.

Retail forex brokers

Retail forex brokers or market makers handle a minute fraction of the total volume of the foreign exchange market. According to CNN, one retail broker estimates retail volume at $25–50 billion daily, which is about 2% of the whole market and it has been reported by the CFTC website that un-experienced investors may become targets of forex scams.

Trading characteristics

There is no unified or centrally cleared market for the majority of FX trades, and there is very little cross-border regulation. Due to the over-the-counter (OTC) nature of currency markets, there are rather a number of interconnected marketplaces, where different currency instruments are traded. This implies that there is not a single dollar rate but rather a number of different rates (prices), depending on what bank or market maker is trading. In practice the rates are often very close, otherwise they could be exploited by arbitrageurs instantaneously. A joint venture of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and Reuters called FXMarketSpace opened in 2007 and aspires to the role of a central market clearing
mechanism.

The main trading centers are in London, New York, Tokyo, and Singapore, but banks throughout the world participate. Currency trading happens continuously throughout the day; as the Asian trading session ends, the European session begins, followed by the North American session and then back to the Asian session, excluding weekends.

There is little or no 'inside information' in the foreign exchange markets. Exchange rate fluctuations are usually caused by actual monetary flows as well as by expectations of changes in monetary flows caused by changes in GDP growth, inflation, interest rates, budget and trade deficits or surpluses, large cross-border M&A deals and other macroeconomic conditions. Major news is released publicly, often on scheduled dates; so many people have access to the same news at the same time. However, the large banks have an important advantage; they can see their customers' order flow.

Currencies are traded against one another. Each pair of currencies thus constitutes an individual product and is traditionally noted XXX/YYY, where YYY is the ISO 4217 international three-letter code of the currency into which the price of one unit of XXX is expressed. For instance, EUR/USD is the price of the Euro expressed in US dollars, as in 1
Euro = 1.3045 dollar. Out of convention, the first currency in the pair, the base currency, was the stronger currency at the creation of the pair. The second currency, counter currency, was the weaker currency at the creation of the pair.

The factors affecting XXX will affect both XXX/YYY and XXX/ZZZ. This causes positive currency correlation between XXX/YYY and XXX/ZZZ.

On the spot market, according to the BIS study, the most heavily traded products were:

  • EUR/USD: 28 %
  • USD/JPY: 18 %
  • GBP/USD (also called sterling or cable): 14 %

And the US currency was involved in 88.7% of transactions, followed by the Euro (37.2%), the yen (20.3%), and the sterling (16.9%). Note that volume percentages should add up to 200%: 100% for all the sellers and 100% for all the buyers.

Although trading in the Euro has grown considerably since the currency's creation in January 1999, the foreign exchange market is thus far still largely dollar-centered. For instance, trading the Euro versus a non-European currency ZZZ will usually involve two trades: EUR/USD and USD/ZZZ. The exception to this is EUR/JPY, which is an established traded currency pair in the inter-bank spot market.

Exchange Traded Fund

Exchange-traded funds (or ETFs) are Open Ended investment companies that can be traded at any time throughout the course of the day. Typically, ETFs try to replicate a stock market index such as the S&P 500 (e.g. SPY), but recently they are now replicating investments in the currency markets with the ETF increasing in value when the US Dollar weakness versus a specific Currency, such as the Euro. Certain of these funds track the price movements of world currencies versus the US Dollar, and increase in value directly counter to the US Dollar, allowing for speculation in the US Dollar for US and US Dollar denominated investors and speculators.