Volume 12, Issue No 24, Circulation: under revision, 21st Oct 2012
Next Issue: 4th Nov 2012
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Today's Feature Article
The Currency Market Information Edge
The global foreign exchange (forex) market is the largest
financial market in the world, and its size and liquidity
ensure that new information or news is disseminated within
minutes. The forex market has some unique characteristics,
however, that distinguish it from other markets. These
unique features may give some participants an "information
edge" in some situations, resulting in new information
being absorbed over a longer period of time.
Unique Characteristics of the Forex Market
Unlike stocks, which trade on a centralized exchange such
as the New York Stock Exchange, currency trades are
generally settled over the counter (OTC). The OTC nature of
the global foreign exchange market means that, rather than
a single, centralized exchange (as is the case for stocks
and commodities), currencies trade in a number of different
geographical locations, most of which are linked to each
other by state-of-the-art communications technology. OTC
trading also means that at any point in time, there are
likely to be a number of marginally different price
quotations for a particular currency; a stock, on the other
hand, only has one price quoted on an exchange at a
The global forex market is also the only financial market
to be open virtually around the clock, except for weekends.
Another key distinguishing feature of the currency markets
is the differing levels of price access enjoyed by market
participants. This is unlike the stock and commodity
markets, where all participants have access to a uniform
Currency markets have numerous participants in multiple
time zones, ranging from very large banks and financial
institutions on one end of the spectrum, to small retail
brokers and individuals on the other. Central banks are
among the largest and most influential participants in the
forex market. On a daily basis, however, large commercial
banks are the dominant players in the forex market, on
account of their corporate customers and currency trading
desks. Large corporations also account for a significant
proportion of foreign exchange volume, especially companies
that have substantial trade or capital flows. Investment
managers and hedge funds are also major participants.
Banks' currency trading desks trade in the interbank market,
which is characterized by large deal size, huge volumes and
tight bid/ask spreads. These currency trading desks take
foreign exchange positions either to cover commercial
demand (for example, if a large customer needs a currency
such as the euro to pay for a sizable import), or for
speculative purposes. Large commercial customers get prices,
with a markup embedded in them. from these banks; the
markup or margin depends on the size of the customer and
the size of the forex transaction. Retail customers who
need foreign currency have to contend with bid/ask spreads
that are much wider than those in the interbank market.
Speculative Positions Vs. Commercial Transactions
In the global foreign exchange market, speculative
positions outnumber commercial foreign exchange
transactions, which arise due to trade or capital flows, by
a huge margin, although the exact extent is difficult to
quantify. This makes the forex market very sensitive to new
information, since an unexpected development will cause
speculators to reassess their original trades and adjust
these trades to reflect the new information. For example,
if a company has to remit a payment to a foreign supplier,
it has a finite window in which to do so. The company may
try to time the purchase of the currency so as to obtain a
favorable rate, or it may use a hedging strategy to cover
its exchange risk; however, the transaction has to occur by
a definite date, regardless of conditions in the foreign
Try Currency Trading Risk-Free
On the other hand, a trader with a speculative currency
position seeks to maximize his or her trading profit or
minimize loss at all times; as such, the trader can choose
to retain the position or close it at any point. In the
event of new information, the adjustment process for such
speculative positions is likely to be almost instantaneous.
The proliferation of instant communications technology has
caused reaction times to shorten dramatically in all
financial markets, not just in the forex market. This knee
jerk reaction, however, is generally followed by a more
gradual adjustment process, as market participants digest
the new information and analyze it in greater depth.
While there are numerous factors that affect exchange rates,
from economic and political variables to supply/demand
fundamentals and capital market conditions, the
hierarchical structure of the forex market gives the
biggest players a slight information edge over the smallest
ones. In some situations, therefore, exchange rates take a
little longer to adjust to new information.
For example, consider a case where the central bank of a
major nation with a widely-traded currency decides to
support it in the foreign exchange markets, a process known
as "intervention." If this intervention is unexpected and
covert, the major banks from which the central bank buys
the currency have an information edge over other
participants, because they know the identity and the
intention of the buyer. Other participants, especially
those with short positions in the currency, may be
surprised to see the currency suddenly strengthen. While
they may or may not cover their short positions right away,
the fact that the central bank is now intervening to
support the currency may cause these participants to
reassess the viability and implications of their short
The Bottom Line
While the massive size and liquidity of the foreign
exchange market ensures that new information or news is
generally absorbed within minutes, its unique features may
result in new information being absorbed over a longer
period in some situations. In addition, the hierarchical
structure of the forex market can give the biggest players
a slight information edge.
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