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• The U.S. Dollar
The United States dollar is the world's main currency. All currencies are generally quoted in U.S. dollar terms. Under conditions of international economic and political unrest, the U.S. dollar is the main safe-haven currency which was proven particularly well during the Southeast Asian crisis of 1997-1998.
The U.S. dollar became the leading currency toward the end of the Second World War and was at the center of the Bretton Woods Accord, as the other currencies were virtually pegged against it. The introduction of the euro in 1999 reduced the dollar's importance only marginally.
The major currencies traded against the U.S. dollar are the euro, Japanese yen, British pound, and Swiss franc.
• The Euro
The euro was designed to become the premier currency in trading by simply being quoted in American terms. Like the U.S. dollar, the euro has a strong international presence stemming from members of the European Monetary Union. The currency remains plagued by unequal growth, high unemployment, and government resistance to structural changes. The pair was also weighed in 1999 and 2000 by outflows from foreign investors, particularly Japanese, who were forced to liquidate their losing investments in eurodenominated assets. Moreover, European money managers rebalanced their portfolios and reduced their euro exposure as their needs for hedging currency risk in Europe declined.
• The Japanese Yen
The Japanese yen is the third most traded currency in the world; it has a much smaller international presence than the U.S. dollar or the euro. The yen is very liquid around the world, practically around the clock. The natural demand to trade the yen concentrated mostly among the Japanese keiretsu, the economic and financial conglomerates.
The yen is much more sensitive to the fortunes of the Nikkei index, the Japanese stock market, and the real estate market. The attempt of the Bank of Japan to deflate the double bubble in these two markets had a negative effect on the Japanese yen, although the impact was short-lived.
• The British Pound
Until the end of World War II, the pound was the currency of reference. Its nickname, cable, is derived from the telex machine, which was used to trade it in its heyday. The currency is heavily traded against the euro and the U.S. dollar, but has a spotty presence against other currencies. The two-year bout with the Exchange Rate Mechanism, between 1990 and 1992, had a soothing effect on the British pound, as it generally had to follow the deutsche mark's fluctuations, but the crisis conditions that precipitated the pound's withdrawal from the ERM had a psychological effect on the currency.
• The Swiss Franc
The Swiss franc is the only currency of a major European country that belongs neither to the European Monetary Union nor to the G-7 countries. Although the Swiss economy is relatively small, the Swiss franc is one of the four major currencies, closely resembling the strength and quality of the Swiss economy and finance. Switzerland has a very close economic relationship with Germany, and thus to the euro zone. Therefore, in terms of political uncertainty in the East, the Swiss franc is favored generally over the euro.
Typically, it is believed that the Swiss franc is a stable currency. Actually, from a foreign exchange point of view, the Swiss franc closely resembles the patterns of the euro, but lacks its liquidity. As the demand for it exceeds supply, the Swiss franc can be more volatile than the euro.
• Central Banks
The national central banks play an important role in the (FOREX) markets. Ultimately, central banks seek to control the money supply and often have official or unofficial target rates for their currencies. As many central banks have very substantial foreign exchange reserves, their intervention power is significant. Among the most important responsibilities of a central bank is the restoration of an orderly market in times of excessive exchange rate volatility and the control of the inflationary impact of a weakening currency.
Frequently, the mere expectation of central bank intervention is sufficient to stabilize a currency, but in case of aggressive intervention the actual impact on the short-term supply/demand balance can lead to the desired moves in exchange rates.
If a central bank does not achieve its objectives, the market participants can take on a central bank. The combined resources of the market participants could easily overwhelm any central bank. Several scenarios of this nature were seen in the 1992-93 with the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) collapse and 1997 throughout South East Asia.
It is very common for a large bank to trade billions of dollars daily. Some of this trading activity is undertaken on behalf of corporate customers, but a banks’ treasury room also conducts a large amount of trading, where bank dealers are taking their own positions to make the bank profits.
The Interbank market has become increasingly competitive in the last couple of years and the god-like status of top foreign exchange traders has suffered as equity traders are again back in charge. A large part of the banks’ trading with each other is taking place on electronic booking systems that have negatively affected traditional foreign exchange brokers.
• Interbank Brokers
Until recently, foreign exchange brokers were doing large amounts of business, facilitating Interbank trading and matching anonymous counterparts for comparatively small fees. With the increased use of the Internet, a lot of this business is moving onto more efficient electronic systems that are functioning as a closed circuit for banks only.
The traditional broker box, which lets bank traders and brokers hear market prices, is still seen in most trading rooms, but turnover is noticeably smaller than just a few years ago due to increased use of electronic booking systems.
• Commercial Companies
The commercial companies’ international trade exposure is the backbone of the foreign exchange markets. A multinational company has exposure in accounts receivables and payables denominated in foreign currencies. They can be protected against unfavorable moves with foreign exchange. That is why these markets are in existence. Commercial companies often trade in sizes that are insignificant to short term market moves, however, as the main currency markets can quite easily absorb hundreds of millions of dollars without any big impact. It is also clear that one of the decisive factors determining the long-term direction of a currency’s exchange rate is the overall trade flow.
Some multinational companies, whose exposures are not commonly known to the majority of market, can have an unpredictable impact when very large positions are covered.
• Retail Brokers
The arrival of the Internet has brought us a host of retail brokers. There is a numbered amount of these non-bank brokers offering foreign exchange dealing platforms, analysis, and strategic advice to retail customers. The fact is many banks do not undertake foreign exchange trading for retail customers at all, and do not have the necessary resources or inclination to support retail clients adequately. The services of such retail foreign exchange brokers are more similar in nature to stock and mutual fund brokers and typically provide a service-orientated approach to their clients.
• Hedge Funds
Hedge funds have gained a reputation for aggressive currency speculation in recent years. Undoubtedly, the increasing amount of money lead to some of these investment vehicles have under management, the size and liquidity of foreign exchange. The leverage available in these markets also allows such a fund to speculate with tens of billions at a time. The herd instinct that is very apparent in hedge fund circles was seen in the early 1990’s with George Soros and others squeezing the GBP out of the European Monetary System.
It is unlikely, however, that such investments would be successful if the underlying investment strategy was not sound. It is also argued that hedge funds actually perform a beneficial service to foreign exchange markets. They are able to exploit economical weakness and to expose a countries unsustainable financial plight, thus forcing realignment to more realistic levels.
• Investors and Speculators
In all efficient markets, the speculator has an important role taking over the risks that a commercial participant hedges. The boundaries of speculation in the foreign exchange market are unclear, because many of the above mentioned players also have speculative interests, even central banks. The foreign exchange market is popular with investors due to the large amount of leverage that can be obtained and the liquidity with which positions can be entered and exited. Taking advantage of two currencies interest rate differentials is another popular strategy that can be efficiently undertaken in a market with high leverage. We have all seen prices of 30 day forwards, 60 day forwards etc, that is the interest rate difference of the two currencies in exchange rate terms.
The trading begins once the markets are officially open in Tokyo, Japan at 7:00 PM Sunday, New York time. Afterwards, at 9:00 PM EST, Singapore and Hong Kong opens followed by the European markets in Frankfurt at 2:00 AM and in London at 3:00 AM. When the clock reaches 4:00 AM, the European markets are in the hot spot and Asia just concluded its trading day. Around 8:00 AM on Monday, the US markets opens in New York while Europe is slowly going down. Australia will take the lead around 5:00 PM and when it is 7:00PM again, Tokyo is ready to reopen.