From a historical standpoint, foreign exchange trading was largely limited to 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. Many investment firms, banks, and retail forex brokers offer the chance for individuals to open accounts and to trade currencies.
Factors like interest rates, trade flows, tourism, economic strength and geopolitical risk affect supply and demand for currencies, which creates daily volatility in the forex markets. An opportunity exists to profit from changes that may increase or reduce one currency's value compared to another. A forecast that one currency will weaken is essentially the same as assuming that the other currency in the pair will strengthen because currencies are traded as pairs.
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A spot market deal is for immediate delivery, which is defined as two business days for most currency pairs. The major exception is the purchase or sale of USD/CAD, which is settled in one business day. The business day calculation excludes Saturdays, Sundays, and legal holidays in either currency of the traded pair. During the Christmas and Easter season, some spot trades can take as long as six days to settle. Funds are exchanged on the settlement date, not the transaction date.
An investor can profit from the difference between two interest rates in two different economies by buying the currency with the higher interest rate and shorting the currency with the lower interest rate. Prior to the 2008 financial crisis, it was very common to short the Japanese yen (JPY) and buy British pounds (GBP) because the interest rate differential was very large. This strategy is sometimes referred to as a "carry trade."
The blender costs $100 to manufacture, and the U.S. firm plans to sell it for €150—which is competitive with other blenders that were made in Europe. If this plan is successful, the company will make $50 in profit because the EUR/USD exchange rate is even. Unfortunately, the USD begins to rise in value versus the euro until the EUR/USD exchange rate is .80, which means it now costs $0.80 to buy €1.00.
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When you trade forex, you're effectively borrowing the first currency in the pair to buy or sell the second currency. With a US$5-trillion-a-day market, the liquidity is so deep that liquidity providers—the big banks, basically—allow you to trade with leverage. To trade with leverage, you simply set aside the required margin for your trade size. If you're trading 200:1 leverage, for example, you can trade £2,000 in the market while only setting aside £10 in margin in your trading account. For 50:1 leverage, the same trade size would still only require about £40 in margin. This gives you much more exposure, while keeping your capital investment down.