The foreign exchange market (dubbed forex or FX) is the market for exchanging foreign currencies. Forex is the largest market in the world, and the trades that happen in it affect everything from the price of clothing imported from China to the amount you pay for a margarita while vacationing.

 

What Is Forex Trading?

At its simplest, forex trading is similar to the currency exchange you may do while traveling abroad: A trader buys one currency and sells another, and the exchange rate constantly fluctuates based on supply and demand.

Currencies are traded in the foreign exchange market, a global marketplace that’s open 24 hours a day Monday through Friday. All forex trading is conducted over the counter (OTC), meaning there’s no physical exchange (as there is for stocks) and a global network of banks and other financial institutions oversee the market (instead of a central exchange, like the New York Stock Exchange).

A vast majority of trade activity in the forex market occurs between institutional traders, such as people who work for banks, fund managers and multinational corporations. These traders don’t necessarily intend to take physical possession of the currencies themselves; they may simply be speculating about or hedging against future exchange rate fluctuations.

A forex trader might buy U.S. dollars (and sell euros), for example, if she believes the dollar will strengthen in value and therefore be able to buy more euros in the future. Meanwhile, an American company with European operations could use the forex market as a hedge in the event the euro weakens, meaning the value of their income earned there falls.

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How Currencies Are Traded

All currencies are assigned a three-letter code much like a stock’s ticker symbol. While there are more than 170 currencies worldwide, the U.S. dollar is involved in a vast majority of forex trading, so it’s especially helpful to know its code: USD. The second most popular currency in the forex market is the euro, the currency accepted in 19 countries in the European Union (code: EUR).

Other major currencies, in order of popularity, are: the Japanese yen (JPY), the British pound (GBP), the Australian dollar (AUD), the Canadian dollar (CAD), the Swiss franc (CHF) and the New Zealand dollar (NZD).

All forex trading is expressed as a combination of the two currencies being exchanged. The following seven currency pairs—what are known as the majors—account for about 75% of trading in the forex market:

  • EUR/USD
  • USD/JPY
  • GBP/USD
  • AUD/USD
  • USD/CAD
  • USD/CHF
  • NZD/USD

How Forex Trades Are Quoted

Each currency pair represents the current exchange rate for the two currencies. Here’s how to interpret that information, using EUR/USD—or the euro-to-dollar exchange rate—as an example:

  • The currency on the left (the euro) is the base currency.
  • The currency on the right (the U.S. dollar) is the quote currency.
  • The exchange rate represents how much of the quote currency is needed to buy 1 unit of the base currency. As a result, the base currency is always expressed as 1 unit while the quote currency varies based on the current market and how much is needed to buy 1 unit of the base currency.
  • If the EUR/USD exchange rate is 1.2, that means €1 will buy $1.20 (or, put another way, it will cost $1.20 to buy €1).
  • When the exchange rate rises, that means the base currency has risen in value relative to the quote currency (because €1 will buy more U.S. dollars) and conversely, if the exchange rate falls, that means the base currency has fallen in value.
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A quick note: Currency pairs are usually presented with the base currency first and the quote currency second, though there’s historical convention for how some currency pairs are expressed. For example, USD to EUR conversions are listed as EUR/USD, but not USD/EUR.

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