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The Forex Market Structure: An Overview

The BIS, in its latest Triennial Central Bank survey, says that an average of $5.1 trillion traded hands in currency markets in April 2016, down from $5.4 trillion in 2013. Almost two trillion dollars was in spot foreign exchange (where the bulk of retail trading action is seen) and $2.4 trillion was executed in FX swaps and $700 billion in outright FX forwards. 

In order to have a better understanding of the foreign exchange market’s structure and size, it is helpful to look the breakdown of turnover by counterparty in the BIS survey.

There are three main categories:

  • Other financial institutions created 51% of all trades’ volumes.
  • Reporting dealers – 42%.
  • Non-financial customers – 7%.

The BIS considers a reporting dealer as:

…mainly large commercial and investment banks and securities houses that  (i) participate in the inter-dealer market and/or (ii) have an active business with large customers, such as large corporate firms, governments and non-reporting financial institutions; in other words, reporting dealers are institutions that actively buy and sell currency and OTC derivatives both for their own account and/or in meeting  customer demand.

The distinction between an investment bank and a commercial bank has become more blurred during the last decade. Citibank and JP Morgan Chase are considered investment banks, despite the fact that they also have commercial bank enterprises (they take deposits and make loans). Even though they received Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) funds during the US financial crisis, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley were considered as investment banks.

The BIS considers other financial institutions as:

…all other financial institutions such as smaller commercial banks, investment banks and securities houses, and mutual funds, pension funds, hedge funds, currency funds, money market funds, building societies, leasing companies, insurance companies, other financial subsidiaries of corporate firms and central banks.

The other financial institutions umbrella is quite large, with various sub-buckets. The category includes “proprietary trading firms that invest, hedge, or speculate for the own accounts,” with high-frequency trading (HFT) firms and other algorithmic trading firms in this sub-bucket. Big speculators such as Soros or Bridgewater are in this camp also.

The other financial institutions category also includes “Official Sector Financial Institutions,” such as global central banks (The Federal Reserve, European Central Bank, Bank of England, etc.), sovereign wealth funds (Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, China Investment Corporation, SAMA foreign holdings etc.) , international financial institutions of the public sectors (such as the BIS, International Monetary Fund), development banks (World Bank, Asian Development Bank, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, etc.), and agencies.  Last but not least, there is also a sub-bucket “Other” for all other remaining financial institutions (such as the retail aggregators).

One of the big surprises in the 2013 BIS survey was another big jump in the “other financial institutions” category in terms of trading activity:

In the 2010 survey, other financial institutions had for the first time surpassed other reporting dealers (i.e., trading in the inter-dealer market) as the main counterparty category in the Triennial Survey. Transactions of FX dealers with this group of customers grew by 48% to $2.8 trillion in 2013, up from $1.9 trillion in 2010.

The BIS sees a non-financial customer as:

…any counterparty other than those described above, i.e. mainly non-financial end users, such as corporations and non-financial government entities. May also include private individuals who directly transact with reporting dealers for investment purposes, either on the online retail trading platforms operated by the reporting dealers or by other means (e.g. giving trading instructions by phone.)

Currency trading continues to be concentrated in a handful of global financial centers, the BIS reported:

In April 2016, sales desks in five countries – the United Kingdom, the United States, Singapore, Hong Kong SAR and Japan – intermediated 77% of foreign exchange trading, up from 75% in April 2013 and 71% in April 2010.

If all this seems confusing, remember that the bulk of the business done in the currency market is done by the large banks. The other two important players are the various global central banks and the sovereign wealth funds (state owned investment fund typically seeded with either revenues from commodity exports or central bank FX reserves). These big players tend to be the market makers. Major banks put two-way (bid/offer) FX prices into EBS and Reuters and their own in-house platforms. Central banks and sovereign wealth funds typically step in for specific reasons. A central bank might become involved in the currency market if a larger order needs to be filled that might disrupt the market or if their domestic currency has become too weak or too strong. A sovereign wealth fund trades currencies either for speculation or as a vehicle to enter into and or exit investment strategies in other countries.

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