A large fraction of the interbank transactions in the United States is conducted through foreign exchange brokers, specialists in matching net supplier and demander banks. These brokers receive a small commission on all trades (traditionally, 1/32 of 1% in the U.S. market, which translates into $312.50 on a $1 million trade). Some brokers tend to specialize in certain currencies, but they all handle major currencies such as the pound sterling, Canadian dollar, euro, Swiss franc, and yen. Brokers supply information (at which rates various banks will buy or sell a currency); they provide anonymity to the participants until a rate is agreed to (because knowing the identity of the other party may give dealers an insight into whether that party needs or has a surplus of a particular currency); and they help banks minimize their contacts with other traders (one call to a broker may substitute for half a dozen calls to traders at other banks). As in the stock market, the role of human brokers has declined as electronic brokers have significantly increased their share of the foreign exchange business.
Exhibit 7.2 Leading Foreign Exchange Traders in 2007
Source: EuroMoney Magazine. FX poll 2007: Winners and Losers in 2007.
Commercial and central bank customers buy and sell foreign exchange through their banks. However, most small banks and local offices of major banks do not deal directly in the interbank market. Rather, they typically will have a credit line with a large bank or with their home office. Thus, transactions with local banks will involve an extra step. The customer deals with a local bank that in turn deals with its head office or a major bank. The various linkages between banks and their customers are depicted in Exhibit 7.3. Note that the diagram includes linkages with currency futures and options markets, which we will examine in the next chapter.
The major participants in the forward market can be categorized as arbitrageurs, traders, hedgers, and speculators. Arbitrageurs seek to earn risk-free profits by taking advantage of differences in interest rates among countries. They use forward contracts to eliminate the exchange risk involved in transferring their funds from one nation to another.
Traders use forward contracts to eliminate or cover the risk of loss on export or import orders that are denominated in foreign currencies. More generally, a forward-covering transaction is related to a specific payment or receipt expected at a specified point in time.
Hedgers, mostly multinational firms, engage in forward contracts to protect the home currency value of various foreign currency-denominated assets and liabilities on their balance sheets that are not to be realized over the life of the contracts.
Arbitrageurs, traders, and hedgers seek to reduce (or eliminate, if possible) their exchange risks by “locking in” the exchange rate on future trade or financial operations.
In contrast to these three types of forward market participants, speculators actively expose themselves to currency risk by buying or selling currencies forward in order to profit from exchange rate fluctuations. Their degree of participation does not depend on their business transactions in other currencies; instead, it is based on prevailing forward rates and their expectations for spot exchange rates in the future.