Companies doing business in foreign countries are at risk due to fluctuations in currency values when they buy or sell goods and services outside of their domestic market. Foreign exchange markets provide a way to hedge currency risk by fixing a rate at which the transaction will be completed.
To accomplish this, a trader can buy or sell currencies in the forward or swap markets in advance, which locks in an exchange rate. For example, imagine that a company plans to sell U.S.-made blenders in Europe when the exchange rate between the euro and the dollar (EUR/USD) is €1 to $1 at parity.
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 0.80, which means it now costs $0.80 to buy €1.00.
The problem the company faces is that while it still costs $100 to make the blender, the company can only sell the product at the competitive price of €150, which when translated back into dollars is only $120 (€150 X 0.80 = $120). A stronger dollar resulted in a much smaller profit than expected.
The blender company could have reduced this risk by shorting the euro and buying the USD when they were at parity. That way, if the dollar rose in value, the profits from the trade would offset the reduced profit from the sale of blenders. If the USD fell in value, the more favorable exchange rate will increase the profit from the sale of blenders, which offsets the losses in the trade.
Hedging of this kind can be done in the currency futures market. The advantage for the trader is that futures contracts are standardized and cleared by a central authority. However, currency futures may be less liquid than the forward markets, which are decentralized and exist within the interbank system throughout the world.
Forex for Speculation
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.
Imagine a trader who expects interest rates to rise in the U.S. compared to Australia while the exchange rate between the two currencies (AUD/USD) is 0.71 (it takes $0.71 USD to buy $1.00 AUD). The trader believes higher interest rates in the U.S. will increase demand for USD, and therefore the AUD/USD exchange rate will fall because it will require fewer, stronger USD to buy an AUD.
Assume that the trader is correct and interest rates rise, which decreases the AUD/USD exchange rate to 0.50. This means that it requires $0.50 USD to buy $1.00 AUD. If the investor had shorted the AUD and went long the USD, he or she would have profited from the change in value.
Currency as an Asset Class
There are two distinct features to currencies as an asset class:
You can earn the interest rate differential between two currencies.
You can profit from changes in the exchange rate.
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."
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Why We Can Trade Currencies
Currency trading was very difficult for individual investors prior to the internet. Most currency traders were large multinational corporations, hedge funds or high-net-worth individuals because forex trading required a lot of capital. With help from the internet, a retail market aimed at individual traders has emerged, providing easy access to the foreign exchange markets, either through the banks themselves or brokers making a secondary market. Most online brokers or dealers offer very high leverage to individual traders who can control a large trade with a small account balance.