There are a variety of participants in the foreign exchange market - from small retail traders trading micro lots to the large hedge funds and corporations who can trade several billions in a single day. While there are many participants in the market with different goals and motives, we can generally put them into a few categories to understand more easily how the FX market functions.
Central Banks – Central banks intervene in the market when their currency becomes a problem for the domestic economy, by either being too strong or too weak. This applies to all exchange-rate regimes – the floating, pegged and fixed. For example, the SNB has been very active during the past few years, when it has tried to weaken the Swiss Franc against the Euro. Further, we can take the Hong Kong Dollar as an example for the pegged exchange-rate regime. The USD/HKD can trade within a 7.75 to 7.85 range, which means that the Hong Kong Monetary Authority (HKMA) will sell it when it gets too close to the upper range and buy it when it gets too close to the lower range of the band. Central banks are also active in the market when they must manage their foreign currency reserves. For example, if the HKMA has bought US Dollars to weaken the Hong Kong Dollar, it may wish to exchange those US Dollars into another currency, like the Euro or the Australian Dollar. The Asian central banks are quite often doing this, as they must intervene much more than central banks in, say, Europe, where most currencies are floating.
Commercial Participants – This group includes various corporations, like multinational firms or exporters/importers. Their main goal is not to make a profit from trading, but rather to hedge their currency exposure or get the foreign currency they need to pay their workers in other countries and similar.
Leveraged Participants – Hedge funds are the most prominent members of this group. While there are several types of hedge funds, the ones that are most active in the FX market are the global macro and currency funds. Macro funds trade in many markets globally, while currency funds are focused on opportunities in the FX market. Hedge funds can have huge positions in the FX market and are hence important participants. Many traders are probably familiar with the story of how George Soros broke the Bank of England in 1992. While the hedge fund industry has changed a lot since then, they still can have a large impact on markets, especially when many of those funds go after the same trade, like the long USD trade in 2018. This category also includes some smaller participants, like CTAs and system funds.
Real Money – Investment funds that do not use leverage, hence the term 'real money'. Those are usually pension and mutual funds, who manage large sums of money and use the FX market for transactions when dealing in foreign securities. For example, buying a large amount of UK stocks at the London Stock Exchange, will require the purchase of the local currency, in this case the Pound Sterling.
Sovereign Wealth Funds – State-owned investment funds that manage the country ‘s money and invest it in global markets. They usually exist in countries that have large inflows of foreign currency, i.e. Qatar from selling Natural Gas or Kuwait from selling Oil. SWFs manage significant amounts of money and hence, their transactions can have a noticeable impact on the FX market.
Dealing Banks – Banks are the main market makers in FX and the interbank market represents the core of whole market. The individuals handling currency trading at the bank are called dealers.
Prime Brokers – Firms that offer liquidity, leverage and supporting services to other market participants. Most major banks have prime brokerage operations, but there are also non-bank prime brokers active in the business. The clients of prime brokers are usually other institutional participants, but in some cases, an individual trader can also use a PB, if he meets the high requirement set by the broker.
Retail Brokers– Brokerage firms that allow retail traders to access the FX market. They can be market makers, STP brokers or an ECN.
Proprietary Trading Firms – Firms that hire individual traders to trade the company’s money and give them a certain share of the profits they have realized. The trader can benefit from professional tools that would be too expensive to purchase as an individual, a network of fellow professional traders and capital allocation that can reach seven-figure amounts for successful traders.
Retail Traders – Individual traders who usually access the market through a retail broker but may also use a prime broker if they are high net worth individuals. Given the small amount of money needed to open a trading account, retail traders have access to high leverage.
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