Investors can trade almost any currency in the world. Investors, as individuals, countries, and corporations, may trade in the forex if they have enough financial capital to get started and are astute enough to make money at it. How someone makes money in the forex is a speculative process: you are betting that the value of one currency will increase relative to another.
Currencies are traded, and priced, in pairs within the forex. For example, you may have seen a currency quote for a EUR/USD pair of 1.2131. In this example, the base currency is the euro and the U.S. dollar is the quote currency. In all currency quote cases, the base currency is worth one unit, and the quoted currency is the amount of currency that one unit of the base currency can buy. So, in this example, one euro can buy 1.2131 U.S. dollars. How an investor makes money in forex is by either an appreciation in the value of the quoted currency, or by a decrease in value of the base currency. (For an overview of foreign exchange, read A Primer On The Forex Market.)
Another way to look at currency trading is to think about the position an investor is taking on each currency in the pair. The base currency can be thought of as a short position because you are "selling" the base currency to purchase the quoted currency, which can be seen as the long position on the currency pair. In our example above, we see that one euro can purchase $1.2131 and vice versa. To purchase the euros, the investor must first go short on the U.S. dollar in order to go long on the euro. To make money on this investment, the investor will have to sell back the euros when their value appreciates relative to the U.S. dollar. For example, assume the value of the euro appreciates to $1.2141 - on a lot of $100,000 the investor would gain US$100 ($121,410 - $121,310) if he or she sold the euros at this exchange rate. Conversely, if the EUR/USD exchange rate fell by 10 pips to $1.2121, then the investor would lose US$100 ($121,210 - $121,310).
When an investor uses a margin account, he or she is essentially borrowing to increase the possible return on investment. Most often, investors use margin accounts when they want to invest in equities by using the leverage of borrowed money to control a larger position than the amount they'd otherwise by able to control with their own invested capital. These margin accounts are operated by the investor's broker and are settled daily in cash. But margin accounts are not limited to equities - they are also used by currency traders in the forex market.
Investors interested in trading in the forex markets must first sign up with either a regular broker or an online forex discount broker. Once an investor finds a proper broker, a margin account must be set up. A forex margin account is very similar to an equities margin account - the investor is taking a short-term loan from the broker. The loan is equal to the amount of leverage the investor is taking on.
Currency can be converted using an online currency exchange or it can be converted manually. To use either method, you must first look up the exchange rate using an online exchange rate calculator or by contacting your bank. Be aware that the rates charged by your bank may differ from those you see online because banks earn small profits on exchanges, whereas online rates are the same as those quoted between banks.
In addition, it is important to note that the exchange rate you get when trading one currency against another probably will differ from the rate you will obtain during the actual conversion of one currency into another at a local bank. Traders can access the tight bid-ask spreads that are posted by banks amongst each other, but visitors to foreign countries who require local currency will pay slightly higher prices for the same currency. For example, an online EUR/USD (euro against the dollar) may appear as 1.5560 - 1.5563, which means banks are selling to each other at 1.5563, but are buying from each other at 1.5560. The spread (or difference) of three pips (points) is the profit banks realize for facilitating this transaction.
Let's conduct a dollar-to-euro conversion, for example. First, look up the exchange rate online, which will be quoted as the amount $1 can buy in euros or as the amount one euro will buy in dollars. If $1 buys 0.6250 euros, then $10,000 would equal 6,250 euros (because 10,000 x 0.6250 = 6,250). If the quote states that one euro buys $1.60, then $10,000 still would equal 6,250 euros (because 10,000/1.6000 = 6,250).
All currencies are traded in pairs. The first currency in the pair is called the base currency while the second is called the quote or "counterpart" currency. Usually the most dominant currency, in terms of the other currencies against which it trades, is quoted first. This is a matter of perspective because, from a local point of view, the local currency is the most dominant. One always wants to know just how much of the foreign currency one can get when exchanging the local currency. An American may want to know how many euros he can get for his dollar or, if he was traveling to Japan, how many yen he can get.
However, based on international convention among banks, certain currencies have been assigned trading dominance. The euro represents some 17 countries that have joined the euro system and, therefore, has become the dominant base currency against all other global currencies, so it is quoted first. For example, the euro, represented as EUR, will be identified as EUR/USD, EUR/GBP, EUR/CHF, EUR/JPY, EUR/CAD, etc. All have the EUR acronym as the first currency in the sequence.
The British pound, originally the main currency of the world during the heights of the British Empire, is next in the hierarchy of currency name domination. The major currency pairs versus the GBP are identified as GBP/USD, GBP/CHF, GBP/JPY, GBP/CAD. Apart from the EUR/GBP, the GBP is usually the first currency quoted when it is involved in a currency pair. Because the U.S. dollar is the de facto world reserve currency since the end of the Second World War, and because commodity prices such as gold and oil are quoted in dollars, one could argue that the dollar is really the dominant currency of the world. In terms of convention, however, it ranks third in dominance and is quoted first against the Canadian dollar, Japanese yen and Swiss franc. In short, tradition and convention seem to play larger roles in the hierarchy of currency pairs than the relative economic strength of the economies that the currencies represent.
The forex market is a very large market with many different features, advantages and pitfalls. Forex investors may engage in currency futures as well as trade in the spot forex market. The difference between these two investment options is very subtle, but worth noting.
A currency futures contract is a legally binding contract that obligates the two parties involved to trade a particular amount of a currency pair at a predetermined price (the stated exchange rate) at some point in the future. Assuming that the seller does not prematurely close out the position, he or she can either own the currency at the time the future is written, or may "gamble" that the currency will be cheaper in the spot market some time before the settlement date.
With the spot FX, the underlying currencies are physically exchanged following the settlement date. In general, any spot market involves the actual exchange of the underlying asset; this is most common in commodities markets. For example, whenever someone goes to a bank to exchange currencies, that person is participating in the forex spot market.
The main difference between currency futures and spot FX is when the trading price is determined and when the physical exchange of the currency pair takes place. With currency futures, the price is determined when the contract is signed and the currency pair is exchanged on the delivery date, which is usually some time in the distant future. In the spot FX, the price is also determined at the point of trade, but the physical exchange of the currency pair takes place right at the point of trade or within a short period of time thereafter. However, it is important to note that most participants in the futures markets are speculators who usually close out their positions before the date of settlement and, therefore, most contracts do not tend to last until the date of delivery.