we are going to look at the structure of the forex market so we can learn who exactly controls the market and how the forex broker and individual trader fit into this picture.
The forex market is an over the counter market meaning that there is no centralized exchange where all trades are made. Because of this, the price that someone receives when trading forex has traditionally differed depending on the size of the transaction and the sophistication of the person or entity that is making that transaction.
At the center or first level of the market is something known as the Interbank market. While technically any bank is part of the Interbank market, when an FX Trader speaks of the interbank market he or she is really talking about the 10 or so largest banks that make markets in FX. These institutions make up over 75% of the over $3 Trillion dollars in FX Traded on any given day.
There are two primary factors which separate institutions with direct interbank access from everyone else which are:
1. Access to the tightest prices. for now simply understand that for every 1 Million in currency traded those who have direct access to the Interbank market save approximately $100 per trade or more over the next level of participants.
2. Access to the best liquidity. As with any other market there is a certain amount of liquidity or amount that can be traded at any one price. If more than what is available at the current price is traded, then the price adjusts until additional liquidity enters the market. As the forex market is over the counter, liquidity is spread out among different providers, with the banks comprising the interbank market having access to the greatest amount of liquidity and then declining levels of liquidity available at different levels moving away from the Interbank market.
In contrast to individuals who make a deposit into their account to trade, institutions trading in the interbank market trade via credit lines. In order to get a credit line from a top bank to trade foreign exchange you must be a very large and very financially stable institution, as bankruptcy would mean the firm that gave you the credit line gets stuck with your trades.
The next level of participants are the hedge funds, brokerage firms, and smaller banks who are not quite large enough to have direct access to the Interbank market. As we just discussed the difference here is that the transaction costs for the trade are a bit higher and the liquidity available is a bit lower than at the Interbank level.
The next level of participants has traditionally been corporations and smaller financial institutions who do make foreign exchange trades, but not enough to warrant the better pricing
As you can see here, traditionally as the market participant got smaller and less sophisticated the transaction costs they paid to trade became larger and the liquidity that was available to them got smaller and smaller. In a lot of cases this is still true today, as anyone who has ever exchanged currencies at the airport when traveling knows.
To give you an idea of just how large a difference there is between participants in the Interbank market and an individual trading currencies for travel, Interbank market participants pay approximately $.0001 to exchange Euros for Dollars where Individuals in the airport can pay $.05 or more. This may not seem like much of a difference but think about it this way: On $10,000 that is $1 that the Interbank participant pays and $500 that the individual pays.
The landscape for the individual trader has changed drastically since the internet has gone mainstream however, in many ways leveling the playing field and putting the individual trader along side large financial institutions in terms of access to pricing and liquidity.