Currency spot trading is the most popular foreign currency instrument around the world, making up 37 percent of the total activity.
The fast-paced spot market is not for the faint hearted, as it features high volatility and quick profits (and losses). A spot deal consists of a bilateral contract whereby a party delivers a specified amount of a given currency against receipt of a specified amount of another currency from a counter party based on an agreed exchange rate, within two business days of the deal date. The exception is the Canadian dollar, in which the spot delivery is executed next business day.
The name "spot" does not mean that the currency exchange occurs the same business day the deal is executed. Currency transactions that require same-day delivery are called cash transactions. The two-day spot delivery of currencies was developed long before technological breakthroughs in information processing.
This time period was necessary to check out all transaction details among counterparties. Although technologically feasible, the contemporary markets did not find it necessary to reduce the time to make payments. Human errors still occur and they need to be fixed before delivery. When currency deliveries are made to the wrong party, fines are imposed. In terms of volume, currencies around the world are traded mostly against the U.S. dollar, because the U.S. dollar is the currency of reference.
The other major currencies are the euro, followed by the Japanese yen, the British pound, and the Swiss franc. Other currencies with significant spot market shares are the Canadian dollar and the Australian dollar. In addition, a significant share of trading takes place in the currency crosses, a non-dollar instrument whereby foreign currencies are quoted against other foreign currencies, such as the euro against the Japanese yen.
There are several reasons for the popularity of currency spot trading. Profits (or losses) are realized quickly in the spot market, due to market volatility. In addition, since spot deals mature in only two business days, the time exposure to credit risk is limited. Turnover in the spot market has been increasing dramatically, thanks to the combination of inherent profitability and reduced credit risk. The spot market is characterized by high liquidity and high volatility. Volatility is the degree to which the price of currency tends to fluctuate within a certain period of time. Free-floating currencies, such as the euro or the Japanese yen, tend to be volatile against the U.S. dollar.
In an active global trading day (24 hours), the euro/dollar exchange rate may change its value 18,000 times. An exchange rate may "fly" 200 pips in a matter of seconds if the market gets wind of a significant event. On the other hand, the exchange rate may remain quite static for extended periods of time, even in excess of an hour, when one market is almost finished trading and waiting for the next market to take over. This is a common occurrence toward the end of the New York trading day. Since California failed in the late 1980s to provide the link between the New York and Tokyo markets, there is a technical trading gap between around 4:30 pm and 6 pm EDT. In the United States spot market, the majority of deals is executed between 8 am and noon, when the New York and European markets overlap. The activity drops sharply in the afternoon, over 50 percent in fact, when New York loses the international trading support. Overnight trading is limited, as very few banks have overnight desks. Most of the banks send their overnight orders to branches or other banks that operate in the active time zones.
The major traders in the spot market are the commercial banks and the investment banks, followed by hedge funds and corporate customers. In the interbank market, the majority of the deals is international, reflecting worldwide exchange rate competition and advanced telecommunication systems. However, corporate customers tend to focus their foreign exchange activity domestically, or to trade through foreign banks operating in the same time zone. Although the hedge funds' and corporate customers' business in foreign exchange has been growing, banks remain the predominant trading force.
The bottom line is important in all financial markets, but in currency spot trading the antes always seem to be higher as a result of the demand from all around the world. The profit and loss can be either realized or unrealized. The realized profit and loss is a certain amount of money netted when a position is closed. The unrealized profit and loss consists of an uncertain amount of money that an outstanding position would roughly generate if it were closed at the current rate. The unrealized profit and loss changes continuously in tandem with the exchange rate.