Briefing: FX, the world’s largest and most liquid financial market

The foreign exchange (FX) industry is now emerging from a difficult period of scandal. Following the resulting increased scrutiny, which culminated in the creation of the FX Global Code, the global USD5 trillion-a-day market finds itself at a crossroads.

The Code’s efficacy is yet to be tested, but adoption continues and is strong. Why does any of this matter? Well for one, foreign exchange remains the world’s largest and most liquid market and plays a critical role in enabling international trade and investment.

Currencies provide a bell-weather for economic health, and short-term sentiment and speculation of course, but also a tool for hedging and the genuine flow of business and goods across borders.

Trust in its operation has to be restored, not just for investors but for the broader reputations of the institutions with FX operations.

A handful of banks, and non-bank trading firms – still mistakenly referred to as “the buy-side” – now dominate FX completely. This concentration was built over two decades and these global franchises have also been the first to adopt new technology and models, from prime brokerage to really maxing out on their API trading strategies.

A common muttering on FX street is that the banks have been distracted by regulation, paving the way for non-banks to steal clients from underneath the noses of the banks. Fair comment or sour grapes?

Meanwhile, in the post-trade space, there is a growing consensus for a shake-up of the current model, which is expensive and outdated. Demands for instant settlement continue to grow and more participants are backing DLT/blockchain-based platforms.

Many of the post-trade giants of today were established more than 20 years ago, as is their technology, so there is certainly scope for disruption. New entrants such as Cobalt are shaking up the post-trade FX landscape, while incumbents sensing their dominant position under threat, are eyeing the roll-out of DLT-based systems and – in some cases – investing in start-up systems.

 The move towards automation and straight-through processing began many years ago. Lower costs generally translate into lower barriers to entry, and we have already seen new entrant establish themselves as key market players. This will gather pace and will open the door to a new wave of market players to enter the FX market.

We would most certainly not bet against the blockchain, despite the inevitable kickback to the hype cycle. Cloud computing went through a hype cycle and subsequent trough of disillusionment before becoming a ubiquitous part of the IT landscape on what Gartner calls the slope of enlightenment.

The past is the key to the future of FX. The winners will continue to innovate using technology and will meet the challenges of adopting big data and analytics, distributed ledger technology, cloud computing, robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) head on.

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