In search of FX liquidity

Foreign exchange (FX) is one of the world’s most liquid markets, with around USD 5 trillion exchanged across borders every day.

However, there is a perception in the market that liquidity is on the wane.

This is not necessarily true, according to David Puth, CEO of CLS. Speaking to Euromoney, he said “There is a tendency for market participants to believe that liquidity was better in the past. From what we see at CLS, liquidity appears to be very strong. It is, however, different, with liquidity widely dispersed over a number of different trading venues.”

The pessimism may in part be as a result of the increasing difficulty in defining exactly what liquidity means in the modern market, and measuring it accurately.

This was one of the questions which a recent report on liquidity in the Americas from the Bank of International Settlements (BIS) attempted to address.

Traditional liquidity metrics, such as cost metrics, quantity metrics and trade impact, have their uses, but the report finds that none are a perfect way to measure liquidity in the modern market.

This is important because one thing which is clear is that the modern FX market is becoming increasingly complex, making understanding liquidity more difficult.

The market, like many others, is fragmenting as electrification proliferates the number of trading venues and sell side participants put more emphasis on internalising trades.

Whether this fragmentation is having an impact on traders ability to trade, remains an open question.

The BIS report indicates that fragmentation does appear to be having some impact on liquidity measures, particularly when it comes to periods of market stress.

It gives examples such as the 2016 British EU referendum and flash crashes, where traditional liquidity metrics appear to have been impacted across a number of currency pairs, at least over the short term.

Dan Marcus, CEO of ParFX, points out that sometimes individual metrics don’t always give the full picture. “It may be the case that volumes are down from where they were… [However] on ParFX we do not see evidence of a problem with market depth or the ability for traders, who need to trade, fill orders.”

This is in part because, while technology is driving fragmentation, it is also creating opportunities to aggregate liquidity in more efficient ways.

“Buy-side traders have responded [to FX market fragmentation] by turning to algorithms and taking on more execution risk themselves”, says Pragma’s CEO David Mechner.

Liquidity is the lifeblood of the FX market, it is vital that the market can measure it in a way which gives an accurate representation of what it is like to trade. One solution, suggested by Mechner, is a consolidated tape, much like in equities. Until then, the market should think carefully about the metrics used to measure the market and ensure they are fit for purpose.

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