15 October 2008

Forex Trading - How It All Began

The origin of Forex trading dates back to some centuries ago. Different currencies and the need to exchange them had existed since the Babylonian Empire. They are credited with the first use of paper notes and receipts. Speculation hardly ever happened, and certainly the enormous speculative activity in the market today would have been frowned upon.

In those days, the value of goods were expressed in terms of other goods (also known as the Barter System). The obvious limitations of such a system encouraged establishing more generally accepted mediums of exchange. It was important that a common base of value could be established. In some economies, items such as teeth, feathers even stones served this purpose, but soon various metals, in particular gold and silver, established themselves as an accepted means of payment as well as a reliable storage of value. Trade was carried among people of Africa, Asia etc through this system.

Coins were initially minted from the preferred metal and in stable political regimes, the introduction of a paper form of governmental I.O.U. during the Middle Ages also gained acceptance. This type of I.O.U. was introduced more successfully through force than through persuasion and is now the basis of today's modern currencies.

Before the First World war, most Central banks supported their currencies with convertibility to gold. However, the gold exchange standard had its weaknesses of boom-bust patterns. As an economy strengthened, it would import a great deal from out of the country until it ran down its gold reserves required to support its money; as a result, the money supply would diminish, interest rates escalate and economic activity slowed to the point of recession. Ultimately, prices of commodities had hit bottom, appearing attractive to other nations, who would sprint into buying fury that injected the economy with gold until it increased its money supply, drive down interest rates and restore wealth into the economy.

The Great Depression and the removal of the gold standard in 1931 created a serious lull in Forex market activity. From 1931 until 1973, the Forex market went through a series of changes. These changes greatly affected the global economies at the time and speculation in the Forex markets during these times was little. In order to protect local national interests, increased foreign exchange controls were introduced to prevent market forces from punishing monetary irresponsibility.

Near the end of World War II, the Bretton Woods agreement was reached on the initiative of the USA in July 1944. The conference held in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire rejected John Maynard Keynes suggestion for a new world reserve currency in favor of a system built on the US Dollar. International institutions such as the IMF, The World Bank and GATT were created in the same period as the emerging victors of WWII searched for a way to avoid the destabilizing monetary crises leading to the war. The Bretton Woods agreement resulted in a system of fixed exchange rates that reinstated The Gold Standard partly, fixing the USD at $35.00 per ounce of Gold and fixing the other main currencies to the dollar, initially intended to be on a permanent basis.

The Bretton Woods System came under increasing pressure as national economies moved in different directions during the 1960's. A number of realignments held the system alive for a long time but eventually Bretton Woods collapsed in the early 1970's following president Nixon's suspension of the gold convertibility in August 1971. The dollar was not any longer suited as the sole international currency at a time when it was under severe pressure from increasing US budget and trade deficits.

The last few decades have seen foreign exchange trading develop into the world's largest global market. Restrictions on capital flows have been removed in most countries, leaving the market forces free to adjust foreign exchange rates according to their perceived values.

The European Economic Community introduced a new system of fixed exchange rates in 1979, the European Monetary System. The quest continued in Europe for currency stability with the 1991 signing of The Maastricht treaty. This was to not only fix exchange rates but also actually replace many of them with the Euro in 2002. London was, and remains the principal offshore market. In the 1980s, it became the key center in the Eurodollar market when British banks began lending dollars as an alternative to pounds in order to maintain their leading position in global finance.

In Asia, the lack of sustainability of fixed foreign exchange rates has gained new relevance with the events in South East Asia in the latter part of 1997, where currency after currency was devalued against the US dollar, leaving other fixed exchange rates in particular in South America also looking very vulnerable.

While commercial companies have had to face a much more volatile currency environment in recent years, investors and financial institutions have discovered a new playground. The Forex exchange market initially worked under the central banks and the governmental institutions but later on it accommodated the various institutions, at present it also includes the dot com booms and the world wide web. The size of the Forex market now dwarfs any other investment market. It is the largest financial market in the world today.