In finance, the exchange rates (also known as the foreign-exchange rate, forex rate or FX rate) between two currencies specify how much one currency is worth in terms of the other. It is the value of a foreign nation’s currency in terms of the home nation’s currency. For example an exchange rate of 91 Japanese yen (JPY, ¥) to the United States dollar (USD, $) means that JPY 91 is worth the same as USD 1. The foreign exchange market is one of the largest markets in the world. By some estimates, about 3.2 trillion USD worth of currency changes hands every day.
The spot exchange rate refers to the current exchange rate. The forward exchange rate refers to an exchange rate that is quoted and traded today but for delivery and payment on a specific future date.
An exchange system quotation is given by stating the number of units of “quote currency” (price currency, payment currency) that can be exchanged for one unit of “base currency” (unit currency, transaction currency). For example, in a quotation that says the EUR/USD exchange rate is 1.2290 (1.2290 USD per EUR, also known as EUR/USD; see foreign exchange market), the quote currency is USD and the base currency is EUR.
There is a market convention that determines which is the base currency and which is the term currency. In most parts of the world, the order is: EUR – GBP – AUD – NZD – USD – others. Thus if you are doing a conversion from EUR into AUD, EUR is the base currency, AUD is the term currency and the exchange rate tells you how many Australian dollars you would pay or receive for 1 euro. Cyprus and Malta which were quoted as the base to the USD and others were recently removed from this list when they joined the euro. In some areas of Europe and in the non-professional market in the UK, EUR and GBP are reversed so that GBP is quoted as the base currency to the euro. In order to determine which is the base currency where both currencies are not listed (i.e. both are “other”), market convention is to use the base currency which gives an exchange rate greater than 1.000. This avoids rounding issues and exchange rates being quoted to more than 4 decimal places. There are some exceptions to this rule e.g. the Japanese often quote their currency as the base to other currencies.
Quotes using a country’s home currency as the price currency (e.g., EUR 0.735342 = USD 1.00 in the euro zone) are known as direct quotation or price quotation (from that country’s perspective) and are used by most countries.
Quotes using a country’s home currency as the unit currency (e.g., EUR 1.00 = USD 1.35991 in the euro zone) are known as indirect quotation or quantity quotation and are used in British newspapers and are also common in Australia, New Zealand and the eurozone.
- direct quotation: 1 foreign currency unit = x home currency units
- indirect quotation: 1 home currency unit = x foreign currency units
Note that, using direct quotation, if the home currency is strengthening (i.e., appreciating, or becoming more valuable) then the exchange rate number decreases. Conversely if the foreign currency is strengthening, the exchange rate number increases and the home currency is depreciating.
Market convention from the early 1980s to 2006 was that most currency pairs were quoted to 4 decimal places for spot transactions and up to 6 decimal places for forward outrights or swaps. (The fourth decimal place is usually referred to as a “pip”). An exception to this was exchange rates with a value of less than 1.000 which were usually quoted to 5 or 6 decimal places. Although there is no fixed rule, exchange rates with a value greater than around 20 were usually quoted to 3 decimal places and currencies with a value greater than 80 were quoted to 2 decimal places. Currencies over 5000 were usually quoted with no decimal places (e.g. the former Turkish Lira). e.g. (GBPOMR : 0.765432 – EURUSD : 1.5877 – GBPBEF : 58.234 – EURJPY : 165.29). In other words, quotes are given with 5 digits. Where rates are below 1, quotes frequently include 5 decimal places.
In 2005 Barclays Capital broke with convention by offering spot exchange rates with 5 or 6 decimal places on their electronic dealing platform. The contraction of spreads (the difference between the bid and offer rates) arguably necessitated finer pricing and gave the banks the ability to try and win transaction on multibank trading platforms where all banks may otherwise have been quoting the same price. A number of other banks have now followed this.
While official quotations are given with the full number, for example 1.4320, many investors and analysts drop the integer for convenience and use only the fractional part, such as 4320. These are used frequently where a move in price is being described, for example 4320 to 4290 as opposed to 1.4320 to 1.4290.
A market based exchange rate will change whenever the values of either of the two component currencies change. A currency will tend to become more valuable whenever demand for it is greater than the available supply. It will become less valuable whenever demand is less than available supply (this does not mean people no longer want money, it just means they prefer holding their wealth in some other form, possibly another currency).
Increased demand for a currency is due to either an increased transaction demand for money, or an increased speculative demand for money. The transaction demand for money is highly correlated to the country’s level of business activity, gross domestic product (GDP), and employment levels. The more people there are unemployed, the less the public as a whole will spend on goods and services. Central banks typically have little difficulty adjusting the available money supply to accommodate changes in the demand for money due to business transactions.
The speculative demand for money is much harder for a central bank to accommodate but they try to do this by adjusting interest rates. An investor may choose to buy a currency if the return (that is the interest rate) is high enough. The higher a country’s interest rates, the greater the demand for that currency. It has been argued that currency speculation can undermine real economic growth, in particular since large currency speculators may deliberately create downward pressure on a currency by shorting in order to force that central bank to sell their currency to keep it stable (once this happens, the speculator can buy the currency back from the bank at a lower price, close out their position, and thereby take a profit).