Meet the Author

Owen F. Humpage |

Senior Economic Advisor

Owen F. Humpage

Owen F. Humpage is a senior economic advisor specializing in international economics in the Research Department of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. His research focuses on the international aspects of central-bank policies and has appeared in the International Journal of Central Banking, the International Journal of Finance and Economics, and the Journal of Money, Credit, and Banking. Recently, Dr. Humpage co-authored a history of U.S. foreign-exchange operations.

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Meet the Author

Beth Mowry |

Research Assistant

Beth Mowry

Beth Mowry was formerly a research assistant in the Research Department of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. Her work focuses on labor markets and business cycles.

01.25.11

Economic Trends

Foreign-Exchange Trading and the Dollar

Owen F. Humpage and Beth Mowry

The Bank for International Settlements released its triennial snapshot of the foreign-exchange market in December. Two trends emerge from the survey’s wealth of information: Technology is changing the market, and the dollar still dominates trading, despite continued talk of its imminent demise.

Every day across the globe, $4 trillion worth of foreign exchange changes hands. That figure is up 20 percent since 2007, despite the worldwide recession and a serious drop in global trade. Much of the growth in foreign-exchange turnover stems from a relatively new quarter. Past surveys showed that trades among the large traditional foreign-exchange dealers (reporting dealers) and trades between this group and their nonfinancial customers dominated the market. Indeed, they still do, accounting for slightly over half of all foreign-exchange transactions. Nevertheless, their share is shrinking. Since 2001, trades between this traditional group and a set of nontraditional (or other) financial institutions, including small banks, money-market funds, pension funds, and hedge funds have grown rapidly. These nontraditional counterparties now account for nearly half of all foreign-exchange turnover, whereas in 2001, they accounted for less than one-fifth of all activity.

Fostering this growth has been the continued development of electronic methods of executing trades. Increasingly, for example, computer programs place trades automatically in response to small price changes. Electronic trading reduces the costs of transacting in the foreign-exchange market, which encourages greater—more diverse—participation and increases liquidity in the market.

Much of this trading activity reflects currency speculation, price arbitrage, or hedging operations. Foreign-exchange trading is many times larger than economic activity—as measured by either output or international trade—and has grown faster than these measures of economic activity in recent years.

The BIS survey also shows that the U.S. dollar is still the predominant international currency, with 85 percent of all daily foreign-exchange transactions involving dollars. The dollar has lost some ground to the euro in recent years, but with half as many trades as the dollar, the euro remains a distant second. The widespread use of the dollar is not likely to change quickly. The sheer size, sophistication, and relative stability of the U.S. economy render the costs of holding and transacting in dollars lower than doing so in other currencies that do not share these characteristics.

A substantial portion of international trade, even trade not involving U.S. exporters or importers, is routinely denominated in U.S. dollars. This is especially true of trade in fairly standardized commodities like natural resources and agricultural products. Trade in nonstandardized goods is often denominated in the exporter’s currency, but to obtain an exporter’s currency, an importer’s bank will often buy and sell dollars. With all these dollars changing hands, many traders maintain accounts in dollars, seek loans in dollars, and undertake many other financial arrangements in dollars.

A strong and open U.S. financial system facilitates the dollar’s international role. The United States offers many different types of financial instruments and well-developed secondary markets, which enhance the liquidity of dollar-denominated assets. All this makes holding dollars and transacting in dollars convenient and easy. Of course, a high degree of feedback naturally exists between the dollar’s role in trade and the growth of an accommodating financial structure. As trade in dollars has expanded, U.S. financial markets have grown, and more foreign financial firms have offered dollar-denominated products, further reducing the costs of transacting in dollars. Once established, people will continue to use this dollar network, even when viable alternative currencies exist. Making the jump from dollars to a new international currency requires everyone—or at least a substantial proportion of people—to make the change in concert. Otherwise the benefits of the network are lost.

Change, of course, is possible. The British pound lost its dominance after World War II, and the dollar could see its international role diminish. Barring persistently bad U.S. economic policy, however, change is likely to evolve, not erupt.