News & Updates

Credit card bans and the future of US retail forex

Last week I brought up the subject of a prospective new NFA ban on the use of credit cards to fund accounts in retail forex. There has been considerable discussion about this, as tends to be the case any time the regulators come out with new rules (or at least plans for them). Once more we are hearing the claim that the NFA (and CFTC) is out to kill retail forex in the US. A blog post at Forex Magnates on Friday definitely takes that view. I have a hard time agreeing with this.

Let me pick on one particular comment:

NFA has gone a long way trying to completely kick retail forex out of the US eventually reducing the number of retail forex brokers from several dozens to just 11. With FX Solutions heading out as well the number of US forex brokers may fall below 10 within few months.

There’s no doubt we have fewer US forex brokers now. Is that a function of NFA/CFTC regulations? In some cases, I’m sure it is – especially when we talk about minimum capitalization rules that were put into place. I would contend, however, that such consolidation is simply a natural product of a business that is maturing.

Think about what we’ve seen in retail forex in the last decade or so. Topping the list is the way bid/ask spreads have come down very sharply. This means less income for the brokers, most of whom operate in some fashion on a dealer-based model. To put it another way, profit margins have been squeezed considerably. Any time that sort of thing happens industry-wide you get consolidation as those companies unable to compete either go out of business or get absorbed by those who can.

I would suggest we’re likely headed for a handful of major US forex brokers. We need only look at the stock market to see how few big brokers there are in that sector despite the fact that it features a bigger customer base.

Now, this is not me disagreeing with many of the arguments against the NFA credit card ban. I actually think it’s somewhat silly in a lot of ways given the many ways customers can access and move around money. If avoiding the use of borrowed money is the main focus (and I’m largely in agreement on that) then this ban only makes it slightly harder, as others have noted.

One question I would bring up, though, is that of expenses. Who foots the bill for credit card transaction fees, which are generally in the 2%-3% range? My guess is in most, if not all, cases it is the customer paying that bill. Preventing the use of cards from that perspective automatically keeps traders out of a performance hole. This game is hard enough as is, as I observed in Starting to detail forex profitability data.

I’d still love to hear your thoughts on the credit card ban, by the way. Feel free to leave a comment below, on Facebook, or Twitter @RhodyTrader.

Trading News

Take a Breath Folks. Forex Leverage Won’t Be Cut to 10:1

The other day I posted Increasing Regulation of Retail Forex Trading discussing the continued efforts of the CFTC and NFA in terms of regulating retail foreign exchange trading in the US. I came across a discussion on Trade2Win today which made me want come back to the subject, though.

The thread starter asked the question “10:1 could this be the new leverage in the US ?”. This came from a single line in the CFTC’s communique: CFTC Seeks Public Comment on Proposed Regulations Regarding Retail FOREX Transactions, dated January 13, 2009. The line in question comes in the second to last paragraph and says “Leverage in retail forex customer accounts would be subject to a 10-to-1 limitation.” Folks are jumping all over that as meaning the CFTC is going to cut trading leverage to a maximum of 10:1. I disagree.

Firstly, the one line is in a write-up which otherwise focused entirely on requirements of brokers in terms of capitalization, compliance, transparency, and communication. As such, I think it relates to the leverage brokers will be permitted vis-a-vis the balance of customer accounts, not what the customers can actually trade.

Secondly, the NFA only a short while back set a new 100:1 cap on the leverage brokers can offer retail traders (see New NFA Retail Forex Leverage Restrictions). Why in the world would they be coming through with another change at this point? They haven’t had much time to gauge the impact of that adjustment.

Thirdly, this is only a “public comment” thing. Even if the CFTC was contemplating cutting trader leverage to 10:1, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that there would be way too much negative reaction to that kind of move for them to actually go through with it.

So, in my opinion, all those who are calling for the end of forex trading in the US are seriously over-reacting.

By the way, if you’re interested in see how the various US brokers compare in terms of size, here is the CFTC’s latest financial report including all Forex and Futures brokers. BabyPips member Clint has posted a listing of just the forex brokers, by rank, here.

Trading News

NFA Justifications and Reasoning for Killing Forex Hedging

Marjorie, who has been commenting on the No more hedging for forex traders post, dug up the NFA communique in which the reasons for the rule change are outlined from when the proposal was put forward to the CFTC after the comment period. You can find the full text here (including the part about price adjustment). I’m pasting below the relevant parts having to do with hedging/offsetting.

The other trading practice NFA believes must be addressed involves a strategy that FDMs refer to as “hedging”, where customers take long and short positions in the same currency pair in the same account. NFA is concerned that customers employing this strategy do not understand either the lack of economic benefit or the financial costs involved.

Ten of 17 FDMs surveyed offer the strategy to their customers, although for most it is a very small part of their business. Of these ten, six actively promote it on their web sites, while another one merely indicates that it is available.

Several of the FDMs told NFA that they had not offered the “hedging” strategy until their customers requested it. Although many of the FDMs admit that customers receive no financial benefit by carrying opposite positions, some FDMs believe that if they do not offer the strategy they will lose business to domestic and foreign firms that do.

NFA has two major concerns about this strategy. First, it essentially eliminates any opportunity to profit on the transaction. Second, it increases the customer’s financial costs in several ways. One way it increases costs is by doubling the expense of entering and exiting the transactions. In the on-exchange markets, a customer who carries opposite positions will normally pay twice the commissions. Similarly, a forex customer will pay the entire spread twice (buying at the high end of the spread and selling at the low end) rather than paying half on entry and half on exit.

Additionally, the customer pays carrying charges that always exceed the funds it receives. In a normal transaction, a customer receives interest on the long position and pays interest on the short position. Since the two transactions are mirror images, you would expect the receipts and payments to zero out. In practice, however, the amount a customer receives on a long position is always less than the amount a customer pays on a short position. Since these transfers occur daily when the positions roll over, the loss increases continually over time.

The costs described above are integral to the strategy, but there is an additional cost that could occur in certain circumstances. FDMs typically determine the equity balance in the account by calculating the liquidation price of the individual positions using the bid rate for long positions and the offer rate for short positions. If the customer holds contemporaneous positions long enough, the carrying charges will bring the equity below the required security deposit. Furthermore, if the bid-ask spread on the currency pair widens, as may happen when volatility increases or the FDM anticipates major market events, the customer’s account equity may fall even faster. If the account falls below its security deposit requirement while the spread is wider than normal, the account could be liquidated at unfavorable prices even though the customer has no currency exposure risk.

The strategy also creates significant potential for abuse. An FDM could promote the strategy to unwitting customers with an eye to collecting the additional spread and carrying costs. A knowledgeable customer could use it to launder money by using the carrying charge to take intentional losses. For a managed account, the practice could be used to disguise losses and inflate the manager’s performance by, for example, directing the FDM to offset a winning position and then entering into a new transaction in the same direction while letting the losing position run.

NFA solicited comments on banning the practice, and two commenters agreed with the proposal, stating that the practice serves no economic purpose. A third supported the ban without discussing the reasons behind it. One commenter that operates an institutional forex platform as well as a retail one indicated that institutional investors never use this strategy. Most commenters stated that the practice results from customer demand and generally felt that NFA should not dictate what strategies customers choose to use. Some were also concerned that customers will simply take their business to foreign counter-parties who can accommodate them.

A number of commenters argued that the practice provides a trading strategy benefit. Specifically, they argued that it allows customers to pursue both a long-term and a short-term trading strategy in the same currency. Some commenters also stated that the practice provides an economic benefit because it allows customers to maintain a directional position by lowering their margin requirements when the position goes against them. The proposed rule would not prohibit customers from pursuing long and short-term strategies in separately margined accounts, and it is not clear that the benefits of maintaining a directional position justify the costs.

Several commenters also recognize the financial costs of maintaining two positions but noted that these costs could be alleviated if FDMs treat them as a single position for calculating interest charges and allow customers to offset positions against each other when exiting both at the same time. In fact, at least one commenter seems to suggest that NFA should require this treatment. None of these FDMs have chosen to do so voluntarily, however. Furthermore, this approach would be equivalent to dictating how or how much Members can be compensated.

NFA believes that the potential for misuse outweighs any perceived benefits from allowing customers to carry long and short positions in the same currency in the same account. Therefore, Compliance Rule 2-43(b) bans the practice and requires FDMs to offset positions on a first-in, first-out basis (FIFO). It does, however, allow customers to direct the FDM to offset same-size transactions.

One commenter who supported Compliance Rule 2-43(b) said that NFA should provide sufficient lead time so that firms now offering the “hedging” strategy could change their systems. NFA agrees with this comment and will consider systems issues when setting an effective date.

One of the big gripes people have with this NFA rule change is the “nanny state” aspect of it whereby the regulators are going to protect the traders from themselves. There’s definitely a fair bit of that in here. I did, however, find the parts about avoiding abuse by money launderers and those running managed accounts interesting. Having seen some really deceptive ways people promote trading systems I can definitely see how a money manager could use hedging to create an illusory performance record.

All the parts about increased transaction costs are well known and have been discussed at length, so there’s no need to dwell on that again. The one argument that the NFA did include, though, was the potential for a situation where a customer could get margin called on a hedged position because of an expansion in the spread. This is something which can only happen to a trader who is running at basically maxed-out leverage, but definitely does present the potential for broker abuse.

Aside from that, I think the most telling line in the whole justification is this: “…many of the FDMs admit that customers receive no financial benefit by carrying opposite positions.” The brokers themselves are saying that hedging doesn’t actually benefit trader performance at all, but being good business people they are giving the people what they want.

Trading News

New NFA Rule Impacts More Than Just Forex Hedging

A couple of weeks ago I posted on the new NFA rule which effectively bans the practice of “hedging” in the retail forex market. There’s been considerable discussion on the subject of hedging and several notable brokers have given their customers the opportunity to allow them to shift their accounts to jurisdictions outside the US to permit those who wish the ability to continue hedging.

One of the parts of this new rule (2-43) that I didn’t initially focus much on is the FIFO (first-in, first-out) requirement. Some discussion about it, however, It’s made pretty clear:

Forex Dealer Members may not carry offsetting positions in a customer account but must offset them on a first-in, first-out basis. At the customer’s request, an FDM may offset same-size transactions even if there are older transactions of a different size but must offset the transaction against the oldest transaction of that size.

This FIFO requirement means that you can no longer chose which position you close if you have more than one trade open. If you are long and sell the broker will offset the earliest part of the long first. For example, if you bought a lot of EUR/USD at 1.3000, then later bought another lot at 1.3050, then sold a lot at 1.3100, the initial 1.3000 lot would be the one offset.

I do not “hedge” so the no carrying of offsetting position doesn’t phase me or most forex traders. The FIFO thing, though, is something which will impact a lot of folks. Basically it will mean that you won’t be able to close specific trades (stop or take profit) out of the sequence in which they were entered. Most forex brokers currently allow you to put a stop and/or take profit right on a specific position. This will not be permissible anymore under the new rule because they will be required to close your first trade before closing any others.

Now, if all you do is trade a single trade at a time, this my not be that big a deal. It depends on how you work. What it seems likely to require, however, is having to put on separate stop and take profit orders. This may seem fine, but consider a situation where you’re away from your computer and your stop gets hit, then later the take profit order is hit. You’d end up with a position you’d never intended. This is solved by setting up a One-Cancels-Other (OCO) order, but not all brokers do that at this point. Hopefully they will be pressured into changing that now.

I’ve spoken with someone at FXCM on this issue. It’s one they (and I’m sure all others) are working hard to figure out.

I’ve said from the start that this new NFA rule is just about getting retail forex in line with other markets like stocks and futures – standardizing the accounting for trades and positions. This FIFO thing is just doing that. I’ll admit it creates a bit of a shift in the mechanics of putting orders in and such, but if you’ve ever traded stocks, futures, or any other markets then it won’t be unfamiliar.