The foreign exchange market assists international trade and investment by enabling currency conversion. For example, it permits a business in the United States to import goods from the European Union member states especially Eurozone members and pay Euros, even though its income is in United States dollars. It also supports direct speculation in the value of currencies, and the carry trade, speculation based on the interest rate differential between two currencies.
In a typical foreign exchange transaction, a party purchases a quantity of one currency by paying a quantity of another currency. The modern foreign exchange market began forming during the 1970s after three decades of government restrictions on foreign exchange transactions (the Bretton Woods system of monetary management established the rules for commercial and financial relations among the world's major industrial states after World War II), when countries gradually switched to floating exchange rates from the previous exchange rate regime, which remained fixed as per the Bretton Woods system.
The foreign exchange market is unique because of:
- its huge trading volume representing the largest asset class in the world leading to high liquidity;
- its geographical dispersion;
- its continuous operation: 24 hours a day except weekends, i.e. trading from 20:15 GMT on Sunday until 22:00 GMT Friday;
- the variety of factors that affect exchange rates;
- the low margins of relative profit compared with other markets of fixed income; and
- the use of leverage to enhance profit and loss margins and with respect to account size.