THE FOREIGN EXCHANGE MARKET
The foreign exchange market is in every sense "open"—anyone with bills to buy or sell and whose credit is all right can enter it and do business on a par with anyone else. There is no place where the trading is done, no membership, license or anything of the kind. The "market," in fact, exists in name only; it is really constituted of a number of banks, dealers and brokers, with offices in the same section of the city, and who do business indiscriminately among themselves—sometimes personally, sometimes by telephone, by messenger, or by the aid of the continuously circulating exchange brokers.
The system is about as follows: The larger banks and banking houses have a foreign exchange manager, or partner, taking care of that part of the business, whose office is usually so situated as to make him accessible to the brokers who come in from the outside, and whose telephoning and wiring facilities are very complete. These larger houses have no brokers or "outside" men in their employ. The manager knows very well that plenty of chance to do business, buying or selling, will be brought in to him by the brokers and that his wires keep him constantly in touch with his fellow bankers.
Next come the big dealers in exchange, some of whom do a regular exchange business of their own, the same as the bankers, but who also have men out on the street "trading" between large buyers and sellers of bills. Such houses are necessarily closely in touch with banks, bankers, exporters, and importers all over the country, and have always large orders on hand to buy and sell exchange. Some of the bills they handle they buy and use for the conduct of their own business with banks abroad, but the more important part of what they do is to deal in foreign exchange among the banks. They are known as always having on hand for sale large lines of commercial and bankers' bills, while on the other hand they are always ready to buy, at the right price.
After this class of houses come the regular brokers—the independent and unattached individuals who spend their time trying to bring buyer and seller together, and make a commission out of doing it. In a market like New York the number of exchange brokers is very large. Like bond-brokerage, the business requires little in the way of office facilities or capital, and is attractive to a good many persons who are willing to accept the small income to be made out of it in return for being in a business where they are independent.
Foreign exchange brokerage, like all other employment of the middleman, is not what it used to be. Before the business became overcrowded as it is now, exchange brokers made their quarter-cent in the pound commission, and could depend on a respectable income. But nowadays brokers swarm among the foreign exchange bankers and dealers, doing business on any commission they can get, which is not infrequently as little as 1/128 of one per cent., say, $1.50, for buying or selling francs 100,000. In handling sterling, the broker is lucky if he makes his five points (5/100 of a cent per pound), which means that for turning over £10,000 he would be rewarded with the sum of $5. Under such conditions it is not difficult to see how hard it is to make any money to speak of out of foreign exchange brokerage.
The dealers, of course, fare much better. Handling commercial bills where the question of credit affects the price, they have a chance to make more of a profit, and buying and selling bills for their own account they naturally are entitled to make more than the man without capital, who simply tries to get in between the buyer and the seller. Dealing in exchange, especially for out-of-town clients, is a highly profitable business, but one which takes time, brains, experience and money to build up. Dealers representing large out-of-town sellers of exchange are very much in the position of the New York agents of manufacturing companies who sell goods on commission.
There being no regular market in which foreign exchange rates are made, it follows that the establishment of rates each morning and during the course of each day will be according to the supply and demand for bills. On any given morning by ten o'clock the bankers will all have received their cables quoting money and exchange rates in the foreign centers, and will all have pretty well made up their minds as to what the rate for demand bills on London ought to be. A banker, for instance, has £10,000 he wants to sell as early in the morning as possible, and from his foreign cables figures that 4.86 is about the right price. He offers it at that, but learns that another banker is offering exchange at 4.8595. He offers his own at that price, and somebody comes along, taking both lots and bidding 4.86 for £50,000 more. Somebody else bids 4.86 for other large lots, refusing, however, to pay 4.8605. The market is established at that point.