How to Invest in Foreign Currency

Investing in Foreign Currency Without Leaving Home

Currency exchange board
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Investing in foreign currency sounds like an exotic and risky venture. The foreign exchange (or "forex") market used to be largely dominated by banks and institutional investors, but online brokerages and readily available margin trading accounts have made it accessible to anyone. Individual investors need to understand the benefits, risks, and most effective ways to invest in foreign currency.

Benefits and Risks of Investing in Foreign Currency

There are many benefits and risks to consider before deciding to invest in foreign currency.

While it's the largest and most liquid market in the world, investors should be cognizant of the many risks that set it apart from traditional equity and bond markets. Notably, the high leverage used when investing in foreign currency can result in high volatility and greater risk of loss.

The key benefits of investing in foreign currency include:

  • Large and liquid market. The foreign exchange market is the largest and most liquid market in the world, with average daily volume in excess of $4 trillion.
  • Diversification. The foreign exchange market offers investors a way to diversify away from potential risks associated with the U.S. dollar as an asset class.
  • Trading Hours. The foreign exchange market operates 24 hours a day, five days a week, which is longer than most traditional equity, bond, or futures markets.
  • Potentially Low Costs. Most foreign exchange trading doesn't involve paying a commission, but rather, a bid/ask spread that tends to be tighter than equities.

    The key risks of investing in foreign currency include:

      Investors should carefully consider risk management techniques to help mitigate these risks and improve their long-term returns. In addition, it's important to keep ample capital on hand to avoid any risk stemming from the use of leverage when trading directly on foreign exchanges.

      Easily Invest in Foreign Currency With ETFs

      Exchange-traded funds (ETFs) represent one of the easiest ways for noncurrency experts to invest in foreign currency. These funds purchase and manage a portfolio of currencies on behalf of investors using tools like swaps and futures contracts. The benefits are that investors do not have as much leverage-related risk, and the purchase itself can usually take place through a traditional stock broker rather than a foreign exchange broker.

      CurrencyShares and WisdomTree are the two largest providers of ETFs designed to help people invest in foreign currency. Meanwhile, companies like ProShares offer ways to make leveraged bets for and against a number of popular currencies. Investors should carefully read the ETFs' prospectus before investing in order to quantify any fees charged and learn other important information.

      Common long ETFs to invest in foreign currency include:

      • CurrencyShares Canadian Dollar Trust (NYSE: FXC).
      • CurrencyShares Swiss Franc Trust (NYSE: FXF).
      • CurrencyShares Australian Dollar Trust (NYSE: FXA).
      • WisdomTree Dreyfus Emerging Currency Fund (NYSE: CEW).
      • WisdomTree Dreyfus Chinese Yuan Fund (NYSE: CYB).
      • WisdomTree Dreyfus Brazilian Real Fund (NYSE: BZF).

      Common short ETFs to bet against foreign currency include:

      • ProShares UltraShort Euro (NYSE: EUO).
      • ProShares UltraShort Yen (NYSE: YCS).

      How to Invest in Foreign Currency Directly

      Investors can also directly buy and sell individual currencies on margin through a foreign exchange brokerage. With an initial deposit as low as $300 to $500, investors can purchase currency with margin levels that range from 50:1 to more than 10,000:1. Of course, greater leverage obtained through margin also translates to increased volatility and risk of loss.

      Investors should also take the time to review and select a high-quality forex broker since the market is not as tightly regulated as the U.S. equity markets. In particular, a good idea is to avoid foreign brokers that may not be regulated by international authorities.

      Currency Hedging

      Investors may also want to use currency hedges to protect against losses stemming from currency movements. For example, an investor who sees opportunities in Europe may want to hedge against losses in the euro relative to the U.S. dollar, which could erase any gains. The downside is that currency hedging removes some of the benefits of diversification.

      The most popular currency-hedged funds include:

      • WisdomTree Europe Hedged Equity Fund (NYSE: HEDJ).
      • WisdomTree Japan Hedged Equity Fund (NYSE: DXJ).
      • iShares Currency Hedged MSCI EAFE ETF (NYSE: HEFA).

      The Bottom Line

      Investors looking for an easy way to invest in foreign currency should consider ETFs. These funds are easier to trade with traditional stock brokers and have fewer leverage-related risks. However, those seeking more direct exposure to foreign currency can also open a foreign exchange brokerage account and purchase the currencies directly using margin. Risks and rewards are associated with either approach, and investors should look carefully at these factors before making a decision.