When you first start trading the forex market finding a broker is unlikely to be a major concern; aren't all brokers the same anyway? Lets face it if you can find a trading strategy that you are comfortable with and become consistently profitable then that is the battle won, right? Unfortunately it isn't that easy and the shame of it is that there are too many so-called brokers out there who want to rip you off.
Where Does This Mentality Come From?
The retail forex industry has been brought up on the fact that FX is worth $2 Trillion in volume every single day (in reality only a fraction of this comes from private speculators, the vast majority is generated by large banks and multinational corporations). This is quite a lure especially when we are reminded at how this figure completely dwarfs the stock market, and we've all heard how much you can make from stocks. Now add the statistic into the mix that between 90 and 95% (probably closer to 99%) of all retail speculators lose money and you have a bevy of firms climbing all over themselves to get their hands on this cash. Forex is billed as the way to become mega rich, leave your job and live the life you've always wanted but if it was that easy everyone would be doing it!
How do Retail Brokers Position Themselves?
To answer this question we need to briefly explain some market dynamics. The forex market is completely decentralised. This means that, unlike centralised exchanges such as the NYSE and LSE, there is no central location where each transaction can be traced and recorded nor do currencies have specialist market makers responsible for providing quotes for the entire market. Instead, the entities that act as market makers for the currency market are the World's largest banks. These banks carry out transactions between each other on a regular basis, hence the term 'interbank market'. In order for you to deal directly with these large banks you need to establish credit relationships with them which takes a vast amount of money and consequently most people cannot afford to do this. So this is where the retail brokers come in; they connect you with the large banks. Because they are representing many clients they have enough equity to establish credit relationships and deal with these banks, supposedly on your behalf.
This Position is Open to Exploitation
Retail Forex Brokers are the middleman between you and the interbank market so every time you place an order to buy EURUSD for example, your broker alters their currency holding positions with their large bank partners to reflect this. Rightly so your broker charges a fee for this service which usually comes in the form of spread (the difference between the bid and the ask). The spread they offer you is slightly larger than the spread they are offered in the interbank market so your broker can make a small profit on every trade you make. Everything sounds all well and good so far, agreed?
Now let me ask you a question: suppose you work in Las Vegas as a runner placing bets at sports books for several clients. Now you've been doing this for a while and you recognise that some of your clients are good at picking winners and some are good at picking losers. If you could make a little extra on top of your fee for running by doing the opposite of the clients who consistently lose bets would you do it? Now suppose that 99% of your clients lose money over a long enough period of time so all you have to do is bet against them all and you will make a fortune! Sometimes around the really big sporting events you get so busy you can't place your clients' bets and your bets quickly enough so you figure you'll make sure you get in with good odds and then sort out your clients once you are done, meaning they get slightly or sometimes much worse odds than you. This mindset is greedy and unfortunate and you won't have many friends but at least you would make a good retail forex broker!
Sorry to use a gambling analogy here (trading should never be confused with gambling) but it does explain the problem quite nicely. All you have to do to apply it to our situation is switch out a few words: Las Vegas is the interbank market, runner becomes retail broker, sports book becomes large bank, bets become client trades, running fee becomes spread, big sports events are big news items and the difference between the odds you get and the odds your client gets is the slippage you hand out.
Isn't This Slightly Cynical?
Yes the analogy used is slightly cynical; it is not the case that every broker out there is guilty of these 'bucket shop' tactics (rest assured that every brokerage will deny it however) but it is far too common. Even bank traders can experience slippage at volatile times but the degree to which it occurs at the retail level is unacceptable. Furthermore you cannot use volatility as a defence when you begin to hound profitable traders with constant re-quotes, accusations of illegal scalping (no such thing even exists!) and forced account closure. And what about a brokerage going bankrupt without returning your funds? Is it any wonder that this article is questioning the honesty of some retail brokerages?
What About Regulation?
The retail market is still fairly young and therefore loosely regulated. However, there are two organisations that police the sector and they are beginning to step in and protect the consumer on a more regular basis. These organisations are the National Futures Association (NFA) and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC). Of the two the CFTC is most heavily involved in the regulation of fraud, manipulation and abusive trade practices in the retail forex sector. The CFTC.gov website is an excellent source of information on customer protection and on-going legal disputes against brokers and other entities.
Lets Talk About the Positives
It's not all bad out there; certain firms do offer very attractive and honest services. Let us summarise some of the attributes you should consider looking for in a broker:
1. NFA and CFTC registered
2. No dealing desk, ECN style brokers
3. Variable spreads that reflect the volatility at interbank level
4. Firms that charge commission rather than a flat spread (the thinking here is the more you trade the more they make so it is in their interest to see you make profitable trades and continue to trade happily with them — less likely to be on the other side of your trades)
5. Friendly and efficient customer service
6. The offer to insure your capital in a secure bond (will protect client funds in the event of a broker's bankruptcy)
7. Limit entries (your broker allows you to enter the market with a specified 'chase factor' of a few pips. If your order is not filled within the acceptable 'chase factor' your order is either partially filled or not filled at all — prevents ridiculous slippage at times of high volatility)
8. A good reputation within the industry (check independent sites for user reviews)
9. No BS marketing that focuses on the multi millions you will make within months of opening your account (these firms prey on inexperienced traders and gamblers who have no chance of being profitable)
10. Realistic and modest margin/ leverage (firms that offer leverage over 100:1 are encouraging you to trade big and lose you account to them quickly - you may wish to look out for a broker who offers you a choice of margin requirements)
Of course not all of these attributes can be classed as 'golden rules'. If something is perceived as attractive then it is open to exploitation. For example, ECN brokers are becoming very popular and this has lead to several firms advertising an ECN service when they don't really have the technology to provide one.
Do Your Due Diligence
I know it can seem tedious but researching your chosen broker is definitely time well spent. At the very least you should spend time browsing a broker's website. You may like to make a list of things you like the sound of and things you don't (remember, if something sounds too good to be true then it probably is). Contact their customer support and put these issues to their representatives and see if you are offered a satisfactory response (also a great test of their customer service dept. and general professionalism). I would also seriously suggest checking the CFTC website and browsing forums, discussion boards, blogs and user review websites for any information. My last suggestion here is that you share your good and bad experiences within trading communities. Although you will probably never hear about it your efforts will save your fellow trader his/ her time, money and probably a few grey hairs.
Good luck and happy hunting!
by David Thorpe