Currency Trading is the Largest Market Ever

The Numbers: Annual currency trading –

2022                         $2,739 trillion

2020                         $2,402 trillion

2013                         $1,956 trillion

2010                         $1,460 trillion

2001                         $452 trillion

1992                         $265 trillion

1970                         $6 trillion

What They Mean

Two human things are measured in quadrillions. One is energy — about 640 quadrillion annually burnt “BTUs” heat the world’s homes, propel its ships and planes, run its server banks, and water its gardens. The other is money. The Bank of International Settlements’ most recent Triennial Survey (out last December) says that governments, businesses, banks, tourists, and computerized trading programs exchanged $7.5 trillion in currency daily, or $2.739 quadrillion over the year. With all the zeroes, this is “$2,739,000,000,000,000.” Some particulars:

Scale and rate of growth: Annual currency turnover was a modest $6 trillion exchanged mostly for purposes of tourism, debt repayments, and import/export trade (as had been standard practice since the invention of money in the Lydia kingdom in present-day Turkey) just before the abandonment of the gold-based “Bretton Woods” system in 1971. The contemporary 'floating exchange' which replaced Bretton Woods, after an interval of some confusion, launched precisely fifty years ago, on March 1, 1973, and has since become the largest market of any sort in human history. Annual currency trading reached $500 trillion in the early 2000s; hit the $1 quadrillion mark in 2008, and reached $2 quadrillion — mainly for hedging and futures markets rather than more traditional purposes — in 2017 or 2018. Assuming no gigantic upheaval in global finance, current trends suggest $4 quadrillion by 2030.

Currencies: U.S. dollars figured in 88.6% of all world currency exchanges in 2022. This is a bit less than the 89.9% rate of 2001, but more than the 84.9% of 2010. The dollar’s use in currency exchange has been pretty stable over the past 20 years, as has that of the euro and yen. (Euro: 32% of transactions in 2001, 30% in 2022; yen: 15% and 17%). Speculation about the Chinese yuan’s rising role remains, well, speculative: Used in 0.5% of exchanges in 2007, the yuan now appears in 1.6% of transactions in 2022 — rising, but about equal to use of the Mexican peso and well below the Aussie dollar.

Trading sites: Having lost its role as reserve-currency issuer in the 1930s, the U.K. found a new one as the central forex trading site and holds it still. City of London banks and firms handle 38% of world currency trades, or about $1 quadrillion worth each year.  New York ranks second with 19%; Singapore, Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Switzerland follow at about 9%, 7%, 4%, and 3% respectively. BiS speculates that Brexit may have slightly reduced the British share of currency trade, with some shift to the United States and Singapore.

To put this in context, blithely ignoring differences between exchanges, value-added output, asset wealth, and so on: $2.7 quadrillion per year is (a) 6 times the estimated $450 trillion value of total world privately held wealth in the forms of real estate, stocks, money, physical possessions, and other assets; (b) 26 times the $104 trillion world GDP of 2022; (c) 100 times the $25 trillion in 2022 goods and services exports, and (c) 400 times the $7 trillion in actually existing physical coins and bills. As to whether this gigantic roar of hedging and futures-trading very significantly raises real-world growth rates or improves global economic efficiency: research appears insufficient.