Tracking the world: which markets can I trade?

In this brief introduction to the global markets, we take a look at some of the key markets you can trade and outline a few factors you should consider before making your choice.

Currencies

Currencies are the world's largest and most active trading market, followed by treasuries, equities and commodities. While foreign exchange trading has long been dominated by large global banks and institutions, it has become increasingly popular with and accessible to individual investors.

Trading currencies is a bit different to other asset classes. Trading in other assets involves trading in one market with profit and loss based on absolute returns (I bought. It went up, I made money, it went down, I lost money).

Currency trading is done in pairs, with one currency being traded against another. Returns in currency markets are relative, with profit and loss being measured by how one currency performs relative to another. For example, on a given day, the US dollar (USD) could appreciate relative to the euro (EUR), Swiss franc (CHF) and British pound (GBP), but decline relative to the Japanese yen (JPY), Canadian dollar (CAD) and Australian dollar (AUD).

As the world's reserve currency, trading in US dollar related pairs is the foundation of currency trading around the world. The most active pairs (also known as the majors) include EUR/USD, GBP/USD, USD/CHF and USD/JPY. Currency pairs that don't involve USD are known as cross pairs. Popular cross pairs include GBP/EUR, EUR/JPY and AUD/CAD.

Pricing in currencies is based on the first currency in the pair, also known as the base currency. In the case of EUR/USD, this means how much USD it would take to buy one EUR. When EUR/USD goes up it means that the EUR is gaining in value and when EUR/USD goes down, it means EUR is losing value or USD is gaining value.​

Trading in resource currencies such as AUD/USD and USD/CAD is also popular as the valuation of these currencies plus those of other resource-producing nations such as the New Zealand dollar (ZND), Norwegian krona (NOK) and South African rand (ZAR) tend to be influenced by commodity prices which represent a significant part of the goods traded by these countries. Note that CAD and NOK tend to be more sensitive to energy prices, AUD and NZD to metal and grain prices and ZAR to precious metal prices.

Carry trade

USD and JPY tend to be seen as more defensive currencies. Because of their low interest rates, investors tend to borrow money at lower rates in these countries and try to earn higher returns elsewhere, in what is widely known as carry trade. In times when investors are interested in taking on risk, the carry trade increases and capital flows out of USD and JPY into other currencies. When fear increases and investors become more risk averse, they tend to sell off their riskier assets and pay back their USD and JPY based loans.​

Like other markets, currency values tend to be based on supply and demand. Generally speaking, traders tend to favour countries and currencies with higher interest rates, political and financial stability and higher economic growth (higher potential for profit from investments) over countries with lower interest rates or slower growth. Because inflation erodes the value of paper currencies over time, currencies with the potential for current or future high inflation rates tend to be shunned. Currencies with higher political or financial risks (high deficits, high national debt levels or banking system problems) also tend to be marked down to reflect these issues.

Commodities

There are two main types of participants in commodities markets; hedgers and speculators.

Hedgers are those who want to lock in a price for a product that they intend to deliver or use at a future point in time. For example, a farmer about to plant wheat may want to lock in a price for when they deliver it in September, while a baker needing wheat for June may want to lock in their price before that for planning and budgeting purposes. This category tends to be dominated by industry participants.

Commodity prices are mainly impacted by changes in supply and demand of the particular good being traded. Speculators are those interested in attempting to profit from changes in prices as supply and demand conditions change and have no intention of delivering or taking delivery of physical goods. Most investors fall into this category.​

Commodities tend to fall into a number of groups that share similar influences:

Precious metals (gold, silver) 

​While most people may consider precious metals as jewellery, gold and silver in particular have been used as currencies for centuries. Because of this, precious metals tend to be viewed as a store of value and tend to attract interest during times when investors are concerned that the value of paper money (particularly the US dollar) may fall.​

Energy (crude oil, natural gas, gasoline, heating oil)

Like the weather, energy prices tend to be a hot topic of conversation pretty much all of the time because they have such an impact on many people's day to day lives.

Energy prices and demand tends to be linked to global economic growth as people tend to use more energy during good times and cut back during lean times. For example, businesses may operate more shifts or consumers may travel more in good times. Weather can have an influence on the pricing of energy commodities that are used in home heating such as natural gas and heating oil.

A significant part of the global energy supply, particularly crude oil, tends to be produced in or travel through politically unstable regions. Because of this, political risks can impact the price of oil, particularly during times when supplies may be limited.

Although crude oil is a global market, prices tend to be more sensitive to economic conditions in the United States and China, the world's largest energy consumers.

Base metals (copper)

Metals with industrial applications also tend to be sensitive to global economic activity, with demand generally increasing as economies grow. Supply can be increased by the development of new mines and limited by strikes or other operational difficulties.

In recent years, demand for base metals has been driven by demand from emerging economies such as China, India and Brazil that are building out infrastructure.

Grains (wheat, corn, soybeans) 

As more economies have evolved from subsistence farming to emerging industrial societies in recent decades, the demand for agricultural commodities has been steadily increasing.

Grain prices tend to be impacted more by developments on the supply side of the market. Developments that can have a negative impact on supply can lead to shortages and push prices up (for example droughts, freezes and floods). On the other hand, when prices rise farmers tend to plant more crops so the impact can be mitigated over longer periods of time. ​

Other commodities

There are a number of other commodities that can be traded, including coffee, sugar, cocoa and many others. Differences in each market tend to be related to weather conditions in producing areas and changing demand conditions worldwide.

Indices

Another type of diversification is to invest in baskets of shares across a wide variety of industry groups to gain exposure to wider business opportunities and mitigate the risk that one sector may encounter difficult times.

For example, investors only looking at the energy sector could have problems when commodity prices fall, but this risk can be lessened by also having exposure to areas that benefit from falling energy prices, particularly transportation companies and anyone that consumes fuel.​

Although sector trading has become more popular in recent years, trading broad market indices is the primary means that equity investors use to increase their diversification over individual shares.

Most indices that are tradable are based on a basket of the largest and most actively traded companies on a particular exchange or in a particular country. Another advantage of trading indices is that they are usually widely followed in the press so there tends to be a lot of information available about them​.

Some of the best known indices include:

Europe

  • UK 100
  • Germany 30
  • French 40
  • Spain 35
  • Sweden 30
  • Italy 40

North America

  • US30 (derived from the Dow Jones Industrial Average)
  • US SPX500 (derived from the S&P 500)
  • US NDAQ 100 (derived from the NASDAQ 100)
  • US Small Cap 2000 (derived from the Russell 2000)
  • Canada 60 (derived from the  S&P/TSX 60)

Asia Pacific

  • Hong Kong 43 (derived from the Hang Seng)
  • Japan 225 (derived from the Nikkei)
  • Australia 200 (derived from the S&P/ASX 200)

Generally speaking, indices in the same region tend to perform similarly over time because the largest companies tend to have multi-national operations close to each other.

There can be some differences between indices depending of what sectors make up the largest weightings in the basket. For example, the SPX500 tends to be more heavily weighted in consumer products, financial services, technology and health care. Canadian and Australian indices tend to carry a higher weighting in materials and energy producers. The Hong Kong 43 tends to be more weighted in financials, including real estate. The UK 100, on the other hand, has a large weighting in banking, pharmaceuticals, metals and oil.

Treasuries 

Government bonds, also known as treasuries, are another very active trading market, giving investors the opportunity to trade off of grander macroeconomic trends in various countries.​

Most large investors such as banks and institutions tend to purchase bonds with the intention of holding them to maturity and view the interest rate on the bond as the primary return on their investment. Over time, bond prices tend to fluctuate along with economic conditions, creating opportunities for investors.

The compensation through interest rates that investors demand in order to purchase a bond tends to be driven by two major factors, inflation and repayment risk. In order to earn income over time, investors need their bonds to return at least the rate of inflation in the issuing country. In addition, investors tend to demand a premium to cover the risk that the bond issuer may default on either the principal or interest payments since you can't throw debtors into jail any more in most countries.​

Based on this, investors tend to demand higher interest rates from countries running high rates of inflation. As has been seen during the European sovereign debt crisis, issues such as high government deficits or high national debt levels can increase the risk of insolvency and lead investors to demand higher interest rates to compensate them for their risks.

While sometimes equity investors can fall in love with their stocks and be more forgiving of failure, bond investors tend to be extremely strict about the quality of their investments and are sometimes referred to as 'bond vigilantes'.

Because the interest rate on most bonds is fixed after issuance, bond prices change over time to reflect changing interest rates. Suppose a ten-year bond is issued at 5.0% interest and a year later, new nine-year bonds are being issued at 4.0%. Because the 5.0% bond carries a higher interest rate, all else being equal, investors would be willing to pay more for that bond. On the other hand, if investors could get 6.0% on new nine-year bonds, they would not be willing to pay as much for the 5.0% bond.

Bonds tend to be issued at a price of 100.0, known as par, and are expected to be redeemed for the same price at maturity. If interest rates on new bonds increase, the price of existing bonds tends to drop so that they trade below 100.0, or at a discount. The potential for capital appreciation offsets the lower interest rate. Similarly, if the interest rate on new bonds falls, the price of existing bonds tends to rise to trade at a premium to par with the capital loss over time offsetting the higher interest rate. ​

Understanding this inverse relationship between interest rates and bond prices is key for bond traders.

The time to maturity is also an important factor. Central banks tend to use short-term rates to speed up or slow down economic growth. Because of this, the difference between short-term and long-term rates can fluctuate quite a bit. Most of the time, long-term rates are higher to reflect the risk of changing developments over time but sometimes short-term rates can rise above long-term rates, particularly when central banks are trying to slow economic growth or control inflation.

Shares

Most people first become familiar with the world of investing through individual shares and stock markets. Companies around the world issue shares to the public for many reasons, primarily to raise capital for expanding their business. Additional benefits for corporations of being publicly traded include generating a higher profile with potential customers and the public at large, the sharing of risk among more investors, reducing the company's capital costs, succession planning for founders and more. The sale of shares from a company's treasury to shareholders is known as the primary market.​​

Once a company completes its initial public offering, its shares then usually trade on a traditional stock exchange such as the NYSE (New York), FSE (Frankfurt) or LSE (London) or list on an over the counter exchange such as NASDAQ (New York) where trades are executed directly between brokerages. Both of these are known as secondary markets. 

Individuals looking to make money in the stock market usually try to do so through two ways. Capital gains from making a profit on a favourable price move either from the long side (buy low and sell higher) or short side (sell high and buy back lower). Income can also be earned from dividends that companies pay to their shareholders out of net profits. 

Generally speaking, investors tend to bid up the prices of shares where positive things are expected to happen to a company, such as improved earnings in future from increased sales or new contracts, or a higher dividend, or a takeover bid or other development. On the other hand, expectations of negative developments such as a slowdown in the business, regulatory changes, losing contracts, political changes can lead investors to want to sell and push down the share price. ​

With a buyer and seller involved in every transaction, at any given time, share prices tend to reflect the balance of the expectations of all market participants. Share prices may change as expectations change. 

Factors which can impact market expectations can include macroeconomic factors that influence the business environment, industry factors such as changing commodity prices, and company-specific factors such as earnings, dividend changes, and other business developments. 

One regular development that tends to influence trading is a company's earnings report. The timing of these reports tends to be publicised well in advance, with analysts who follow the company weighing in with their expectations. Many companies also publish their own expectations, known as guidance. How a company's results and future guidance fare relative to expectations can have a major impact on short and long-term trading trends.

Industry sectors 

Once people start trading shares, they often find that they become exposed to the risks of the particular business that they are trading. For example, someone who trades shares of oil and gas companies may find that while energy producers in general tend to rise and fall with the price of crude oil and related commodities, their return can also be influenced by how well the individual company they are trading performs on the exploration and operation fronts. For example, one company may have significant exploration success while another may drill a series of dry holes, or have production slow down due to equipment problems.​

The primary means that investors use to mitigate some of the company-specific risks is to trade a group of shares rather than one share, in what is known as diversification. One way to diversify involves trading more than one share within an industry group.

In the oil and gas sector, for example, trading a basket of shares would give you exposure to several companies' exploration programmes while mitigating the risk of one company's problems. It would also capture more general exposure to underlying commodity price moves.

There are ten major sectors in equity markets which fall into four major categories.

Interest sensitive: financial services, utilities, telecommunications

These companies tend to have higher debt loads and because of this, interest payments represent a significant part of their expense base. These companies tend to outperform in times of falling interest rates and underperform when rates are rising quickly.

Defensives: consumer staples and health care

Companies in these areas tend to have fairly stable and predictable revenue and earnings streams. They tend to produce or sell goods that people use day to day, regardless of economic conditions such as personal care products, groceries and pharmaceuticals. They tend to outperform the market during recessions and underperform in stronger economic times.

Economically sensitive: consumer discretionary and industrials

These areas tend to do very well in times of prosperity and poorly during recessions as they represent goods and services that can be sacrificed or substituted during tough times. Some examples within these groups include: auto makers, clothing stores, business services and airlines.

Capital spending sensitive: energy, materials and technology

Growth for companies in these groups tends to come from large scale projects that can take time to implement. Because of this, they can run a little behind the economic cycle because companies usually wait for confirmation that the economy has turned higher before committing to large scale projects and after a top, tend to complete projects that are underway before cutting budgets. 

Note that for technology, this mainly applies to companies which sell hardware, software and services to business customers. There are an increasing number of technology companies that sell primarily to consumers and would potentially fall into the economically sensitive group.

Which markets should I trade?

Deciding which markets to trade can seem like a complicated process but there are a few factors that can simplify the decision.

Trading what is familiar

Most investors start out trading the shares of companies they are familiar with or are located in the same country, before branching out internationally or trading different asset classes.

Trading similar asset classes 

Once you have gained some comfort trading in one area, you may want to expand into related areas. For example, expanding trading from shares to indices or from resource shares to related commodities.

Small picture versus big picture

Investors more interested in taking advantage of broad national or global trends may find currencies, treasuries or indices more appealing. On the other hand, those interested in doing some digging and finding unnoticed opportunities may find investing in shares more interesting. 

Time zones

Which markets are active during the time of day that you plan to trade may also influence your decision. If you plan to trade during your business day, markets in your region may offer the best opportunities. If you plan to trade in the morning or evening, there may be more opportunities in other regions. 

Don't forget that one of the reasons that trading in indices, commodities and currencies has become more popular in recent years is that many of them are available for trading on a 24-hour basis. 

Relationships between markets

Although the details of investing in different markets or asset classes may vary, the underlying drivers of movement tend to be the same across markets, such as interest rates, inflation expectations, GDP growth, risk factors and more. As you gain comfort with some markets, you may find other markets where you can apply what you have learned.

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