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Retail FX Traders Going Mobile In Droves
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Retail FX Traders Going Mobile In Droves

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Retail FX Traders Going Mobile In Droves

There's a long-standing rule in Jared Johnson's household: no smartphones, iPads or foreign-exchange trading at the dinner table.

Johnson, an Indianapolis-based financial services broker who trades currencies on the side, is one of a rapidly growing number of retail foreign exchange clients using smartphone and tablet applications that make it possible to trade a 24-hour market from anywhere.

Retail foreign exchange traders, known for their somewhat obsessive approach, are increasingly shunning home desktop computers and monitoring and executing trades on mobile devices. Indeed, with a growing number of younger, tech-savvy people trading in a volatile market that can turn against a position any time of the day, there's been explosive growth of the use of smartphones and tablets in mobile foreign exchange trading. And mobile trading providers say it will grow quickly from here, as the technology improves and clients grow more comfortable trading on the go.

"We definitely get a lot of traders [that] want to be able to react to things in real time, no matter where they are," said Trevor Young, mobile product manager at online currency trading platform Oanda.

The number of monthly retail forex trades on mobile applications more than doubled in 2011, with about 250,000 trades in December 2011 from about 100,000 in January 2011, according to client volumes seen by Market Simplified, which builds custom trading applications for brokerage firms.

"Retail FX traders are generally more active" and outpace other asset classes in the percentage of mobile trading volumes, said David Waring, Market Simplified's managing director of business development and strategy.

What isn't clear is whether the advent of mobile trading will allow retail foreign exchange traders to overcome their typically poor track record. On average, about 28% of retail clients of U.S. online forex trading firms are profitable, according to research firm LeapRate. Critics say that reflects how difficult it is for unsophisticated investors to trade in a quick-changing market that's dominated by big financial institutions and doesn't lend itself to the buy-and-hold strategies that equity investors employ.

In theory, traders who stay in touch with markets and positions longer should avoid losses. But by using smaller screens and having less access to analytical tools on mobile apps, traders may be working at a disadvantage to others who use large and sometimes multiple screens.

"When you're holding a mobile device, you don't have the same level of analytical capabilities and overall view of markets and other inputs that traders normally take into account," said Gerald Segal, managing director at LeapRate.

There's also the question of lagging connectivity. Though traders say lost connections are rare with the newer apps, speed is everything in this market and the slower transmission of a trade order can result in the trader paying a suboptimal price.

They must "be aware that you may not get the price--you might get better, you might get worse," said Javier Paz, senior analyst at research firm Aite Group. According to Aite's research, retail investor volumes make up about 8% of the foreign exchange market, whose worldwide daily volumes of $4 trillion make it the largest market in the world. Mobile applications represent about 8% of all retail forex volumes, Paz says. But he expects that proportion to double to 16% over the next two years.

Retail foreign exchange brokerages FXCM Inc. (FXCM) and GFT Markets both launched forex trading applications for the iPad last month. Some traders, like part-time trader Johnson, conduct business exclusively on mobile apps. Still, those in the industry say most traders use the devices for monitoring positions, rather than opening trades, and to supplement desktop trading.

GAIN Capital, whose Forex.com website saw monthly mobile trading rise by 350% in the 12 months to November, said that about 69% of clients using mobile devices are trading on the iPhone, 15% on the iPad, and 10% on Android devices.

Not surprisingly, traders using mobile devices tend to be more active. In November, the 36% of Forex.com's clients who traded both on mobile and desktop platforms made 63% more trades than those using the desktop platform alone.

Rapid growth in mobile trading means brokers will enhance applications to more closely match what desktop platforms do. Eventually more "push" alerts will be available across devices, allowing pop-ups to notify when key price levels, technical thresholds or news items have hit. There will also be more app offerings in different languages, brokers said.

Traders, meanwhile, will expect more out of their devices. Mobile trading tends to increase especially during the weekends and before and after market hours, brokers say. Mobile trading volumes picked up in August and September 2011, in line with overall volumes, as the heightening euro-zone debt crisis caused more market volatility, FXCM's chief marketing officer Sameer Bhopale said.

The mobile apps have only made trading more "addictive" for some clients, who say they check on and make trades while sitting in restaurants, riding the train or even brushing their teeth.

Cason Cusack, who also trades currencies part-time, said he plans to switch brokerage firms because the service he is currently using doesn't offer mobile trading for his Android-powered smartphone. He plans mainly to use the mobile apps to monitor positions and as a back-up when away from home and the office, but doesn't want to wait.

"If you're going to take your time, I'm going to go elsewhere, because this is something that's profitable for me," he said.

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