What is Currency Arbitrage and How Does it Work?

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Contributor, Benzinga
June 12, 2023

Currency arbitrage refers to the practice of taking advantage of exchange rate differences in various foreign exchange market venues to make a net profit. Currency arbitrage plays a significant role in global finance and contributes to forex market efficiency by facilitating pricing alignment across different currency pairs and markets.

Currency arbitrage generally involves buying a currency pair at a lower exchange rate in one market and selling it at a higher rate in another market to capitalize on an observed exchange rate disparity. 

Traders involved in currency arbitrage may use simple or more sophisticated trading strategies to identify temporary market imbalances and exploit them. They also usually leverage their arbitrage transactions to enhance profits derived from them.

This financial technique can require a deep understanding of international currency markets, economic factors and risk management to execute a successful arbitrage trade. Read on for more information about currency arbitrage. 

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What is Arbitrage Trading in Forex?

Arbitrage forex trading, also known as currency arbitrage, is a strategy that aims to profit from exchange rate discrepancies among the segments and venues of the huge foreign exchange market. It involves taking advantage of temporary differences in exchange rates between currency pairs across various markets and platforms.

The basic concept of forex arbitrage trading is to buy a currency pair at a lower exchange rate in one market and simultaneously sell it at a higher exchange rate in another market, thereby capitalizing on the price discrepancy that presented the initial arbitrage opportunity. Other and more complex forms of currency arbitrage will be discussed in one of the following sections. 

Currency arbitrage typically allows forex traders to generate profits without taking on significant market risk since they are essentially exploiting market inefficiencies by taking offsetting positions instead of taking a directional market view.

Arbitrage trading in the forex market typically requires advanced technology, a high-speed Internet connection and very quick execution times for an alert trader to capitalize on small exchange rate differentials. Currency arbitrage traders often use automated trading systems and algorithms, like the Bellman-Ford weight cycle identification algorithm, to identify arbitrage opportunities and to execute trades promptly and simultaneously in different markets.

Keep in mind that arbitrage opportunities in and among the various currency markets are typically small and very short-lived since market forces generally correct pricing disparities quickly. As a result, successful forex arbitrage trading typically requires the use of considerable leverage. Arbitrage strategies can also involve constantly monitoring markets for opportunities and the use of sophisticated risk management strategies to minimize potential losses.

How Does Currency Arbitrage Work?

As a trading strategy that exploits temporary price discrepancies in forex markets to generate profits, currency arbitrage works by taking advantage of the fact that currency pair exchange rates can vary among different markets, platforms and market makers. The relative value of a particular currency can vary among the currency pairs it is quoted in.

To execute a simple currency arbitrage trade in practice, observant traders could look for situations where the exchange rate of a currency pair in one market differs significantly from its corresponding exchange rate in another market. 

They would then buy the currency pair at the lower rate and simultaneously sell it at the higher rate to make a profit from the difference. They would generally aim to amplify this risk-free profit by using the maximum amount of leverage available to them. 

Traders must act swiftly to successfully execute a currency arbitrage trade because market inefficiencies are typically short-lived. Although currency arbitrage involves executing offsetting transactions that have no net market risk, the strategy does involve carefully managing risks associated with market volatility, transaction costs and timing. 

Arbitrage traders need to consider factors such as liquidity, bid-ask spreads and potential slippage in their trading strategies. Regulatory constraints and capital requirements may impact the feasibility of executing currency arbitrage trades profitably.

Example of Currency Arbitrage Trading

For a simple example of basic forex arbitrage trading, consider two markets, Market A and Market B, where the EUR/USD exchange rate between the U.S. dollar (USD) and the EU euro (EUR) is quoted differently. These markets might be different online brokers, over-the-counter market makers, trading platforms or exchanges. 

Suppose the exchange rate for the EUR/USD currency pair is 1.1015/20 in Market A, while in Market B, the same currency pair is quoted higher at 1.1025/30. This means that in Market A, one EUR can be bought for 1.1020 USD, while in Market B one EUR can be sold for 1.1025 USD.

Once this pricing disparity is observed by an arbitrage trader, they need to act quickly to execute a leveraged arbitrage trade to lock it in. A currency arbitrage trader would do this by buying a certain amount of EUR in Market A at 1.1020, and then selling the same amount of EUR in Market B at 1.1025. 

They could do this by following these two steps simultaneously:

  • Step 1: The trader would begin the arbitrage trade by buying 100,000 EUR in Market A at 1.1020 using 110,200 USD. Note that 100,000 EUR x 1.1020 EUR/USD = 110,200 USD.
  • Step 2: The trader would complete the arbitrage trade by also selling 100,000 EUR in Market B at 1.1025 to receive 110,250 USD. Note that 100,000 EUR x 1.1025 EUR/USD = 110,250 USD.

In this example, the forex arbitrage trader would earn a USD profit equal to the difference in exchange rates multiplied by the trade amount in EUR. After executing both trades at the same time, the trader is thus left with a net profit of 50 USD (110,250 USD - 110,200 USD).

This example illustrates how a currency arbitrage trader might exploit an exchange rate difference between two currency markets to generate a profit. By buying the EUR at a lower price in Market A and selling it at a higher price in Market B, the trader made a locked-in profit of 50 USD without taking any directional market risk.

Types of Forex Arbitrage

The example in the previous section explained how the most basic type of forex arbitrage strategy works, but other currency arbitrage strategies exist and can be employed profitably. The various types of arbitrage trading strategies that can be used in the forex market include the following:

Spatial Currency Arbitrage

This simple strategy involves taking advantage of exchange rate discrepancies between forex brokers, platforms, exchanges or financial institutions. It involves buying a currency pair at a lower exchange rate in one market and simultaneously selling it at a higher rate in another market. Traders leverage these pricing disparities to generate profits without taking on significant market risk. For example, a retail trader may identify a currency pair that is quoted differently across various brokers and execute offsetting trades to profit from the difference in exchange rates. 

Cross-Currency or Triangular Arbitrage

Cross-currency or triangular arbitrage strategies focus on exploiting the relationships between multiple currency pairs that are interrelated, usually in sets of three. For example, if the exchange rate between EUR/USD and EUR/GBP does not align with the GBP/USD exchange rate, then an astute arbitrage trader can execute a series of trades to profit from the pricing disparity. This strategy is commonly used to make money by professional market makers in especially active cross-currency pairs like EUR/GBP, EUR/CHF and EUR/JPY.

Statistical Arbitrage

Statistical arbitrage refers to a group of trading strategies that typically use mean reversion analyses. They often rely on quantitative models and statistical analysis to identify temporary deviations in the spreads between currency pair exchange rates that are likely to correct to their mean or average value. Traders using this arbitrage strategy usually employ sophisticated algorithms to analyze historical data, identify patterns and execute trades based on statistical probabilities. A forex trader using statistical arbitrage analysis might identify a valuation difference and use it to open a long position in the undervalued currency pair and a short position in the overvalued currency pair. They can then profit if the currency pairs’ exchange rates move toward their average spread. Note that this is not a risk-free arbitrage strategy since observed valuation deviations may persist or even widen from their average.

Time Arbitrage

Time arbitrage focuses on taking advantage of exchange rate differences that occur from delays in information dissemination across foreign exchange markets. Time arbitrage traders might monitor news and economic releases to identify situations where one forex market reacts faster to information than another. By acting quickly, they can exploit the expected exchange rate disparity once fresh relevant news arrives.

Covered Interest Rate Arbitrage

Covered interest rate arbitrage is a strategy that takes advantage of interest rate differentials between two countries to generate profits. It involves borrowing in a low-interest-rate currency, converting it into a higher-interest-rate currency, and then investing the second currency in a low-risk interest-bearing instrument. The trader covers the exchange rate risk by simultaneously entering into a forward contract to sell the higher-interest-rate currency and buy back the lower-interest-rate currency at a pre-determined exchange rate at the delivery date in the future when the interest-bearing instrument matures. The aim of this form of arbitrage is to profit from the interest rate differential while neutralizing the exchange rate risk.

Uncovered Interest Rate Arbitrage

Uncovered interest rate arbitrage, also known as speculative arbitrage, is a strategy that seeks to profit from anticipated changes in exchange rates based on interest rate differentials. It involves borrowing a low-interest-rate currency, converting the proceeds into a higher-interest-rate currency, and investing that second currency without hedging the exchange rate risk. The trader speculates that the exchange rate will move favorably and yield higher profits when they go to convert the higher-interest-rate currency back into the original currency. While uncovered interest rate arbitrage does involve buying and selling in different markets, it is not a risk-free form of arbitrage and remains speculative because it entails having considerable medium- to long-term exposure to exchange rate movements.

Spot-Futures Market Arbitrage

Spot-futures market arbitrage involves exploiting pricing discrepancies between the spot market where currencies are traded for immediate delivery in one or two business days and the futures market where contracts for the future delivery of currencies are traded. Traders using this strategy might simultaneously buy or sell a currency pair in the spot market while taking an offsetting position in the corresponding futures contract. They might use a forward contract to roll the spot position out to the futures contract’s delivery date to offset interest rate risk. The goal is to profit from the exchange rate difference between the spot and futures markets. Spot-future arbitrage requires efficient trade execution and careful consideration of transaction costs, as well as an understanding of factors that influence spot and futures prices, such as interest rates and market sentiment.

Challenges of Currency Arbitrage

While currency arbitrage can be a potentially lucrative trading strategy, it does not offer risk-free or low-risk profits to traders without them having to overcome some significant challenges. Some of the main challenges faced by traders using currency arbitrage include:

  • Market efficiency: Foreign exchange markets are highly liquid and efficient, meaning that pricing discrepancies are typically short-lived and quickly corrected. Efficient markets make it difficult to find and exploit profitable arbitrage opportunities. Traders must constantly monitor multiple markets and react swiftly to capitalize on fleeting exchange rate disparities.
  • Transaction costs: Engaging in currency arbitrage involves executing multiple trades across different markets that can involve substantial transaction costs. These costs include brokerage fees, spreads, commissions and potential order slippage. High transaction costs can significantly eat into potential arbitrage profits, thereby making it challenging to achieve a satisfactory return. 
  • Latency and execution risks: The success of most currency arbitrage strategies relies on the timely execution of trades. The speed at which trades are executed is subject to latency, which is the delay between the time an order is placed and the time it is executed. Latency can occur from technological limitations, network congestion or slower access to market data. Execution delays can result in missed arbitrage opportunities, reduced profitability or even small losses.
  • Regulatory, rule and legal constraints: Currency arbitrage can involve trading across multiple jurisdictions that each have a set of regulations and restrictions. Traders must navigate legal and compliance frameworks to ensure their currency arbitrage trading activities are in line with regulatory requirements. If they use online brokers, traders will need to remain aware of their brokers’ rules and policies regarding arbitrage. Failure to comply with regulations and rules regarding arbitrage can lead to penalties, legal consequences or account restrictions.
  • Liquidity and market depth: Certain currency pairs or markets may suffer from low liquidity or lack sufficient market depth, especially in less-traded currencies or during fast market conditions. Limited liquidity can make it challenging to execute trades at desired exchange rates and in sufficient volume to make the arbitrage trade worthwhile. Low liquidity can widen bid-ask spreads, which tends to reduce potential profits, making arbitrage trades less attractive.
  • Technology and infrastructure: Successful currency arbitrage typically relies on advanced technology, robust trading platforms and reliable connectivity. Traders generally need access to real-time market data, low-latency execution systems and efficient order routing to engage in profitable forex arbitrage activities. Setting up and maintaining the necessary technology infrastructure can be costly and can require continuous investment in hardware, software and connectivity.
  • Risk management: Currency arbitrage is not free of market risk until offsetting trades have been executed, and even then counterparty risk usually remains. Fluctuations in exchange rates, market volatility and unforeseen events can result in losses. Traders must implement robust risk management strategies to protect against adverse market movements, especially when entering into an arbitrage position. Some arbitrage strategies will involve setting suitable stop-loss orders, managing position sizes appropriately and diversifying across different arbitrage opportunities.
  • Capital requirements: Engaging in currency arbitrage often requires significant capital because of the need for large trade volumes to generate meaningful profits. Traders must have sufficient funds available to execute trades across multiple markets or brokers simultaneously. Capital constraints can limit participation in arbitrage opportunities or increase the risk of overexposure.

Despite these challenges, experienced forex traders and financial institutions with the right tools, resources and expertise can find profitable currency arbitrage opportunities. They generally need to understand and manage these challenges effectively to improve their chances of success using a currency arbitrage trading strategy.

Is Currency Arbitrage Right For You?

Currency arbitrage offers an intriguing avenue for astute forex traders to capitalize on temporary pricing discrepancies that can occur among the various foreign exchange market venues while at the same time potentially reducing their market risk. The various ways of implementing this trading strategy can help you lower your risk while still allowing you to profit from opportunities that can arise from time to time despite the overall efficiency of the huge forex market.

While a currency arbitrage strategy can help you earn modest profits, such trading methods are not without challenges since the fast-paced nature of forex arbitrage trading typically demands quick decision-making, advanced technology, access to different markets, substantial trading capital and a keen eye for market inefficiencies. Good risk management and regulatory compliance are essential for you to navigate the potential pitfalls of currency arbitrage successfully. 

Despite those caveats, if you have the necessary skills and discipline to succeed, then currency arbitrage can unlock a world of profit possibilities and provide you with a dynamic and intellectually-stimulating pursuit within the realm of forex trading. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Q

Is currency arbitrage legal?

A

Yes, currency arbitrage is generally legal since it involves taking advantage of temporary exchange rate discrepancies within the foreign exchange market that help make the market more efficient. Arbitrage traders must still comply with the regulations and legal frameworks of any jurisdictions in which they operate, including obeying financial laws, licensing requirements and restrictions imposed by regulatory authorities. Failing to do so can lead to adverse legal consequences. 

Q

What are the benefits of currency arbitrage?

A

The benefits of currency arbitrage include the potential for low-risk profit generation by exploiting temporary pricing discrepancies that can occur among foreign exchange markets. Arbitrage traders can capitalize on these inefficiencies to generate returns without being exposed to significant market risk, and their activities contribute to market efficiency by facilitating pricing alignment across the different forex markets. 

Q

Is arbitrage risky?

A

Arbitrage carries some inherent risks since it involves capitalizing on temporary pricing disparities that are often short-lived and quickly corrected. Traders must generally act swiftly to execute arbitrage trades, and they face challenges such as transaction costs, technological issues, counterparty risks and regulatory constraints. Market volatility, liquidity issues and unexpected events can lead to potential losses for arbitrageurs. 

 

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About Jay and Julie Hawk

Jay and Julie Hawk are the married co-founders of TheFXperts, a provider of financial writing services particularly renowned for its coverage of forex-related topics. With over 40 years of collective trading expertise and more than 15 years of collaborative writing experience, the Hawks specialize in crafting insightful financial content on trading strategies, market analysis and online trading for a broad audience. While their prolific writing career includes seven books and contributions to numerous financial websites and newswires, much of their recent work was published at Benzinga.