In every foreign exchange transaction, you are simultaneously buying one currency and selling another. In effect, you are using the proceeds from the currency you sold to purchase the currency you are buying. Furthermore, every currency in the world comes attached with an interest rate set by the central bank of that currency's country. You are obligated to pay the interest on the currency that you have sold, but you also have the privilege of earning interest on the currency that you have bought. For example, let’s look at the New Zealand dollar/Japanese yen pair (NZD/JPY). Let’s assume that New Zealand has an interest rate of 8% and that Japan has an interest rate of 0.5% In the currency market, interest rates are calculated in basis points. A basis point is simply 1/100th of 1%. So, New Zealand rates are 800 basis points and Japanese rates are 50 basis points. If you decide to go long NZD/JPY you will earn 8% in annualized interest, but have to pay 0.5% for a net return of 7.5%, or 750 basis points.
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To trade $100,000 of currency, with a margin of 1%, an investor will only have to deposit $1,000 into her or his margin account. The leverage provided on a trade like this is 100:1. Leverage of this size is significantly larger than the 2:1 leverage commonly provided on equities and the 15:1 leverage provided in the futures market. Although 100:1 leverage may seem extremely risky, the risk is significantly less when you consider that currency prices usually change by less than 1% during intraday trading (trading within one day). If currencies fluctuated as much as equities, brokers would not be able to provide as much leverage.