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How much trading capital do forex traders need?

Accessibility in the forms of leverage accounts, global brokers within your reach and the proliferation of trading systems are all promoting forex trading for a wider audience. However, it is important to keep in mind that the amount of capital traders have at their disposal will greatly affect their ability to make a living. In fact, the role of capital in trading is so important that even a slight edge can provide great returns, assuming that a more money means exploiting a position for larger monetary gains. A trader's ability to put more capital to work and replicate advantageous trades when conditions are right separates professional traders from novices.

So just how much capital is required to be a successful forex trader? We'll take a closer look at performance, fees and leverage to gain a greater perspective on your trading goals. (For further reading, see "Day Trading Strategies for Beginners.")

What Is Respectable Performance for Forex Traders?

Every trader dreams of becoming a millionaire by making intelligent bets off of a small amount of capital. The reality of forex trading is that it is unlikely to make millions in a short timefream from trading a small account. While profits can accumulate and compound over time, traders with small accounts often feel pressured to use large amounts of leverage or take on excessive risk in order to build up their accounts quickly. To put it into perspective, professional fund managers with millions of dollars at their disposal often make less than 10% to 15% per year, which means that the idea traders with small accounts could make double, triple or even 10 times their money in a single year is fairly misguided.

The reality is that when factoring fees, commissions and/or spreads into return expectations, a trader must exhibit skill just to break even. Take for example an S&P E-mini contract. Let's assume fees of $5 per round trip trading one contract and that a trader makes 10 round trip trades per day. In a month with 21 trading days, $1,050 will be spent on commissions alone, not to mention other fees such as internet, entitlements, charting or any other expenses a trader may incur in the course of trading. If the trader started with a $50,000 account based on this example, they would have lost 2% of that balance in commissions alone.

If we assume that at least half of the trades crossed the bid or offer and/or factoring slippage, 105 of the transactions will put the trader offside $12.50 immediately. That is an additional $1,312.50 cost for entering trades. By that calculation, our trader is now down $2,362.50 (close to 5% of their initial balance). This amount will have to be recouped through the profits on the investment before the trader can even start making money.

A Realistic Look at Forex Trading Fees

As we discussed in the above example, being profitable is an admirable outcome when fees are taken into account. However, if an edge can found, those fees can be covered and a profit will be realized. Let's assume that a trader can establish a one-tick edge, meaning that on average they make only a one-tick profit per round trip. Under those conditions, that trader will make:

210 trades x $12.50 = $2,625

Now we'll subtract the $5 commissions the trader comes out ahead by:

$2625 - $1050 = $1,575, or a 3% return on the account per month

This calculation shows that while the trader has winning and losing trades, when the trades are averaged out, the resulting profit is one tick or higher. A trader that averages one tick per trade erases fees, covers slippage and produces a profit that would beat most benchmarks. (To learn more, see "Price Shading in the Forex Markets.)

Are You Undercapitalized for Making a Living in Forex Trading?

The high failure rate of making one tick on average shows that trading is quite difficult. Otherwise, a trader could simply increase their bets to five lots per trade and make 15% per month on a $50,000 account. Unfortunately, a small account is significantly impacted by the commissions and potential costs mentioned in the section above. In contrast, a larger account is not as significantly affected and has the advantage of taking larger positions to magnify the benefits of day trading. A small account by definition cannot make such big trades, and even taking on a larger position than the account can withstand is a risky proposition due to margin calls.

If the goal of day traders is to make a living off their activities, trading one contract 10 times per day while averaging a one-tick profit (which as we saw is a very high rate of return) may provide an income, but is not a livable wage when factoring other expenses.

There are no set rules on forex trading – each trader must look at their average profit per contract or trade to understand how many are needed to meet a given income expectation, and take a proportional amount of risk to curb significant losses. (For more insight, see "Understanding Forex Risk Management.")

Considering Leverage in Forex Trading

Leverage offers a high level of both reward and risk. Unfortunately, the benefits of leverage are rarely seen. Leverage allows the trader to take on larger positions than they could with their own capital alone, but impose additional risk for traders that do not properly consider its role in the context of their overall trading strategy.

Best practices would indicate that traders should not risk more than 1% of their own money on a given trade. While leverage can magnify returns, it's prudent for less experienced traders to adhere to the 1% rule. Leverage can be used recklessly by traders who are undercapitalized, and in no place is this more prevalent than the foreign exchange market, where traders can be leveraged by 50 to 400 times their invested capital (For further reading on leverage, see "Forex Leverage: A Double-Edged Sword" and "Adding Leverage to Your Forex Trading").

A trader who deposits $1,000 can use $100,000 (with 100 to 1 leverage) in the market, which can greatly magnify returns and losses. This is considered acceptable as long as only 1% (or less) of the trader's capital is risked on each trade. This means that with an account size of $1,000, only $10 (1% of $1,000) should be risked on each trade. In the volatile forex market, most traders will be continually stopped out with an amount this size. Therefore, traders can trade micro lots, which will allow them more flexibility even with only a $10 stop. The allure of these products is to increase the stop, yet this will likely result in lackluster returns, as any trading system can go through a series of consecutive losing trades.

While difficult in practice, traders should avoid the temptation of trying to turn their $1,000 into $2,000 quickly. It may happen, but in the long run the trader is better off building the account slowly by properly managing risk.

For example, with an average five-pip profit and 10 trades per day with a micro lot of $1,000, the trader will make $5 (Note: this is an estimate and will depend on the currency pair traded). This does not seem significant in monetary terms, but a 0.5% return on a $1,000 account in a single day is notable.

The Bottom Line

Traders often fail to realize that even a slight edge, such as averaging a one-tick profit in the futures market or a small average pip profit in the forex market, can translate to substantial returns. Traders often enter the market undercapitalized, which means they take on excessive risk by not adhering to the 1% rule outlined above. Leverage can provide a trader with a means to participate in a otherwise high capital requirement market, yet the 1% rule should still be used in relation to the trader's personal capital.

This is where having an edge comes into play. Even though combining an edge with sound trading principles means that profits will come as the account grows, the account must be large enough to provide enough monetary returns to support a livable wage. The edge is exploited by repeatedly putting enough capital into play (without excessive risk) to turn the edge into a livable income

For a step-by-step look at how to get started in forex, check out our Forex Exchange walkthrough.

3 Things I Wish I Knew When I Started Trading Forex


by Rob Pasche

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Trading forex - what I learned

  • Trading forex is not a shortcut to instant wealth.
  • Excessive leverage can turn winning strategies into losing ones.
  • Retail sentiment can act as a powerful trading filter.

Everyone comes to the forex market for a reason, ranging between solely for entertainment to becoming a professional trader. I started out aspiring to be a full-time, self-sufficient forex trader. I had been taught the 'perfect' strategy . I spent months testing it and backtests showed how I could make $25,000-$35,000 a year off of a $10,000 account. My plan was to trade forex for a living and let my account compound until I was so well off, I wouldn't have to work again in my life. I was dedicated and I committed myself to the plan 100%.

Sparing you the details, my plan failed. It turns out that trading 300k lots on a $10,000 account is not very forgiving. I lost 20% of my account in three weeks. I didn't know what hit me. Something was wrong. Luckily, I stopped trading at that point and was fortunate enough to land a job with a forex broker. I spent the next couple of years working with traders around the world and continued to educate myself about the forex market. It played a huge role in my development to be the trader I am today. Three years of profitable trading later, it's been my pleasure to join the team at DailyFX and help people become successful or more successful traders.

The point of me telling this story is because I think many traders can relate to starting off in this market, not seeing the results that they expected and not understanding why. These are the three things I wish I knew when I started trading Forex.

1) Forex is not a get rick quick opportunity

Contrary to what you’ve read on many websites across the web, Forex trading is not going to take your $10,000 account and turn it into $1 million. The amount we can earn is determined more by the amount of money we are risking rather than how good our strategy is. The old saying “It takes money to make money” is an accurate one, Forex trading included.

But that doesn’t mean it is not a worthwhile endeavor; after all, there are many successful Forex traders out there that trade for a living. The difference is that they have slowly developed over time and increased their account to a level that can create sustainable income.

I hear about traders all the time targeting 50%, 60% or 100% profit per year, or even per month, but the risk they are taking on is going to be pretty similar to the profit they are targeting. In other words, in order to attempt to make 60% profit in a year, it's not unreasonable to see a loss of around 60% of your account in a given year.

"But Rob, I am trading with an edge, so I am not risking as much as I could potentially earn" you might say. That's a true statement if you have a strategy with a trading edge. Your expected return should be positive , but without leverage, it is going to be a relatively tiny amount. And during times of bad luck, we can still have losing streaks. When we throw leverage into the mix, that's how traders attempt to target those excessive gains. Which in turn is how traders can produce excessive losses. Leverage is beneficial up to point, but not when it can turn a winning strategy into a loser.

2) Leverage can be a winning strategy to lose money

This is a lesson I wish I had learned earlier. Excessive leverage can ruin an otherwise profitable strategy.

Let's say I had a coin that when heads was hit, you would earn $2, but when tails was hit, you would lose $1. Would you flip that coin? My guess is absolutely you would flip that coin. You'd want to flip it over and over. When you have a 50/50 chance between making $2 or losing $1, it's a no-brainer opportunity that you'd accept.

Now let's say I have the same coin, but this time if heads is hit, you would triple your net worth; but when tails was hit, you would lose every possession you own. Would you flip that coin? My guess is you would not because one bad flip of the coin would ruin your life. Even though you have the exact same percentage advantage in this example as the example above, no one in their right mind would flip this coin.

The second example is how many Forex traders view their trading account. They go "all-in" on one or two trades and end up losing their entire account. Even if their trades had an edge like our coin flipping example, it only takes one or two unlucky trades to wipe them out completely. This is how leverage can cause a winning strategy to lose money.

So how can we fix this? A good start is by using no more than 10x effective leverage .

3) Using sentiment as a guide can tilt the odds in your favor

The 3rd lesson I've learned should come as no surprise to those that follow my articles. .. using the Speculative Sentiment Index (SSI). I've written many articles about this topic. It's the best tool I've ever used and is still a part of almost every trading strategy I am using, present day.

SSI is a free tool that tells us how many traders are long compared to how many traders are short each major currency pair. It's meant to be used as a contrarian index where we want to do the opposite of what everyone else is doing. Using it as a direction filter for my trades has turned my trading career completely around.

Learn from my mistakes

If I could tell my younger self three things before I began trading forex, this would be the list I would give. Utlimately though, if you are just starting out in the forex market, the best thing you can do is take time to learn as much as you can, starting with the basics. Read guides, keep up to date with the latest news and follow market analysts on social media.

Forex Trading Tips FAQs

How much money can you make trading forex?

Due to the availability of leverage, forex traders can make a return on a single trade that is multiples of the margin they used to open the trade. However, leverage is a double edged sword in that big gains can also mean big losses. Therefore, reliance on excessive leverage as a strategy typically leads to destruction of your account capital over the long run. This is because it only takes one adverse market move to drive the market far enough and trigger substantial losses.

Your expectations on a return on investment is a critical element. When traders expect too much from their account, they rely on excessive leverage and that typically triggers a losing account over time. View forex like you would any other market and expect normal returns by using conservative amounts of no leverage.

Since forex is a 24 hour market, the convenience of trading based on your availability makes it popular among day traders, swing traders, and part time traders. Regardless of your style, use small (if any) amounts of leverage.

If you were to expand the list to a fourth thing learned when starting to trade FX, what would it be?

I touched on leverage above. We researched millions of live trades and compiled our results in a Traits of Successful Traders guide . In the guide we touch on risk to reward ratios and how it is important. With humans being human, we also touch on the psychological element that goes along with trading and why we may still make poor choices even if we know what is right. Sometimes our biggest obstacle is between our ears.

Do you have any useful guides for new FX traders?

We have compiled a comprehensive guide for traders new to FX trading . This guide includes topics like why traders like FX, how do you decide what to buy and sell, reading a quote, pip values, lot sizing and many more. From my experience, learning how to decide what market to trade in FX is important.

We also recommend the resource building confidence in trading which is found in the beginners tab of our trading guide resource section.

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