...So what is an ECN Broker?
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Recent years have seen many new Forex brokers open their doors as ECN brokers. ECN stands for “electronic communications network” and sometimes brokers of this type are also referred to as “STP brokers” (STP stands for “straight through processing”) or “no dealing desk” (NDD) brokers. All these terms mean approximately the same thing: clients’ trades are executed by matching them with other clients or 3rd party counterparties who wish to take the other sides of the trades. Non-ECN brokers, in contrast, take the other side of the trade themselves, creating a large and obvious conflict of interest with their clients. They are typically referred to as “dealing desk brokers” or “market makers”.
ECN brokers typically charge lower spreads than market makers, which they compensate for at least partially by charging additional commissions on trade entries and exits which is calculated as a fixed percentage of the total value of the trade. Despite these fees, the combination of spread and commission is usually at least a little lower than the spread charged on a similar trade by non-ECN brokers.
It is this combination of lack of conflict of interest plus the typically low cost of trading that makes ECN brokers so attractive to traders, but there are some other factors worth considering before you decide that an ECN broker, or an ECN account (some brokers offer both ECN and dealing desk type accounts) is for you.
Account size – ECN brokers usually require higher minimum deposits. A few insist on minimum trade sizes as high as 1 minilot instead of the 1 microlot (one tenth of a minilot) that has become more standard within the Forex industry.
Execution – ECN brokers typically offer excellent execution speed and sometimes spreads are even non-existent or inverted for a second or two. Note that during periods of very low liquidity execution may be seriously delayed as there is no market maker to take the trade if no client wants it. This can lead to seriously negative slippage events or being stuck in a bad trade a little longer than you would be if trading with a market making broker. These events often tend to occur at major news releases especially when the result differs from the market’s consensus expectation.
Spreads – these are usually an attractive feature, even when commission is considered. However, spreads can widen dramatically and can sometimes be beyond what market maker brokers will be offering at the same time. Spreads will of course vary a lot as they are based more precisely upon market supply and demand. Fixed spreads are only available through market making brokers. They are rarely worth it economically, as it happens, but that is another story.
Choice of Instruments – as ECN brokers need to be sure they are truly plugged into a market’s liquidity before they can credibly offer trading in that market instrument, market making brokers are often better situated to offer a wider choice of instruments, especially in individual stocks and shares, commodities, and various types of indices. Additionally, ECN brokers tend to require higher minimum trade sizes in these kinds of non-Forex instruments. This means that if you want to be very diversified, you might have another reason to consider using a market making broker in addition to or as an alternative to an ECN broker.
Maximum Trade Size – ECN brokers usually offer much higher maximum trade sizes, as they (at least theoretically) do not have to worry about processing any order through a dealing desk. For example, some dealing desk brokers won’t let you buy or sell more than 5 lots at once. ECN brokers, if they specify maximums, tend to place them at much higher levels.
Minimum Trade Size – ECN brokers used to commonly require higher minimum trade sizes of 1 minilot (0.1 full lots), compared to the 1 microlot (0.01 full lots) that was typically required by dealing desk brokers. Although an increasing number of ECB brokers do now allow trading in microlot sizes, a few still do not, so it could be an issue if you prefer to trade in microlots.
Who are the “Real” ECN Forex Brokers?
We’ve seen the reasons above why ECN Forex brokers are increasingly popular. We’ve noted that more and more brokers are advertising themselves as ECN brokers, or at least offering ECN-type accounts. There is a lot of controversy around the question of whether many of these brokers are “real” ECN brokers. So, what is a “real” ECN broker, and how can you tell when one is telling the truth?
A true ECN broker is simply defined as a broker that plugs your orders into a network where it is automatically matched to a matching order from another client or liquidity provider. This is the textbook definition to work from. Most brokers claiming to be ECN brokers are probably telling the truth about this at least, although if you see large spreads, spreads that never seem to really vary, or continuously slow execution, they are almost certainly not.
The more sophisticated problem arises when we ask what qualifies as a “liquidity provider”? If it is just another dealing desk, then how can it be a “true” ECN offering? The network is only as good as its source. To be regarded as a real ECN broker, the liquidity provider should really be a tier 1 bank. We must wonder how often this is really the case, and why many brokers that advertise themselves as ECN brokers are so tight-lipped about which liquidity providers they use!
When the first ECN brokers started appearing, bank traders started to ask how orders for minilots (let alone microlots) could possibly be sent straight through to tier 1 banks for processing. Bank traders will tell you that at this level, trade sizes are usually in minimums of ten or so full lots. This suggests that an ECN broker offering smaller minimum trade sizes must inevitably perform a “bucketing” of orders, and that would require a kind of dealing desk to process and allocate the bucketing.
The final question is, does it really matter? If a broker is at least trying to match orders directly, there is not much of a conflict of interest, potential or otherwise. If you benefit from a low cost of trading and relatively fast execution, then why not be happy with what you have got. Just don’t be under any illusions as to what is probably going on behind the scenes.
How to Choose the Best ECN Forex Broker?
Choosing an ECN broker is not very different from choosing any broker. There are not many special factors to watch out for at ECN brokers that differ from what should be the usual considerations.
When choosing any Forex broker, you should start from how much money you want to deposit, what kind of instruments you want to trade, how often you want to trade, and where you are located. Beginning with these three factors, you should be able to eliminate several brokers from your list of candidates. The good news is that brokers that don’t meet minimum standards of acceptability in one area are usually the same ones that won’t meet required standards in other areas also, so it becomes easier to eliminate them.
Starting with location, you might feel more comfortable with a broker located in your own country (or a nearby country), or is in a country that speaks the same language as your or which has a similar legal system. If you are a U.S. resident, you have special issues to consider as the U.S. is quite restrictive in Forex trading and if you must be onshore you have little choice, but it makes your choice easier. If you live in the United Kingdom, you might want a U.K.-based broker that offers spread betting format for tax reasons so you won’t have to pay any tax on any winnings. This is probably the easiest place to start and helps you narrow down the list considerably right away when choosing a Forex broker.
The next step to consider is regulation and the safety of your deposit. This might not matter so much to you if you only intend to deposit a relatively small amount of money that is not very important to you. If not, though, this is a very big issue. Some countries have a well-developed culture of financial regulation enforcement, which is always reassuring, and are just not places where the big fraudsters can thrive. Another big issue to consider is whether any protection is offered on your deposit. For example, at the time of writing, the United Kingdom government protects everyone’s deposit with any regulated broker up to a maximum amount of GBP 75,000. This means that if you deposit that amount or less with a broker regulated by and based in the United Kingdom, if they steal from you or cheat you or even just go bankrupt, you should eventually receive your deposit back from the government there. This is a significant advantage, and provides a lot of reassurance. If your deposit is a significant sum, you should seriously question whether it is wise to deposit it anywhere that does not offer government-backed deposit protection. You also should be biased towards reputable financial centers and away from tiny islands you never heard of before!
The third factor to think about is the cost of trading. These days, there is no reason why anyone with a significant amount to deposit should put up with a total spread and commission equaling more than 1 pip on the benchmark EUR/USD Forex currency pair. One way to compare spreads is to open demo accounts at each of your candidate brokers to see what their spreads really are. One potential problem with this strategy, however, is that brokers have been known to make conditions in their demo accounts, including spreads, significantly better than those which prevail in their real money accounts. Fortunately, there are a few websites which compare the spreads of real money accounts in real time across a range of different brokers, so looking here is going to be a good idea.
Another serious factor to consider in choosing a broker is your style or intended style of trading i.e. how many trades you usually make. Are you or are you going to be a scalper, day trader, swing trader or position trader? If you are making few trades but leaving your positions open for several days or even over weeks and months, you should consider how competitive are brokers are in terms of their overnight financing rates which are generally charged each day against positions left open at 5pm New York time. For position traders, these rates can make more difference to overall profit and loss than the spreads charged, at least up to a point. However, if you are going to be leaving trades open for only minutes or hours but making many more trades, the spreads become a more influential factor, and overnight financing may not be an issue at all. This means that of two Forex brokers, one might be the most economical choice for you as an intraday trader, but not as a longer-term trader holding positions overnight.
The next thing to consider is the broker’s trading platform. Does it work smoothly, or does it have problems freezing up? It is easy, intuitive and pleasant to use, or not? Does the execution work in a manner that suggests the Forex broker is a true ECN broker or something close to it?
Finally, you can think about the issues that brokers’ advertising likes to focus on, but which are really the lowest of your concerns. Bonuses and other beneficial promotions could be interesting, but check the small print: accepting a bonus, deposit or otherwise, can mean you will be unable to withdraw a certain amount of your deposit until you have made a minimum number of trades.
One good think about choosing ECN brokers is that they tend to aim at a more sophisticated market than market-making brokers, meaning that you probably will not have to worry about misleading terms or hard sells. The most professional brokers of all sometimes have poor advertising and customer service, but they may be offering you the best ECN brokerage deal possible.
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