Choosing the right forex broker can be the difference between profitable trading and financial disaster. When making this choice, your first decision is whether to use a regulated forex broker or an offshore “unregulated” broker.
For the reasons I outline below, regulated brokers are the far safer choice. Regulated brokers do have some disadvantages, however, so it’s important that you read on and make an informed decision.
What Is the Difference Between Regulated and Unregulated Forex Brokers?
Forex brokers are generally lumped into two categories: regulated brokers and unregulated offshore brokers.
Regulated forex brokers are generally thought of as those brokers that fall under the jurisdiction of the US, UK, or other countries with a strictly regulated financial services industry. Forex brokers operating within the US, for example, are subject to the regulations of both the CFTC (Commodity Futures Trading Commission) and the NFA (National Futures Association).
Unregulated forex brokers are those based in offshore countries that have far fewer laws governing broker activities. Technically, these offshore brokers are still regulated, but often only in the loosest sense of the word.
Advantages of Using a Regulated Forex Broker
Regulated forex brokers offer one thing above all else: security.
Forex trading is an inherently risky endeavor and even the best forex brokers can’t shield you from market-associated risk. But heightened regulation of forex brokers protects traders from broker malpractice, scams, loss of deposit, broker bankruptcies, and other risks.
When you make a deposit with a regulated broker, you can be quite certain it will be there until you choose to trade it.
Forex brokers aren’t banks, so there is no equivalent to the FDIC guaranteeing your deposit, but regulated brokers have capital requirements that can help ensure your broker’s solvency. Brokers operating in the US, for example, are required by the NFA to have in excess of $20 million on hand. This capital must be put aside and used only in case of financial emergency.
One fairly recent example of such an emergency in the forex market is when the Swiss National Bank unexpectedly decided to remove the peg between its currency and the euro. In mere moments, the Swiss franc was up 30% against the euro and 25% against the US dollar.
Several forex brokers—both regulated and unregulated—were unable to weather the trading frenzy, but traders trading with regulated brokers were able to get a substantial amount of their money back due to interventions by the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA.) Those trading with unregulated brokers weren’t as fortunate.
Regulated brokers are also required to maintain detailed, audited records of deposits and withdrawals. This makes it far more difficult for deposits to just “disappear.” If you read enough reviews of unregulated brokers, you’ll come across stories from traders who deposited funds with a broker only for them to never appear in their account. Somehow this money ends up in a financial Bermuda Triangle, never to be seen again. That simply won’t happen with a regulated broker.
Safety from fraud
Regulatory bodies such as the NFA and the FCA can ensure you find a reliable forex broker. They offer searchable databases that allow you to check if your broker is registered and if any complaints have been filed against them.
Once you move beyond the reach of the regulators, you make yourself far more vulnerable to potential fraud. It is not so difficult to set up websites to look like typical online trading platforms. And since new unregulated forex brokers seem to be popping up every day, it can be difficult to assess which are legitimate and which are not.
Going with a trusted, regulated broker eliminates this risk.
A regulated forex broker is required to document and warn traders of the risk of trading forex. They also offer far more disclosure of certain financial instruments.
CFDs (contracts for differences) are a prime example. They are deemed risky enough that US brokers are not allowed to offer them. Regulated brokers in the UK and other countries can offer them, but they are required to disclose what percentage of their forex traders lose money when trading them.
Offshore brokers give you no such disclosures. They may offer brief warnings of the risks involved in the foreign exchange market, but they are so generic they are easily ignored.
If you’re serious about risk management and want to make informed decisions about your financial market of choice, regulated brokers make your life much easier.
Risk disclosure is a big part of transparency, but regulated brokers are much more transparent about other aspects of their business as well.
When choosing a broker, one of the most critical considerations is trading costs. Regulated brokers are required to state exactly how much they charge per trade and also to disclose any other costs associated with your account. Some offshore brokerages are notorious for hidden fees, and it can be difficult to assess exactly how much you’ll pay per trade.
Transparency also provides a measure of accountability. With a regulated broker, you know exactly who the owners and stakeholders are. They are real people whose names and reputations are on the line.
It isn’t so clear with unregulated brokers. Take for instance the bankruptcy of offshore broker GCM Capital Markets in 2017. Bankruptcy proceedings revealed a convoluted ownership structure that may or may not have involved an alleged money launderer arrested in Prague.
Personally, I prefer a forex broker that isn’t involved in fraudulent activities.
Obviously, regulated brokers aren’t infallible. Even the best forex brokers can make mistakes or encounter system errors. The difference is that should a problem arise, if you are trading with a regulated broker you have governing bodies to turn to.
Both the NFA in the US and FCA in the UK have simple forms to submit to report broker malpractice. In these cases, the regulatory body will address the complaint and take action against the broker if it is warranted. A complaint against an unregulated broker will undoubtedly fall on deaf ears.
Disadvantages of Using a Regulated Forex Broker
I hope the advantages I’ve listed have given you more than enough reasons to go the regulated route, but there are enough disadvantages that some traders opt for unregulated brokers despite the risks.
The goal of a lot of financial regulation is to reduce the risk taken on by retail traders, under the assumption that they may not understand exactly how much is at stake. This is why heavily regulated forex brokers are limited in the amount of leverage they can offer their clients.
In the US, brokers aren’t allowed to offer more than 50:1 leverage. Offshore brokers face no such limitations. Some offshore brokers advertise 2000:1 leverage, 400x more than the US maximum.
I could never endorse leveraging yourself to that degree, but there are plenty of traders who are comfortable taking on more than 50:1. If you live in the US, that means using an offshore broker.
Prohibited financial instruments and trading styles
If you’re a traditional trader, or if you’re just getting into the forex market, you shouldn’t be worried about prohibited trading styles. However, scalpers and those who use trade copiers or EAs (Expert Advisors) may not be able to trade with a regulated broker.
Some regulated brokers are also prohibited from offering certain financial instruments that are deemed too risky. The most obvious example is CFDs, which are prohibited in the US due to their underlying risk. They are allowed in other jurisdictions and, certain offshore brokers offer them to anyone.
Anti-money laundering efforts have led to a lot of extra paperwork. Prospective clients of regulated brokers have to take extra steps to prove both their identity and their current residence.
In most cases this is just a matter of scanning and sending a copy of an energy bill as well as a driver’s license, but there are occasional complications in the process that can turn into a real headache.
A regulated forex broker has a lot of extra costs when compared to its offshore competitors. It costs a lot of money to follow the rules. The accountants, compliance officers, and additional staff required to ensure broker compliance are very costly.
Most, if not all, of these extra costs are passed on to the consumer. That means offshore brokers offer slightly tighter spreads. The difference might not seem significant, especially on popular currency pairs, but even small price differences can add up in the long term, particularly if you’re day trading.
A regulated brokerage firm is often only allowed to offer its services to residents of its own jurisdiction. Obviously this isn’t a big deal if you live in the US, UK, or other country with a well-regulated financial services industry. But if you live somewhere else, your only options might be offshore brokers.
Politics also comes into play with regional restrictions. Due to various economic sanctions, some countries don’t allow their brokers to accept clients from certain countries. Traders wishing to participate in the foreign exchange market who reside in the sanctioned countries have to go the offshore route.
Should I Use a Regulated Forex Broker?
If you’re a risk-averse person like I am, trading with a regulated forex broker is clearly the best choice for you. As a forex trader, I do my best to minimize risk, and that extends to my broker choice as well. Regulated forex brokers offer far more security and peace of mind than even the most highly regarded offshore brokers.