Online platform eToro is opening up the complex world of foreign exchange trading to the masses through a simple and social user interface - but is this democratization of currency speculation good for the market?
Much like online prediction markets, eToro makes trading easy and fun, with leaderboards, discussion threads, and neat visualizations, but the truth is that the FX market is not fun and games. Participants are not betting with fake cash on who will win the World Cup in the pursuit of prizes, but rather are speculating on the currencies of real countries. The FX market serves a very important purpose: to facilitate transactions worldwide in all currencies. A collapse in currency can have very a real impact on individuals who never have even heard of the FX market and certainly never chose to gamble their future on it (ask the people of Malaysia or Thailand in 1997).
Admittedly, the concept behind eToro is brilliant: providing access to the largest financial market in the world that has largely been the domain of large financial institutions. Even better, the market is entirely over-the-counter with no regulation or central oversight. So you can short at will, there is no up-tick rule, it operates 24 hours a day during the week, and the concept of insider trading doesn't exist. But herein lies the danger. Already, most trades are purely speculative (a full 80% where no currency ever actually changes hands) and while this influx of cash daily gives the market tremendous liquidity which is good for trade, it also puts the fate of countries' economic well-being in the hands of bankers. Adding in novice traders allured by what investor Howard Lindzon described as "Zynga for real men" would seem to make the market more volatile, not stable.
Of course, eToro's influence on the market is negligible. While $100 billion already traded on the platform is some nice volume, FX trading accounts for nearly $4 trillion daily. So novice traders can have fun and muse publicly on the geopolitical factors that will cause X country's currency to depreciate, raising their individual stature on an eToro leaderboard and maybe getting new followers to mimic their trading habits. Michael Arrington describes this all as very fun and as it goes more social, increasingly "funner".
Yet let's remember that foreign exchange trading has a real impact on lives and is not just a game. Of course, there is no reason to think that institutional investors take this into consideration, but as an individual, I can choose differently. That is why I invest in Lending Club, a platform that is also fun, but also transparent about risks, returns, and the impact on the people participating (and without the potentially devastating externalities to people outside of the market altogether).
Addendum: Hacker News has a great comment thread on this post.