What’s the Difference Between a Market Maker and an ECN?

Market maker or ECN is the single most critical distinction between FOREX broker-dealers. A market maker, or dealer, is always the counterparty to your trades; an ECN requires an actual counter order for execution. Given the liquidity of the FOREX markets, a counter order is only a problem in a very fast or very slow market or if you place an extremely large order. An ECN cannot play many of the games that market makers do -- in large part, they do not need to because they have no book to balance. But ECN trading also requires a more accurate and delicate trading touch -- an additional skill that the trader must acquire.

Regarding market makers: some are good, even very good; many are awful.
Keep in mind what counterparty to your trade means. Then remember that market makers hold all the cards -- the data stream, the dealing desk, or control through their liquidity providers with an NDD (no dealing desk), the trading platform, and all the tools -- requoting, pip spreads, trading rules, dealer intervention, accepting or canceling trades -- all for the supposed purpose of maintaining an orderly market. National Futures Association (NFA) Compliance Rule 2-43 has minimized some of these factors -- but not eliminated them by any means. Progress is being made but continued excesses will make them the dinosaurs of the industry.

ECNs have their own issues -- In fast or slow markets, liquidity may actually be worse with an ECN because they do not have many of the orderly market tools at their disposal. But on balance, I feel that once you have gotten your feet wet in FOREX, shop for an ECN. Several retail brokers are offering ECN trading even to mini-accounts. How they bundle 10k lots into a 250k bank lot without intervention, I have not fully determined and, quite honestly, probably do not want to know.

The core issue -- and the reason the author predicted in the second edition that market makers would lose ground to ECNs -- is that market makers manipulate the books to maintain order. This involves a number of activities such as requoting, dealer intervention, and setting pip spread -- as and when they please. Market makers trade against their customers -- it is why and how they are what they are. A profit for you may well be a loss for them. What would you do with a customer who cost you money on a consistent basis? ECNs may also act as a counterparty. But here -- at least in theory -- it is supplemental to their primary duty of trade matching.

Market makers set, manipulate, or control pip spreads, usually as legitimate operations of the market-making process to maintain an orderly market; ECNs generally do not. Many trading platforms -- both market maker and ECS -- provide depth of market (DOM): the ability to see standing buy and sell orders, and the quantities and prices bid and asked. This can be valuable information if you learn how to use it properly.

To complicate matters, some firms that are obviously market makers now advertise a no dealing desk. The author is unsure how such a hybrid operates; in some instances, it appears to be nothing more than semantics in an effort to shake the market-maker moniker. Lack of regulation makes knowing how a broker-dealer processes trades difficult, if not impossible. The author queried five such brokers about this process and received no response from four of them and what can only be described as mumbo-jumbo from the other one. More and more brokers are attempting to distance themselves from the market-maker label, but whether they are actually making any significant changes to how they execute trades remains a question in many instances. All of this said, if you like to trade the minor or exotic currency pairs you will probably get a better deal from a reputable market maker than and ECN. The market maker provides liquidity to these pairs that are many times not available to the trade-matching ECN.

You will hear the term liquidity provider from both ECNs and market makers. For a market maker, it really has little meaning but it sounds good. It does not matter how many liquidity providers a broker-dealer has if it stops the feed to sniff or manipulate it before passing it through to the customer.

In reviewing the fine print of account forms, you notice that even ECNs withhold the right to intervene as market makers. Yes, it is confusing! In FOREX, ultimately, "You pay your money and you take your pick."
By Michael Duane Archer
Michael Duane Archer has been an active futures and FOREX trader for more than 35 years. He has worked in various advisory capacities, notably as a commodity trading advisor, registered SEC investment advisor, and branch manager for Heinold of Hawaii. He currently trades FOREX and futures and is involved in several technical analysis research projects.

Copyrighted 2016. Content published with author's permission.

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