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Chapter 1. The Truly Modern Market

Chapter 1. The Truly Modern Market

I love Asia: it smells of raw capitalism. Especially at night. Several years ago, I was watching Hong Kong in the evening as the city became a brilliant silhouette of pure commerce against the dark Communist backdrop of mainland China. The rickshaw drivers, rivers of neon lights, open-air markets, and steel high-rises always make me think of foreign exchange, the fundamental transaction of capitalism and the building block of modern globalization.

I couldn't speak Chinese, but as I approached a currency exchange booth on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong, I silently prepared to engage in an ancient conversation. I pulled out $100 in 20s, and the young man behind the counter smiled and said in broken English, “I love LA, Hollywood. All right.” He held his smile artificially long. “No,” I said, “New York.” “Ah,” he replied, “Statue of Liberty. All right.” And he smiled again. I was sure he could deliver a greeting in every language listed on the board behind him.

The electric board was black with red lights. It displayed the currency prices, a small flag for those who couldn't read the currencies, and a two-sided quote with a buy and sell price. The young man pulled out a beat-up calculator with masking tape holding down the screen and started to punch numbers. Exchange rate, buy side, times the number of U.S. dollars, 100, minus broker fee, equals 778 Hong Kong dollars. He looked up and I nodded in agreement. He unrolled a wad of colorful Hong Kong bills, counted them out carefully, and slid them over to me.

At that moment, it was hard to understand that in this little booth, lit by bad fluorescent lights, next to a vendor selling Peking duck and knock-off Chanel bags, I had access to the world's largest, most liquid, and most influential financial market—Forex.

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