Foreign Currency Affairs

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Travel is one of the quickest ways to make your first million. I made mine in Ecuador, in local sucres, at 4,500 to the dollar. The price of success: I had to master the art of walking with my fortune stuffed down my pants.

Adorned with colorful, bearded and bewigged personages and available by the wheelbarrow at selected locations, foreign currency remains one of the unheralded pleasures of the road. It adds to the exotic mix of travel-and sometimes to your budget, if you don't keep on top of money matters.

A host of global and local factors can affect how much you get for your dollars when you cash them in for local currency. Liberalized foreign-exchange trading rules and a proliferation of traders keep rates in constant flux on the macroeconomic level. Add to that the local variables, from natural disasters to sudden economic calamities, similar to what occurred in Indonesia this year, and your vacation can get very expensive or dirt cheap, depending on when you went to the bank.

Though easy access to almost any currency is largely taken for granted today, it's a fairly recent phenomenon. European and U.S. banks created systems in the 19th century for exchanging large amounts of currency. Soon after, upstart American Express arrived on the scene. Federal administrators at Ellis Island had been disturbed at the growing number of moneychangers who specialized in defrauding arriving immigrants. To cut down on the practice, they awarded the island's exchange monopoly to a then unknown Amex.

Foreign exchange today is a huge business. 'Some $2 trillion gets exchanged every day,' says Richard Olsen, founder of Olsen and Associates in Geneva, Switzerland. 'Until 1971 exchange rates were by and large fixed. The rates would fluctuate in narrow bands, and occasionally governments would adjust the exchange rates if too much market pressure built up. As of 1972, exchange rates started to float.'

That's when smaller institutions began creeping into the field. Today there is no fixed 'market' but a series of financial wholesalers and dealers who set a range of rates around the globe. While some nations continue to fix their rates to specific standards, the value of most currencies is determined largely by the 'forex,' or foreign exchange, markets.

The competitive nature of the exchange market has been both good and bad for the traveler, according to Lars Hansson, president of International Currency Express, a Beverly Hills-based exchange. On the upside, exchange centers have duked it out to get better and better rates for buyers. The average markup between U.S. and European currencies has dropped to three to four percent, while the margin on more exotic currencies is only slightly higher. The commissions might even be lower, he adds, except for the benchmark set by traveler's check kingpin Thomas Cook, which 'posts the worst rates,' says Hansson-'they always charge 31/2 to 51/2 percent.' On the downside, the professional nature of the market means that the vacationer will rarely beat the best market rates.

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