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What are trading desks? An overview of types and uses

Trading desks originated in the U.S. before the 1970s. Early on, firms like Morgan Stanley started dividing their capital market operations. This set the groundwork for trading desks. The 1970s saw a significant shift with NASDAQ’s regulatory changes. These changes required investment firms to establish trading desks, leading to the creation of equity trading rooms.

Then, the idea of trading desks spread to other countries. In this blog, we will explore the definition of a trading desk and the different types available.

Understanding trading desk

A trading desk is an essential part of a stockbroking entity or financial institution, hosting a team of professional traders. These traders operate multiple trading terminals to buy and sell a variety of securities through stock exchanges. Their operations are crucial for the fluid motion of financial markets, ensuring securities can be traded smoothly and efficiently.

The classification of trading desks:

  1. Agency trading desks focus on executing buy and sell orders for clients. They act as intermediaries and charge commissions for their services. These desks do not hold positions themselves; their sole aim is to facilitate client trades.
  2. Proprietary trading desks trade on behalf of the financial institution itself, using the firm’s funds to generate profit. These desks undertake significant risk since they can lose capital if the market moves against them.

Trading desks play a pivotal role in the financial market. By increasing market liquidity, they facilitate the entry and exit of investors’ positions. Their constant activity aids in the efficient discovery of asset prices and can influence market volatility. Depending on their strategy, they can either stabilise the market or contribute to its fluctuations.

Beyond executing trades, day trading desks offer valuable services such as transaction cost analysis, formulation of trading strategies, and identification of trading opportunities. They help structure financial products, create supporting documentation, and identify arbitrage opportunities, providing a comprehensive suite of services to their clients or the institution itself.

How does a trade desk work?

Trading desk operations under the expertise of licensed brokers and traders, each specialising in various investment methodologies. These professionals utilise advanced digital systems and market markers to swiftly identify the best prices and trading momentum for their clients.

The function of a trading desk is twofold. Firstly, it displays all current orders from clients, ensuring transparency and efficiency in executing trades. Secondly, it monitors all ongoing trading activities, helping in the structured management of financial products.

Using a trading desk incurs a commission for every trade executed. The kind of financial institution in charge of the desk affects the commission charges.

To initiate a trade, an investor places an order with the trading desk, which can be done online, via phone, or, in some cases, in person. The desk executes these trades based on the provided instructions or mandates, employing electronic trading systems and sometimes market makers to secure the best possible prices.

Trading desks are typically situated within a trading room or floor, an open space housing multiple desks, each dedicated to different investment sectors like equity, currencies, commodities, or bonds. Traders at these desks are selected for their proficiency and track record in handling specific types of investments.

These traders not only execute buy or sell orders but also play a crucial role in structuring financial products, identifying arbitrage opportunities, and providing strategic trading advice. For their services, trading desks charge commissions, creating a revenue stream for the financial institution or broker-dealer managing the desk.

Types of trading desks

  • Stock market trading desk

Stock market or equity trading desks focus on buying and selling stocks, equity derivatives, including futures and options, and manage ETF trading desk operations. They rely on in-depth research and technical analysis to make trading decisions, often divided by region or product type to better serve specific markets or investment strategies.

  • Fixed income trading desk

Specialising in debt securities, fixed-income desks deal with bonds, debentures, and government securities. They may also handle credit default swaps (CDS), a form of protection against bond defaults. These desks assess the risk and yield of different fixed-income products to trade effectively.

  • Forex trading desk

In order to profit from changes in exchange rates, forex desks handle the buying and selling of currencies. This trading can include spot market transactions as well as futures and options in the currency markets, where strategies are developed based on global economic indicators and geopolitical events.

  • Commodity trading desk

These desks deal in a wide variety of commodities, including metals, energy resources, and agricultural goods. Trading may involve futures and options, with desks often categorised by the type of commodity, such as hard (minerals, oil) or soft (agricultural products).


A well-organised trading desk setup is crucial in the financial market, ensuring efficient transactions across stocks, bonds, and commodities. Despite challenges like cost and transparency, its role in maintaining liquidity and facilitating smooth market operations highlights its undiminished importance in the evolving financial market.


What does a trading desk do?

A trading desk is where transactions for buying and selling securities occur, primarily within financial institutions. It employs traders and uses technology to trade stocks, bonds, commodities, currencies, and derivatives. The desk executes trades on behalf of clients or for the institution’s own account, aiming to profit from market activities. It also provides strategic advice, manages investment risks, and ensures liquidity in the markets. Essentially, a trading desk facilitates the smooth operation and efficiency of financial markets.

Which is the best trading setup?

The best trading setup depends on individual trading styles and market focus but generally includes a reliable computer with multiple monitors for chart analysis, a fast and stable internet connection for timely market access, and advanced trading software tailored to the trader’s specific needs. Key components also involve real-time data feeds, technical analysis tools, and efficient order execution systems. Personal preferences, such as ergonomic furniture and a distraction-free environment, also play a significant role in optimising trading performance.

Who uses a trade desk?

Trade desks are used by a variety of professionals in the financial industry, including traders, brokers, and financial analysts. They are also utilised by institutional investors such as mutual funds, pension funds, and hedge funds, as well as by large corporations involved in treasury operations. Additionally, trade desks serve individual investors and day traders who seek to execute transactions in securities, commodities, currencies, and other financial instruments. Essentially, anyone involved in buying and selling financial assets might use a trade desk.

How does a trade desk make money?

A trade desk makes money primarily through commissions and spreads. Commissions are fees charged for executing trades on behalf of clients. Spreads refer to the difference between the buying and selling price of securities. Trade desks involved in proprietary trading also earn profits by trading financial instruments using the firm’s own money, aiming to benefit from market movements. Additionally, some trade desks make money by providing financial services such as market analysis, investment advice, and managing assets for clients.

What types of trading desks are there?

There are four primary types of trading desks, categorised by the assets they handle:
Stock market trading desk: Focus on stocks and equity derivatives like options and futures.
Fixed income trading desk: Deal with bonds, debentures, and other debt instruments.
Forex trading desk: Specialises in currency trading, including spot and futures markets.
Commodity trading desk: Trade in physical or derivative forms of commodities, such as metals or agricultural products.

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