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As The Pound Crashes, Currency Exchange Shops Surrender

It has been the craziest 24 hours in the history of the British pound, and some foreign exchange businesses simply couldn't keep up.

Posted on June 24, 2016, at 4:21 p.m. ET

Igor Sasin / AFP / Getty Images

As global markets panicked and the value of the British pound plummeted, some currency exchange businesses did the only reasonable thing in such a situation: they gave up.

British travel company Thomas Cook said it had "temporarily suspended our travel money website following unprecedented customer demand for foreign currency." Natwest, a division of British banking giant RBS, said it was redirecting customers who wanted to buy foreign currency to Travelex, another foreign exchange company, "due to a fluctuation in currency markets."

@OxleyJoshuaa Hi Joshua, due to a fluctuation in currency markets, we are directing customers to https://t.co/8uqU7QyCeR. LP

The currency shops were reacting to a crazy 24 hours for the pound. Before the results of the referendum were known, it rose in value to just over $1.50 to the dollar. Once it became clear the vote was to leave, the pound crashed down to a 30-year low of $1.32, before settling around $1.37.

This was the largest single day swing in the history of the pound, which was once the reserve currency of the entire world and remains one of a handful of major global currencies used in international trade and finance. It's hardly surprising the foreign exchange shops couldn't keep up.

The bug spread to Australia and Canada. Down Under, Commonwealth Bank — Australia's largest — told customers they couldn't make transactions involving British pounds over the weekend. On social media, the bank cited the referendum.

@Mitchy_Minx Due to recent results from the British exit referendum we are temporarily suspending all retail customer foreign exchange (1/2)

The currency rates and exchange website XE.com's said it experienced "our single biggest day of traffic in the history of our company."

"In the hours after the polls closed, we've been 'Pounded' and have seen an increase of 1,000% over regular traffic levels," the company's president Beric Farmer said in a post. He said that the Brexit moves were "unprecedented" and that usage of XE "has significantly eclipsed the levels we saw during the market crash of 2008."

@xe ummm it seems everyone was more ready than you!?

@xe the markets are ready but your servers are not 😂

It wasn't just old-line financial services and travel companies that were affected by the unprecedented movement of the pound. London-based TransferWise, a money transfer startup, limited all transactions today, not just those involving pounds. "Because of what’s happening in the global markets," the company said, it was limiting transfers to 2,000 euros, pounds and dollars, with limits for other currencies on the platform.

@TransferWise it seems like the daily limit for ACH transactions just lowered to $2000? This makes the whole process impractical...

Before the vote Thursday, TransferWise said that it was suspending pound transfers starting at 7 a.m. TransferWise accounts for about 5% of international money transfers from the U.K., according to Bloomberg.

While changing a few hundred dollars into pounds for a weekend in London may be tricky, large financial institutions are still operating as usual in currency markets. Jamie Dimon, the chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase — the second largest bank for foreign exchange work — touted the company's prowess for clients in a note to employees sent out this Friday afternoon.

"Our systems and technology were resilient, pricing was consistent, and feedback from clients was very good," he wrote. "FX volumes were a record overnight, and we expect to do three times the normal daily volume today."

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