Trade Deficits & Exchange Rates
Since GDP is measured in a country’s currency, in order to compare different countries’ GDPs, we need to convert them to a common currency. One way to do that is with the exchange rate, which is the price of one country’s currency in terms of another. Once GDPs are expressed in a common currency, we can compare each country’s GDP per capita by dividing GDP by population. Countries with large populations often have large GDPs, but GDP alone can be a misleading indicator of the wealth of a nation. A better measure is GDP per capita.
The trade balance measures the gap between a country’s exports and its imports. In most high-income economies, goods make up less than half of a country’s total production, while services compose more than half. The last two decades have seen a surge in international trade in services; however, the most global trade still takes the form of goods rather than services. The current account balance includes the trade in goods, services, and money flowing into and out of a country from investments and unilateral transfers.
- A long lasting trade deficit affects the value of a nation's currency.
- All countries engage in some kind of trade with other nations.
- How is foreign exchange used in trade?
- How does a weak American dollar affect you the consumer? A strong dollar?
Comparing GDP among Countries
It is common to use GDP as a measure of economic welfare or standard of living in a nation. When comparing the GDP of different nations for this purpose, two issues immediately arise. First, the GDP of a country is measured in its own currency: the United States uses the U.S. dollar; Canada, the Canadian dollar; most countries of Western Europe, the euro; Japan, the yen; Mexico, the peso; and so on. Since countries use their own currencies, comparing GDP between two countries requires converting to a common currency. A second issue is that countries have very different numbers of people. For instance, the United States has a much larger economy than Mexico or Canada, but it also has roughly three times as many people as Mexico and nine times as many people as Canada. So, if we are trying to compare standards of living across countries, we need to divide GDP by population.
Converting Currencies with Exchange Rates
To compare the GDP of countries with different currencies, it is necessary to convert to a “common denominator” using an exchange rate, which is the value of one currency in terms of another currency. Exchange rates are expressed either as the units of country A’s currency that needs to be traded for a single unit of country B’s currency (for example, Japanese yen per British pound), or as the inverse (for example, British pounds per Japanese yen). Two types of exchange rates can be used for this purpose, market exchange rates and purchasing power parity (PPP) equivalent exchange rates. Market exchange rates vary on a day-to-day basis depending on supply and demand in foreign exchange markets. PPP-equivalent exchange rates provide a longer run measure of the exchange rate. For this reason, PPP-equivalent exchange rates are typically used for cross-country comparisons of GDP.
Converting GDP to a Common Currency
Using the exchange rate to convert GDP from one currency to another is straightforward. Say that the task is to compare Brazil’s GDP in 2012 of 4,403 billion reals with the U.S. GDP of $16,245 trillion for the same year.
Step 1. Determine the exchange rate for the specified year. In 2012, the exchange rate was 1.869 reals = $1. (These numbers are realistic, but rounded off to simplify the calculations.)
Step 2. Convert Brazil’s GDP into U.S. dollars:
Brazil's GDP in $ U.S. = Brazil's GDP in reals
Exchange rate (reals/$ U.S.) = 4,403 billion reals
1.869 reals per $ U.S. = $2,355.8 billion
Step 3. Compare this value to the GDP in the United States in the same year. The U.S. GDP was $16,245 in 2012 which is nearly seven times that of GDP in Brazil in 2012.
Step 4. View Table 1 which shows the size of and variety of GDPs of different countries in 2012, all expressed in U.S. dollars. Each is calculated using the process explained above.
|Country||GDP in Billions of Domestic Currency||Domestic Currency/U.S. Dollars (PPP Equivalent)||GDP (in billions of U.S. dollars)|
Comparing GDPs Across Countries, 2012(Source: http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/weo/2013/01/weodata/index.aspx)
GDP Per Capita
The U.S. economy has the largest GDP in the world, by a considerable amount. The United States is also a populous country; in fact, it is the third largest country by population in the world, although well behind China and India. So is the U.S. economy larger than other countries just because the United States has more people than most other countries, or because the U.S. economy is actually larger on a per-person basis? This question can be answered by calculating a country’s GDP per capita; that is, the GDP divided by the population.
GDP per capita = GDP/population
The second column of Table 2 lists the GDP of the same selection of countries that appeared in the previous Tracking Real GDP over Time and Table 1, showing their GDP as converted into U.S. dollars (which is the same as the last column of the previous table). The third column gives the population for each country. The fourth column lists the GDP per capita. GDP per capita is obtained in two steps: First, by dividing column two (GDP, in billions of dollars) by 1000 so it has the same units as column three (Population, in millions). Then dividing the result (GDP in millions of dollars) by column three (Population, in millions).
|Country||GDP (in billions of U.S. dollars)||Population (in millions)||Per Capita GDP (in U.S. dollars)|
GDP Per Capita, 2012 (Source: http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/weo/2013/01/weodata/index.aspx)
Notice that the ranking by GDP is different from the ranking by GDP per capita. India has a somewhat larger GDP than Germany, but on a per capita basis, Germany has more than 10 times India’s standard of living. Will China soon have a better standard of living than the U.S.? Read the following Clear It Up feature to find out.
Since GDP is measured in a country’s currency, in order to compare different countries’ GDPs, we need to convert them to a common currency. One way to do that is with the exchange rate, which is the price of one country’s currency in terms of another. Once GDPs are expressed in a common currency, we can compare each country’s GDP per capita by dividing GDP by population. Countries with large populations often have large GDPs, but GDP alone can be a misleading indicator of the wealth of a nation. A better measure is GDP per capita.
International Trade and Capital Flows
More than Meets the Eye in the Congo
How much do you interact with the global financial system? If you think that you personally don't interact much with the global financial system, think again. Suppose you take out a student loan, or you deposit money into your bank account. You just affected domestic savings and borrowing. Now say you are at the mall and buy two T-shirts “made in China,” and later contribute to a charity that helps refugees. What is the impact? You affected how much money flows into and out of the United States. If you open an IRA savings account and put money in an international mutual fund, you are involved in the flow of money overseas. While your involvement may not seem as influential as someone like the president, who can increase or decrease foreign aid and, thereby, have a huge impact on money flows in and out of the country, you do interact with the global financial system on a daily basis.
The balance of payments—a term you will meet soon—seems like a huge topic, but once you learn the specific components of trade and money, it all makes sense. Along the way, you may have to give up some common misunderstandings about trade and answer some questions: If a country is running a trade deficit, is that bad? Is a trade surplus good? For example, look at the Democratic Republic of Congo (often referred to as “Congo”), a large country in Central Africa. In 2012, it ran a trade surplus of $688 million, so it must be doing well, right? In contrast, the trade deficit in the United States was $540 billion in 2012. Do these figures suggest that the economy in the United States is doing worse than the Congolese economy? Not necessarily. The U.S. trade deficit tends to worsen as the economy strengthens. In contrast, high poverty rates in the Congo persist, and these rates are not going down even with the positive trade balance. Clearly, it is more complicated than simply asserting that running a trade deficit is bad for the economy.
In 2012, it ran a trade surplus of $688 million, so it must be doing well, right? In contrast, the trade deficit in the United States was $540 billion in 2012. Do these figures suggest that the economy in the United States is doing worse than the Congolese economy? Not necessarily. The U.S. trade deficit tends to worsen as the economy strengthens. In contrast, high poverty rates in the Congo persist, and these rates are not going down even with the positive trade balance. Clearly, it is more complicated than simply asserting that running a trade deficit is bad for the economy.
The balance of trade (or trade balance) is any gap between a nation’s dollar value of its exports, or what its producers sell abroad, and a nation’s dollar worth of imports, or the foreign-made products and services that households and businesses purchase. If exports exceed imports, the economy is said to have a trade surplus. If imports exceed exports, the economy is said to have a trade deficit. If exports and imports are equal, then trade is balanced. But what happens when trade is out of balance and large trade surpluses or deficits exist?
Germany, for example, has had substantial trade surpluses in recent decades, in which exports have greatly exceeded imports. According to the Central Intelligence Agency’s The World Factbook, in 2012, Germany ran a trade surplus of $240 billion. In contrast, the U.S. economy in recent decades has experienced large trade deficits, in which imports have considerably exceeded exports. In 2012, for example, U.S. imports exceeded exports by $540 billion.
A series of financial crises triggered by unbalanced trade can lead economies into deep recessions. These crises begin with large trade deficits. At some point, foreign investors become pessimistic about the economy and move their money to other countries. The economy then drops into deep recession, with real GDP often falling up to 10% or more in a single year. This happened to Mexico in 1995 when their GDP fell 8.1%. A number of countries in East Asia—Thailand, South Korea, Malaysia, and Indonesia—came down with the same economic illness in 1997–1998 (called the Asian Financial Crisis). In the late 1990s and into the early 2000s, Russia and Argentina had the identical experience. What are the connections between imbalances of trade in goods and services and the flows of international financial capital that set off these economic avalanches?
We will start by examining the balance of trade in more detail, by looking at some patterns of trade balances in the United States and around the world. Then we will examine the intimate connection between international flows of goods and services and international flows of financial capital, which to economists are really just two sides of the same coin. It is often assumed that trade surpluses like those in Germany must be a positive sign for an economy, while trade deficits like those in the United States must be harmful. As it turns out, both trade surpluses and deficits can be either good or bad.
Measuring Trade Balances
A few decades ago, it was common to track the solid or physical items that were transported by planes, trains, and trucks between countries as a way of measuring the balance of trade. This measurement is called the merchandise trade balance. In most high-income economies, including the United States, goods make up less than half of a country’s total production, while services compose more than half. The last two decades have seen a surge in international trade in services, powered by technological advances in telecommunications and computers that have made it possible to export or import customer services, finance, law, advertising, management consulting, software, construction engineering, and product design. Most global trade still takes the form of goods rather than services, and the merchandise trade balance is still announced by the government and reported prominently in the newspapers. Old habits are hard to break. Economists, however, typically rely on broader measures such as the balance of trade or the current account balance which includes other international flows of income and foreign aid.
Components of the U.S. Current Account Balance
Table 3 breaks down the four main components of the U.S. current account balance for 2013. The first line shows the merchandise trade balance; that is, exports and imports of goods. Because imports exceed exports, the trade balance in the final column is negative, showing a merchandise trade deficit.
|Value of Exports||Value of Imports||Balance|
|Current account balance||$750.3||$854.6||–$104.3|
How does the U.S. government collect trade statistics?
Do not confuse the balance of trade (which tracks imports and exports), with the current account balance, which includes not just exports and imports, but also income from investment and transfers.
Statistics on the balance of trade are compiled by the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) within the U.S. Department of Commerce, using a variety of different sources. Importers and exporters of merchandise must file monthly documents with the Census Bureau, which provides the basic data for tracking trade. To measure international trade in services—which can happen over a telephone line or computer network without any physical goods being shipped—the BEA carries out a set of surveys. Another set of BEA surveys track investment flows, and there are even specific surveys to collect travel information from U.S. residents visiting Canada and Mexico. For measuring unilateral transfers, the BEA has access to official U.S. government spending on aid, and then also carries out a survey of charitable organizations that make foreign donations.
This information on international flows of goods and capital is then cross-checked against other available data. For example, the Census Bureau also collects data from the shipping industry, which can be used to check the data on trade in goods. All companies involved in international flows of capital—including banks and companies making financial investments like stocks—must file reports, which are ultimately compiled by the U.S. Department of the Treasury. Information on foreign trade can also be cross-checked by looking at data collected by other countries on their foreign trade with the United States, and also at the data collected by various international organizations. Take these data sources, stir carefully, and you have the U.S. balance of trade statistics. Much of the statistics cited in this chapter come from these sources.
The second row of Table 3 provides data on trade in services. Here, the U.S. economy is running a surplus. Although the level of trade in services is still relatively small compared to trade in goods, the importance of services has expanded substantially over the last few decades. For example, U.S. exports of services were equal to about one-half of U.S. exports of goods in 2013, compared to one-fifth in 1980.
The third component of the current account balance, labeled “income payments,” refers to money received by U.S. financial investors on their foreign investments (money flowing into the United States) and payments to foreign investors who had invested their funds here (money flowing out of the United States). The reason for including this money on foreign investment in the overall measure of trade, along with goods and services, is that, from an economic perspective, income is just as much an economic transaction as shipments of cars or wheat or oil: it is just trade that is happening in the financial capital market.
The final category of the current account balance is unilateral transfers, which are payments made by government, private charities, or individuals in which money is sent abroad without any direct good or service being received. Economic or military assistance from the U.S. government to other countries fits into this category, as does spending abroad by charities to address poverty or social inequalities. When an individual in the United States sends money overseas, it is also counted in this category. The current account balance treats these unilateral payments like imports, because they also involve a stream of payments leaving the country. For the U.S. economy, unilateral transfers are almost always negative. This pattern, however, does not always hold. In 1991, for example, when the United States led an international coalition against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the Gulf War, many other nations agreed that they would make payments to the United States to offset the U.S. war expenses. These payments were large enough that, in 1991, the overall U.S. balance on unilateral transfers was a positive $10 billion.
The trade balance measures the gap between a country’s exports and its imports. In most high-income economies, goods make up less than half of a country’s total production, while services compose more than half. The last two decades have seen a surge in international trade in services; however, most global trade still takes the form of goods rather than services. The current account balance includes the trade in goods, services, and money flowing into and out of a country from investments and unilateral transfers.
Trade Balances in Historical and International Context
The history of the U.S. current account balance in recent decades is presented in several different ways. Figure 1 (a) shows the current account balance and the merchandise trade balance in dollar terms. Figure 1 (b) shows the current account balance and merchandise account balance yet again, this time presented as a share of the GDP for that year. By dividing the trade deficit in each year by GDP in that year, Figure 1 (b) factors out both inflation and growth in the real economy.
(a) The current account balance and the merchandise trade balance in billions of dollars from 1960 to 2012. If the lines are above zero dollars, the United States was running a positive trade balance and current account balance. If the lines fall below zero dollars, the United States is running a trade deficit and a deficit in its current account balance. (b) These same items—trade balance and current account balance—are shown in relationship to the size of the U.S. economy, or GDP, from 1960 to 2012.
By either measure, the general pattern of the U.S. balance of trade is clear. From the 1960s into the 1970s, the U.S. economy had mostly small trade surpluses—that is, the graphs of Figure 2 show positive numbers. However, starting in the 1980s, the trade deficit increased rapidly, and after a tiny surplus in 1991, the current account trade deficit got even larger in the late 1990s and into the mid-2000s. However, the trade deficit declined in 2009 after the recession had taken hold.
Table 4 shows the U.S. trade picture in 2013 compared with some other economies from around the world. While the U.S. economy has consistently run trade deficits in recent years, Japan and many European nations, among them France and Germany, have consistently run trade surpluses. Some of the other countries listed include Brazil, the largest economy in Latin America; Nigeria, the largest economy in Africa; and China, India, and Korea. The first column offers one measure of the globalization of an economy: exports of goods and services as a percentage of GDP. The second column shows the trade balance. Most of the time, most countries have trade surpluses or deficits that are less than 5% of GDP. As you can see, the U.S. current account is negative 3.1%, while Germany’s is positive 6.2%.
|Exports of Goods and Services||Current Account Balance|
The United States developed large trade surpluses in the early 1980s, swung back to a tiny trade surplus in 1991, and then had even larger trade deficits in the late 1990s and early 2000s. As we will see below, a trade deficit necessarily means a net inflow of financial capital from abroad, while a trade surplus necessarily means a net outflow of financial capital from an economy to other countries.
Trade Balances and Flows of Financial Capital
As economists see it, trade surpluses can be either good or bad, depending on circumstances, and trade deficits can be good or bad, too. The challenge is to understand how the international flows of goods and services are connected with international flows of financial capital. In this module we will illustrate the intimate connection between trade balances and flows of financial capital in two ways: a parable of trade between Robinson Crusoe and Friday, and a circular flow diagram representing flows of trade and payments.
A Two-Person Economy: Robinson Crusoe and Friday
To understand how economists view trade deficits and surpluses, consider a parable based on the story of Robinson Crusoe. Crusoe, as you may remember from the classic novel by Daniel Defoe first published in 1719, was shipwrecked on a desert island. After living alone for some time, he is joined by a second person, whom he names Friday. Think about the balance of trade in a two-person economy like that of Robinson and Friday.
Robinson and Friday trade goods and services. Perhaps Robinson catches fish and trades them to Friday for coconuts, or Friday weaves a hat out of tree fronds and trades it to Robinson for help in carrying water. For a period of time, each individual trade is self-contained and complete. Because each trade is voluntary, both Robinson and Friday must feel that they are receiving fair value for what they are giving. As a result, each person’s exports are always equal to his imports, and trade is always in balance between the two. Neither person experiences either a trade deficit or a trade surplus.
However, one day Robinson approaches Friday with a proposition. Robinson wants to dig ditches for an irrigation system for his garden, but he knows that if he starts this project, he will not have much time left to fish and gather coconuts to feed himself each day. He proposes that Friday supply him with a certain number of fish and coconuts for several months, and then after that time, he promises to repay Friday out of the extra produce that he will be able to grow in his irrigated garden. If Friday accepts this offer, then a trade imbalance comes into being. For several months, Friday will have a trade surplus: that is, he is exporting to Robinson more than he is importing. More precisely, he is giving Robinson fish and coconuts, and at least for the moment, he is receiving nothing in return. Conversely, Robinson will have a trade deficit, because he is importing more from Friday than he is exporting.
This parable raises several useful issues in thinking about what a trade deficit and a trade surplus really mean in economic terms. The first issue raised by this story of Robinson and Friday is this: Is it better to have a trade surplus or a trade deficit? The answer, as in any voluntary market interaction, is that if both parties agree to the transaction, then they may both be better off. Over time, if Robinson’s irrigated garden is a success, it is certainly possible that both Robinson and Friday can benefit from this agreement.
A second issue raised by the parable: What can go wrong? Robinson’s proposal to Friday introduces an element of uncertainty. Friday is, in effect, making a loan of fish and coconuts to Robinson, and Friday’s happiness with this arrangement will depend on whether that loan is repaid as planned, in full and on time. Perhaps Robinson spends several months loafing and never builds the irrigation system, or perhaps Robinson has been too optimistic about how much he will be able to grow with the new irrigation system, which turns out not to be very productive. Perhaps, after building the irrigation system, Robinson decides that he does not want to repay Friday as much as previously agreed. Any of these developments will prompt a new round of negotiations between Friday and Robinson. Friday’s attitude toward these renegotiations is likely to be shaped by why the repayment failed. If Robinson worked very hard and the irrigation system just did not increase production as intended, Friday may have some sympathy. If Robinson loafed or if he just refuses to pay, Friday may become irritated.
A third issue raised by the parable of Robinson and Friday is that an intimate relationship exists between a trade deficit and international borrowing, and between a trade surplus and international lending. The size of Friday’s trade surplus is exactly how much he is lending to Robinson. The size of Robinson’s trade deficit is exactly how much he is borrowing from Friday. Indeed, to economists, a trade surplus literally means the same thing as an outflow of financial capital, and a trade deficit literally means the same thing as an inflow of financial capital.
The story of Robinson and Friday also provides a good opportunity to consider the law of comparative advantage.
The Balance of Trade as the Balance of Payments
The connection between trade balances and international flows of financial capital is so close that the balance of trade is sometimes described as the balance of payments. Each category of the current account balance involves a corresponding flow of payments between a given country and the rest of the world economy.
Figure 3 shows the flow of goods and services and payments between one country—the United States in this example—and the rest of the world. The top line shows U.S. exports of goods and services, while the second line shows financial payments from purchasers in other countries back to the U.S. economy. The third line then shows U.S. imports of goods, services, and investment, and the fourth line shows payments from the home economy to the rest of the world. Flow of goods and services (lines one and three) show up in the current account, while flow of funds (lines two and four) are found in the financial account.
The bottom four lines of the Figure 3 show the flow of investment income. In the first of the bottom lines, we see investments made abroad with funds flowing from the home country to rest of the world. Investment income stemming from an investment abroad then runs in the other direction from the rest of the world to the home country. Similarly, we see on the bottom third line, an investment from rest of the world into the home country and investment income (bottom fourth line) flowing from the home country to the rest of the world. The investment income (bottom lines two and four) are found in the current account, while investment to the rest of the world or into the home country (lines one and three) are found in the financial account. Unilateral transfers, the fourth item in the current account, are not shown in this figure.
Flow of Investment Goods and Capital
Each element of the current account balance involves a flow of financial payments between countries. The top line shows exports of goods and services leaving the home country; the second line shows the money received by the home country for those exports. The third line shows imports received by the home country; the fourth line shows the payments sent abroad by the home country in exchange for these imports.
A current account deficit means that the country is a net borrower from abroad. Conversely, a positive current account balance means a country is a net lender to the rest of the world. Just like the parable of Robinson and Friday, the lesson is that a trade surplus means an overall outflow of financial investment capital, as domestic investors put their funds abroad, while the deficit in the current account balance is exactly equal to the overall or net inflow of foreign investment capital from abroad.
It is important to recognize that an inflow and outflow of foreign capital does not necessarily refer to a debt that governments owe to other governments, although government debt may be part of the picture. Instead, these international flows of financial capital refer to all of the ways in which private investors in one country may invest in another country—by buying real estate, companies, and financial investments like stocks and bonds.
International flows of goods and services are closely connected to the international flows of financial capital. A current account deficit means that, after taking all the flows of payments from goods, services, and income together, the country is a net borrower from the rest of the world. A current account surplus is the opposite and means the country is a net lender to the rest of the world.
The National Saving and Investment Identity
The close connection between trade balances and international flows of savings and investments leads to a macroeconomic analysis. This approach views trade balances—and their associated flows of financial capital—in the context of the overall levels of savings and financial investment in the economy.
Understanding the Determinants of the Trade and Current Account Balance
The national saving and investment identity provides a useful way to understand the determinants of the trade and current account balance. In a nation’s financial capital market, the quantity of financial capital supplied at any given time must equal the quantity of financial capital demanded for purposes of making investments. What is on the supply and demand sides of financial capital? See the following Clear It Up feature for the answer to this question.
What comprises the supply and demand of financial capital?
A country’s national savings is the total of its domestic savings by household and companies (private savings) as well as the government (public savings). If a country is running a trade deficit, it means money from abroad is entering the country and is considered part of the supply of financial capital.
The demand for financial capital (money) represents groups that are borrowing the money. Businesses need to borrow to finance their investments in factories, materials, and personnel. When the federal government runs a budget deficit, it is also borrowing money from investors by selling Treasury bonds. So both business investment and the federal government can demand (or borrow) the supply of savings.
There are two main sources for the supply of financial capital in the U.S. economy: saving by individuals and firms, called S, and the inflow of financial capital from foreign investors, which is equal to the trade deficit (M – X), or imports minus exports. There are also two main sources of demand for financial capital in the U.S. economy: private sector investment, I, and government borrowing, where the government needs to borrow when government spending, G, is higher than the taxes collected, T. This national savings and investment identity can be expressed in algebraic terms:
Supply of financial capital = Demand for financial capital
S + (M – X) = I + (G – T)
Again, in this equation, S is private savings, T is taxes, G is government spending, M is imports, X is exports, and I is investment. This relationship is true as a matter of definition because, for the macro economy, the quantity supplied of financial capital must be equal to the quantity demanded.
However, certain components of the national savings and investment identity can switch between the supply side and the demand side. Some countries, like the United States in most years since the 1970s, have budget deficits, which mean the government is spending more than it collects in taxes, and so the government needs to borrow funds. In this case, the government term would be G – T > 0, showing that spending is larger than taxes, and the government would be a demander of financial capital on the right-hand side of the equation (that is, a borrower), not a supplier of financial capital on the right-hand side. However, if the government runs a budget surplus so that the taxes exceed spending, as the U.S. government did from 1998 to 2001, then the government in that year was contributing to the supply of financial capital (T – G > 0), and would appear on the left (saving) side of the national savings and investment identity.
Similarly, if a national economy runs a trade surplus, the trade sector will involve an outflow of financial capital to other countries. A trade surplus means that the domestic financial capital is in surplus within a country and can be invested in other countries.
The fundamental notion that total quantity of financial capital demanded equals total quantity of financial capital supplied must always remain true. Domestic savings will always appear as part of the supply of financial capital and domestic investment will always appear as part of the demand for financial capital. However, the government and trade balance elements of the equation can move back and forth as either suppliers or demanders of financial capital, depending on whether government budgets and the trade balance are in surplus or deficit.
Domestic Saving and Investment Determine the Trade Balance
One insight from the national saving and investment identity is that a nation’s balance of trade is determined by that nation’s own levels of domestic saving and domestic investment. To understand this point, rearrange the identity to put the balance of trade all by itself on one side of the equation. Consider first the situation with a trade deficit, and then the situation with a trade surplus.
In the case of a trade deficit, the national saving and investment identity can be rewritten as:
Trade deficit= Domestic investment – Private domestic saving – Government (or public) savings
(M – X) = I – S – (T – G)
In this case, domestic investment is higher than domestic saving, including both private and government saving. The only way that domestic investment can exceed domestic saving is if capital is flowing into a country from abroad. After all, that extra financial capital for investment has to come from someplace.
Now consider a trade surplus from the standpoint of the national saving and investment identity:
Trade surplus= Private domestic saving + Public saving – Domestic investment
(X – M) = S + (T – G) – I
In this case, domestic savings (both private and public) is higher than domestic investment. That extra financial capital will be invested abroad.
This connection of domestic saving and investment to the trade balance explains why economists view the balance of trade as a fundamentally macroeconomic phenomenon. As the national saving and investment identity shows, the trade balance is not determined by the performance of certain sectors of an economy, like cars or steel. Nor is the trade balance determined by whether the nation’s trade laws and regulations encourage free trade or protectionism.
Exploring Trade Balances One Factor at a Time
The national saving and investment identity also provides a framework for thinking about what will cause trade deficits to rise or fall. Begin with the version of the identity that has domestic savings and investment on the left and the trade deficit on the right:
Domestic investment – Private domestic savings – Public domestic savings= Trade deficit
I – S – (T – G) = (M – X)
Now, consider the factors on the left-hand side of the equation one at a time, while holding the other factors constant.
As a first example, assume that the level of domestic investment in a country rises, while the level of private and public saving remains unchanged. The result is shown in the first row of Table 5 under the equation. Since the equality of the national savings and investment identity must continue to hold—it is, after all, an identity that must be true by definition—the rise in domestic investment will mean a higher trade deficit. This situation occurred in the U.S. economy in the late 1990s. Because of the surge of new information and communications technologies that became available, business investment increased substantially. A fall in private saving during this time and a rise in government saving more or less offset each other. As a result, the financial capital to fund that business investment came from abroad, which is one reason for the very high U.S. trade deficits of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
|Domestic Investment||–||Private Domestic Savings||–||Public Domestic Savings||=||Trade Deficit|
|I||–||S||–||(T – G)||=||(M – X)|
|Up||No change||No change||Then M – X must rise|
|No change||Up||No change||Then M – X must fall|
|No change||No change||Down||Then M – X must rise|
As a second scenario, assume that the level of domestic savings rises, while the level of domestic investment and public savings remain unchanged. In this case, the trade deficit would decline. As domestic savings rises, there would be less need for foreign financial capital to meet investment needs. For this reason, a policy proposal often made for reducing the U.S. trade deficit is to increase private saving—although exactly how to increase the overall rate of saving has proven controversial.
As a third scenario, imagine that the government budget deficit increased dramatically, while domestic investment and private savings remained unchanged. This scenario occurred in the U.S. economy in the mid-1980s. The federal budget deficit increased from $79 billion in 1981 to $221 billion in 1986—an increase in the demand for financial capital of $142 billion. The current account balance collapsed from a surplus of $5 billion in 1981 to a deficit of $147 million in 1986—an increase in the supply of financial capital from abroad of $152 billion. The two numbers do not match exactly, since in the real world, private savings and investment did not remain fixed. The connection at that time is clear: a sharp increase in government borrowing increased the U.S. economy’s demand for financial capital, and that increase was primarily supplied by foreign investors through the trade deficit. The following Work It Out feature walks you through a scenario in which domestic savings has to rise by a certain amount to reduce a trade deficit.
Short-Term Movements in the Business Cycle and the Trade Balance
In the short run, trade imbalances can be affected by whether an economy is in a recession or on the upswing. A recession tends to make a trade deficit smaller, or a trade surplus larger, while a period of strong economic growth tends to make a trade deficit larger, or a trade surplus smaller.
As an example, note that the U.S. trade deficit declined by almost half from 2006 to 2009. One primary reason for this change is that during the recession, as the U.S. economy slowed down, it purchased fewer of all goods, including fewer imports from abroad. However, buying power abroad fell less, and so U.S. exports did not fall by as much.
Conversely, in the mid-2000s, when the U.S. trade deficit became very large, a contributing short-term reason is that the U.S. economy was growing. As a result, there was lots of aggressive buying in the U.S. economy, including the buying of imports. Thus, a rapidly growing domestic economy is often accompanied by a trade deficit (or a much lower trade surplus), while a slowing or recessionary domestic economy is accompanied by a trade surplus (or a much lower trade deficit).
When the trade deficit rises, it necessarily means a greater net inflow of foreign financial capital. The national saving and investment identity teaches that the rest of the economy can absorb this inflow of foreign financial capital in several different ways. For example, the additional inflow of financial capital from abroad could be offset by reduced private savings, leaving domestic investment and public saving unchanged. Alternatively, the inflow of foreign financial capital could result in higher domestic investment, leaving private and public saving unchanged. Yet another possibility is that the inflow of foreign financial capital could be absorbed by greater government borrowing, leaving domestic saving and investment unchanged. The national saving and investment identity does not specify which of these scenarios, alone or in combination, will occur—only that one of them must occur.
The national saving and investment identity is based on the relationship that the total quantity of financial capital supplied from all sources must equal the total quantity of financial capital demanded from all sources. If S is private saving, T is taxes, G is government spending, M is imports, X is exports, and I is investment, then for an economy with a current account deficit and a budget deficit:
Supply of financial capital = Demand for financial capital
S + (M – X) = I + (G – T)
A recession tends to increase the trade balance (meaning a higher trade surplus or lower trade deficit), while economic boom will tend to decrease the trade balance (meaning a lower trade surplus or a larger trade deficit).
The Pros and Cons of Trade Deficits and Surpluses
Because flows of trade always involve flows of financial payments, flows of international trade are actually the same as flows of international financial capital. The question of whether trade deficits or surpluses are good or bad for an economy is, in economic terms, exactly the same question as whether it is a good idea for an economy to rely on net inflows of financial capital from abroad or to make net investments of financial capital abroad. Conventional wisdom often holds that borrowing money is foolhardy, and that a prudent country, like a prudent person, should always rely on its own resources. While it is certainly possible to borrow too much—as anyone with an overloaded credit card can testify—borrowing at certain times can also make sound economic sense. For both individuals and countries, there is no economic merit in a policy of abstaining from participation in financial capital markets.
It makes economic sense to borrow when you are buying something with a long-run payoff; that is, when you are making an investment. For this reason, it can make economic sense to borrow for a college education, because the education will typically allow you to earn higher wages, and so to repay the loan and still come out ahead. It can also make sense for a business to borrow in order to purchase a machine that will last 10 years, as long as the machine will increase output and profits by more than enough to repay the loan. Similarly, it can make economic sense for a national economy to borrow from abroad, as long as the money is wisely invested in ways that will tend to raise the nation’s economic growth over time. Then, it will be possible for the national economy to repay the borrowed money over time and still end up better off than before.
One vivid example of a country that borrowed heavily from abroad, invested wisely, and did perfectly well is the United States during the nineteenth century. The United States ran a trade deficit in 40 of the 45 years from 1831 to 1875, which meant that it was importing capital from abroad over that time. However, that financial capital was, by and large, invested in projects like railroads that brought a substantial economic payoff.
A more recent example along these lines is the experience of South Korea, which had trade deficits during much of the 1970s—and so was an importer of capital over that time. However, South Korea also had high rates of investment in physical plant and equipment, and its economy grew rapidly. From the mid-1980s into the mid-1990s, South Korea often had trade surpluses—that is, it was repaying its past borrowing by sending capital abroad.
In contrast, some countries have run large trade deficits, borrowed heavily in global capital markets, and ended up in all kinds of trouble. Two specific sorts of trouble are worth examining. First, a borrower nation can find itself in a bind if the incoming funds from abroad are not invested in a way that leads to increased productivity. Several of the large economies of Latin America, including Mexico and Brazil, ran large trade deficits and borrowed heavily from abroad in the 1970s, but the inflow of financial capital did not boost productivity sufficiently, which meant that these countries faced enormous troubles repaying the money borrowed when economic conditions shifted during the 1980s. Similarly, it appears that a number of African nations that borrowed foreign funds in the 1970s and 1980s did not invest in productive economic assets. As a result, several of those countries later faced large interest payments, with no economic growth to show for the borrowed funds.
Are trade deficits always harmful?
For most years of the nineteenth century, U.S. imports exceeded exports and the U.S. economy had a trade deficit. Yet the string of trade deficits did not hold back the economy at all; instead, the trade deficits contributed to the strong economic growth that gave the U.S. economy the highest per capita GDP in the world by around 1900.
The U.S. trade deficits meant that the U.S. economy was receiving a net inflow of foreign capital from abroad. Much of that foreign capital flowed into two areas of investment—railroads and public infrastructure like roads, water systems, and schools—which were important to helping the growth of the U.S. economy.
The effect of foreign investment capital on U.S. economic growth should not be overstated. In most years the foreign financial capital represented no more than 6–10% of the funds used for overall physical investment in the economy. Nonetheless, the trade deficit and the accompanying investment funds from abroad were clearly a help, not a hindrance, to the U.S. economy in the nineteenth century.
A second “trouble” is: What happens if the foreign money flows in, and then suddenly flows out again? This scenario was raised at the start of the chapter. In the mid-1990s, a number of countries in East Asia—Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and South Korea—ran large trade deficits and imported capital from abroad. However, in 1997 and 1998 many foreign investors became concerned about the health of these economies and quickly pulled their money out of stock and bond markets, real estate, and banks. The extremely rapid departure of that foreign capital staggered the banking systems and economies of these countries, plunging them into a deep recession.
While a trade deficit is not always harmful, there is no guarantee that running a trade surplus will bring robust economic health. For example, Germany and Japan ran substantial trade surpluses for most of the last three decades. Regardless of their persistent trade surpluses, both countries have experienced occasional recessions and neither country has had especially robust annual growth in recent years
The sheer size and persistence of the U.S. trade deficits and inflows of foreign capital since the 1980s are a legitimate cause for concern. The huge U.S. economy will not be destabilized by an outflow of international capital as easily as, say, the comparatively tiny economies of Thailand and Indonesia were in 1997–1998. Even an economy that is not knocked down, however, can still be shaken. American policymakers should certainly be paying attention to those cases where a pattern of extensive and sustained current account deficits and foreign borrowing has gone badly—if only as a cautionary tale.
Are trade surpluses always beneficial? Considering Japan since the 1990s.
Perhaps no economy around the world is better known for its trade surpluses than Japan. Since 1990, the size of these surpluses has often been near $100 billion per year. When Japan’s economy was growing vigorously in the 1960s and 1970s, its large trade surpluses were often described, especially by non-economists, as either a cause or a result of its robust economic health. But from a standpoint of economic growth, Japan’s economy has been teetering in and out of recession since 1990, with real GDP growth averaging only about 1% per year, and an unemployment rate that has been creeping higher. Clearly, a whopping trade surplus is no guarantee of economic good health.
Instead, Japan’s trade surplus reflects that Japan has a very high rate of domestic savings, more than the Japanese economy can invest domestically, and so the extra funds are invested abroad. In Japan’s slow economy, the growth of consumption is relatively low, which also means that consumption of imports is relatively low. Thus, Japan’s exports continually exceed its imports, leaving the trade surplus continually high. Recently, Japan’s trade surpluses began to deteriorate. In 2013, Japan ran a trade deficit due to the high cost of imported oil.
Trade surpluses are no guarantee of economic health, and trade deficits are no guarantee of economic weakness. Either trade deficits or trade surpluses can work out well or poorly, depending on whether the corresponding flows of financial capital are wisely invested.
The Difference between Level of Trade and the Trade Balance
A nation’s level of trade may at first sound like much the same issue as the balance of trade, but these two are actually quite separate. It is perfectly possible for a country to have a very high level of trade—measured by its exports of goods and services as a share of its GDP—while it also has a near-balance between exports and imports. A high level of trade indicates that a good portion of the nation’s production is exported. It is also possible for a country’s trade to be a relatively low share of GDP, relative to global averages, but for the imbalance between its exports and its imports to be quite large.
A country’s level of trade tells how much of its production it exports. This is measured by the percent of exports out of GDP. It indicates how globalized an economy is. Some countries, such as Germany, have a high level of trade—they export 50% of their total production. The balance of trade tells us if the country is running a trade surplus or trade deficit. A country can have a low level of trade but a high trade deficit. (For example, the United States only exports 14% of GDP, but it has a trade deficit of $560 billion.)
Three factors strongly influence a nation’s level of trade: the size of its economy, its geographic location, and its history of trade. Large economies like the United States can do much of their trading internally, while small economies like Sweden have less ability to provide what they want internally and tend to have higher ratios of exports and imports to GDP. Nations that are neighbors tend to trade more, since costs of transportation and communication are lower. Moreover, some nations have long and established patterns of international trade, while others do not.
Consequently, a relatively small economy like Sweden, with many nearby trading partners across Europe and a long history of foreign trade, has a high level of trade. Brazil and India, which are fairly large economies that have often sought to inhibit trade in recent decades, have lower levels of trade. Whereas, the United States and Japan are extremely large economies that have comparatively few nearby trading partners. Both countries actually have quite low levels of trade by world standards. The ratio of exports to GDP in either the United States or in Japan is about half of the world average.
The balance of trade is a separate issue from the level of trade. The United States has a low level of trade but had enormous trade deficits for most years from the mid-1980s into the 2000s. Japan has a low level of trade by world standards but has typically shown large trade surpluses in recent decades. Nations like Germany and the United Kingdom have medium to high levels of trade by world standards, but Germany had a moderate trade surplus in 2008, while the United Kingdom had a moderate trade deficit. Their trade picture was roughly in balance in the late 1990s. Sweden had a high level of trade and a large trade surplus in 2007, while Mexico had a high level of trade and a moderate trade deficit that same year.
In short, it is quite possible for nations with a relatively low level of trade, expressed as a percentage of GDP, to have relatively large trade deficits. It is also quite possible for nations with a near balance between exports and imports to worry about the consequences of high levels of trade for the economy. It is not inconsistent to believe that a high level of trade is potentially beneficial to an economy, because of the way it allows nations to play to their comparative advantages, and to also be concerned about any macroeconomic instability caused by a long-term pattern of large trade deficits. The following Clear It Up feature discusses how this sort of dynamic played out in Colonial India.
Are trade surpluses always beneficial? Considering Colonial India
India was formally under British rule from 1858 to 1947. During that time, India consistently had trade surpluses with Great Britain. Anyone who believes that trade surpluses are a sign of economic strength and dominance while trade deficits are a sign of economic weakness must find this pattern odd, since it would mean that colonial India was successfully dominating and exploiting Great Britain for almost a century—which was not true.
Instead, India’s trade surpluses with Great Britain meant that each year there was an overall flow of financial capital from India to Great Britain. In India, this flow of financial capital was heavily criticized as the “drain,” and eliminating the drain of financial capital was viewed as one of the many reasons why India would benefit from achieving independence.
Trade deficits can be a good or a bad sign for an economy, and trade surpluses can be a good or a bad sign. Even a trade balance of zero—which just means that a nation is neither a net borrower nor lender in the international economy—can be either a good or bad sign. The fundamental economic question is not whether a nation’s economy is borrowing or lending at all, but whether the particular borrowing or lending in the particular economic conditions of that country makes sense.
It is interesting to reflect on how public attitudes toward trade deficits and surpluses might change if we could somehow change the labels that people and the news media affix to them. If a trade deficit was called “attracting foreign financial capital”—which accurately describes what a trade deficit means—then trade deficits might look more attractive. Conversely, if a trade surplus were called “shipping financial capital abroad”—which accurately captures what a trade surplus does—then trade surpluses might look less attractive. Either way, the key to understanding trade balances is to understand the relationships between flows of trade and flows of international payments, and what these relationships imply about the causes, benefits, and risks of different kinds of trade balances. The first step along this journey of understanding is to move beyond knee-jerk reactions to terms like “trade surplus,” “trade balance,” and “trade deficit.”
More than Meets the Eye in the Congo
Now that you see the big picture, you undoubtedly realize that all of the economic choices you make, such as depositing savings or investing in an international mutual fund, do influence the flow of goods and services as well as the flows of money around the world.
You now know that a trade surplus does not necessarily tell us whether an economy is doing well or not. The Democratic Republic of Congo ran a trade surplus in 2012, as we learned in the beginning of the chapter. Yet its current account balance was –$2.2 billion. However, the return of political stability and the rebuilding in the aftermath of the civil war there has meant a flow of investment and financial capital into the country. In this case, a negative current account balance means the country is being rebuilt—and that is a good thing.
There is a difference between the level of a country’s trade and the balance of trade. The level of trade is measured by the percentage of exports out of GDP, or the size of the economy. Small economies that have nearby trading partners and a history of international trade will tend to have higher levels of trade. Larger economies with few nearby trading partners and a limited history of international trade will tend to have lower levels of trade. The level of trade is different from the trade balance. The level of trade depends on a country’s history of trade, its geography, and the size of its economy. A country’s balance of trade is the dollar difference between its exports and imports.
Trade deficits and trade surpluses are not necessarily good or bad—it depends on the circumstances. Even if a country is borrowing, if that money is invested in productivity-boosting investments it can lead to an improvement in long-term economic growth.
Introduction to Exchange Rates and International Capital Flows
Is a Stronger Dollar Good for the U.S. Economy?
From 2002 to 2008, the U.S. dollar lost more than a quarter of its value in foreign currency markets. On January 1, 2002, one dollar was worth 1.11 euros. On April 24, 2008 it hit its lowest point with a dollar being worth 0.64 euros. During this period, the trade deficit between the United States and the European Union grew from a yearly total of approximately –85.7 billion dollars in 2002 to 95.8 billion dollars in 2008. Was this a good thing or a bad thing for the U.S. economy?
We live in a global world. U.S. consumers buy trillions of dollars worth of imported goods and services each year, not just from the European Union, but from all over the world. U.S. businesses sell trillions of dollars’ worth of exports. U.S. citizens, businesses, and governments invest trillions of dollars abroad every year. Foreign investors, businesses, and governments invest trillions of dollars in the United States each year. Indeed, foreigners are a major buyer of U.S. federal debt. Many people feel that a weaker dollar is bad for America, that it’s an indication of a weak economy. But is it?
The world has over 150 different currencies, from the Afghanistan afghani and the Albanian lek all the way through the alphabet to the Zambian kwacha and the Zimbabwean dollar. For international economic transactions, households or firms will wish to exchange one currency for another. Perhaps the need for exchanging currencies will come from a German firm that exports products to Russia, but then wishes to exchange the Russian rubles it has earned for euros, so that the firm can pay its workers and suppliers in Germany. Perhaps it will be a South African firm that wishes to purchase a mining operation in Angola, but to make the purchase it must convert South African rand to Angolan kwanza. Perhaps it will be an American tourist visiting China, who wishes to convert U.S. dollars to Chinese yuan to pay the hotel bill.
Exchange rates can sometimes change very swiftly. For example, in the United Kingdom the pound was worth $2 in U.S. currency in spring 2008, but was worth only $1.40 in U.S. currency six months later. For firms engaged in international buying, selling, lending, and borrowing, these swings in exchange rates can have an enormous effect on profits.
This chapter discusses the international dimension of money, which involves conversions from one currency to another at an exchange rate. An exchange rate is nothing more than a price—that is, the price of one currency in terms of another currency—and so they can be analyzed with the tools of supply and demand. The first module of this chapter begins with an overview of foreign exchange markets: their size, their main participants, and the vocabulary for discussing movements of exchange rates. The following module uses demand and supply graphs to analyze some of the main factors that cause shifts in exchange rates. A final module then brings the central bank and monetary policy back into the picture. Each country must decide whether to allow its exchange rate to be determined in the market, or have the central bank intervene in the exchange rate market. All the choices for exchange rate policy involve distinctive tradeoffs and risks.
How the Foreign Exchange Market Works
Most countries have different currencies, but not all. Sometimes small economies use the currency of an economically larger neighbor. For example, Ecuador, El Salvador, and Panama have decided to dollarize—that is, to use the U.S. dollar as their currency. Sometimes nations share a common currency. A large-scale example of a common currency is the decision by 17 European nations—including some very large economies such as France, Germany, and Italy—to replace their former currencies with the euro. With these exceptions duly noted, most of the international economy takes place in a situation of multiple national currencies in which both people and firms need to convert from one currency to another when selling, buying, hiring, borrowing, traveling, or investing across national borders. The market in which people or firms use one currency to purchase another currency is called the foreign exchange market.
You have encountered the basic concept of exchange rates in earlier chapters when we previously discussed how exchange rates are used to compare GDP statistics from countries where GDP is measured in different currencies. These earlier examples, however, took the actual exchange rate as given, as if it were a fact of nature. In reality, the exchange rate is a price—the price of one currency expressed in terms of units of another currency. The key framework for analyzing prices, whether in this course, any other economics course, in public policy, or business examples, is the operation of supply and demand in markets.
The Extraordinary Size of the Foreign Exchange Markets
The quantities traded in foreign exchange markets are breathtaking. A survey was done in April 2013 by the Bank of International Settlements, an international organization for banks and the financial industry, found that $5.3 trillion per day was traded on foreign exchange markets, which makes the foreign exchange market the largest market in the world economy. In contrast, 2013 U.S. real GDP was $15.8 trillion per year.
Table 6 shows the currencies most commonly traded on foreign exchange markets. The foreign exchange market is dominated by the U.S. dollar, the currencies used by nations in Western Europe (the euro, the British pound, and the Australian dollar), and the Japanese yen.
|Currency||% Daily Share|
Demanders and Suppliers of Currency in Foreign Exchange Markets
In foreign exchange markets, demand and supply become closely interrelated, because a person or firm who demands one currency must at the same time supply another currency—and vice versa. To get a sense of this, it is useful to consider four groups of people or firms who participate in the market: (1) firms that are involved in international trade of goods and services; (2) tourists visiting other countries; (3) international investors buying ownership (or part-ownership) of a foreign firm; (4) international investors making financial investments that do not involve ownership. Let’s consider these categories in turn.
Firms that buy and sell on international markets find that their costs for workers, suppliers, and investors are measured in the currency of the nation where their production occurs, but their revenues from sales are measured in the currency of the different nation where their sales happened. So, a Chinese firm exporting abroad will earn some other currency—say, U.S. dollars—but will need Chinese yuan to pay the workers, suppliers, and investors who are based in China. In the foreign exchange markets, this firm will be a supplier of U.S. dollars and a demander of Chinese yuan.
International tourists will supply their home currency to receive the currency of the country they are visiting. For example, an American tourist who is visiting China will supply U.S. dollars into the foreign exchange market and demand Chinese yuan.
Financial investments that cross international boundaries, and require exchanging currency, are often divided into two categories. Foreign direct investment (FDI) refers to purchasing a firm (at least ten percent) in another country or starting up a new enterprise in a foreign country For example, in 2008 the Belgian beer-brewing company InBev bought the U.S. beer-maker Anheuser-Busch for $52 billion. To make this purchase of a U.S. firm, InBev would have to supply euros (the currency of Belgium) to the foreign exchange market and demand U.S. dollars.
The other kind of international financial investment, portfolio investment, involves a purely financial investment that does not entail any management responsibility. An example would be a U.S. financial investor who purchased bonds issued by the government of the United Kingdom, or deposited money in a British bank. To make such investments, the American investor would supply U.S. dollars in the foreign exchange market and demand British pounds.
Portfolio investment is often linked to expectations about how exchange rates will shift. Look at a U.S. financial investor who is considering purchasing bonds issued in the United Kingdom. For simplicity, ignore any interest paid by the bond (which will be small in the short run anyway) and focus on exchange rates. Say that a British pound is currently worth $1.50 in U.S. currency. However, the investor believes that in a month, the British pound will be worth $1.60 in U.S. currency. Thus, as Figure 4 (a) shows, this investor would change $24,000 for 16,000 British pounds. In a month, if the pound is indeed worth $1.60, then the portfolio investor can trade back to U.S. dollars at the new exchange rate, and have $25,600—a nice profit. A portfolio investor who believes that the foreign exchange rate for the pound will work in the opposite direction can also invest accordingly. Say that an investor expects that the pound, now worth $1.50 in U.S. currency, will decline to $1.40. Then, as shown in Figure 4 (b), that investor could start off with £20,000 in British currency (borrowing the money if necessary), convert it to $30,000 in U.S. currency, wait a month, and then convert back to approximately £21,429 in British currency—again making a nice profit. Of course, this kind of investing comes without guarantees, and an investor will suffer losses if the exchange rates do not move as predicted.
Expectations of the future value of a currency can drive demand and supply of that currency in foreign exchange markets.
Many portfolio investment decisions are not as simple as betting that the value of the currency will change in one direction or the other. Instead, they involve firms trying to protect themselves from movements in exchange rates. Imagine you are running a U.S. firm that is exporting to France. You have signed a contract to deliver certain products and will receive 1 million euros a year from now. But you do not know how much this contract will be worth in U.S. dollars, because the dollar/euro exchange rate can fluctuate in the next year. Let’s say you want to know for sure what the contract will be worth, and not take a risk that the euro will be worth less in U.S. dollars than it currently is. You can hedge, which means using a financial transaction to protect yourself against a risk from one of your investments (in this case, currency risk from the contract). Specifically, you can sign a financial contract and pay a fee that guarantees you a certain exchange rate one year from now—regardless of what the market exchange rate is at that time. Now, it is possible that the euro will be worth more in dollars a year from now, so your hedging contract will be unnecessary, and you will have paid a fee for nothing. But if the value of the euro in dollars declines, then you are protected by the hedge. Financial contracts like hedging, where parties wish to be protected against exchange rate movements, also commonly lead to a series of portfolio investments by the firm that is receiving a fee to provide the hedge.
Both foreign direct investment and portfolio investment involve an investor who supplies domestic currency and demands a foreign currency. With portfolio investment less than ten percent of a company is purchased. As such, portfolio investment is often made with a short term focus. With foreign direct investment more than ten percent of a company is purchased and the investor typically assumes some managerial responsibility; thus foreign direct investment tends to have a more long-run focus. As a practical matter, portfolio investments can be withdrawn from a country much more quickly than foreign direct investments. A U.S. portfolio investor who wants to buy or sell bonds issued by the government of the United Kingdom can do so with a phone call or a few clicks of a computer key. However, a U.S. firm that wants to buy or sell a company, such as one that manufactures automobile parts in the United Kingdom, will find that planning and carrying out the transaction takes a few weeks, even months. Table 7 summarizes the main categories of demanders and suppliers of currency.
|Demand for the U.S. Dollar Comes from…||Supply of the U.S. Dollar Comes from…|
|A U.S. exporting firm that earned foreign currency and is trying to pay U.S.-based expenses||A foreign firm that has sold imported goods in the United States, earned U.S. dollars, and is trying to pay expenses incurred in its home country|
|Foreign tourists visiting the United States||U.S. tourists leaving to visit other countries|
|Foreign investors who wish to make direct investments in the U.S. economy||U.S. investors who want to make foreign direct investments in other countries|
|Foreign investors who wish to make portfolio investments in the U.S. economy||U.S. investors who want to make portfolio investments in other countries|
Participants in the Exchange Rate Market
The foreign exchange market does not involve the ultimate suppliers and demanders of foreign exchange literally seeking each other out. If Martina decides to leave her home in Venezuela and take a trip in the United States, she does not need to find a U.S. citizen who is planning to take a vacation in Venezuela and arrange a person-to-person currency trade. Instead, the foreign exchange market works through financial institutions, and it operates on several levels.
Most people and firms who are exchanging a substantial quantity of currency go to a bank, and most banks provide foreign exchange as a service to customers. These banks (and a few other firms), known as dealers, then trade the foreign exchange. This is called the interbank market.
In the world economy, roughly 2,000 firms are foreign exchange dealers. The U.S. economy has less than 100 foreign exchange dealers, but the largest 12 or so dealers carry out more than half the total transactions. The foreign exchange market has no central location, but the major dealers keep a close watch on each other at all times.
The foreign exchange market is huge not because of the demands of tourists, firms, or even foreign direct investment, but instead because of portfolio investment and the actions of interlocking foreign exchange dealers. International tourism is a very large industry, involving about $1 trillion per year. Global exports are about 23% of global GDP; which is about $18 trillion per year. Foreign direct investment totaled about $1.4 trillion in 2012. These quantities are dwarfed, however, by the $5.3 trillion per day being traded in foreign exchange markets. Most transactions in the foreign exchange market are for portfolio investment—relatively short-term movements of financial capital between currencies—and because of the actions of the large foreign exchange dealers as they constantly buy and sell with each other.
Strengthening and Weakening Currency
When the prices of most goods and services change, the price is said to “rise” or “fall.” For exchange rates, the terminology is different. When the exchange rate for a currency rises, so that the currency exchanges for more of other currencies, it is referred to as appreciating or “strengthening.” When the exchange rate for a currency falls, so that a currency trades for less of other currencies, it is referred to as depreciating or “weakening.”
To illustrate the use of these terms, consider the exchange rate between the U.S. dollar and the Canadian dollar since 1980, shown in Figure 5 (a). The vertical axis in Figure 5 (a) shows the price of $1 in U.S. currency, measured in terms of Canadian currency. Clearly, exchange rates can move up and down substantially. A U.S. dollar traded for $1.17 Canadian in 1980. The U.S. dollar appreciated or strengthened to $1.39 Canadian in 1986, depreciated or weakened to $1.15 Canadian in 1991, and then appreciated or strengthened to $1.60 Canadian by early in 2002, fell to roughly $1.20 Canadian in 2009, and then had a sharp spike up and decline in 2009 and 2010. The units in which exchange rates are measured can be confusing, because the exchange rate of the U.S. dollar is being measured using a different currency—the Canadian dollar. But exchange rates always measure the price of one unit of currency by using a different currency.
Exchange rates move up and down substantially, even between close neighbors like the United States and Canada. The values in (a) are a mirror image of (b); that is, any appreciation of one currency must mean depreciation of the other currency, and vice versa. (Source: http://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2...RATECAA618NUPN)
In looking at the exchange rate between two currencies, the appreciation or strengthening of one currency must mean the depreciation or weakening of the other. Figure 5 (b) shows the exchange rate for the Canadian dollar, measured in terms of U.S. dollars. The exchange rate of the U.S. dollar measured in Canadian dollars, shown in Figure 5 (a), is a perfect mirror image with the exchange rate of the Canadian dollar measured in U.S. dollars, shown in Figure 5 (b). A fall in the Canada $/U.S. $ ratio means a rise in the U.S. $/Canada $ ratio, and vice versa.
With the price of a typical good or service, it is clear that higher prices benefit sellers and hurt buyers, while lower prices benefit buyers and hurt sellers. In the case of exchange rates, where the buyers and sellers are not always intuitively obvious, it is useful to trace through how different participants in the market will be affected by a stronger or weaker currency. Consider, for example, the impact of a stronger U.S. dollar on six different groups of economic actors, as shown in Figure 6: (1) U.S. exporters selling abroad; (2) foreign exporters (that is, firms selling imports in the U.S. economy); (3) U.S. tourists abroad; (4) foreign tourists visiting the United States; (5) U.S. investors (either foreign direct investment or portfolio investment) considering opportunities in other countries; (6) and foreign investors considering opportunities in the U.S. economy.
Exchange rate movements affect exporters, tourists, and international investors in different ways.
For a U.S. firm selling abroad, a stronger U.S. dollar is a curse. A strong U.S. dollar means that foreign currencies are correspondingly weak. When this exporting firm earns foreign currencies through its export sales, and then converts them back to U.S. dollars to pay workers, suppliers, and investors, the stronger dollar means that the foreign currency buys fewer U.S. dollars than if the currency had not strengthened, and that the firm’s profits (as measured in dollars) fall. As a result, the firm may choose to reduce its exports, or it may raise its selling price, which will also tend to reduce its exports. In this way, a stronger currency reduces a country’s exports.
Conversely, for a foreign firm selling in the U.S. economy, a stronger dollar is a blessing. Each dollar earned through export sales, when traded back into the home currency of the exporting firm, will now buy more of the home currency than expected before the dollar had strengthened. As a result, the stronger dollar means that the importing firm will earn higher profits than expected. The firm will seek to expand its sales in the U.S. economy, or it may reduce prices, which will also lead to expanded sales. In this way, a stronger U.S. dollar means that consumers will purchase more from foreign producers, expanding the country’s level of imports.
For a U.S. tourist abroad, who is exchanging U.S. dollars for foreign currency as necessary, a stronger U.S. dollar is a benefit. The tourist receives more foreign currency for each U.S. dollar, and consequently the cost of the trip in U.S. dollars is lower. When a country’s currency is strong, it is a good time for citizens of that country to tour abroad. Imagine a U.S. tourist who has saved up $5,000 for a trip to South Africa. In January 2008, $1 bought 7 South African rand, so the tourist had 35,000 rand to spend. In January 2009, $1 bought 10 rand, so the tourist had 50,000 rand to spend. By January 2010, $1 bought only 7.5 rand. Clearly, 2009 was the year for U.S. tourists to visit South Africa. For foreign visitors to the United States, the opposite pattern holds true. A relatively stronger U.S. dollar means that their own currencies are relatively weaker, so that as they shift from their own currency to U.S. dollars, they have fewer U.S. dollars than previously. When a country’s currency is strong, it is not an especially good time for foreign tourists to visit.
A stronger dollar injures the prospects of a U.S. financial investor who has already invested money in another country. A U.S. financial investor abroad must first convert U.S. dollars to a foreign currency, invest in a foreign country, and then later convert that foreign currency back to U.S. dollars. If in the meantime the U.S. dollar becomes stronger and the foreign currency becomes weaker, then when the investor converts back to U.S. dollars, the rate of return on that investment will be less than originally expected at the time it was made.
However, a stronger U.S. dollar boosts the returns of a foreign investor putting money into a U.S. investment. That foreign investor converts from the home currency to U.S. dollars and seeks a U.S. investment, while later planning to switch back to the home currency. If, in the meantime, the dollar grows stronger, then when the time comes to convert from U.S. dollars back to the foreign currency, the investor will receive more foreign currency than expected at the time the original investment was made.
The preceding paragraphs all focus on the case where the U.S. dollar becomes stronger. The corresponding happy or unhappy economic reactions are illustrated in the first column of Figure 6. The following paragraph centers the analysis on the opposite: a weaker dollar.
Effects of a Weaker Dollar
Let’s work through the effects of a weaker dollar on a U.S. exporter, a foreign exporter into the United States, a U.S. tourist going abroad, a foreign tourist coming to the United States, a U.S. investor abroad, and a foreign investor in the United States.
Step 1. Note that the demand for U.S. exports is a function of the price of those exports, which depends on the dollar price of those goods and the exchange rate of the dollar in terms of foreign currency. For example, a Ford pickup truck costs $25,000 in the United States. When it is sold in the United Kingdom, the price is $25,000 / $1.50 per British pound, or £16,667. The dollar affects the price faced by foreigners who may purchase U.S. exports.
Step 2. Consider that, if the dollar weakens, the pound rises in value. If the pound rises to $2.00 per pound, then the price of a Ford pickup is now $25,000 / $2.00 = £12,500. A weaker dollar means the foreign currency buys more dollars, which means that U.S. exports appear less expensive.
Step 3. Summarize that a weaker U.S. dollar leads to an increase in U.S. exports. For a foreign exporter, the outcome is just the opposite.
Step 4. Suppose a brewery in England is interested in selling its Bass Ale to a grocery store in the United States. If the price of a six pack of Bass Ale is £6.00 and the exchange rate is $1.50 per British pound, the price for the grocery store is 6.00 × $1.50 = $9.00 per six-pack. If the dollar weakens to $2.00 per pound, the price of Bass Ale is now 6.00 × $2.00 = $12.
Step 5. Summarize that, from the perspective of U.S. purchasers, a weaker dollar means that foreign currency is more expensive, which means that foreign goods are more expensive also. This leads to a decrease in U.S. imports, which is bad for the foreign exporter.
Step 6. Consider U.S. tourists going abroad. They face the same situation as a U.S. importer—they are purchasing a foreign trip. A weaker dollar means that their trip will cost more, since a given expenditure of foreign currency (e.g., hotel bill) will take more dollars. The result is that the tourist may not stay as long abroad, and some may choose not to travel at all.
Step 7. Consider that, for the foreign tourist to the United States, a weaker dollar is a boon. It means their currency goes further, so the cost of a trip to the United States will be less. Foreigners may choose to take longer trips to the United States, and more foreign tourists may decide to take U.S. trips.
Step 8. Note that a U.S. investor abroad faces the same situation as a U.S. importer—they are purchasing a foreign asset. A U.S. investor will see a weaker dollar as an increase in the “price” of investment since the same number of dollars will buy less foreign currency and thus less foreign assets. This should decrease the amount of U.S. investment abroad.
Step 9. Note also that foreign investors in the United States will have the opposite experience. Since foreign currency buys more dollars, they will likely invest in more U.S. assets.
At this point, you should have a good sense of the major players in the foreign exchange market: firms involved in international trade, tourists, international financial investors, banks, and foreign exchange dealers. The next module shows how the tools of demand and supply can be used in foreign exchange markets to explain the underlying causes of stronger and weaker currencies.
Why is a stronger currency not necessarily better?
One common misunderstanding about exchange rates is that a “stronger” or “appreciating” currency must be better than a “weaker” or “depreciating” currency. After all, is it not obvious that “strong” is better than “weak”? But do not let the terminology confuse you. When a currency becomes stronger, so that it purchases more of other currencies, it benefits some in the economy and injures others. A stronger currency is not necessarily better, it is just different.
In the foreign exchange market, people and firms exchange one currency to purchase another currency. The demand for dollars comes from those U.S. export firms seeking to convert their earnings in foreign currency back into U.S. dollars; foreign tourists converting their earnings in a foreign currency back into U.S. dollars; and foreign investors seeking to make financial investments in the U.S. economy. On the supply side of the foreign exchange market for the trading of U.S. dollars are foreign firms that have sold imports in the U.S. economy and are seeking to convert their earnings back to their home currency; U.S. tourists abroad; and U.S. investors seeking to make financial investments in foreign economies. When currency A can buy more of currency B, then currency A has strengthened or appreciated relative to B. When currency A can buy less of currency B, then currency A has weakened or depreciated relative to B. If currency A strengthens or appreciates relative to currency B, then currency B must necessarily weaken or depreciate with regard to currency A. A stronger currency benefits those who are buying with that currency and injures those who are selling. A weaker currency injures those, like importers, who are buying with that currency and benefits those who are selling with it, like exporters.
Demand and Supply Shifts in Foreign Exchange Markets
The foreign exchange market involves firms, households, and investors who demand and supply currencies coming together through their banks and the key foreign exchange dealers. Figure 7 (a) offers an example for the exchange rate between the U.S. dollar and the Mexican peso. The vertical axis shows the exchange rate for U.S. dollars, which in this case is measured in pesos. The horizontal axis shows the quantity of U.S. dollars being traded in the foreign exchange market each day. The demand curve (D) for U.S. dollars intersects with the supply curve (S) of U.S. dollars at the equilibrium point (E), which is an exchange rate of 10 pesos per dollar and a total volume of $8.5 billion.
(a) The quantity measured on the horizontal axis is in U.S. dollars, and the exchange rate on the vertical axis is the price of U.S. dollars measured in Mexican pesos. (b) The quantity measured on the horizontal axis is in Mexican pesos, while the price on the vertical axis is the price of pesos measured in U.S. dollars. In both graphs, the equilibrium exchange rate occurs at point E, at the intersection of the demand curve (D) and the supply curve (S).
Figure 7 (b) presents the same demand and supply information from the perspective of the Mexican peso. The vertical axis shows the exchange rate for Mexican pesos, which is measured in U.S. dollars. The horizontal axis shows the quantity of Mexican pesos traded in the foreign exchange market. The demand curve (D) for Mexican pesos intersects with the supply curve (S) of Mexican pesos at the equilibrium point (E), which is an exchange rate of 10 cents in U.S. currency for each Mexican peso and a total volume of 85 billion pesos. Note that the two exchange rates are inverses: 10 pesos per dollar is the same as 10 cents per peso (or $0.10 per peso). In the actual foreign exchange market, almost all of the trading for Mexican pesos is done for U.S. dollars. What factors would cause the demand or supply to shift, thus leading to a change in the equilibrium exchange rate? The answer to this question is discussed in the following section.
Expectations about Future Exchange Rates
One reason to demand a currency on the foreign exchange market is the belief that the value of the currency is about to increase. One reason to supply a currency—that is, sell it on the foreign exchange market—is the expectation that the value of the currency is about to decline. For example, imagine that a leading business newspaper, like the Wall Street Journal or the Financial Times, runs an article predicting that the Mexican peso will appreciate in value. The likely effects of such an article are illustrated in Figure 8. Demand for the Mexican peso shifts to the right, from D0 to D1, as investors become eager to purchase pesos. Conversely, the supply of pesos shifts to the left, from S0 to S1, because investors will be less willing to give them up. The result is that the equilibrium exchange rate rises from 10 cents/peso to 12 cents/peso and the equilibrium exchange rate rises from 85 billion to 90 billion pesos as the equilibrium moves from E0 to E1.
Exchange Rate Market for Mexican Peso Reacts to Expectations about Future Exchange Rates
An announcement that the peso exchange rate is likely to strengthen in the future will lead to greater demand for the peso in the present from investors who wish to benefit from the appreciation. Similarly, it will make investors less likely to supply pesos to the foreign exchange market. Both the shift of demand to the right and the shift of supply to the left cause an immediate appreciation in the exchange rate.
Figure 8 also illustrates some peculiar traits of supply and demand diagrams in the foreign exchange market. In contrast to all the other cases of supply and demand you have considered, in the foreign exchange market, supply and demand typically both move at the same time. Groups of participants in the foreign exchange market like firms and investors include some who are buyers and some who are sellers. An expectation of a future shift in the exchange rate affects both buyers and sellers—that is, it affects both demand and supply for a currency.
The shifts in demand and supply curves both cause the exchange rate to shift in the same direction; in this example, they both make the peso exchange rate stronger. However, the shifts in demand and supply work in opposing directions on the quantity traded. In this example, the rising demand for pesos is causing the quantity to rise while the falling supply of pesos is causing quantity to fall. In this specific example, the result is a higher quantity. But in other cases, the result could be that quantity remains unchanged or declines.
This example also helps to explain why exchange rates often move quite substantially in a short period of a few weeks or months. When investors expect a country’s currency to strengthen in the future, they buy the currency and cause it to appreciate immediately. The appreciation of the currency can lead other investors to believe that future appreciation is likely—and thus lead to even further appreciation. Similarly, a fear that a currency might weaken quickly leads to an actual weakening of the currency, which often reinforces the belief that the currency is going to weaken further. Thus, beliefs about the future path of exchange rates can be self-reinforcing, at least for a time, and a large share of the trading in foreign exchange markets involves dealers trying to outguess each other on what direction exchange rates will move next.
Differences across Countries in Rates of Return
The motivation for investment, whether domestic or foreign, is to earn a return. If rates of return in a country look relatively high, then that country will tend to attract funds from abroad. Conversely, if rates of return in a country look relatively low, then funds will tend to flee to other economies. Changes in the expected rate of return will shift demand and supply for a currency. For example, imagine that interest rates rise in the United States as compared with Mexico. Thus, financial investments in the United States promise a higher return than they previously did. As a result, more investors will demand U.S. dollars so that they can buy interest-bearing assets and fewer investors will be willing to supply U.S. dollars to foreign exchange markets. Demand for the U.S. dollar will shift to the right, from D0 to D1, and supply will shift to the left, from S0 to S1, as shown in Figure 9. The new equilibrium (E1), will occur at an exchange rate of nine pesos/dollar and the same quantity of $8.5 billion. In this way, a higher interest rate or rate of return relative to other countries leads a nation’s currency to appreciate or strengthen, and a lower interest rate relative to other countries leads a nation’s currency to depreciate or weaken. Since a nation’s central bank can use monetary policy to affect its interest rates, a central bank can also cause changes in exchange rates—a connection that will be discussed in more detail later in this chapter.
A higher rate of return for U.S. dollars makes holding dollars more attractive. Thus, the demand for dollars in the foreign exchange market shifts to the right, from D0 to D1, while the supply of dollars shifts to the left, from S0 to S1. The new equilibrium (E1) has a stronger exchange rate than the original equilibrium (E0), but in this example, the equilibrium quantity traded does not change.
If a country experiences a relatively high inflation rate compared with other economies, then the buying power of its currency is eroding, which will tend to discourage anyone from wanting to acquire or to hold the currency. Figure 10 shows an example based on an actual episode concerning the Mexican peso. In 1986–87, Mexico experienced an inflation rate of over 200%. Not surprisingly, as inflation dramatically decreased the purchasing power of the peso in Mexico, the exchange rate value of the peso declined as well. As shown in Figure 10, demand for the peso on foreign exchange markets decreased from D0 to D1, while supply of the peso increased from S0 to S1. The equilibrium exchange rate fell from $2.50 per peso at the original equilibrium (E0) to $0.50 per peso at the new equilibrium (E1). In this example, the quantity of pesos traded on foreign exchange markets remained the same, even as the exchange rate shifted.
If a currency is experiencing relatively high inflation, then its buying power is decreasing and international investors will be less eager to hold it. Thus, a rise in inflation in the Mexican peso would lead demand to shift from D0 to D1, and supply to increase from S0 to S1. Both movements in demand and supply would cause the currency to depreciate. The effect on the quantity traded is drawn here as a decrease, but in truth it could be an increase or no change, depending on the actual movements of demand and supply.
Purchasing Power Parity
Over the long term, exchange rates must bear some relationship to the buying power of the currency in terms of goods that are internationally traded. If at a certain exchange rate it was much cheaper to buy internationally traded goods—such as oil, steel, computers, and cars—in one country than in another country, businesses would start buying in the cheap country, selling in other countries, and pocketing the profits.
For example, if a U.S. dollar is worth $1.60 in Canadian currency, then a car that sells for $20,000 in the United States should sell for $32,000 in Canada. If the price of cars in Canada was much lower than $32,000, then at least some U.S. car-buyers would convert their U.S. dollars to Canadian dollars and buy their cars in Canada. If the price of cars was much higher than $32,000 in this example, then at least some Canadian buyers would convert their Canadian dollars to U.S. dollars and go to the United States to purchase their cars. This is known as arbitrage, the process of buying and selling goods or currencies across international borders at a profit. It may occur slowly, but over time, it will force prices and exchange rates to align so that the price of internationally traded goods is similar in all countries.
The exchange rate that equalizes the prices of internationally traded goods across countries is called the purchasing power parity (PPP) exchange rate. A group of economists at the International Comparison Program, run by the World Bank, have calculated the PPP exchange rate for all countries, based on detailed studies of the prices and quantities of internationally tradable goods.
The purchasing power parity exchange rate has two functions. First, PPP exchange rates are often used for international comparison of GDP and other economic statistics. Imagine that you are preparing a table showing the size of GDP in many countries in several recent years, and for ease of comparison, you are converting all the values into U.S. dollars. When you insert the value for Japan, you need to use a yen/dollar exchange rate. But should you use the market exchange rate or the PPP exchange rate? Market exchange rates bounce around. In summer 2008, the exchange rate was 108 yen/dollar, but in late 2009 the U.S. dollar exchange rate versus the yen was 90 yen/dollar. For simplicity, say that Japan’s GDP was ¥500 trillion in both 2008 and 2009. If you use the market exchange rates, then Japan’s GDP will be $4.6 trillion in 2008 (that is, ¥500 trillion /(¥108/dollar)) and $5.5 trillion in 2009 (that is, ¥500 trillion /(¥90/dollar)).
Of course, it is not true that Japan’s economy increased enormously in 2009—in fact, Japan had a recession like much of the rest of the world. The misleading appearance of a booming Japanese economy occurs only because we used the market exchange rate, which often has short-run rises and falls. However, PPP exchange rates stay fairly constant and change only modestly, if at all, from year to year.
The second function of PPP is that exchanges rates will often get closer and closer to it as time passes. It is true that in the short run and medium run, as exchange rates adjust to relative inflation rates, rates of return, and to expectations about how interest rates and inflation will shift, the exchange rates will often move away from the PPP exchange rate for a time. But, knowing the PPP will allow you to track and predict exchange rate relationships.
In the extreme short run, ranging from a few minutes to a few weeks, exchange rates are influenced by speculators who are trying to invest in currencies that will grow stronger, and to sell currencies that will grow weaker. Such speculation can create a self-fulfilling prophecy, at least for a time, where an expected appreciation leads to a stronger currency and vice versa. In the relatively short run, exchange rate markets are influenced by differences in rates of return. Countries with relatively high real rates of return (for example, high interest rates) will tend to experience stronger currencies as they attract money from abroad, while countries with relatively low rates of return will tend to experience weaker exchange rates as investors convert to other currencies.
In the medium run of a few months or a few years, exchange rate markets are influenced by inflation rates. Countries with relatively high inflation will tend to experience less demand for their currency than countries with lower inflation, and thus currency depreciation. Over long periods of many years, exchange rates tend to adjust toward the purchasing power parity (PPP) rate, which is the exchange rate such that the prices of internationally tradable goods in different countries, when converted at the PPP exchange rate to a common currency, are similar in all economies.
Macroeconomic Effects of Exchange Rates
A central bank will be concerned about the exchange rate for multiple reasons: (1) Movements in the exchange rate will affect the quantity of aggregate demand in an economy; (2) frequent substantial fluctuations in the exchange rate can disrupt international trade and cause problems in a nation’s banking system–this may contribute to an unsustainable balance of trade and large inflows of international financial capital, which can set the economy up for a deep recession if international investors decide to move their money to another country. Let’s discuss these scenarios in turn.
Exchange Rates, Aggregate Demand, and Aggregate Supply
Foreign trade in goods and services typically involves incurring the costs of production in one currency while receiving revenues from sales in another currency. As a result, movements in exchange rates can have a powerful effect on incentives to export and import, and thus on aggregate demand in the economy as a whole.
For example, in 1999, when the euro first became a currency, its value measured in U.S. currency was $1.06/euro. By the end of 2013, the euro had risen (and the U.S. dollar had correspondingly weakened) to $1.37/euro. Consider the situation of a French firm that each year incurs €10 million in costs, and sells its products in the United States for $10 million. In 1999, when this firm converted $10 million back to euros at the exchange rate of $1.06/euro (that is, $10 million × [€1/$1.06]), it received €9.4 million, and suffered a loss. In 2013, when this same firm converted $10 million back to euros at the exchange rate of $1.37/euro (that is, $10 million × [€1 euro/$1.37]), it received approximately €7.3 million and an even larger loss. This example shows how a stronger euro discourages exports by the French firm, because it makes the costs of production in the domestic currency higher relative to the sales revenues earned in another country. From the point of view of the U.S. economy, the example also shows how a weaker U.S. dollar encourages exports.
Since an increase in exports results in more dollars flowing into the economy, and an increase in imports means more dollars are flowing out, it is easy to conclude that exports are “good” for the economy and imports are “bad,” but this overlooks the role of exchange rates. If an American consumer buys a Japanese car for $20,000 instead of an American car for $30,000, it may be tempting to argue that the American economy has lost out. However, the Japanese company will have to convert those dollars to yen to pay its workers and operate its factories. Whoever buys those dollars will have to use them to purchase American goods and services, so the money comes right back into the American economy. At the same time, the consumer saves money by buying a less expensive import, and can use the extra money for other purposes.
Fluctuations in Exchange Rates
Exchange rates can fluctuate a great deal in the short run. As yet one more example, the Indian rupee moved from 39 rupees/dollar in February 2008 to 51 rupees/dollar in March 2009, a decline of more than one-fourth in the value of the rupee on foreign exchange markets. Figure 5 earlier showed that even two economically developed neighboring economies like the United States and Canada can see significant movements in exchange rates over a few years. For firms that depend on export sales, or firms that rely on imported inputs to production, or even purely domestic firms that compete with firms tied into international trade—which in many countries adds up to half or more of a nation’s GDP—sharp movements in exchange rates can lead to dramatic changes in profits and losses. So, a central bank may desire to keep exchange rates from moving too much as part of providing a stable business climate, where firms can focus on productivity and innovation, not on reacting to exchange rate fluctuations.
One of the most economically destructive effects of exchange rate fluctuations can happen through the banking system. Most international loans are measured in a few large currencies, like U.S. dollars, European euros, and Japanese yen. In countries that do not use these currencies, banks often borrow funds in the currencies of other countries, like U.S. dollars, but then lend in their own domestic currency. The left-hand chain of events in Figure 11 shows how this pattern of international borrowing can work. A bank in Thailand borrows one million in U.S. dollars. Then the bank converts the dollars to its domestic currency—in the case of Thailand, the currency is the baht—at a rate of 40 baht/dollar. The bank then lends the baht to a firm in Thailand. The business repays the loan in baht, and the bank converts it back to U.S. dollars to pay off its original U.S. dollar loan.
The scenario of international borrowing that ends on the left is a success story, but the scenario that ends on the right shows what happens when the exchange rate weakens.
This process of borrowing in a foreign currency and lending in a domestic currency can work just fine, as long as the exchange rate does not shift. In the scenario outlined, if the dollar strengthens and the baht weakens, a problem arises. The right-hand chain of events in Figure 11 illustrates what happens when the baht unexpectedly weakens from 40 baht/dollar to 50 baht/dollar. The Thai firm still repays the loan in full to the bank. But because of the shift in the exchange rate, the bank cannot repay its loan in U.S. dollars. (Of course, if the exchange rate had changed in the other direction, making the Thai currency stronger, the bank could have realized an unexpectedly large profit.)
In 1997–1998, countries across eastern Asia, like Thailand, Korea, Malaysia, and Indonesia, experienced a sharp depreciation of their currencies, in some cases 50% or more. These countries had been experiencing substantial inflows of foreign investment capital, with bank lending increasing by 20% to 30% per year through the mid-1990s. When their exchange rates depreciated, the banking systems in these countries were bankrupt. Argentina experienced a similar chain of events in 2002. When the Argentine peso depreciated, Argentina’s banks found themselves unable to pay back what they had borrowed in U.S. dollars.
Banks play a vital role in any economy in facilitating transactions and in making loans to firms and consumers. When most of a country’s largest banks become bankrupt simultaneously, a sharp decline in aggregate demand and a deep recession results. Since the main responsibilities of a central bank are to control the money supply and to ensure that the banking system is stable, a central bank must be concerned about whether large and unexpected exchange rate depreciation will drive most of the country’s existing banks into bankruptcy.
Summing Up Public Policy and Exchange Rates
Every nation would prefer a stable exchange rate to facilitate international trade and reduce the degree of risk and uncertainty in the economy. However, a nation may sometimes want a weaker exchange rate to stimulate aggregate demand and reduce a recession, or a stronger exchange rate to fight inflation. The country must also be concerned that rapid movements from a weak to a strong exchange rate may cripple its export industries, while rapid movements from a strong to a weak exchange rate can cripple its banking sector. In short, every choice of an exchange rate—whether it should be stronger or weaker, or fixed or changing—represents potential tradeoffs.
A central bank will be concerned about the exchange rate for several reasons. Exchange rates will affect imports and exports, and thus affect aggregate demand in the economy. Fluctuations in exchange rates may cause difficulties for many firms, but especially banks. The exchange rate may accompany unsustainable flows of international financial capital.
Exchange Rate Policies
Exchange rate policies come in a range of different forms listed in Figure 12: let the foreign exchange market determines the exchange rate; let the market set the value of the exchange rate most of the time, but have the central bank sometimes intervene to prevent fluctuations that seem too large; have the central bank guarantee a specific exchange rate; or share a currency with other countries. Let’s discuss each type of exchange rate policy and its tradeoffs.
A nation may adopt one of a variety of exchange rate regimes, from floating rates in which the foreign exchange market determines the rates to pegged rates where governments intervene to manage the value of the exchange rate, to a common currency where the nation adopts the currency of another country or group of countries.
Floating Exchange Rates
A policy which allows the foreign exchange market to set exchange rates is referred to as a floating exchange rate. The U.S. dollar is a floating exchange rate, as are the currencies of about 40% of the countries in the world economy. The major concern with this policy is that exchange rates can move a great deal in a short time.
Consider the U.S. exchange rate expressed in terms of another fairly stable currency, the Japanese yen, as shown in Figure 13. On January 1, 2002, the exchange rate was 133 yen/dollar. On January 1, 2005, it was 103 yen/dollar. On June 1, 2007, it was 122 yen/dollar, and on January 1, 2009, it was 90 yen/dollar. As investor sentiment swings back and forth, driving exchange rates up and down, exporters, importers, and banks involved in international lending are all affected. At worst, large movements in exchange rates can drive companies into bankruptcy or trigger a nationwide banking collapse. But even in the moderate case of the yen/dollar exchange rate, these movements of roughly 30 percent back and forth impose stress on both economies as firms must alter their export and import plans to take the new exchange rates into account. Especially in smaller countries where international trade is a relatively large share of GDP, exchange rate movements can rattle their economies.
Even relatively stable exchange rates can vary a fair amount. The exchange rate for the U.S. dollar, measured in Japanese yen, fell about 30% from the start of 2002 to the start of 2005, rose back by mid-2007, and then dropped again by early 2009. (Source: http://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/series/EXJPUS)
However, movements of floating exchange rates have advantages, too. After all, prices of goods and services rise and fall throughout a market economy, as demand and supply shift. If an economy experiences strong inflows or outflows of international financial capital, or has relatively high inflation, or if it experiences strong productivity growth so that purchasing power changes relative to other economies, then it makes economic sense for the exchange rate to shift as well.
Floating exchange rate advocates often argue that if government policies were more predictable and stable, then inflation rates and interest rates would be more predictable and stable. Exchange rates would bounce around less, too. The great economist Milton Friedman (1912–2006), for example, wrote a defense of floating exchange rates in 1962 in his book Capitalism and Freedom:
Being in favor of floating exchange rates does not mean being in favor of unstable exchange rates. When we support a free price system [for goods and services] at home, this does not imply that we favor a system in which prices fluctuate wildly up and down. What we want is a system in which prices are free to fluctuate but in which the forces determining them are sufficiently stable so that in fact prices move within moderate ranges. This is equally true in a system of floating exchange rates. The ultimate objective is a world in which exchange rates, while free to vary, are, in fact, highly stable because basic economic policies and conditions are stable.
Advocates of floating exchange rates admit that, yes, exchange rates may sometimes fluctuate. They point out, however, that if a central bank focuses on preventing either high inflation or deep recession, with low and reasonably steady interest rates, then exchange rates will have less reason to vary.
Using Soft Pegs and Hard Pegs
When a government intervenes in the foreign exchange market so that the exchange rate of its currency is different from what the market would have produced, it is said to have established a “peg” for its currency. A soft peg is the name for an exchange rate policy where the government usually allows the exchange rate to be set by the market, but in some cases, especially if the exchange rate seems to be moving rapidly in one direction, the central bank will intervene in the market. With a hard peg exchange rate policy, the central bank sets a fixed and unchanging value for the exchange rate. A central bank can implement soft peg and hard peg policies.
Suppose the market exchange rate for the Brazilian currency, the real, would be 35 cents/real with a daily quantity of 15 billion real traded in the market, as shown at the equilibrium E0 in Figure 14 (a) and Figure 14 (b). However, the government of Brazil decides that the exchange rate should be 30 cents/real, as shown in Figure 14 (a). Perhaps Brazil sets this lower exchange rate to benefit its export industries. Perhaps it is an attempt to stimulate aggregate demand by stimulating exports. Perhaps Brazil believes that the current market exchange rate is higher than the long-term purchasing power parity value of the real, so it is minimizing fluctuations in the real by keeping it at this lower rate. Perhaps the target exchange rate was set sometime in the past, and is now being maintained for the sake of stability. Whatever the reason, if Brazil’s central bank wishes to keep the exchange rate below the market level, it must face the reality that at this weaker exchange rate of 30 cents/real, the quantity demanded of its currency at 17 billion reals is greater than the quantity supplied of 13 billion reals in the foreign exchange market.
(a) If an exchange rate is pegged below what would otherwise be the equilibrium, then the quantity demanded of the currency will exceed the quantity supplied. (b) If an exchange rate is pegged above what would otherwise be the equilibrium, then the quantity supplied of the currency exceeds the quantity demanded.
The Brazilian central bank could weaken its exchange rate in two ways. One approach is to use an expansionary monetary policy that leads to lower interest rates. In foreign exchange markets, the lower interest rates will reduce demand and increase supply of the real and lead to depreciation. This technique is not often used because lowering interest rates to weaken the currency may be in conflict with the country’s monetary policy goals. Alternatively, Brazil’s central bank could trade directly in the foreign exchange market. The central bank can expand the money supply by creating reals, use the reals to purchase foreign currencies, and avoid selling any of its own currency. In this way, it can fill the gap between quantity demanded and quantity supplied of its currency.
Figure 14 (b) shows the opposite situation. Here, the Brazilian government desires a stronger exchange rate of 40 cents/real than the market rate of 35 cents/real. Perhaps Brazil desires the stronger currency to reduce aggregate demand and to fight inflation, or perhaps Brazil believes that that current market exchange rate is temporarily lower than the long-term rate. Whatever the reason, at the higher desired exchange rate, the quantity supplied of 16 billion reals exceeds the quantity demanded of 14 billion reals.
Brazil’s central bank can use a contractionary monetary policy to raise interest rates, which will increase demand and reduce supply of the currency on foreign exchange markets, and lead to an appreciation. Alternatively, Brazil’s central bank can trade directly in the foreign exchange market. In this case, with an excess supply of its own currency in foreign exchange markets, the central bank must use reserves of foreign currency, like U.S. dollars, to demand its own currency and thus cause an appreciation of its exchange rate.
Both a soft peg and a hard peg policy require that the central bank intervene in the foreign exchange market. However, a hard peg policy attempts to preserve a fixed exchange rate at all times. A soft peg policy typically allows the exchange rate to move up and down by relatively small amounts in the short run of several months or a year, and to move by larger amounts over time, but seeks to avoid extreme short-term fluctuations.
Tradeoffs of Soft Pegs and Hard Pegs
When a country decides to alter the market exchange rate, it faces a number of tradeoffs. If it uses monetary policy to alter the exchange rate, it then cannot at the same time use monetary policy to address issues of inflation or recession. If it uses direct purchases and sales of foreign currencies in exchange rates, then it must face the issue of how it will handle its reserves of foreign currency. Finally, a pegged exchange rate can even create additional movements of the exchange rate; for example, even the possibility of government intervention in exchange rate markets will lead to rumors about whether and when the government will intervene, and dealers in the foreign exchange market will react to those rumors. Let’s consider these issues in turn.
One concern with pegged exchange rate policies is that they imply a country’s monetary policy is no longer focused on controlling inflation or shortening recessions, but now must also take the exchange rate into account. For example, when a country pegs its exchange rate, it will sometimes face economic situations where it would like to have an expansionary monetary policy to fight recession—but it cannot do so because that policy would depreciate its exchange rate and break its hard peg. With a soft peg exchange rate policy, the central bank can sometimes ignore the exchange rate and focus on domestic inflation or recession—but in other cases the central bank may ignore inflation or recession and instead focus on its soft peg exchange rate. With a hard peg policy, domestic monetary policy is effectively no longer determined by domestic inflation or unemployment, but only by what monetary policy is needed to keep the exchange rate at the hard peg.
Another issue arises when a central bank intervenes directly in the exchange rate market. If a central bank ends up in a situation where it is perpetually creating and selling its own currency on foreign exchange markets, it will be buying the currency of other countries, like U.S. dollars or euros, to hold as reserves. Holding large reserves of other currencies has an opportunity cost, and central banks will not wish to boost such reserves without limit.
In addition, a central bank that causes a large increase in the supply of money is also risking an inflationary surge in aggregate demand. Conversely, when a central bank wishes to buy its own currency, it can do so by using its reserves of international currency like the U.S. dollar or the euro. But if the central bank runs out of such reserves, it can no longer use this method to strengthen its currency. Thus, buying foreign currencies in exchange rate markets can be expensive and inflationary, while selling foreign currencies can work only until a central bank runs out of reserves.
Yet another issue is that when a government pegs its exchange rate, it may unintentionally create another reason for additional fluctuation. With a soft peg policy, foreign exchange dealers and international investors react to every rumor about how or when the central bank is likely to intervene to influence the exchange rate, and as they react to rumors the exchange rate will shift up and down. Thus, even though the goal of a soft peg policy is to reduce short-term fluctuations of the exchange rate, the existence of the policy—when anticipated in the foreign exchange market—may sometimes increase short-term fluctuations as international investors try to anticipate how and when the central bank will act. The following Clear It Up feature discusses the effects of international capital flows—capital that flows across national boundaries as either portfolio investment or direct investment.
A hard peg exchange rate policy will not allow short-term fluctuations in the exchange rate. If the government first announces a hard peg and then later changes its mind—perhaps the government becomes unwilling to keep interest rates high or to hold high levels of foreign exchange reserves—then the result of abandoning a hard peg could be a dramatic shift in the exchange rate.
In the mid-2000s, about one-third of the countries in the world used a soft peg approach and about one-quarter used a hard peg approach. The general trend in the 1990s was to shift away from a soft peg approach in favor of either floating rates or a hard peg. The concern is that a successful soft peg policy may, for a time, lead to very little variation in exchange rates, so that firms and banks in the economy begin to act as if a hard peg exists. When the exchange rate does move, the effects are especially painful because firms and banks have not planned and hedged against a possible change. The prevailing argument, then, is that it is better either to be clear that the exchange rate is always flexible, or that it is fixed, but choosing an in-between soft peg option may end up being worst of all.
A Merged Currency
A final approach to exchange rate policy is for a nation to choose a common currency shared with one or more nations is also called a merged currency. A merged currency approach eliminates foreign exchange risk altogether. Just as no one worries about exchange rate movements when buying and selling between New York and California, Europeans know that the value of the euro will be the same in Germany and France and other European nations that have adopted the euro.
However, a merged currency also poses problems. Like a hard peg, a merged currency means that a nation has given up altogether on domestic monetary policy, and instead has put its interest rate policies in other hands. When Ecuador uses the U.S. dollar as its currency, it has no voice in whether the Federal Reserve raises or lowers interest rates. The European Central Bank that determines monetary policy for the euro has representatives from all the euro nations. However, from the standpoint of, say, Portugal, there will be times when the decisions of the European Central Bank about monetary policy do not match the decisions that would have been made by a Portuguese central bank.
The lines between these four different exchange rate policies can blend into each other. For example, a soft peg exchange rate policy in which the government almost never acts to intervene in the exchange rate market will look a great deal like a floating exchange rate. Conversely, a soft peg policy in which the government intervenes often to keep the exchange rate near a specific level will look a lot like a hard peg. A decision to merge currencies with another country is, in effect, a decision to have a permanently fixed exchange rate with those countries, which is like a very hard exchange rate peg. The range of exchange rates policy choices, with their advantages and disadvantages, are summarized in Table 8.
|Situation||Floating Exchange Rates||Soft Peg||Hard Peg||Merged Currency|
|Large short-run fluctuations in exchange rates?||Often a lot in the short term||Maybe less in the short run, but still large changes over time||None, unless a change in the fixed rate||None|
|Large long-term fluctuations in exchange rates?||Can often happen||Can often happen||Cannot happen unless hard peg changes, in which case substantial volatility can occur||Cannot happen|
|Power of central bank to conduct countercyclical monetary policy?||Flexible exchange rates make monetary policy stronger||Some power, although conflicts may arise between exchange rate policy and countercyclical policy||Very little; central bank must keep the exchange rate fixed||None; nation does not have its own currency|
|Costs of holding foreign exchange reserves?||Do not need to hold reserves||Hold moderate reserves that rise and fall over time||Hold large reserves||No need to hold reserves|
|Risk of being stuck with an exchange rate that causes a large trade imbalance and very high inflows or outflows of financial capital?||Adjusts often||Adjusts over the medium term, if not the short term||May become stuck over time either far above or below the market level||Cannot adjust|
Global macroeconomics would be easier if the whole world had one currency and one central bank. The exchange rates between different currencies complicate the picture. If exchange rates are set solely by financial markets, they fluctuate substantially as short-term portfolio investors try to anticipate tomorrow’s news. If the government attempts to intervene in exchange rate markets through soft pegs or hard pegs, it gives up at least some of the power to use monetary policy to focus on domestic inflations and recessions, and it risks causing even greater fluctuations in foreign exchange markets.
There is no consensus among economists about which exchange rate policies are best: floating, soft peg, hard peg, or merged currencies. The choice depends both on how well a nation’s central bank can implement a specific exchange rate policy and on how well a nation’s firms and banks can adapt to different exchange rate policies. A national economy that does a fairly good job at achieving the four main economic goals of growth, low inflation, low unemployment, and a sustainable balance of trade will probably do just fine most of the time with any exchange rate policy; conversely, no exchange rate policy is likely to save an economy that consistently fails at achieving these goals. On the other hand, a merged currency applied across wide geographic and cultural areas carries with it its own set of problems, such as the ability for countries to conduct their own independent monetary policies.
Is a Stronger Dollar Good for the U.S. Economy?
The foreign exchange value of the dollar is a price and whether a higher price is good or bad depends on where you are standing: sellers benefit from higher prices and buyers are harmed. A stronger dollar is good for U.S. imports (and people working for U.S. importers) and U.S. investment abroad. It is also good for U.S. tourists going to other countries, since their dollar goes further. But a stronger dollar is bad for U.S. exports (and people working in U.S. export industries); it is bad for foreign investment in the United States (leading, for example, to higher U.S. interest rates); and it is bad for foreign tourists (as well as U.S hotels, restaurants, and others in the tourist industry). In short, whether the U.S. dollar is good or bad is a more complex question than you may have thought. The economic answer is “it depends.”
In a floating exchange rate policy, a country’s exchange rate is determined in the foreign exchange market. In a soft peg exchange rate policy, a country’s exchange rate is usually determined in the foreign exchange market, but the government sometimes intervenes to strengthen or weaken the exchange rate. In a hard peg exchange rate policy, the government chooses an exchange rate. A central bank can intervene in exchange markets in two ways. It can raise or lower interest rates to make the currency stronger or weaker. Or it can directly purchase or sell its currency in foreign exchange markets. All exchange rates policies face tradeoffs. A hard peg exchange rate policy will reduce exchange rate fluctuations, but means that a country must focus its monetary policy on the exchange rate, not on fighting recession or controlling inflation. When a nation merges its currency with another nation, it gives up on nationally oriented monetary policy altogether.
A soft peg exchange rate may create additional volatility as exchange rate markets try to anticipate when and how the government will intervene. A flexible exchange rate policy allows monetary policy to focus on inflation and unemployment and allows the exchange rate to change with inflation and rates of return, but also raises a risk that exchange rates may sometimes make large and abrupt movements. The spectrum of exchange rate policies includes: (a) a floating exchange rate, (b) a pegged exchange rate, soft or hard, and (c) a merged currency. Monetary policy can focus on a variety of goals: (a) inflation; (b) inflation or unemployment, depending on which is the most dangerous obstacle; and (c) a long-term rule based policy designed to keep the money supply stable and predictable.
Videos: Foreign Exchange and Foreign Exchange Practice
View the first video below for a review of exchange rates. View the second video for practice.
Self Check Questions
- Define foreign exchange.
- What is a foreign exchange rate?
- What is a trade deficit?
- What is a trade surplus?
- Define the trade-weighted value of the dollar.
- Go online and research the current trade-weighted value of the dollar against the Euro, the Yen, and the British Pound.
- What happens to trade when the dollar is strong?
- What are some consequences of a trade deficit?