|How Exchange Rates Work||05/06/2005 - 14:44:34|
You've probably heard the financial reporter on the nightly news say something like, "The dollar fell against the yen today." But, do you know what that means?
In this article, we'll tell you what exchange rates are and explain some of the factors that can affect the value of currency in countries around the world.
The Cost of Money
You can express that exchange rate as:
1CHF = 80JPYMeaning that one Swiss franc costs 80 Japanese yen.
A Brief History of Exchange Rates
Unfortunately, the real world of economics outpaced this system. The U.S. dollar suffered from inflation (its value relative to the goods it could purchase decreased), while other currencies became more valuable and more stable. Eventually, the U.S. could no longer pretend that the dollar was worth as much as it had been, so the value was officially reduced so that 1 ounce of gold was now worth $70. The dollar's value was cut in half.
Today, the U.S. dollar still dominates many financial markets. In fact, exchange rates are often expressed in terms of U.S. dollars. Currently, the U.S. dollar and the euro account for approximately 50 percent of all currency exchange transactions in the world. Adding British pounds, Canadian dollars, Australian dollars, and Japanese yen to the list accounts for over 80 percent of currency exchanges altogether.
Methods of Exchange
The Floating Exchange Rate
The market determines a floating exchange rate. In other words, a currency is worth whatever buyers are willing to pay for it. This is determined by supply and demand, which is in turn driven by foreign investment, import/export ratios, inflation, and a host of other economic factors.
The floating system isn't perfect, though. If a country's economy suffers from instability, a floating system will discourage investment. Investors could fall victim to wild swings in the exchange rates, as well as disastrous inflation.
The Pegged Exchange Rate
A government has to work to keep their pegged rate stable. Their national bank must hold large reserves of foreign currency to mitigate changes in supply and demand. If a sudden demand for a currency were to drive up the exchange rate, the national bank would have to release enough of that currency into the market to meet the demand. They can also buy up currency if low demand is lowering exchange rates.
Countries that have immature, potentially unstable economies usually use a pegged system. Developing nations can use this system to prevent out-of control-inflation. The system can backfire, however, if the real world market value of the currency is not reflected by the pegged rate. In that case, a black market may spring up, where the currency will be traded at its market value, disregarding the government's peg.
When people realize that their currency isn't worth as much as the pegged rate indicates, they may rush to exchange their money for other, more stable currencies. This can lead to economic disaster, since the sudden flood of currency in world markets drives the exchange rate very low. So if a country doesn't take good care of their pegged rate, they may find themselves with worthless currency.
Floating systems aren't really left to the mercy of market forces, either. Governments using floating exchange rates make changes to their national economic policy that can affect exchange rates, directly or indirectly. Tax cuts, changes to the national interest rate, and import tariffs can all change the value of a nation's currency, even though the value technically floats.
The next time you cross a border, and trade your money for that of another country, remember that economic forces across the world helped determine that exchange rate. In fact, when you exchange currencies, you're one of those economic forces -- you're helping to set the exchange rate, too.
Although this system works pretty well most of the time, it's not always the best solution.
The original seed for a common currency was planted in 1946 when Winston Churchill suggested the creation of the "United States of Europe." His goals were primarily political, in that he hoped a unified government would bring about peace for a continent that had been torn apart by two world wars.
Although the euro is fundamentally a tool to enhance political solidarity, it also has the economic effect of unifying the economies of participating countries. Some of the euro's advantages, in regard to economics, include:
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