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Currency Exchange: Floating Rate Vs.

Fixed Rate
By Reem Heakal on March 12, 2012 A A A Filed Under: Beginning Investor, Exchange Rate Regime, Financial Crisis, Forex Fundamentals, Forex History, Forex Theory, International Markets, International Monetary Fund Did you know that the foreign exchange market (also known as FX or forex) is the largest market in the world? In fact, more than $3 trillion is traded in the currency markets on a daily basis, as of 2009. This article is certainly not a primer for currency trading, but it will help you understand exchange rates and fluctuation. What Is an Exchange Rate? An exchange rate is the rate at which one currency can be exchanged for another. In other words, it is the value of another country's currency compared to that of your own. If you are traveling to another country, you need to "buy" the local currency. Just like the price of any asset, the exchange rate is the price at which you can buy that currency. If you are traveling to Egypt, for example, and the exchange rate for U.S. dollars is 1:5.5 Egyptian pounds, this means that for every U.S. dollar, you can buy five and a half Egyptian pounds. Theoretically, identical assets should sell at the same price in different countries, because the exchange rate must maintain the inherent value of one currency against the other. Fixed Exchange Rates There are two ways the price of a currency can be determined against another. A fixed, or pegged, rate is a rate the government (central bank) sets and maintains as the official exchange rate. A set price will be determined against a major world currency (usually the U.S. dollar, but also other major currencies such as the euro, the yen or a basket of currencies). In order to maintain the local exchange rate, the central bank buys and sells its own currency on the foreign exchange market in return for the currency to which it is pegged. SEE: What Are Central Banks? and Get To Know The Major Central Banks

If, for example, it is determined that the value of a single unit of local currency is equal to US$3, the central bank will have to ensure that it can supply the market with those dollars. In order to maintain the rate, the central bank must keep a high level of foreign reserves. This is a reserved amount of foreign currency held by the central bank that it can use to release (or absorb) extra funds into (or out of) the market. This ensures an appropriate money supply, appropriate fluctuations in the market (inflation/deflation) and ultimately, the exchange rate. The central bank can also adjust the official exchange rate when necessary. Floating Exchange Rates Unlike the fixed rate, a floating exchange rate is determined by the private market through supply and demand. A floating rate is often termed "selfcorrecting," as any differences in supply and demand will automatically be corrected in the market. Look at this simplified model: if demand for a currency is low, its value will decrease, thus making imported goods more expensive and stimulating demand for local goods and services. This in turn will generate more jobs, causing an auto-correction in the market. A floating exchange rate is constantly changing. In reality, no currency is wholly fixed or floating. In a fixed regime, market pressures can also influence changes in the exchange rate. Sometimes, when a local currency reflects its true value against its pegged currency, a "black market" (which is more reflective of actual supply and demand) may develop. A central bank will often then be forced to revalue or devalue the official rate so that the rate is in line with the unofficial one, thereby halting the activity of the black market. In a floating regime, the central bank may also intervene when it is necessary to ensure stability and to avoid inflation. However, it is less often that the central bank of a floating regime will interfere. The World Once Pegged Between 1870 and 1914, there was a global fixed exchange rate. Currencies were linked to gold, meaning that the value of a local currency was fixed at a

set exchange rate to gold ounces. This was known as the gold standard. This allowed for unrestricted capital mobility as well as global stability in currencies and trade. However, with the start of World War I, the gold standard was abandoned. SEE: The Gold Standard Revisited
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At the end of World War II, the conference at Bretton Woods, an effort to generate global economic stability and increase global trade, established the basic rules and regulations governing international exchange. As such, an international monetary system, embodied in the International Monetary Fund (IMF), was established to promote foreign trade and to maintain the monetary stability of countries and therefore, that of the global economy. SEE: What Is The International Monetary Fund? It was agreed that currencies would once again be fixed, or pegged, but this time to the U.S. dollar, which in turn was pegged to gold at US$35 per ounce. What this meant, was that the value of a currency was directly linked with the value of the U.S. dollar. So, if you needed to buy Japanese yen, the value of the yen would be expressed in U.S. dollars, whose value in turn was determined in the value of gold. If a country needed to readjust the value of its currency, it could approach the IMF to adjust the pegged value of its currency. The peg was maintained until 1971, when the U.S. dollar could no longer hold the value of the pegged rate of US$35 per ounce of gold. From then on, major governments adopted a floating system, and all attempts to move back to a global peg were eventually abandoned in 1985. Since then, no major economies have gone back to a peg, and the use of gold as a peg has been completely abandoned. Why Peg? The reasons to peg a currency are linked to stability. Especially in today's developing nations, a country may decide to peg its currency to create a stable

atmosphere for foreign investment. With a peg, the investor will always know what his or her investment's value is, and therefore will not have to worry about daily fluctuations. A pegged currency can also help to lower inflation rates and generate demand, which results from greater confidence in the stability of the currency. Fixed regimes, however, can often lead to severe financial crises, since a peg is difficult to maintain in the long run. This was seen in the Mexican (1995), Asian (1997) and Russian (1997) financial crises: an attempt to maintain a high value of the local currency to the peg resulted in the currencies eventually becoming overvalued. This meant that the governments could no longer meet the demands to convert the local currency into the foreign currency at the pegged rate. With speculation and panic, investors scrambled to get their money out and convert it into foreign currency before the local currency was devalued against the peg; foreign reserve supplies eventually became depleted. In Mexico's case, the government was forced to devalue the peso by 30%. In Thailand, the government eventually had to allow the currency to float, and by the end of 1997, the Thai bhat had lost 50% of its value as the market's demand and supply readjusted the value of the local currency. SEE: What Causes A Currency Crisis? Countries with pegs are often associated with having unsophisticated capital markets and weak regulating institutions. The peg is there to help create stability in such an environment. It takes a stronger system as well as a mature market to maintain a float. When a country is forced to devalue its currency, it is also required to proceed with some form of economic reform, like implementing greater transparency, in an effort to strengthen its financial institutions. Some governments may choose to have a "floating," or "crawling" peg, whereby the government reassesses the value of the peg periodically and then changes the peg rate accordingly. Usually, this causes devaluation, but it is controlled to avoid market panic. This method is often used in the transition from a peg to a floating regime, and it allows the government to "save face" by not being forced to devalue in an uncontrollable crisis.

The Bottom Line Although the peg has worked in creating global trade and monetary stability, it was used only at a time when all the major economies were a part of it. While a floating regime is not without its flaws, it has proven to be a more efficient means of determining the long-term value of a currency and creating equilibrium in the international market.

A Brief History of Exchange Rates


For centuries, the currencies of the world were backed by gold. That is, a piece of paper currency issued by any world government represented a real amount of gold held in a vault by that government. In the 1930s, the U.S. set the value of the dollar at a single, unchanging level: 1 ounce of gold was worth $35. After World War II, other countries based the value of their currencies on the U.S. dollar. Since everyone knew how much gold a U.S. dollar was worth, then the value of any other currency against the dollar could be based on its value in gold. A currency worth twice as much gold as a U.S dollar was, therefore, also worth two U.S. dollars. 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. Finally, in 1971, the U.S. took away the gold standard altogether. This meant that the dollar no longer represented an actual amount of a precious substance -- market forces alone determined its value. 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.

The Pegged Exchange Rate


A pegged, or fixed system, is one in which the exchange rate is set and artificially maintained by the government. The rate will be pegged to some other country's dollar, usually the U.S. dollar. The rate will not fluctuate from day to day. 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, ablack 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.

Methods of Exchange
The Floating Exchange Rate There are two main systems used to determine a currency's exchange rate: floating currency andpegged currency. 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. Generally, countries with mature, stable economic markets will use a floating system. Virtually every major nation uses this system, including the U.S., Canada and Great Britain. Floating exchange rates are considered more efficient, because the market will automatically correct the rate to reflect inflation and other economic forces. 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.

Hybrids
In reality, few exchange rate systems are 100 percent floating, or 100 percent pegged. Countries using a pegged rate can avoid market panics and inflationary disasters by using a floating peg. They peg their rate to the U.S. dollar, and that rate doesn't fluctuate from day to day. However, the government periodically reviews their peg, and makes minor adjustments to keep it in line with the true market value. 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.