Archive for the 'Foreign exchange markets' Category

Nov 23 2011

Why the falling rupee makes Mr. Welker a happy man! (and may help the Indian economy in the long-run)

Indian Rupee hits all-time low against the dollar – CBS News

A couple of years ago I wrote what I would call a “fantasy” blog post about how the recent depreciation of the British pound would have made a ski trip to India a whole lot cheaper since the tour company I was planning to go with quoted its prices in the British currency. Well, at the time I wasn’t really planning to go skiing in the Himalayas, but this year, because of a fall in the value of another currency, I really AM going to ski in the Himalayas!

The chart below shows how the value of the Swiss franc has changed against the Indian rupee over the last year and a half.

The Value of the Swiss Franc in terms of India Rupees – last 18 months

As can be seen, the franc, which is the currency in which I get paid here in Switzerland, has risen from only 40 rupees 18 months ago to as high as 63 rupees in August this year, and is currently at 57 rupees per Swiss franc. We’ll explore the underlying causes of this appreciation of the franc in a moment, but first let’s examine its effect on my dream of skiing in the Himalayas.

So just yesterday morning I did, at last, after six years of dreaming of this adventure, book a six day guided ski trip in the Indian Kashmir town of Gulmarg, which sits at an elevation of 2800 meters and has lift-accessed skiing up to 4,000 meters, making Gulmarg the second highest ski resort in the world. Okay, enough facts. The strong franc made this trip a reality for me for the following reason:

  • 18 months ago, the 40,000 rupee price tag of this ski trip would have meant a cost of 1,000 swiss francs.
  • Today, due to the strong franc, the 40,000 rupee price tag means this trip is only costing me 700 swiss francs.
Due to the strengthening of the franc, and the weakening of the rupee, my Himalayan ski odyssey is now costing me 30% less than it would have 18 months ago… so… I’m doing it! YEAH!
The Swiss currency has appreciated by 42.5% in the last 18 months against the India rupee. WHY?! What could be going on in the world that accounts for this massive swing in exchange rates? There are a few causes worth mentioning here, which have to do with factors within Switzerland and India, but also external factors beyond the control of either country. Here are some of the major ones:
In Europe:
  • The franc has risen against most world currencies, not just the rupee, due, ironically, to economic uncertainty in the rest of Europe. Since Switzerland has its own currency, and a strong economy, whereas all of its European neighbors have a common currency (the euro), and struggling economies, investments in Swiss assets (primarily savings accounts and government debt) have become increasingly attractive. This has caused demand for francs to rise, causing its value to increase against most currencies.
  • The debt crisis in the rest of Europe, most notably in Greece and Italy, reduces certainty among investors in these European governments’ ability to repay their debt, creating further demand for investment in Switzerland, causing the franc to rise.
In India:
  • According to the Associated Press, “Slowing growth, a swelling current account deficit and waning investor interest in India are adding to pressure on the rupee…” India runs a large trade deficit, equaling about 3% of the nation’s GDP. This means Indians are dependent on imported goods, while foreigners do not demand as many of its exports. This puts downward pressure on the exchange rate of the rupee.
  • In addition, the “slowing growth” rate in India sends the signal that the country’s central bank may lower interest rates to try and stimulate GDP. However, the expectations of lower interest rates in the future make international investors look elsewhere for investments with relatively higher returns.
  • Next, weaker growth prospects make investments in Indian assets (such as corporate stocks or bonds) less attractive to international investors, since they expect demand for Indian output to slow in the future, thus demand for rupees declines now.
  • Finally, the decline in the rupee’s value itself is fueling a further increase in the value of the franc. Not all currency exchanges are for the purpose of purchasing a nation’s goods or its assets. Much currency trading is among forex brokers who buy and sell currencies to hold as assets themselves. The weakening of the rupee may be fueling speculation about the future value of the rupee, which acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy, as forex investors will continue to swap rupees for other currencies, including the Swiss franc.
All this adds up to one thing for me: A 30% discount on my ski vacation to India! Of course, for the Indian economy, a weaker rupee might be just what is needed to boost future economic growth. As the rupee falls and the Swiss franc and the US dollar gain value, not only will ski vacations to India become more attractive to foreigners, but so will other exports from the South Asian nation. That 3% trade deficit that has contributed to the rupee’s decline may begin to move towards the positive if foreigners like me begin taking more trips to and buying more goods from Indian firms.
The weaker rupee could, in the long-run, increase total demand for India’s output, which would improve employment and growth prospects on the sub-continent. Furthermore, if India’s growth rate picks up due to increased net exports, the Indian central bank may be able to raise interest rates a bit, reducing the incentive for investors to flee the rupee and put their money in countries with higher returns.
Through this process of self-balancing, in time the weaker rupee will probably lead to an improvement in India’s economic situation and eventually the rupee will begin to strengthen against the currencies of India’s trading partners. But for now, I’m going to enjoy my week of guided skiing in the Himalayas, and thank the forex traders and currency speculators for allowing me to take this dream vacation for such a bargain price!


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Nov 07 2011

Excuse me, China… could you lend us another billion? Understanding the imbalance of trade between China and the United States

The $1.4 Trillion Question – James Fallows – the Atlantic

American consumers are a curious bunch. Up until 2007, the average savings rate in the United States fell as low as 1%, and during brief period was actually negative. What does negative savings actually mean? It means that Americans consume more than they actually produce.On the micro level, the only way to consume beyond ones income is to borrow from someone else to pay for the additional consumption. In other words, savings must be negative for one to consume beyond his or her income. The US is a nation of borrowers, but from whom do we borrow? China, for one…

China is a nation of “savers”, where national savings averages 50% of income. What exactly does this mean? Well, just the opposite what negative savings means; rather than consuming more than it produces, the Chinese consume only about half of what it produces. Here’s how James Fallows, a Shanghai-based journalist, explains the China/US dilemma:

Any economist will say that Americans have been living better than they should—which is by definition the case when a nation’s total consumption is greater than its total production, as America’s now is. Economists will also point out that, despite the glitter of China’s big cities and the rise of its billionaire class, China’s people have been living far worse than they could. That’s what it means when a nation consumes only half of what it produces, as China does.
What happens to the rest of China’s output? Naturally, it’s shipped overseas for Americans and others in the West to consume. The irony is that the consumption of China’s products has been kept affordable and cheap thanks to the actions the Chinese government has taken to suppress the value of the RMB, thus keeping its products cheap and attractive to American consumers.

When the dollar is strong, the following (good) things happen: the price of food, fuel, imports, manufactured goods, and just about everything else (vacations in Europe!) goes down. The value of the stock market, real estate, and just about all other American assets goes up. Interest rates go down—for mortgage loans, credit-card debt, and commercial borrowing. Tax rates can be lower, since foreign lenders hold down the cost of financing the national debt. The only problem is that American-made goods become more expensive for foreigners, so the country’s exports are hurt.

When the dollar is weak, the following (bad) things happen: the price of food, fuel, imports, and so on (no more vacations in Europe) goes up. The value of the stock market, real estate, and just about all other American assets goes down. Interest rates are higher. Tax rates can be higher, to cover the increased cost of financing the national debt. The only benefit is that American-made goods become cheaper for foreigners, which helps create new jobs and can raise the value of export-oriented American firms (winemakers in California, producers of medical devices in New England).

Clearly, a strong dollar is good for America in many ways. The dollar’s strength in the last decade can be credited partially to the Chinese, who have been buying dollar denominated assets in record numbers over the last seven years.

By 1996, China amassed its first $100 billion in foreign assets, mainly held in U.S. dollars. (China considers these holdings a state secret, so all numbers come from analyses by outside experts.) By 2001, that sum doubled to about $200 billion… Since then, it has increased more than sixfold, by well over a trillion dollars, and China’s foreign reserves are now the largest in the world.

China’s purchase of American assets keeps demand for dollars on foreign exchange markets strong, thus the value of the dollar high relative to other currencies, allowing American firms and consumers the benefits of a strong dollars described above.
A nation’s balance of payments consists of the current account, which measures the difference between a country’s expenditures on imports and its income from exports (In 2008 China had a $232 billion current account surplus with the US, meaning the US bought more Chinese goods than China bought of American goods), and the capital account, which measures the difference between the inflows of foreign money for the purchase of real and financial assets at home and the outflows of currency for the purchase of foreign assets abroad. In the financial account, China maintains a deficit (meaning China holds more American financial and real assets than America does of China’s), to off-set its current account surplus.The two accounts together, by definition, balance out… usually. Any deficit in the China’s capital account that does not cover the surplus in its current account can be held as foreign exchange reserves by the People’s Bank of China. The PBOC, however, prefers not to hold excess dollars in reserve, as the dollar’s value is continually eroded by inflation and depreciation; therefore it invests the hundreds of billions of excess dollars it receives from Americans’ purchase of Chinese goods back into the American economy, buying up American assets, with the aim of earning interest on these assets that exceed the inflation rates.

The “assets” the Chinese are using their large influx of dollars to buy are primarily US government bonds. The government issues these bonds to finance its budget deficits, and the Chinese are happy to buy these bonds for a couple of reasons: They are secure investments, meaning that unless the US government collapses, the interest on US bonds is guaranteed income for China. That’s one reason; but the primary reason is that the purchase of these bonds puts US dollars that were originally spent by American consumers on Chinese imports right back into the hands of American consumers (via government spending or tax rebates), so they can continue buying more Chinese imports.

The Chinese demand for dollar denominated financial assets, including government bonds, corporate stocks and bonds, and real assets like real estate, factories, buildings and so on, has resulted in a long period of a strong dollar. If the Chinese ever decided to stem the flow of dollars into American assets, the dollar’s value would plummet to record lows, leading to high inflation and eventually a balancing of America’s enormous current account deficit with China and the rest of the world.

However, a falling dollar is the last thing China wants to see happen, for two reasons: One, it would make Chinese imports more expensive thus less attractive to American households, thus harming Chinese manufacturers and slowing growth in China. Two, US dollars are an asset to China. Its $1.4 billion of US debt would evaporate if the dollar took a major plunge. To China, this would represent a loss of national wealth; in effect all that “savings” that makes China so unique would disappear as the dollar dived relative to the RMB. For these reasons, it seems likely that China will continue to be a willing buyer of America’s debt, thus the financier of Americans’ insanely high consumptive lifestyle.

Discussion Questions:
  1. Many people in America are terrified that the Chinese might dump their dollar holdings. What would happen to the value of the US dollar if China decided to change its foreign reserves to another currency?
  2. Why is it very unlikely that China will do this? In other words, how does the status quo benefit China as well as the US?
  3. How do American households benefit from China’s financing of the government’s budget deficits? In what way to they suffer from this arrangement?
  4. Do you think America can continue to finance its budget deficits through the continued sale of debt to foreigners forever? Why or why not?

152 responses so far

Sep 06 2011

Stability – the greatest Swiss virtue?

BBC News – Swiss National Bank acts to weaken strong franc

The Swiss pride themselves on their long history of stable democracy, domestic tranquility and international neutrality. The stability of the Swiss state and the Swiss economy is heralded as one of its greatest virtues. But in the last few months, particularly in the first two weeks of August, instability has been more the norm in the Swiss economy due to the rapid appreciation of the Swiss currency, the franc, against the euro and the US dollar, which I blogged about here a couple of weeks ago.

Well, as of this morning, the franc’s ascent looks like it has reached its end, and the value of the franc is set to be pegged at 1.20 francs per euro (or 0.83 euros per franc), which is about 8% below what it was trading at this morning.

The Swiss National Bank (SNB) has set a minimum exchange rate of 1.20 francs to the euro, saying the current value of the franc is a threat to the economy.

The SNB said it would enforce the minimum rate by buying foreign currency in unlimited quantities.

The move had an immediate effect, with the euro rising from about 1.10 francs before the announcement to 1.21 francs.

In a statement, the SNB said: “The current massive overvaluation of the Swiss franc poses an acute threat to the Swiss economy and carries the risk of a deflationary development.

“The Swiss National Bank is therefore aiming for a substantial and sustained weakening of the Swiss franc. With immediate effect, it will no longer tolerate a EUR/CHF exchange rate below the minimum rate of CHF 1.20.

“The SNB will enforce this minimum rate with the utmost determination and is prepared to buy foreign currency in unlimited quantities.”

Against the franc, the euro climbed 9%, the dollar rose 7.7% and sterling gained 7.8% within minutes of the announcment.

NPR’s Planet Money reported on the story from Berlin here:

The instability resulting from the franc’s 30% rise in the value against other major currencies throughout the year is primarily the effect it has had on Swiss exporters. Foreign consumers, who actually buy about 50% of Switzerland’s output, have seen the prices of Swiss goods rise as the value of their own currencies has declined against the franc, reducing demand abroad for Swiss exports, forcing firms in the Swiss export sector to reduce their labor force and otherwise cut costs to compensate for the falling demand for their products. The threat of rising unemployment and falling demand for its output caused the Swiss National Bank and the Swiss government great concern, leading to today’s announcement.

The “deflationary development mentioned by the SNB refers to a situation in the Swiss economy where the strong franc makes imports appear ever more attractive (and cheaper) to Swiss consumers, and Swiss goods increasingly less attractive to foreign consumers, reducing the demand for Swiss goods overall and forcing Swiss firms to lay off workers and lower their costs and prices to compensate for falling demand. Lower prices for goods and services in Switzerland reduces the incentives for firms to invest in new capital, thus reducing the demand for labor further, threatening to push the Swiss economy into a demand deficient recession. Deflation, defined as a persistent fall in the average price levels of a nation’s goods and services, can result in a downward spiral characterized by rising unemployment, falling demand, lower prices, and increased layoffs in the export sector, further exacerbating the unemployment problem.

The SNB’s decision to peg the franc to the euro will assure that foreign consumers of Swiss goods will not see their prices continue to rise, and Swiss consumers of foreign goods will not see them get any cheaper in coming months, hopefully bringing Swiss households who have recently enjoyed cheap imports back to the Swiss market to buy more Swiss-made goods and services.

Personally, I have mixed emotions about the franc’s peg with the euro. Of course, on one hand I have benefited greatly from the stronger franc, as an American working in Switzerland, earning swiss francs, the stronger currency has meant I can send the same amount of francs home as I always have, but it has translated into larger and larger quantities of dollars. Today, the dollar’s value has risen nearly 8%, meaning this month I will have a bit fewer dollars in my savings account in the United States as I would have before the peg.

As an employee in a Swiss firm, however, my continued employment depends on the continued demand for the service my school is providing, which is education to the children of multi-national corporations operating out of Switzerland. If the franc had continued to rise, the incentive for multi-nationals to locate their offices in Zurich would have become weaker over time, and more firms would have chosen to move their international employees to cities like Paris, London or Frankfurt, reducing demand for my school’s services and threating my own employment and income, just as those workers at other Swiss export firms’ jobs have been threatened in recent months.

Stability is a virtue the Swiss have always prided themselves on. Today’s announcement by the Swiss National Bank will bring greater stability to the Swiss economy, despite the disadvantages it brings to individuals who have enjoyed the benefits of a stronger franc in recent months.

The graph below explains how the SNB will enforce its currency peg against the euro:

Discussion Questions:

  1. How will the weaker Swiss franc help the Swiss economy?
  2. How will certain individuals in Switzerland be harmed by the weaker franc?
  3. How might the weaker franc affect demand for enrollmente at Zurich International School?
  4. What are two possible consequences of the Swiss National Bank making a promise to enforce a pegged exchange rate between the franc and the euro?
  5. Why are pegged or fixed exchange rates sometimes considered less desirable than floating exchange rates, which is when a currency’s value is determined solely by supply and demand on foreign exchange markets?

15 responses so far

Feb 22 2010

Another question from the Help Desk: Relative price levels as a determinant of exchange rates

One feature of Economics in Plain English several students and teachers have found helpful over the years is the Econ Help Desk, where readers can get questions about basic economic concepts answered personally by me.

Recently I received the following email from an AP Macroeconomics teacher in the United States:

I have a question about graphs that illustrate how trade preferences (specifically Supply and Demand shifts), affect P, Q and Pe on Supply-Demand GRAPHS of Currency Exchange.

In teaching my AP Macro students about this concept, I have reached a gap in our full understanding how to graph the Supply and Demand of Yen, or Euro (Price in USD).

For example, if the Price levels rise in the U.S., relative to Japan’s, and consequently, the U.S. demands more Japanese cars and stereos, the only label that we ever see for the x-axis is “Q” or Quantity, or Qe, a vertical line that represents the starting “market clearing price”, of .01USD=1Y. When DEMAND or SUPPLY shifts, the only change that I ever see labeled on the graphs is the Y-Price in USD of Yen, but descriptions simply talk about the Y=1.

When Demand or Supply shifts (in response to increased demand for Yen), and there is a new higher or lower USD Price for Yen, respectively, does the vertical line for Q simply shift outward (continuing to represent Y=1) at whatever the new Price Equilibrium becomes (simply meaning just more “1s” of them in circulation (at each new Pe market-clearing point)?


Here is my response:

Hello, I will try to address your questions below.

Exchange rates can be determined by several factors, including relative price levels, relative interest rates, tastes and preferences of domestic and international consumers, relative income levels at home and abroad and speculation by currency traders. As you say, an increase in the price level of goods produced in United States (say, Fords), ceteris paribus, should lead to an increase in demand among American consumers for goods produced in Japan (say, Hondas), which now appear relatively cheaper. Demand for Yen increases among American households who wish to buy Japanese goods. The USD price of Yen then rises in the Yen market. Since Japanese holders of Yen now receive more USD for each Yen, they will provide more Yen (this is another way of saying with an increase in demand for Yen, the quantity supplied of Yen increases).

Theory would say that there is no increase in the supply of Yen following an increase in Demand by American consumers, only an increase in quantity supplied. The Yen clearly appreciates, as the USD/Yen exchange rate rises. Now, there is another side to this story. The Yen market refers to the market for Yen in the United States. Yen will appreciate in the United States. Simultaneously, USD will depreciate in Japan, as Americans buy more Japanese goods, they are supplying more USD in the USD market in Japan. Here the “price” or the exchange rate is Yen/USD. The Yen price of a USD will fall as the supply of USD increase as Americans exchange their dollars for Yen to buy the relatively cheap Japanese goods.

The “market-clearing price” in forex markets is the exchange rate that prevails in a floating exchanged rate system where exchange rates are determined solely by supply and demand by international consumers, investors, government, banks, and firms. Assume the Yen is trading for $0.01. If , following inflation in the United States and the corresponding increase in demand for Yen, the value of the Yen remained at $0.01, then the quantity demanded for Yen would exceed the quantity supplied. There would be shortages of Japanese goods in the United States, as Japanese goods are in greater demand yet their prices have not risen. In order to “clear the market” so to speak, the exchange rate must rise, to say $0.012. Now, a Yen’s worth of goods “costs” Americans 20% more than previous, making them less attractive over time. Likewise, a dollar’s worth of goods “costs” Japanese consumers 20% less, since the dollar is weaker in Japan.

As you can foresee, the floating value of the Yen should lead to relatively balanced trade between Japan and the US. The US current account will initially move towards deficit as inflation makes American goods more expensive, however, as demand for Japanese goods increases, the value of the Yen rises making Japanese goods more expensive, which will eventually reduce their appeal to American consumers who will once again begin consuming more American goods and importing less. Japanese will notice the weaker dollar makes US imports cheaper and begin importing more American products. The US current account should remain  balanced in the long-run in a floating exchange rate system.

I don’t know if you’ve had a look at my study guides on exchange rates and balance of payments, but those may help clarify graphically what I describe above:

I hope this clarifies your understanding of how relative price levels help determine exchange rates!


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Feb 05 2010

Economics in plain English: Understanding Argentina’s budget woes

Argentina’s reserves and its debts: Central Bank robbery | The Economist

I received the following email from an Econ teacher who wonders if I had any insight on a question posed by one of his students:

The email reads: “I have alittle query i was hoping you could help clear up for me..a year 13 student has asked a question relating to Argentina’s prime minister, Cristina Fernandezde De Kirchner’s, decision to sell the central bank’s dollar reserves to fund part of the country’s decifit against the advice of the director of the central bank who resigned.”

The student’s question is on the following passage from the Economist article above:

Fernández (Argentina’s president”) justified her raid on the reserves by saying that the Central Bank had more than it needed, because they exceeded the size of the monetary base. Economists disagree about what is an appropriate target for the reserves, but Mr Redrado’s view is that a highly dollarised emerging economy like Argentina’s needs an abundance of Treasury bonds (the form in which most reserves are held) as insurance. Even if Ms Fernández might find support from some economists for her argument, her plan to swap the dollar reserves for a non-transferable government bond would not.

The student’s question is: “I do not know what a monetary base is, nor why Argetina needs treasury bonds.”

This article really caught me off guard at first as well. One thing I love about the Economist newspaper is its use of economic jargon that requires a real understanding of the subject to be able to interpret. The first time I read the article, I will be honest I was completely confused as to what the Argentinean president was up to. But after some reflection and rough sketches of graphs on scrap paper, I think I have “translated” the article’s jargon into plain English.

Below is my reply to the teacher and his student:


The president of Argentina wants to sell the country’s US dollar reserves, which are held in the form of US treasury bonds, and then use the US dollars she receives to buy Argentinean government bonds in order to finance her own government’s budget deficit. In essence she wants to swap Argentina’s central bank reserves of US debt (considered a very stable and safe asset due to America’s low inflation rate and relative solvency of the US government) for Argentinean government debt (less stable and safe, especially in the wake of the country’s 2002 default on its debt). Argentina’s central bank would then hold fewer transferable, stable US bonds and more “non-transferable”, Argentinean government bonds. And since the bonds represent Argentina’s government debt, the country as a whole reduces its assets and increases its liabilities.

It is important for a developing country like Argentina to keep large reserves of US dollar-denominated assets (i.e. US treasury bonds) in reserve in order to assure foreign investors that the country would be able to stabilize its currency’s value in the face of a currency crisis such as that which Argentina experienced in 2001-2002. If the value of the peso began to decline on foreign exchange markets (due, for instance, to a decline in international investor confidence in the government’s ability to pay the interest on its foreign debt or inflation fears caused by excessive monetary growth or government spending) then the central bank could use its large dollar reserves to intervene in the forex market and stabilize the value of the peso, reestablishing investor confidence and maintaining the government’s ability to attract foreign creditors in the Argentinean bond market. A collapse of the peso would have ripple effects throughout Argentina, driving up imported products and raw materials and causing spiraling inflation, forcing the government to print more money to finance its budget in the face of falling demand for its debt in domestic and international bond markets.

Argentina must be sure to keep its balance sheet (i.e. its liability to asset ratio) in check. Its assets are US government bonds, its liabilities are the Argentinean bonds it issues to finance its budget deficits. If this ratio become too heavy on the liability side, foreign investors and speculators will lose confidence in the both peso and the Argentinean government’s solvency and dump their holdings of Argentinean currency, assets, and bonds, driving interest rates through the roof and the exchange rate through the floor, grinding the economy to a halt.

The article says,

Argentina’s economy is on course to rebound this year and grow at 3-5%. But the government is spending money so fast that this growth will not finance current spending on its own, says Daniel Marx, a former finance minister. Ordinarily, a government faced with a shortfall would turn to domestic and international bond markets. But this has been difficult since Argentina defaulted in 2002.

The country cannot count on private creditors to make up its budget shortfall, so the president is planning to finance her country’s deficit by buying Argentinean bonds with the country’s own US dollar reserves. Such behavior concerns economists because it could send a message to international investors that the country is on the path towards another unsustainable build-up of debt that could culminate in another default and economic collapse. The article is a word of caution to the president that all leaders should heed: balanced budgets are a good idea, and debt is dangerous!

One response so far

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