Exchange Rates: Float or Fixed?

money bags

Throughout history countries have adopted both fixed and floating exchange rate systems, usually depending upon the condition of the domestic economy. The value of a currency was traditionally based on a fixed system of gold, which was known as the gold standard. However, due to the limitations incurred by the gold standard such as a restriction on growth through the lack of monetary expansion, free floating systems were adopted. Currently, most developed countries maintain a managed float system which combines aspects of a fixed rate with those of the floating rate.

Free floating exchange rate is where the market forces of supply and demand determine a currency’s value relative to another currency. There are many advantages to the use of this system, as it supports trade and achieves accurate pricing of the currency as the market forces provide price signalling. Nevertheless, the free floating system ensures no government involvement, and this reduces the possibility of market failure. With the absence of government control it is unlikely that the currency will be held at an artificially achieved price which is either over or under valued. Through letting market forces clear the exchange market events such as Black Wednesday can be avoided. Black Wednesday was when the Sterling was pegged to the Deutschmark; there was market speculation that at this exchange rate that the Sterling was being over-valued. This led onto currency traders such as George Soros to undercut the currency by short selling. This had forced the Bank of England to unpeg the currency to allow market forces to clear the market and restore the sterling to a stable value. This exemplifies the danger of fixing the currency, and how this can be easily be avoided by simply letting supply and demand determine the value. This is limited in the fact that speculation can still occur, and developing countries may want to avoid free floating as foreign investors may “bet” either way on the currency and this has national repercussions.

A fixed exchange rate system is where the value of one currency is pegged onto the value of another currency or as mentioned gold; this is done in order to maintain the value of the currency within a given band. Two mechanisms may be used to keep the currency’s value within the band, and these take the form of interest rates and foreign reserves. In a free floating system the interest rate can be varied to any degree in the interest of pursuing monetary policy, whereas in a fixed system the interest rate is only manipulate to ensure the currency’s value stays within its respective band. If the interest rate were to be kept too high, the currency would attract foreign investment leading the currency to strengthen, while the opposite can occur if the interest rate were to be lowered. This means that the government has finite ability in manipulating in the currency for domestic reasons, restricting the pursuit of monetary policies. Furthermore, in order to control the value of a currency a central bank most hold sizeable foreign reserves. The central bank must be able to freely buy and sell the currency in question, and this requires access to foreign reserves. This introduces the possibility of government failure as it is difficult to know how much a foreign currency must be held, and the possible market repercussions of having a preferred reserve currency. In the free floating system these controls are not needed, reducing the possibility of government induced failure, and the free floating system also allows greater monetary flexibility.

The free floating exchange rate system provides an automatic readjustment for an economy’s balance of payments. When a country is running a trade deficit imports are exceeding exports, prompting leakages out of the economy without introducing some kind of injection. Furthermore, as the country maintains a high demand for imports this means that there is a considerable demand for foreign currency, prompting the domestic currency to be supplied. This eventually reaches the point where the domestic currency is supplied to the extent that there is downward pressure on the currency causing it to depreciate in value. This depreciation in value means that the relative price of exports abroad decreases, making them competitive in the foreign markets. It also leads to the relative price increase of imports, as now the domestic currency is less able to purchase foreign currency. This counteracts the trade deficit as now exports will exceed imports closing the trade deficit gap. This is all achieved through the market clearing forces, rather than government intervention which may misallocate resources in an attempt to control the balance of payments. However, this does lead to a cyclical effect where the currency will have stronger and weaker periods. The main limitation in the dependency of the automatic readjustment is that it depends on the type of imports, some developing countries may have staple goods (e.g. gasoline, water, etc.) as their imports, and regardless of currency change their exports may still not be attractive, thus the adjustment does not occur or does not occur to the same extent as it would for a developed country.

Fixed exchange rate systems do promote long run stability, which can be undermined if the market is left to determine the value of the currency. It is beneficial for developing countries to maintain a peg as it helps them plan for the long run, and they need dependable trade flows. As previously mentioned the imports undertaken by developing countries may be basic necessities, so a free floating system may destabilise their ability to import the essentials. With a fixed exchange rate the developing countries can make trade agreements that will be sustainable for a length of time, and ensure some kind of economic stability. Furthermore, there is the removal of administrative costs that are persistent with the free floating system, such as futures contracts, and other types of hedging. Through running a fixed system the currency can be protected from the fluctuations of free floating currencies, which also contributes to the long term planning of developing countries, and a degree of economic stability. One key advantage of the fixed system is that it encourages firms to maintain productive and allocative efficiency so that they can compete in international trade. When a currency is pegged it is difficult to depreciate its value to make exports more competitive, thus producers are driven to allocate their resources wisely and ensure efficiency in order to cut down operational and productive costs.

When comparing the two systems it is clear that a mix of the two is suitable for many developed countries, whereas a fixed rate system has more direct benefits to developing countries who aim for stable growth. In a managed float the two fixing mechanisms can be employed in order to manipulate the value of the currency, but as the currency remains unpegged the overriding market force is that of supply and demand so it is unlikely that the currency will be over or under valued even with the use of fixed system controls. The free floating system has quite considerable benefits, as it not only reduces government intervention but also provides the automatic adjustment of the balance of payments, and monetary flexibility which has become integral in a post financial crisis economic climate.