Exchange Rate Policies

Floating Exchange Rates

We refer to a policy which allows the foreign exchange market to set exchange rates 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 Figure shows. 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, on January 1, 2012, it was 77 yen per dollar, and on March 1, 2015, it was 120 yen per 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. However, 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.

The graph shows how the U.S. dollar as compared to the Chinese yen since 2001. The line's variations represent the volatility of exchange rates.
U.S. Dollar Exchange Rate in Japanese Yen Even seemingly stable exchange rates such as the Japanese Yen to the U.S. Dollar can vary when closely examined over time. This figure shows a relatively stable rate between 2011 and 2013. In 2013, there was a drastic depreciation of the Yen (relative to the U.S. Dollar) by about 14% and again at the end of the year in 2014 also by about 14%. (Source: Federal Reserve Economic Data (FRED)

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 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.