Floating Exchange Rates: The Only Viable Solution
For some, the collapse of Mexico’s economy proves that floating exchange rates and markets
without capital controls are deadly. Others find the crash of the European exchange-rate mechanism
(ERM) in 1993 to be proof that targeted rates will always be overturned by the free market. Many
see the breakup of Bretton Woods as the failure of fixed rates. Yet others believe monetary
unification in Europe is the only way to achieve economic and political stability. Many others hold still
different beliefs. There are, however, four main proposals for the management of international
currency exchange rates: monetary unification, fixed rates, floating rates maintained within certain
“reasonable” limits of variability and freely floating rates. Both fixed exchange rates and rates based
on either explicit or unwritten targeting are impossible to maintain, especially in an era of free trade.
Complete monetary unification would be impossible to bring about without extensive integration and
unification of international governments and economies, a task so vast that it is unlikely ever to be
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accomplished. Thus, the only option central banks have is to allow exchange rates to float freely.
The European Monetary System, which virtually collapsed in 1993, was an attempt to fix exchange
rates within certain tight bands, to coordinate monetary policy between member nations and to have
central banks intervene to keep exchange rates within the bands when necessary. The reasons for the
collapse were myriad, but, simply put, it happened because Germany, dealing with financial problems
in part arising from its reunification, refused to lower its high interest rates. This meant other European
countries either had to keep their rates equally high and allow themselves to fall into recession as a
result, or devalue their currency against the mark, a move viewed by many as a political
embarrassment. The possibility of a devaluation caused speculators to bolt from the lira, the pound,
the franc and other currencies, sending the markets into chaos and destroying all semblance of
stability. In the end, the ERM was adjusted to allow currencies to fluctuate within 15 percent on
either side of their assigned level, up from (in most cases) a limitation of 2.25 percent. The bands
became too wide to be meaningful or stabilizing, and the system remained alive “in name only”
Many saw this collapse as inevitable and say all attempts at government-imposed stability will fail:
Governments both will not and cannot stick to pegged or fixed rates. First, maintaining targeted or
fixed rates requires a consistent and fairly uniform monetary policy among nations. There are many
reasons that national governments will not consent to this, the foremost being that different countries
want different things, different economies have different needs and different governments have
different policies. For example, it is thought that Europe and Japan are more willing to tolerate
recession than inflation, while the United States prefers to keep interest rates low and the economy
growing, even if prices do increase (Whitt 11).
In addition, many nations are in different stages of
... shocks such as changing interest rates due to inflation aspects as well as lack of clear monetary policies which led to escalating ... swap financing and they are the currency swap and the interest rate swap. Under the interest rate swap financing it requires that ... to reduce the risks associated with the international currency and the interest rate swap markets. The research methodologies applied here ...
their overall economic cycles (“Gold Standard” 79).
Many countries thus cannot afford to subscribe
to uniform monetary policy. For a country that would otherwise have had low interest rates, for
example, raising them could be both economically counterproductive (what good is exchange rate
stability if recession is its cost?) and politically disastrous (more people notice high interest rates and
unemployment than care about currency stability).
Even if the government were willing to bow to
international standards, nationalism is strong in the world today and most people do not look fondly
upon consolidated global power–witness the problems of the United Nations. People would not
widely support what would effectively be international control of their country’s economic policies
and money supply.
Speculators, unfortunately, know that governments today are likely to put their self-interest ahead of
the nebulous common good and to eventually choose the monetary policy that is best for their
individual economy (as it could be argued happened in the collapse of the ERM).
Speculators will act
on this suspicion, dumping uncertain currencies and running to the strongest (in the case of the 1993
debacle, the Deutsche mark).
So, that is why governments will not stick to targeted rates and what happens as a result. There are
also reasons they cannot. First, there is the decline of capital controls and the resulting ease with
which speculation occurs. With the growing popularity and reality of free markets and with the
advent of the “Information Age,” control over the international money supply is both unwanted and
impossible. The slightest hint of a devaluation can be self-fulfilling as uncountable amounts of money
change hands at a whim. Some people argue that making realignments less predictable would
stalemate destructive speculation (“The Way Ahead” 22), but most people realize that by the time
central banks know to devaluate, the smart speculators–reading the same economic signs as the
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bankers–will know the same thing, especially if devaluation continues to be seen as a fairly drastic
undertaking. Spain, for example, tried in 1993 to catch speculators off guard by realigning in the
middle of the trading day, but that can only be done once before speculators catch on (Eichengreen
and Wyplosz 89).
In the case of a completely fixed system, devaluation is necessarily an extreme
measure and thus there is no question: Speculators will have no trouble seeing it coming and will run
from the market.
These situations could hypothetically be avoided if central banks could intervene to prevent
devaluation from ever becoming necessary. Some currencies, however, probably do not deserve to
be propped up even if doing so were possible, because their real value is so far from their nominal
value that it would be counterproductive to perpetuate the inaccuracy. Second, it can also be argued
that central banks simply do not have the power to control the market, both because they don’t have
enough money (Germany spent 44 billion marks to prop up the pound and the lira in 1993 with very
little success) and because their short-sighted attempts at circumventing the “invisible hand” fail. In the
1980s, governments joined several times to change the value of the dollar relative to the yen (the
Plaza and Louvre agreements), an undertaking whose long-term success is dubious. Some people
even blame the subsequent volatility in the market and the severe problems in the Japanese economy
on the machinations of those governments (Friedman, “Anxiety” 34; Wood 8).
There are also other problems with fixed or targeted rates. Even if the system could be maintained,
the economies of the world are probably not integrated enough to deal with a fixed rate system and
to correct imbalances of trade. Capital is free to flow from country to country, but labor is not and
neither are many businesses. The comparison of the states of the USA to the countries of the world is
... .). Floating exchange rate is an opposity to a fixed exchange rate system. Ukraine has exchange agreements involving more than one market. However, the currency is closely ... connected to the USD rate exchange ...
specious: Not only do the states share a central government and have virtually no economic
sovereignty or identity, and not only is everybody certain that the situation will never change and thus
there is no speculation, but, most importantly, everything flows freely over every border
The balance of the free market, of supply and demand, is easily maintained. That is not
the case in the world at large.
Finally, the last problem with fixed or targeted exchange rates is that confidence in the system has to
be absolute or else pessimistic, self-fulfilling speculation will cause the collapse of the system.
Unfortunately, the system isn’t perfect. Again and again people write that as soon as this or that crisis
passes over (Germany’s reunification, for example), we will have economic and political peace and
be able to fix exchange rates. But crises in Europe and elsewhere haven’t ceased just because Hitler
is no longer alive and the Berlin Wall has fallen. Overwhelming problems will at some point strike the
system–we haven’t advanced beyond war, mayhem and natural disasters–and there will be no
solution but to leave the monetary regime, as has happened before (notably in World War II).
People with money in the currency market know this, and knowing this, help to make it inevitable.
One misconception about fixed exchange rates ought to be noted here: the difference between real
and nominal values of money. With fixed rates, nominal exchange rates may be stable but real
exchange rates vary. Prices of imports and exports still change relative to each other; this is how the
system balances itself. As a country’s money supply contracts and expands by the actions of
foreigners, the price level within the country changes. (Theoretically, it would go both up and down,
but the tendency of prices to “stick” high hinders the balancing mechanism by making deflation rare.)
As one author put it, the attractiveness of fixed rates depends partially on the answer to the question,
“How stupid is your labour force?” (“Currency Reform” 18) And how stupid are all the business
people? Is not the fluctuation in the nominal and real values of the currency under a floating system
... business in Ukraine to hedge their currency. Most of all, since 2003, several exchange rate systems have been used to reduce the ... Exchange Rate System In finance, the exchanging rate between two currencies means how much one currency is worth in terms of the other. There ... risks of currency fluctuation. The cash pool helps ...
similar to the fluctuation in the real value of fixed currency? The changes in floating exchange rates
have proved to be much more volatile than the (real) changes in fixed rates, but it ought to be noted
that real values still change under both systems, in both cases to remedy balance of payments
problems. Since we would have to sacrifice in order to maintain nominal stability through fixed rates,
we ought to remember to ask exactly how much real stability we would be getting in return.
The third major proposal for a monetary system is that of monetary unification. This poses some of
the same problems as a fixed or targeted rate system. Most people don’t support it because,
essentially, it unifies too much. It takes too much power out of the hands of nations and puts it
somewhere else. It would, like a free market, increase harmonization (competition) in taxation,
another trend which threatens the autonomy of nations (Hornblower 41).
Governments would, as in
the other two systems, give up a great deal of control over their domestic economies, and the
problems of individual country’s business cycles would be ignored and unregulated. Even if monetary
unification were wanted–and it would remove the problems currency volatility poses for international
trade–its institution would be virtually impossible in the current political climate. “Jealousies,
allegiances, the bases of political support remain firmly national; that fact cannot be wished away by a
coin” (“To Phrase a Coin” 14).
The governments of countries and their populations are further from
integration than the economies themselves; it would be impossible to achieve the amount of political
coordination–one could even call it union–that would be necessary to create and sustain complete
So, what is the answer? Obviously, currency volatility is a problem. Unfortunately, all other
... smoothly running international monetary system contribute to a more efficient utilization of world resources. The Bretton Woods Fixed Exchange Rate System The Second World War ... then need to convert the amount involved into their domestic currencies. The set of rules, regulations, institutions, procedures, practices and mechanisms ...
alternatives seem worse. There are, at least, some advantages to freely floating rates aside from their
existence as the only viable system. First, they can act as “shock absorbers” and moderate the
exportation of one country’s problems (inflation, for example) to its neighbors (“Fixed and Floating
Voters” 64; Friedman, “Introduction” xxiii).
Second, the free market punishes incompetent
governments for bad fiscal policies. Mexico’s monetary policy was woefully irresponsible; thus, it’s
hardly a surprise its entire economy collapsed. Competition in the currency market, as in all other
things, drives people and governments to be responsible (Becker 34).
The system is also, in some ways, fair. As Paul Magnusson posits, it “arguably reflects the fair value
of nations’ legal tender based on the fundamentals of growth, inflation, and interest rates.” He goes on
to add that “currency volatility is the price of a free market, not a condition to be cured” (108).
as, for example, it’s widely believed that price and rent controls hurt more than they help, so too do
government interventions in the currency market. As mentioned above, many even blame government
intervention for volatility in the first place, as in the case of the Plaza and Louvre agreements. Some
people also argue that volatility may be temporary until the system settles down (Friedman,
“Introduction” xxiii), but this bears some of the marks of the unrealistic optimism of people who seem
to believe Europe and the world will be (after we resolve just one more crisis) forever peaceful and
ready for unification.
The biggest advantage of floating exchange rates is that they give each country control over its
domestic affairs. Presumably, it knows best how to handle them, and it is to be hoped that
knowledge of the workings of the free market will keep it from doing so irresponsibly. Speculation
can be a stabilizing force that demands responsible fiscal policy and money management. The cost of
economic stability and prosperity may in fact be exchange rate instability: $6.5 billion to $39 billion
was estimated to have been spent on hedging in 1989 (Rolnick and Weber 33), but how much
money would be lost each year by sacrificing individual economies to the international “good” (as in
the case of the European nations that fell into recession during the ERM crisis)? Besides, as the
president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank said, “low inflation is the best assurance of
exchange rate stability” (Lewis A24).
Theoretically, intelligent domestic control of national economies
will dampen currency volatility as well as improving the health of the economy itself.
For all these reasons, floating exchange rates are the best system available to central banks at this
time. The mechanism is certainly not without flaws, but it is the only truly feasible choice.
Governments will always desert a fixed or targeted rate system, either when their reserves run out or
when domestic inflation or recession becomes too severe. The real values of currencies do
fluctuate–that is the problem. Sooner or later a gross imbalance will arise and it will be fixed either
by the nation voluntarily leaving the system or by speculators foreseeing its demise and forcing it out.
The solution to that problem, monetary union–fixed rates with no devaluation or “leaving the system”
allowed–would be impossible to institute and maintain even if it were economically advantageous to
all involved. The only realistic and economically sound solution, problematic though it may be, is to
have exchange rates float freely and without restriction.
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