|This article relies largely or entirely upon a single source. (November 2008)|
Currency intervention, also known as foreign exchange market intervention, or currency manipulation, occurs when a government buys or sells foreign currency to push the exchange rate of its own currency away from equilibrium value or to prevent the exchange rate from moving toward its equilibrium value.
Generally, central banks intervene in foreign exchange markets in order to achieve a variety of overall economic objectives: controlling inflation, maintaining competitiveness, or maintaining financial stability. The precise objectives of policy and how they are reflected in currency manipulation depend on a number of factors, including the stage of a country’s development, the degree of financial market development and integration, and the country’s overall vulnerability to shocks.
There are many reasons why a country's monetary and/or fiscal authority may want to intervene in the foreign exchange market.
Central banks are in a general consensus in regard to the primary objective of foreign exchange market intervention: to adjust the volatility or changing the level of the exchange rate. Governments prefer to stabilize the exchange rate because excessive short-term volatility erodes market confidence and affects both the financial market and the real goods market. When there is an inordinate instability, exchange rate uncertainty generates extra costs and reduces profits for firms. As a result, investors are unwilling to make investment in foreign financial assets. Firms are reluctant to engage in the international trade. Moreover, the exchange rate fluctuation would spill over into the financial markets. If the exchange rate volatility increases the risk of holding domestic assets, then prices of these assets would also become more volatile. The increased volatility of financial markets would threaten the stability of the financial system and make monetary policy goals more difficult to attain. Therefore, authorities conduct currency intervention. In addition, when economic condition changes or when the market misinterprets economic signals, authorities use foreign exchange intervention to correct exchange rates, in order to avoid overshooting of either direction.
Today, forex market intervention is largely used by the central banks of developing countries, and less so by developed countries. There are a few reasons why most developed countries no longer actively intervene:
- Research and experience suggest that the instrument is only effective (at least beyond the very short term) if seen as foreshadowing interest rate or other policy adjustments. Without a durable and independent impact on the nominal exchange rate, intervention is seen as having no lasting power to influence the real exchange rate and thus competitive conditions for the tradable sector.
- Large-scale intervention can undermine the stance of monetary policy.
- Private financial markets have enough capacity to absorb and manage shocks - so that there is no need to “guide” the exchange rate.
Developing countries, on the other hand, do sometimes intervene, presumably because they believe the instrument to be an effective tool in the circumstances and for the situations they face. Objectives include: to control inflation, to achieve external balance or enhance competitiveness to boost growth, or to prevent currency crises, such as large depreciation/appreciation swings.
In the 1960’s, under the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates, intervention was used to help maintain the exchange rate within prescribed margins and was considered to be essential to a central bank’s toolkit. The dissolution of the Bretton Woods system between 1968 and 1973 was largely due to President Richard Nixon’s “temporary” suspension of the dollar’s convertibility to gold in 1971, after the dollar struggled throughout the late 1960’s in light of large increases in the price of gold. An attempt to revive the fixed exchange rates failed, and by March 1973 the major currencies began to float against each other. Since the end of the traditional Bretton Woods system, IMF members have been free to choose any form of exchange arrangement they wish (except pegging their currency to gold), such as: allowing the currency to float freely, pegging it to another currency or a basket of currencies, adopting the currency of another country, participating in a currency bloc, or forming part of a monetary union. The end of the traditional Bretton Wood system in the early 1970’s and the move to managed currencies led to a large scale increase in currency intervention throughout the 1970’s and 80’s.
Types of Intervention
Direct currency intervention is generally defined as foreign exchange transactions that are conducted by the monetary authority and aimed at influencing exchange rate. Depending on whether it changes the monetary base or not, currency intervention could be distinguished between sterilized intervention and non-sterilized intervention, respectively.
- Sterilized intervention
- Sterilized intervention is a policy that attempts to influence the exchange rate without changing the monetary base. The procedure is a combination of two transactions. First, the central bank conducts a nonsterilized intervention by buying (selling) foreign currency bonds using domestic currency that it issues. Then the central bank “sterilizes” the effects on the monetary base by selling (buying) a corresponding quantity of domestic-currency-denominated bonds to soak up the initial increase (decrease) of the domestic currency. The net effect of the two operations is the same as a swap of domestic-currency bonds for foreign-currency bonds with no change in the money supply. With sterilization, any purchase of foreign exchange is accompanied by an equal-valued sale of domestic bonds, and vice versa.
- For example, desiring to decrease the exchange rate/price of domestic currency without changing the monetary base, authorities purchase foreign-currency bonds, the same action as in the last section. After this action, in order to keep the monetary base, governments conduct a new transaction, selling an equal amount of domestic-currency bonds, so that the total money supply is back to the original level.
- Non-sterilized intervention
- Non-sterilized intervention is a policy that alters the monetary base. Specifically, authorities affect the exchange rate through purchasing or selling foreign money or bonds with domestic currency.;
- For example, aiming at decreasing the exchange rate/price of the domestic currency, authorities could purchase foreign currency bonds. During this transaction, extra supply of domestic currency will drag down domestic currency price, and extra demand of foreign currency will push up foreign currency price. As a result, the exchange rate drops.
Indirect currency intervention is a policy that influences the exchange rate indirectly. Some examples are capital controls (taxes or restrictions on international transactions in assets), and exchange controls (the restriction of trade in currencies). Those policies may lead to inefficiencies or reduce market confidence, but can be used as an emergency damage control.
In general, there is a consensus in the profession that non-sterilized intervention is effective. Similarly to the monetary policy, nonsterilized intervention influences the exchange rate by inducing changes in the stock of the monetary base, which, in turn, induces changes in broader monetary aggregates, interest rates, market expectations and ultimately the exchange rate. As we have shown in the previous example, the purchase of foreign-currency bonds leads to the increase of home-currency money supply and thus a decrease of the exchange rate.
On the other hand, the effectiveness of sterilized intervention is more controversial and ambiguous. By definition, the sterilized intervention has little or no effect on domestic interest rates, since the level of the money supply has remained constant. However, according to some literature, sterilized intervention can influence the exchange rate through two channels: the portfolio balance channel and the expectations or signaling channel.
- The Portfolio Balance Channel
- In the portfolio balance approach, domestic and foreign bonds are not perfect substitutes. Agents balance their portfolios among domestic money and bonds, and foreign currency and bonds. Whenever aggregate economic condition changes, agents adjust their portfolios to a new equilibrium, based on a variety of considerations, i.e., wealth, tastes, expectation, and etc.. Thus, these actions to balance portfolios will influence exchange rates.
- The Expectations or Signaling Channel
- Even if domestic and foreign assets are perfect substitutability of each other, sterilized intervention is still effective. According to the signaling channel theory, agents may view exchange rate intervention as a signal about the future stance of policy. Then the change of expectation will affect the current level of the exchange rate.
Today, there are four groups that stand out as frequent currency manipulators: Longstanding advanced and developed economies, such as Japan and Switzerland, newly industrialized economies such as Singapore, developing Asian economies such as China, and oil exporters, such as Russia.
It is not unusual for countries to manage their exchange rate via central bank in order to make their exports cheap. This method is being used extensively by the emerging markets of Southeast Asia, in particular. The American dollar is generally the primary target for these currency managers. The dollar is the global trading system’s premier reserve currency, meaning dollars are freely traded and confidently accepted by international investors.
As the financial crisis of 2007–08 hit Switzerland, the Swiss franc appreciated, “owing to a flight to safety and to the repayment of Swiss franc liabilities funding carry trades in high yielding currencies”. On March 12, 2009, the Swiss National Bank (SNB) announced that it intended to buy foreign exchange to prevent the Swiss franc from further appreciation. Affected by the SNB purchase of Euros and U.S. dollars, Swiss franc weakened from 1.48 against the euro to 1.52 in a single day. At the end of 2009, the currency risk seemed to be solved; the SNB changed its attitude to preventing substantial appreciation. Unfortunately, the Swiss franc began to appreciate again. Thus, the SNB stepped in one more time and intervened at a rate of more than CHF 30 billion per month. By the end of June 17, 2010, when the SNB announced the end of intervening, it had purchased an equivalent of $179 billion of Euros and U.S. dollars, amounting to 33% of Swiss GDP. Furthermore, in September 2011, the SNB influenced the foreign exchange market again, and set a minimum exchange rate target of SFr 1.2 to the Euro.
On January 15, 2015, the SNB suddenly announced that it would no longer hold the Swiss Franc at the fixed exchange rate with the euro it had set in 2011. The franc soared in response; the euro fell roughly 40 percent in value in relation to the franc, falling as low as 0.85 francs (from the original 1.2 francs). 
As investors flocked to the franc during the financial crisis, they dramatically pushed up its value. An expensive franc may have large adverse affects on the Swiss economy; the Swiss economy is heavily reliant on selling things abroad. Exports of goods and services are worth over 70% of Swiss GDP. In order to maintain price stability and lower the franc’s value, the SNB created new francs and used them to buy euros. Increasing the supply of francs relative to euros on foreign-exchange markets caused the franc’s value to fall (ensuring the euro was worth 1.2 francs). This policy resulted in the SNB amassing roughly $480 billion-worth of foreign currency, a sum equal to about 70% of Swiss GDP.
The Economist asserts that the SNB dropped the cap for the following reasons: first, rising criticisms among Swiss citizens regarding the large build-up of foreign reserves. Fears of runaway inflation underlie these criticisms, despite inflation of the franc being too low, according to the SNB. Second, in response to the European Central Bank's decision to initiate a quantitative easing program to combat euro deflation. The consequent devaluation of the euro would require the SNB to further devalue the franc had they decided to maintain the fixed exchange rate. Third, due to recent euro depreciation in 2014, the franc lost roughly 12% of its value against the USD and 10% against the rupee (exported goods and services to the U.S. and India account for roughly 20% Swiss exports).
Following the SNB's announcement, the Swiss stock market sharply declined; due to a stronger franc, Swiss companies have a more difficult time selling goods and services to neighboring European citizens.
From 1989 to 2003, Japan was suffering from a long deflationary period. After experiencing economic boom, the Japanese economy slowly declined in the early 1990's and entered a deflationary spiral in 1998. Within this period, Japanese output activities were stagnating; the deflation, in the sense of a negative inflation rate, was getting continuing to fall, and the unemployment rate was increasing. Simultaneously, confidence in the financial sector waned, and several banks failed. During the period, the Bank of Japan, having become legally independent in March 1998, aimed at stimulating the economy by ending deflation and stabilizing the financial system. The "availability and effectiveness of traditional policy instruments was severely constrained as the policy interest rate was already virtually at zero, and the nominal interest rate could not become negative (the zero bound problem)."
In response of deflationary pressures, the Bank of Japan, in coordination with the Ministry of Finance, launched a reserve targeting program. The BOJ increased the commercial bank current account balance to ¥35 trillion. Subsequently, the MoF used those funds to purchase $320 billion in U.S. treasury bonds and agency debt.
Today, like the case with China, critics of Japanese currency intervention assert that the central bank of Japan has been artificially and intentionally devaluing the yen. Some state that the US-Japan trade deficit (as of 2014, the deficit equates to $261.7 billion) as a result of this devaluation is costing the United States economy jobs. Bank of Korea Governor Kim Choong Soo has urged Asian countries to work together to defend themselves against the side-effects of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s reflation campaign. Some have stated that this campaign is in response to Japan’s stagnant economy and potential deflationary spiral.
In 2013, Japanese Finance Minister Taro Aso stated that Japan planned to use its foreign exchange reserves to buy bonds issued by the European Stability Mechanism and euro-area sovereigns, in order to weaken the yen. The U.S. criticized Japan for undertaking unilateral sales of the yen in 2011, after Group of Seven economies jointly intervened to weaken the currency in the aftermath of the record earthquake and tsunami that year. As of 2013, Japan holds $1.27 trillion in foreign reserves according to finance ministry data.
China has provided the most controversy within the United States due to the large increase in American imports of Chinese goods in the 1990’s and 2000’s. China’s central bank has allegedly devalued yuan by buying large amounts of US dollars with yuan, thus increasing the supply of the yuan in the foreign exchange market, while increasing the demand for US dollars, thus increasing the price of USD. As of the end of 2012, China’s foreign exchange reserve holds roughly $3.3 trillion, making it the highest foreign exchange reserve in the world. Roughly 60% of this reserve is composed of US government bonds and debentures.
There has been much disagreement on how the United States should respond to Chinese devaluation of the yuan. This is partly due to disagreement over the actual effects of the undervalued yuan on capital markets, trade deficits, and the US domestic economy.
Some economists, such as Paul Krugman, argue that Chinese currency devaluation helps China by boosting its exports, and hurts the United States by widening its trade deficit. In other words, China intentionally devalues its currency in order to keep its exports cheap, thus facilitating countries like the United States to buy more Chinese goods. Krugman has suggested that the United States should impose tariffs on Chinese goods as a way of undermining the efforts of the Chinese to make their goods cheaper in relativity to the U.S. dollars. Krugman stated:
“The more depreciated China’s exchange rate — the higher the price of the dollar in yuan* — the more dollars China earns from exports, and the fewer dollars it spends on imports. (Capital flows complicate the story a bit, but don’t change it in any fundamental way). By keeping its current artificially weak — a higher price of dollars in terms of yuan — China generates a dollar surplus; this means that the Chinese government has to buy up the excess dollars.”
Greg Mankiw, on the other hand, asserts that U.S. protectionism via tariffs will hurt the U.S. economy far more than Chinese devaluation. Similarly, others have stated that the undervalued yuan has actually hurt China more in the long run insofar that the undervalued yuan doesn’t subsidize the Chinese exporter, but subsidizes the American importer. Thus, importers within China have been substantially hurt due to the Chinese government’s intention to continue to grow exports.
- Central Bank
- Quantitative Easing
- Foreign exchange market
- Open market operation
- Sterilization (economics)
- Joseph E. Gagnon, “Policy Brief 12-19”, Peterson Institute for International Economic, 2012.
- Bank for International Settlements, BIS Paper No. 24, Foreign exchange market intervention in emerging markets: motives, techniques and implications, (2005).
- Lucio Sarno and Mark P. Taylor, “Official Intervention in the Foreign Exchange Market: Is It Effective and, If So, How Does It Work?,” Journal of Economic Literature 39.3 (2001): 839-68.
- Obstfeld, Maurice (1996). Foundations of International Finance. Boston: Massachusetts Institute of Technology. pp. 597–599. ISBN 0-262-15047-6.
- Neely, Christopher (November–December 1999). "An Introduction to Capital Controls". Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Review: 13–30.
- Tyalor, Mark; Lucio Sarno (September 2001). "Official Intervention in the Foreign Exchange Market: Is It Effective and, If So, How Does It Work?". Journal of Economic Literature: 839–868.
- Mussa, Michael (1981). The Role of Official Intervention. VA: George Mason University Press.
- Joseph E. Gagnon, "Policy Brief: Combating Widespread Currency Manipulation", Peterson Institute for International Economics, (2012).
- Jared Bernstein, “How to Stop Currency Manipulation”, The New York Times, 2015
- Gerlach, Petra; Rober McCauley; Kazuo Ueda (October 2011). "Currency Intervention and the Global Portfolio Balance Effect".
- Takatoshi Ito, "Japanese Monetary Policy: 1998-2005 and Beyond," Bank of International Settlements, p.105-107.
- Richard Duncan, The Dollar Crisis: Causes, Consequences, Cures, (2011).
- Mayumi Otsuma, “Japan to Buy European Debt with Currency Reserves to Weaken Yen”, Bloomberg News, 2013: par. 1-8.
- Urbanek, Vladimir. "China's foreign exchange reserves at the end of 2012 grew to 3.3 trillion, from +700% L.04". KurzyCZ. KurzyCZ. Retrieved 26 March 2013.
- Paul Krugman, “Chinese Rumbles”, The New York Times, 2010: par. 1-4.
- Greg Mankiw, "A Closer Look at China's Currency Manipulation", Ludwig von Mises Institute, (2010).