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Posted July 14th, 2010 by Charles Purdy

What Factors Affect Exchange Rates

The one thing I am sure of is that expert comments from people like me do not move exchange rates. Having been involved in currency exchange for over 15 years I am confident my understanding is extensive and continues to grow. But the sheer size of the currency market, which dwarfs every other trading market, including the US and UK stock exchanges, means that comments from someone like me are quickly forgotten.

So given the enormous size of the currency market what on earth makes exchange rates move?

A significant proportion of the currency market is for bona fide business reasons such as the need to hedge a possible exposure to a loss from sudden movement in an exchange rate. Also, the physical delivery of currency forms a part of the market – but this is minimal when compared to its overall size. Probably the most important part that affects exchange rates short term is investors who “bet” on exchange rates and their future movement.

So what are they on the look out for?

Sentiment is an important factor. When the world saw long queues outside of Northern Rock Bank there was only one way for sterling to go – and that was down. This is probably a fairly extreme example of market sentiment affecting a currency and its rate of exchange as sterling fell against every other currency.

Most of the time, exchange movements will be more constrained with say, the US$/£ exchange rate moving differently to say, the €/£ exchange rate. These movements tend to be driven by the never ending flow of economic data released daily by all of the worlds’ developed economies. Most of this data will already have been forecast by the seemingly infinite number of economists who spend their life predicting the future. Because of this only very rarely will one piece of economic data have a major affect on exchange rates and then only if it was totally unexpected. So this is a rare occurrence although in recent times less rare than it used to be.

One thing that more often than not has an affect on exchange rates is announcements by a country’s Central Bank. Any announcement by the Head of the US Federal Reserve, or the European Central Bank, or the Governor of the Bank of England will be closely scrutinised by all and could even have a very dramatic affect. Take for example, the surprise announcement from the Bank of England that they wanted to increase the UK quantitative easing programme by £50billion – and then this surprise was compounded when it became public that the Governor of the Bank of England had wanted to increase the programme by £75bn but had been outvoted by his fellow BoE members. Sterling had a very bad month following these announcements, as they highlighted the UK economic problems – plus the contents of the announcements caught the markets by surprise, which as noted above, is never good.

The Central Banks also control their respective interest rates. Recent events have brought interest rates to record lows. Investors are now watching events very closely as they want to know when the Central Banks are going to increase interest rates and which country will be the first to do so, as these will be the most likely to see their currency benefit relative to others.

But at the end of the day, there is one major factor that affects the underlying value of a country’s currency – and that is that country’s longer term economic performance. Why has the UK suffered unduly? Clearly, some of its banks having to be bailed out were a major negative for sterling. However, a country that operates a budget and balance of payments deficit cannot go on borrowing forever. What these dual deficits mean is that the UK government has to keep on borrowing more each year [even before the credit crunch] to fund government spending and also the UK has to rely on other countries to invest in it to fund the continual flow of money out of the UK. As we all know personally, such a scenario can only go on for so long and the same logic ultimately applies to a country – and when confidence in the country is lost, the currency will suffer. The euro zone has one major plus: the undoubted strength of the German economy, the world’s greatest exporter. So even though there are some basket cases in the euro zone, the German economy is the cash generator that will keep it going.

At the end of the day, there are a myriad of factors that affect exchange rates. However, there is no way of really calculating how an exchange rate will move as these factors all work on different timescales and with different levels of affect. That is why I always try and get companies I work with to have a very clear understanding on what their currency requirements are, over what time period and what their targeted exchange rates are. If you can bring some certainty and clarity to such a complex market with so many variables, it really does help.

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