Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Excess Reserves

Foreign exchange reserves are important indicators of ability to repay foreign debt and for currency defense, and are used to determine credit ratings of nations, however, other government funds that are counted as liquid assets that can be applied to liabilities in times of crisis include stabilization funds, otherwise known as sovereign wealth funds. If those were included, Norway and Persian Gulf States would rank higher on these lists, and UAE's $1.3 trillion Abu Dhabi Investment Authority would be second after China. Singapore also has significant government funds including Temasek Holdings and GIC. India is also planning to create its own investment firm from its foreign exchange reserves.

Costs, Benefits, and Criticisms

Large reserves of foreign currency allow a government to manipulate exchange rates - usually to stabilize the foreign exchange rates to provide a more favorable economic environment. In theory the manipulation of foreign currency exchange rates can provide the stability that a gold standard provides, but in practice this has not been the case.
There are costs in maintaining large currency reserves. Fluctuations in exchange markets result in gains and losses in the purchasing power of reserves. Even in the absence of a currency crisis, fluctuations can result in huge losses. For example, China holds huge U.S. dollar-denominated assets, but the U.S. dollar has been weakening on the exchange markets, resulting in a relative loss of wealth. In addition to fluctuations in exchange rates, the purchasing power of fiat money decreases constantly due to devaluation through inflation. Therefore, a central bank must continually increase the amount of its reserves to maintain the same power to manipulate exchange rates. Reserves of foreign currency provide a small return in interest. However, this may be less than the reduction in purchasing power of that currency over the same period of time due to inflation, effectively resulting in a negative return known as the "quasi-fiscal cost". In addition, large currency reserves could have been invested in higher yielding assets.

Changes in Reserves

The quantity of foreign exchange reserves can change as a central bank implements monetary policy. A central bank that implements a fixed exchange rate policy may face a situation where supply and demand would tend to push the value of the currency lower or higher (an increase in demand for the currency would tend to push its value higher, and a decrease lower). In a flexible exchange rate regime, these operations occur automatically, with the central bank clearing any excess demand or supply by purchasing or selling the foreign currency. Mixed exchange rate regimes ('dirty floats', target bands or similar variations) may require the use of foreign exchange operations (sterilized or unsterilized[clarification needed]) to maintain the targeted exchange rate within the prescribed limits (China has been repeatedly accused of doing this by the USA).
Foreign exchange operations that are unsterilized will cause an expansion or contraction in the amount of domestic currency in circulation, and hence directly affect monetary policy and inflation: An exchange rate target cannot be independent of an inflation target. Countries that do not target a specific exchange rate are said to have a floating exchange rate, and allow the market to set the exchange rate; for countries with floating exchange rates, other instruments of monetary policy are generally preferred and they may limit the type and amount of foreign exchange interventions. Even those central banks that strictly limit foreign exchange interventions, however, often recognize that currency markets can be volatile and may intervene to counter disruptive short-term movements.
To maintain the same exchange rate if there is increased demand, the central bank can issue more of the domestic currency and purchase the foreign currency, which will increase the sum of foreign reserves. In this case, the currency's value is being held down; since (if there is no sterilization) the domestic money supply is increasing (money is being 'printed'), this may provoke domestic inflation (the value of the domestic currency falls relative to the value of goods and services).
Since the amount of foreign reserves available to defend a weak currency (a currency in low demand) is limited, a foreign exchange crisis or devaluation could be the end result. For a currency in very high and rising demand, foreign exchange reserves can theoretically be continuously accumulated, although eventually the increased domestic money supply will result in inflation and reduce the demand for the domestic currency (as its value relative to goods and services falls). In practice, some central banks, through open market operations aimed at preventing their currency from appreciating, can at the same time build substantial reserves.
In practice, few central banks or currency regimes operate on such a simplistic level, and numerous other factors (domestic demand, production and productivity, imports and exports, relative prices of goods and services, etc) will affect the eventual outcome. As certain impacts (such as inflation) can take many months or even years to become evident, changes in foreign reserves and currency values in the short term may be quite large as different markets react to imperfect data.


In a flexible exchange rate system, official international reserve assets allow a central bank to purchase the domestic currency, which is considered a liability for the central bank (since it prints the money itself as IOUs). This action can stabilise the value of the domestic currency.
Central banks throughout the world have sometimes cooperated in buying and selling official international reserves to attempt to influence exchange rates.