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What Is a Currency Crisis?

In modern history, there have been several instances of currency crises. These are a sudden and drastic devaluation in a nation’s currency matched by volatile markets and a lack of faith in the nation’s economy.

A currency crisis is sometimes predictable, yet they are often sudden. It may be precipitated by governments, investors, central banks, or any combination of actors. But the result is always the same: The negative outlook causes wide-scale economic damage and a loss of capital. In this article, we explore the historical drivers of currency crises and uncover their causes.

Key Takeaways

  • A currency crisis involves the sudden and steep decline in the value of a nation’s currency, which causes negative ripple effects throughout the economy.
  • Unlike a currency devaluation as part of a trade war, a currency crisis is not a purposeful event and is to be avoided.
  • Central banks and governments can intervene to help stabilize a currency by selling off reserves of foreign currency or gold, or by intervening in the forex markets.
  • Currency crises have occurred throughout modern history, most notably in Asia and Latin America during the 1990s.

What Causes a Currency Crisis?

Understanding Currency Crisis

A currency crisis is brought on by a sharp decline in the value of a country’s currency. This decline in value, in turn, negatively affects an economy by creating instabilities in exchange rates, meaning one unit of a certain currency no longer buys as much as it used to in another currency.

To simplify the matter, we can say that, from a historical perspective, crises have developed when investor expectations cause significant shifts in the value of currencies.

But a currency crisis—such as hyperinflation—is often the result of a shoddy real economy underlying the nation’s currency. In other words, a currency crisis is often the symptom and not the disease of greater economic malaise.

Some places are more vulnerable to currency crises than others. For instance, although it’s theoretically possible for the U.S. dollar to collapse, its status as a reserve currency makes it unlikely.

Fighting a Currency Crisis

Central banks are the first line of defense in maintaining the stability of a currency. In a fixed exchange rate regime, central banks can try to maintain the current fixed exchange rate peg by dipping into the country’s foreign reserves, or intervening in the foreign exchange markets when faced with the prospect of a currency crisis for a floating-rate currency regime.

When the market expects devaluation, downward pressure placed on the currency can be offset in part by an increase in interest rates. In order to increase the rate, the central bank can lower the money supply, which in turn increases demand for the currency. The bank can do this by selling off foreign reserves to create a capital outflow. When the bank sells a portion of its foreign reserves, it receives payment in the form of the domestic currency, which it holds out of circulation as an asset.

Central banks cannot prop up the exchange rate for prolonged periods due to the resulting decline in foreign reserves as well as political and economic factors such as rising unemployment. Devaluing the currency by increasing the fixed exchange rate also results in domestic goods being cheaper than foreign goods, which boosts demand for workers and increases output.

In the short run, devaluation also increases interest rates, which must be offset by the central bank through an increase in the money supply and an increase in foreign reserves. As mentioned earlier, propping up a fixed exchange rate can eat through a country’s reserves quickly, and devaluing the currency can add back reserves.

Investors are well aware that a devaluation strategy can be used, and can build this into their expectations—much to the chagrin of central banks. If the market expects the central bank to devalue the currency—and thus increase the exchange rate—the possibility of boosting foreign reserves through an increase in aggregate demand is not realized. Instead, the central bank must use its reserves to shrink the money supply which increases the domestic interest rate.

George Soros’s infamous bet against the British pound caused the Bank of England to devalue the pound.

Anatomy of a Currency Crisis

Investors often attempt to withdraw their money en masse if there is an overall erosion in confidence in an economy’s stability. This is referred to as capital flight. Once investors sell their domestic currency-denominated investments, they convert those investments into foreign currency.

This causes the exchange rate to get even worse, resulting in a run on the currency, which can then make it nearly impossible for the country to finance its capital spending.

Currency crisis predictions involve the analysis of a diverse and complex set of variables. There are a couple of common factors linking recent crises: 

  • The countries borrowed heavily (current account deficits)
  • Currency values increased rapidly
  • Uncertainty over the government’s actions unsettled investors

Real-World Examples of a Currency Crisis

Let’s take a look at a few crises to see how they played out for investors.

Latin American Crisis of 1994

On Dec. 20, 1994, the Mexican peso was devalued. The Mexican economy had improved greatly since 1982 when it last experienced upheaval, and interest rates on Mexican securities were at positive levels.

Several factors contributed to the subsequent crisis: 

  • Economic reforms from the late 1980s—which were designed to limit the country’s oft-rampant inflation—began to crack as the economy weakened.
  • The assassination of a Mexican presidential candidate in March of 1994 sparked fears of a currency sell-off.
  • The central bank was sitting on an estimated $28 billion in foreign reserves, which were expected to keep the peso stable. In less than a year, the reserves were gone.
  • The central bank began converting short-term debt, denominated in pesos, into dollar-denominated bonds. The conversion resulted in a decrease in foreign reserves and an increase in debt.
  • A self-fulfilling crisis resulted when investors feared a default on debt by the government.

When the government finally decided to devalue the currency in December 1994, it made some major mistakes. It did not devalue the currency by a large enough amount, which showed that while still following the pegging policy, it was unwilling to take the necessary painful steps.

This led foreign investors to push the peso exchange rate drastically lower, which ultimately forced the government to increase domestic interest rates sharply. This took a major toll on the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), which also fell. The crisis was finally alleviated by an emergency loan from the U.S.

Asian Crisis of 1997

Southeast Asia was home to the tiger economies—including Singapore, Malaysia, China, and South Korea—and the Southeast Asian crisis. Foreign investments poured in for years. Underdeveloped economies were experiencing rapid rates of growth and high levels of exports.

The rapid growth was attributed to capital investment projects, but the overall productivity did not meet expectations. While the exact cause of the crisis is disputed, Thailand was the first to run into trouble.

Much like Mexico, Thailand relied heavily on foreign debt, causing it to teeter on the brink of illiquidity. Real estate dominated investment but was inefficiently managed. Huge current account deficits were maintained by the private sector, which increasingly relied on foreign investment to stay afloat. This exposed the country to a significant amount of foreign exchange risk.

This risk came to a head when the U.S. increased domestic interest rates, which ultimately lowered the amount of foreign investment going into Southeast Asian economies. Suddenly, the current account deficits became a huge problem, and a financial contagion quickly developed. The Southeast Asian crisis stemmed from several key points:

  • As fixed exchange rates became exceedingly difficult to maintain, many Southeast Asian currencies dropped in value.
  • Southeast Asian economies saw a rapid increase in privately-held debt, which was bolstered in several countries by overinflated asset values. Defaults increased as foreign capital inflows dropped off.
  • Foreign investment may have been at least partially speculative, and investors may not have been paying close enough attention to the risks involved.

Investing in developing markets involves a significant amount of sovereign risk, which should be thoroughly evaluated before making an investment decision.

Lessons Learned From Currency Crises

Here are a few things to take away from these currency crises, among others:

  • An economy can be initially solvent and still succumb to a crisis. Having a low amount of debt is not enough to keep policies functioning or quell negative investor sentiment.
  • Trade surpluses and low inflation rates can diminish the extent to which a crisis impacts an economy, but in the case of financial contagion, speculation limits options in the short run.
  • Governments will often be forced to provide liquidity to private banks, which can invest in short-term debt that will require near-term payments. If the government also invests in short-term debt, it can run through foreign reserves very quickly.
  • Maintaining the fixed exchange rate does not make a central bank’s policy work simply at face value. While announcing intentions to retain the peg can help, investors will ultimately look at the central bank’s ability to maintain the policy. The central bank will have to devalue in a sufficient manner in order to be credible.

What Are Examples of a Currency Crisis?

Examples of currency crises that led to recessionary periods include the crisis in the Weimar Republic in Germany after World War I, the Mexican peso crisis of 1994, the Asian Crisis of 1997, the 1998 financial crisis in Russia, the Argentine crisis in the late 1990s, the economic crisis in Venezuela in 2016, and Turkey’s crisis in the same year.

How Can a Currency Crisis Be Solved?

There are a handful of methods that can solve a currency crisis, including implementing floating exchange rates, moving away from pegged rates, monetary policy that allows for trading with the market, government policies to attract foreign investment, and the country purchasing its own currency.

What Are the Effects of a Currency Crisis?

The effects of a currency crisis include hyperinflation, decreased real wages, increased unemployment, an increased debt burden, and lower output.

The Bottom Line

Currency crises can come in multiple forms but are largely formed when investor sentiment and expectations do not match the economic outlook of a country. While growth in developing countries is generally positive for the global economy, history shows us that growth rates that are too rapid can create instability and a higher chance of capital flight and runs on the domestic currency. Although efficient central bank management can help, predicting the route an economy ultimately takes is difficult to anticipate, thus contributing to a sustained currency crisis.