Spot Exchange Rate
The exchange rate at which a foreign exchange dealer will convert one currency into another that particular day.
When two parties agree to exchange currency and execute the deal immediately, the transaction is referred to as a spot exchange. Exchange rates governing such “on the spot” trades are referred to as spot exchange rates. The spot exchange rate is the rate at which a foreign exchange dealer converts one currency into another currency on a particular day. Thus, when our U.S. tourist in Edinburgh goes to a bank to convert her dollars into pounds, the exchange rate is the spot rate for that day.
Spot exchange rates are reported on a real-time basis on many financial websites. An exchange rate can be quoted in two ways: as the amount of foreign currency one U.S. dollar will buy or as the value of a dollar for one unit of foreign currency. Thus, on April 17, 2012, at 9:45 a.m. East Coast Time, one U.S. dollar bought €0.7623, and one euro bought $1.3119 U.S. dollars.
Spot rates change continually, often on a minute-by-minute basis (although the magnitude of changes over such short periods is usually small). The value of a currency is determined by the interaction between the demand and supply of that currency relative to the demand and supply of other currencies. For example, if lots of people want U.S. dollars and dollars are in short supply, and few people want British pounds and pounds are in plentiful supply, the spot exchange rate for converting dollars into pounds will change. The dollar is likely to appreciate against the pound (or, the pound will depreciate against the dollar). Imagine the spot exchange rate is £1 = $2.00 when the market opens. As the day progresses, dealers demand more dollars and fewer pounds. By the end of the day, the spot exchange rate might be £1 = $1.98. Each pound now buys fewer dollars than at the start of the day. The dollar has appreciated, and the pound has depreciated.
Forward Exchange Rates
LEARNING OBJECTIVE 3
Recognize the role that forward exchange rates play in insuring against foreign exchange risk.
Changes in spot exchange rates can be problematic for an international business. For example, a U.S. company that imports high-end cameras from Japan knows that in 30 days it must pay yen to a Japanese supplier when a shipment arrives. The company will pay the Japanese supplier ¥200,000 for each camera, and the current dollar/yen spot exchange rate is $1 = ¥120. At this rate, each camera costs the importer $1,667 (i.e., 1,667 = 200,000/120). The importer knows she can sell the camera the day they arrive for $2,000 each, which yields a gross profit of $333 on each ($2,000 − $1,667). However, the importer will not have the funds to pay the Japanese supplier until the cameras are sold. If, over the next 30 days, the dollar unexpectedly depreciates against the yen, say, to $1 = ¥95, the importer will still have to pay the Japanese company ¥200,000 per camera, but in dollar terms that would be equivalent to $2,105 per camera, which is more than she can sell the cameras for. A depreciation in the value of the dollar against the yen from $1 = ¥120 to $1 = ¥95 would transform a profitable deal into an unprofitable one.
When two parties agree to exchange currency and execute a deal at some specific date in the future.
Forward Exchange Rates
The exchange rate governing forward exchange transactions.
To insure or hedge against this risk, the U.S. importer might want to engage in a forward exchange. A forward exchange occurs when two parties agree to exchange currency and execute the deal at some specific date in the future. Exchange rates governing such future transactions are referred to as forward exchange rates. For most major currencies, forward exchange rates are quoted for 30 days, 90 days, and 180 days into the future. In some cases, it is possible to get forward exchange rates for several years into the future. Returning to our camera importer example, let us assume the 30-day forward exchange rate for converting dollars into yen is $1 = ¥110. The importer enters into a 30-day forward exchange transaction with a foreign exchange dealer at this rate and is guaranteed that she will have to pay no more than $1,818 for each camera (1,818 = 200,000/110). This guarantees her a profit of $182 per camera ($2,000 − $1,818). She also insures herself against the possibility that an unanticipated change in the dollar/yen exchange rate will turn a profitable deal into an unprofitable one.
In this example, the spot exchange rate ($1 = ¥120) and the 30-day forward rate ($1 = ¥110) differ. Such differences are normal; they reflect the expectations of the foreign exchange market about future currency movements. In our example, the fact that $1 bought more yen with a spot exchange than with a 30-day forward exchange indicates foreign exchange dealers expected the dollar to depreciate against the yen in the next 30 days. When this occurs, we say the dollar is selling at a discount on the 30-day forward market (i.e., it is worth less than on the spot market). Of course, the opposite can also occur. If the 30-day forward exchange rate were $1 = ¥130, for example, $1 would buy more yen with a forward exchange than with a spot exchange. In such a case, we say the dollar is selling at a premium on the 30-day forward market. This reflects the foreign exchange dealers’ expectations that the dollar will appreciate against the yen over the next 30 days.
In sum, when a firm enters into a forward exchange contract, it is taking out insurance against the possibility that future exchange rate movements will make a transaction unprofitable by the time that transaction has been executed. Although many firms routinely enter into forward exchange contracts to hedge their foreign exchange risk, there are some spectacular examples of what happens when firms don’t take out this insurance. An example is given in the accompanying Management Focus, which explains how a failure to fully insure against foreign exchange risk cost Volkswagen dearly.