Devaluation and revaluation are official changes in the value of a nation’s currency in relation to other currencies. The terms are generally used to refer to officially sanctioned changes in a currency’s value under a fixed exchange rate regime. Thus, devaluation and revaluation are typically one-time events – although a series of such changes can occasionally occur – that are usually mandated by the government or central bank of a nation.

In contrast, changes in the levels of currencies that operate under a floating exchange rate system are known as currency depreciation and appreciation, and are triggered by market forces. Paradoxically, although devaluation and revaluation are becoming less of an issue for the global economy since most major nations have adopted floating exchange rate systems, exchange rate moves continue to exert a very significant influence on the economic fortunes of most nations.

The Fixed Exchange Rate System

Devaluation refers to a downward adjustment in the official exchange rate of a currency, while revaluation refers to an upward adjustment in the exchange rate. In order to understand why they occur, one first needs to get an idea of the fixed exchange rate concept.

In a fixed exchange rate system, a nation’s domestic currency is fixed to a single major currency such as the U.S. dollar or euro, or is pegged to a basket of currencies. The initial exchange rate is set at a certain level and may be allowed to fluctuate within a certain band, generally a fixed percentage either side of the base rate. The frequency of changes in the fixed exchange rate depends on the nation’s philosophy. Some nations hold the same rate for years, while others may adjust it occasionally to reflect economic fundamentals.

If the actual exchange rate deviates significantly from the base rate and moves out of the permitted band, the central bank will intervene to bring it back in line with its targeted base rate. For example, assume a hypothetical currency called the Pseudo-dollar (PSD) is fixed to the U.S. dollar at a rate of 5 PSD per USD, with a permitted band of 2% on either side of the base rate, or 4.90 to 5.10. If the PSD appreciates (i.e. it trades below the bottom level of the permitted band) to say 4.88, the central bank will sell the domestic currency (PSD) and buy the foreign currency (USD) to which the domestic currency is fixed. Conversely, if the PSD depreciates and trades close to or above the 5.10 upper end of the permitted band, the central bank will buy the domestic currency (PSD) and sell the foreign currency (USD).

Causes Of Devaluation And Revaluation

While devaluation is far more common than revaluation, both occur because the exchange rate has been fixed at an artificially low or high level. This makes it increasingly difficult for the central bank to defend the fixed rate, which in turn attracts the unwanted attention of currency speculators who waste little time in testing the resolve of the central bank to defend the fixed exchange rate. A central bank must have sufficient foreign exchange reserves to be willing to buy all the offered amounts of its currency at the fixed exchange rate. If these forex reserves are insufficient, the bank may have no option but to devalue the currency.

One of the most famous examples of currency devaluation was the British pound’s exit from the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) in September 1992. The ERM was a precursor to the creation of the euro, and was a system for tying the value of the pound and other currencies to that of the Deutsche mark, in order to get economic stability and low inflation. On September 16, 1992 – a day that was later dubbed “Black Wednesday” in the British press – the pound came under massive speculative attack as currency speculators deemed that the currency was trading at an artificially high level. In a bid to curb the speculative frenzy, the Bank of England took emergency measures such as authorizing the use of billions of pounds to defend the currency and raising interest rates from 10% to 12% to 15% during the day. These measures were to no avail, as the pound was forced out of the ERM, netting legendary hedge fund manager George Soros a $1-billion profit on his short pound position.

Effects On The Economy

Devaluation often has an adverse effect on the economy initially, although it eventually results in a substantial increase in exports and a concomitant shrinkage in the current account deficit, a phenomenon known as the J-Curve. In the initial period after a devaluation, imports become much more expensive while exports stay stagnant, leading to a larger current account deficit. The lower value of the domestic currency may also result in imported items costing much more, leading to “imported” inflation. Over time, however, the lower domestic currency makes exports more competitive in global markets, while consumers may eschew expensive imports, leading to an improvement in the current account deficit.

In a number of cases, devaluation has also been accompanied by massive capital flight, as foreign investors pull their capital out of the country. This further exacerbates the economic impact of devaluation, as the closure of industries that were reliant on foreign capital increases unemployment and lowers economic growth, triggering a recession. The effects of the recession may be amplified by higher interest rates that were introduced to defend the domestic currency. Devaluation sometimes also gives rise to a contagion effect, as was exemplified by the Asian crisis of 1997, wherein currency crises affect a number of nations – largely developing economies – with similar, shaky economic fundamentals. 

Revaluation does not have the same far-reaching effects as devaluation, since revaluation is generally precipitated by a rapid improvement – rather than deterioration – in economic fundamentals. Over time, a revaluation is likely to result in a nation’s current account surplus shrinking to some extent

Portfolio Impact

Since currency devaluation is by far the more likely event, investors should be aware of the risks posed by devaluation, as it can have an impact on portfolio returns especially in the case of a currency contagion.

Assume that you have 10% of your portfolio in bonds denominated in the Pseudo-dollars described earlier, with a current yield of 5%. Now if Pseudo-dollars undergo 20% devaluation, your net return from these bonds would be -15%, rather than +5%. As a result, the overall return on your portfolio would decrease by 1.5% (i.e. 10% portfolio weight X -15%).

But let’s say that you have a total 40% of your portfolio in emerging market assets and these are afflicted by the contagion effect of the Pseudo-dollar devaluation. If these emerging market assets also decline 20%, your overall portfolio return would be down by a very substantial 8%,

What To Watch For

  • Stay informed about currency capersOne of the biggest currency issues confronting the global economy in recent years has been the artificial suppression of the Chinese yuan, which has helped China gain massive market share in global exports. China has been allowing the yuan to appreciate gradually, amid strident calls from the United States and other nations for a rapid revaluation of the yuan. One way or the other, this issue could have a major impact on the global economy, so stay tuned to developments on this front.
  • Limit your exposure to emerging markets with deteriorating fundamentals – Currency contagion is a real threat to your portfolio, so limit your exposure to emerging markets whose economic fundamentals are deteriorating. In particular, look out for nations with burgeoning current account deficits and high rates of inflation. Currencies of nations like India and Indonesia, which have these characteristics, were among the worst performers in the summer of 2013, as the prospect of the U.S. Federal Reserve scaling back its bond buying program (which was seen as a signal of eventual monetary policy tightening) triggered massive capital flight out of emerging markets.
  • Consider the impact of currency moves on your overall portfolio returns – Holding assets in a currency that is appreciating can boost your portfolio returns. Conversely, as shown in the example earlier, holding assets in a depreciating currency can take a toll on portfolio performance. Therefore, consider the effect of currency appreciation and depreciation on your overall portfolio returns.

The Bottom Line

Currency devaluation can be a hidden source of portfolio risk, especially if it results in a contagion effect. Investors should be aware of this risk to their portfolios, and also consider the impact of currency moves on overall portfolio returns.