Foreign currency reserves are vital to a nation's economic well-being. Without adequate reserves, an economy can grind to a halt, and a country may be unable to pay for critical imports, such as crude oil, or service its external debt.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) defines foreign reserves as external assets that a country’s monetary authority can use to meet the balance of payments financing needs, affect currency exchange rates in currency exchange markets and other related purposes. Most nations hold the vast majority of their foreign currency reserves in U.S. dollars, followed by euros and Chinese renminbi.

Foreign currency reserves are sometimes helpful to developing economies with fixed exchange rates. By buying and selling their currency when needed, these foreign exchange interventions help to mitigate volatility.

Take for example Russia. In 2014, Russia attempted to use its vast foreign exchange holdings to shore up the value of the ruble, which was traded under a dual currency band at the time. Economic sanctions and a drop in oil prices put downward pressure on the ruble and impacted Russia's economy.

Russia depleted more than $100 billion of its foreign exchange holdings in 2014 as the central bank aggressively sold dollars to shore up the ruble.  Ultimately, the central bank was unsuccessful, and in November of that year it moved to a floating exchange rate for the ruble.  The ruble subsequently lost 40% of its value against the dollar and has been on the mend since. Meanwhile, Russia's foreign exchange holdings have surpassed their 2014 levels.

Here are the 10 countries with the largest foreign currency reserve assets as of January 2020. All reserve assets are given in billions of U.S. dollars.

 

Rank

 

Country

 

Foreign Currency Reserves (in billions of U.S. dollars)

 

1

 

China

 

$3,399.9

 

2

 

Japan

 

$1,387.4

 

3

Switzerland $850.8
 

4

 

Russia

 

$562.3

 

5

Saudi Arabia  

$501.8

 

6

Taiwan  

$479.1* 

 

7

 

Hong Kong

 

$475.6

 

8

 

India

 

$473.3

 

9

South Korea  

$409.7

 

10

 

Brazil

 

$359.4

Sources: IMF and *Central Bank of the Republic of China (Taiwan) 

The above table lists China’s and Hong Kong’s reserves separately. China has by far the largest foreign currency reserves with over two and a half times more than the second-largest reserve holder, Japan. When China and Hong Kong reserves are considered together, the total is $3.87 trillion. Asian nations dominate foreign currency reserves, accounting for six of the top 10. 

United States foreign currency reserves, which are mostly euros and yen, were valued at $128.9 billion at the end of January 2020. The United Kingdom, which did not make the list, held $196.5 billion in foreign reserves as of January 2020. 

The Bottom Line

Maintaining foreign currency reserves is vital to the economic health of a nation. The top 10 nations in terms of foreign currency reserves had combined reserve assets of $8.9 trillion as of January 2020, more than 40% of which was accounted for by China and Hong Kong.