Competitive Devaluation

What Is Competitive Devaluation?

Competitive devaluation is a theoretical scenario in which one nation matches an abrupt devaluation in another country's currency, often in a tit-for-tat manner. In other words, one nation is matched by a currency devaluation of another, which in turn devalues its currency in response. The goal of devaluation in this case is to make a country's exports more attractive on the world market.

This occurs more frequently when both currencies have managed exchange-rate regimes rather than market-determined floating exchange rates.

Key Takeaways

  • Competitive devaluation involves one country strategically devaluing its currency in response to another country's own devaluation.
  • The response is intended to keep the second country's exports competitive in international trade but can lead to a tit-for-tat destructive spiral.
  • The result of competitive devaluation can lead to trade wars or negatively impact trading partners that are not directly involved in the tit-for-tat devaluations.
  • Devaluation can have a positive effect on domestic inflation and exports.
  • Competitive devaluation can be used diplomatically to either strengthen or weaken international relations.
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Devaluation

Understanding Competitive Devaluation

Competitive devaluation is a series of reciprocal currency devaluations between two or more national currencies as a result of these nations making tit-for-tat moves in order to gain an edge in international export markets. Economists view competitive devaluation as harmful to the global economy because it may set off a round of currency wars that could have unforeseen adverse consequences, such as increased protectionism and trade barriers.

At the very least, competitive devaluation can lead to greater currency volatility and higher hedging costs for importers and exporters, which can then impede a higher level of international trade.

Economic Theory

Many economic scholars consider competitive devaluation a “beggar-thy-neighbor” type of economic policy since, in essence, it amounts to a nation attempting to gain an economic advantage without consideration for the ill effects it may have on other countries. Economists use the term “beggar-thy-neighbor” for economic policies enacted by one country in order to address its own economic situation, while it, in turn, makes the economic situation worse for other countries, turning those neighboring countries into “beggars.”

Though economists usually deploy the term in reference to international trade policy that ends up hurting a country's trade partners, in competitive devaluation the term applies primarily to currencies. Economists trace the origin of such policies to attempts to combat domestic depression and high unemployment rates by increasing the demand for the nation’s exports via trade barriers and competitive devaluation. 

Advantages and Disadvantages of Competitive Devaluation

A country may engage in competitive devaluation because the act of strategic currency depreciation will often improve a nation’s export competitiveness. By lowering the cost of goods exported from that nation, the country becomes more appealing to overseas buyers. Because it makes imports more expensive, currency devaluation can positively impact a nation’s trade deficit.

Currency devaluation forces domestic consumers to look for local alternatives to imported products, which then provides a boost to the domestic industry. This combination of export-led growth and increased domestic demand usually contributes to higher employment and faster economic growth.

However, a country should be wary of the negatives of currency devaluation. Currency devaluation may lower productivity, since imports of capital equipment and machinery may become too expensive. Devaluation also significantly reduces the overseas purchasing power of a nation’s citizens.

Pros
  • More competitive exports

  • Increases domestic demand for goods and services

  • Increases foreign investment and tourism due to favorable exchange rates

Cons
  • Can increase rates of inflation

  • Some investors will flee to more stable currencies or assets

  • Can create global currency wars

How Countries Devalue Their Currency

Countries will devalue their currency in a number of ways, mostly controlled by that country's central bank. Since most countries' currencies are free-floating, meaning they aren't pegged to a different currency, there are more complications to devaluing a currency.

Some of the ways a country can devalue its currency are:

  • Quantitative easing (QE): Quantitative easing (QE) occurs when a central bank purchases longer-term securities in order to increase the money supply and encourage lending and investment. There are inflationary concerns when engaging QE.
  • Lowering interest rates: By lowering its interest rates, a country makes investment in the nation less attractive. The flow of money from the country to other countries with more favorable interest rates will cause the currency of the country that lowered its interest rates to lose some of its value.
  • Intervention buying: This occurs when a country purchases assets to support prices. Essentially, this is a country making purchases in assets to lower the value of its currency.
  • Controlling capital flows: A central bank can limit the amount of money that is traded from and to the country.
  • Diplomacy: This method is mainly about creating the proper rhetoric about the value of a currency and making comments that will drive investor sentiment without needing to change anything in the actual market. Most central banks want to avoid manipulative practices like this, which is why central bank meetings use extremely specific language.

The method a country uses to devalue its currency will depend on its goals and timeline. QE is a more long-term strategy whereas making a few comments on the strength of a currency could have more short-term, easily corrected changes in a currency's valuation.

China devaluing the Yuan in 2015, as the world's largest exporter, had a significant impact on both foreign exchange markets and international equity markets.

Real-World Example

There are many examples of past currency wars. Getting off the gold standard in 1971 was an enormous change in currency policy and allowed countries who previously based their currency on a physical commodity to allow it instead to fluctuate against foreign currencies in a dynamic way.

The U.K. dropped the pound against the dollar in 1967 in order to combat high inflation. When this happened, other countries followed their lead. Since they were not the only country to have their currency pegged to the dollar, this became concerning for the U.S. and the U.S. decided that in order to protect their own currency, they needed to reevaluate their relationship with gold.

The U.S. dropping its convertibility into gold shifted the entire financial world into the period we are in now, where currencies are valued against others directly. A currency that is not backed by a physical commodity is known as fiat money.

Under What Circumstances Would a Country Devalue Its Currency?

A country may decide to devalue its currency in order to increase the desirability of its exports. They may also do it to combat rising inflation or increase foreign interest in investment securities and tourism.

What Is the Most Devalued Currency?

As of March 2022, the Iranian Rial is the world's most devalued currency. It trades at a rate of 1 USD to 42,300 Rial. Many businesses fled the country during the Islamic Revolution of the 1970s which cast an air of uncertainty regarding Iranian business that still exists today.

Does Currency Devaluation Help an Economy?

A currency devaluation helps an economy or hurts it, depending on how both domestic and international investors view the devaluation, and how other countries respond to it.

How Does Devaluation Affect Employment?

Devaluation during a period of less-than-full employment conditions leads to an increase in output and employment as well as a one-shot increase in the stock of foreign exchange reserves.

The Bottom Line

A currency devaluation can be a smart move for countries that want to increase interest in their exports, potentially raise employment, and combat inflation. However, there is always the risk of another country devaluing its currency in response, negating the import/export advantages and driving the original currency down even further.

Article Sources
Investopedia requires writers to use primary sources to support their work. These include white papers, government data, original reporting, and interviews with industry experts. We also reference original research from other reputable publishers where appropriate. You can learn more about the standards we follow in producing accurate, unbiased content in our editorial policy.
  1. Elsevier. "Optimal Tariff."

  2. Southern Economic Journal. "Beggar-Thyself versus Beggar-Thy-Neighbor Policies: The Dangers of Intellectual Incoherence in Addressing the Global Financial Crisis."

  3. IG. "Currency Wars Explained."

  4. University of Toronto. "The Effects of a Devaluation."

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