In a strict sense, foreign-exchange reserves should only include foreign currency deposits and bonds. However, the term in popular usage commonly also adds gold reserves, special drawing rights (SDRs), and International Monetary Fund (IMF) reserve positions. This broader figure is more readily available, but it is more accurately termed official international reserves or international reserves.
Foreign Exchange reserves are called Reserve Assets in the Balance of Payments and are located in under the financial account. Hence, they are usually an important part of the International Investment Position of a country. The reserves are labeled as reserve assets under assets by functional category. In terms of financial assets classifications, the reserve assets can be classified as Gold bullion, Unallocated gold accounts, Special drawing rights, currency, Reserve position in the IMF, interbank position, other transferable deposits, other deposits, debt securities, loans, equity (listed and unlisted), investment fund shares and financial derivatives, such as forward contracts and options. There is no counterpart for reserve assets in liabilitiesof the International Investment Position. Usually, when the monetary authority of a country has some kind of liability, this will be included in other categories, such as Other Investments. In the Central Bank’s Balance Sheet, foreign exchange reserves are assets, along with domestic credit.
Official international reserves assets allow a central bank to purchase the domestic currency, which is considered a liability for the central bank (since it prints the money or fiat currency as IOUs). Thus, the quantity of foreign exchange reserves can change as a central bank implements monetary policy, but this dynamic should be analyzed generally in the context of the level of capital mobility, the exchange rate regime and other factors. This is known as Trilemma or Impossible trinity. Hence, in a world of perfect capital mobility, a country with fixed exchange rate would not be able to execute an independent monetary policy.
A central bank that implements a fixed exchange rate policy may face a situation where supply and demand would tend to push the value of the currency lower or higher (an increase in demand for the currency would tend to push its value higher, and a decrease lower) and thus the central bank would have to use reserves to maintain its fixed exchange rate. Under perfect capital mobility, the change in reserves is a temporary measure, since the fixed exchange rate attaches the domestic monetary policy to that of the country of the base currency. Hence, in the long term, the monetary policy has to be adjusted in order to be compatible with that of the country of the base currency. Without that, the country will experience outflows or inflows of capital. Fixed pegs were usually used as a form of monetary policy, since attaching the domestic currency to a currency of a country with lower levels of inflation should usually assure convergence of prices.
In a pure flexible exchange rate regime or floating exchange rate regime, the central bank does not intervene in the exchange rate dynamics; hence the exchange rate is determined by the market. Theoretically, in this case reserves are not necessary. Other instruments of monetary policy are generally used, such as interest rates in the context of an inflation targeting regime.Milton Friedman was a strong advocate of flexible exchange rates, since he considered that independent monetary (and in some cases fiscal) policy and openness of the capital account are more valuable than a fixed exchange rate. Also, he valued the role of exchange rate as a price. As a matter of fact, he believed that sometimes it could be less painful and thus desirable to adjust only one price (the exchange rate) than the whole set of prices of goods and wages of the economy, that are less flexible.
Mixed exchange rate regimes (‘dirty floats’, target bands or similar variations) may require the use of foreign exchange operations to maintain the targeted exchange rate within the prescribed limits, such as fixed exchange rate regimes. As seen above, there is an intimate relation between exchange rate policy (and hence reserves accumulation) and monetary policy. Foreign exchange operations can be sterilized (have their effect on the money supply negated via other financial transactions) or unsterilized.
Non-sterilization will cause an expansion or contraction in the amount of domestic currency in circulation, and hence directly affect inflation and monetary policy. For example, to maintain the same exchange rate if there is increased demand, the central bank can issue more of the domestic currency and purchase foreign currency, which will increase the sum of foreign reserves. Since (if there is no sterilization) the domestic money supply is increasing (money is being ‘printed’), this may provoke domestic inflation. Also, some central banks may let the exchange rate appreciate to control inflation, usually by the channel of cheapening tradable goods.
Since the amount of foreign reserves available to defend a weak currency (a currency in low demand) is limited, a currency crisis or devaluation could be the end result. For a currency in very high and rising demand, foreign exchange reserves can theoretically be continuously accumulated, if the intervention is sterilized through open market operations to prevent inflation from rising. On the other hand, this is costly, since the sterilization is usually done by public debt instruments (in some countries Central Banks are not allowed to emit debt by themselves). In practice, few central banks or currency regimes operate on such a simplistic level, and numerous other factors (domestic demand, production and productivity, imports and exports, relative prices of goods and services, etc.) will affect the eventual outcome. Besides that, the hypothesis that the world economy operates under perfect capital mobility is clearly flawed.
As a consequence, even those central banks that strictly limit foreign exchange interventions often recognize that currency markets can be volatile and may intervene to counter disruptive short-term movements (that may include speculative attacks). Thus, intervention does not mean that they are defending a specific exchange rate level. Hence, the higher the reserves, the higher is the capacity of the central bank to smooth the volatility of the Balance of Payments and assure consumption smoothing in the long term.
After the end of the Bretton Woods system in the early 1970s, many countries adopted flexible exchange rates. In theory reserves are not needed under this type of exchange rate arrangement; thus the expected trend should be a decline in foreign exchange reserves. However, the opposite happened and foreign reserves present a strong upward trend. Reserves grew more than gross domestic product (GDP) and imports in many countries. The only ratio that is relatively stable is foreign reserves over M2. Below, we present some theories that can explain this trend.
Signaling or Vulnerability Indicator
Ratios relating reserves to other external sector variables are popular among credit risk agencies and international organizations to assess the external vulnerability of a country. For example, the Article IV of 2013 uses total external debt in percent of gross international reserves, gross international reserves in months of prospective goods and nonfactor services imports, in percent ofbroad money, in percent of short-term external debt and in percent of short-term external debt on residual maturity basis plus current account deficit. Therefore, countries with similar characteristics would accumulate reserves to avoid negative assessment by the financial market, especially when compared to members of a peer group.
The traditional use of reserves is as savings for potential times of crises, especially balance of payments crises. As we will see below, originally those fears were related to the current account, but this gradually changed to include financial account needs as well. Originally, the creation of the IMF was viewed as a response to the need of countries to accumulate reserves. If a specific country is suffering from a balance of payments crisis, he would be able to borrow from the IMF, as this would be a pool of resources, and so the need to accumulate reserves would be lowered. However, the process of obtaining resources from the Fund is not automatic, which can cause problematic delays especially when markets are stressed. Hence, the fund never fulfilled completely its role, serving more as provider of resources for longer term adjustments. Another caveat of the project is the fact that when the crisis is generalized, the resources of the IMF could prove insufficient. After the 2008 crisis, the members of the Fund had to approve a capital increase, since its resources were strained. Some critics point out that the increase in reserves in Asian countries after the 1997 Asia crisis was a consequence of disappointment of the countries of the region with the IMF. During the 2008 crisis, the Federal Reserve instituted currency swap lines with several countries, alleviating liquidity pressures in dollars, thus reducing the need to use reserves.