Exchange risk is the effect that unanticipated exchange rate changes have on the value of the firm. This chapter explores the impact of currency fluctuations on cash flows, on assets and liabilities, and on the real business of the firm. Three questions must be asked. First, what exchange risk does the firm face, and what methods are available to measure currency exposure? Second, based on the nature of the exposure and the firm’s ability to forecast currencies, what hedging or exchange risk management strategy should the firm employ? And finally, which of the various tools and techniques of the foreign exchange market should be employed: debt and assets; forwards and futures; and options. The chapter concludes by suggesting a framework that can be used to match the instrument to the problem.
Exchange risk is simple in concept: a potential gain or loss that occurs as a result of an exchange rate change. For example, if an individual owns a share in Hitachi, the Japanese company, he or she will lose if the value of the yen drops.
Yet from this simple question several more arise. First, whose gain or loss? Clearly not just those of a subsidiary, for they may be offset by positions taken elsewhere in the firm. And not just gains or losses on current transactions, for the firm’s value consists of anticipated future cash flows as well as currently contracted ones. What counts, modern finance tells us, is shareholder value; yet the impact of any given currency change on shareholder value is difficult to assess, so proxies have to be used. The academic evidence linking exchange rate changes to stock prices is weak.
Moreover the shareholder who has a diversified portfolio may find that the negative effect of exchange rate changes on one firm is offset by gains in other firms; in other words, that exchange risk is diversifiable. If it is, than perhaps it’s a non-risk.
Finally, risk is not risk if it is anticipated. In most currencies there are futures or forward exchange contracts whose prices give firms an indication of where the market expects currencies to go. And these contracts offer the ability to lock in the anticipated change. So perhaps a better concept of exchange risk is unanticipated exchange rate changes.
These and other issues justify a closer look at this area of international financial management.