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PRB 03-26E

Explaining the Rise in the Canadian Dollar

Prepared by:
Michael Holden
Economics Division
Revised 22 November 2007

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Table of Contents


Introduction

Since 2002, the Canadian dollar has experienced a dramatic reversal of fortune against its US counterpart. With the exception of a five-year period beginning in 1988, the Canadian dollar had been in long-term decline relative to the US dollar since the mid-1970s. Beginning in 2002, however, the Canadian dollar began to rapidly gain value. The magnitude and the speed of the increase since that time have been unprecedented in the dollar’s modern history. Worth 62.5 cents US in April 2002, the Canadian dollar climbed to over US$1 at the end of September 2007 and reached a modern-day high of US$1.09 on 7 November 2007.

This paper examines the factors that contributed to the rise in the Canadian dollar in 2003. It contains three main sections. The first provides a brief overview of the modern history of the Canadian dollar up to the beginning of the current period of appreciation. The second considers several factors known to affect the exchange rate. The third section focuses on the key factors that economists believe are contributing to the current rise in the Canadian dollar. A conclusion follows.

History of the Value of the Canadian Dollar

The modern era of the Canadian dollar – when market forces of supply and demand determined its value – began in 1950 with the decision to remove all exchange rate controls and “float” the currency on international markets. That decision was made in response to growing concerns about inflationary pressures in Canada and a rising level of foreign indebtedness.

Prior to 1950, the Canadian dollar had been fixed relative to the US dollar at a value of 90.91 cents US(1) With exchange rate controls removed, the dollar quickly rose, trading at a premium to the US dollar through most of the 1950s and reaching a high of US$1.06 in 1957. Canada’s initial success with a flexible exchange rate provided a model for the rest of the world when the system of fixed exchange rates finally collapsed in the early 1970s.(2)

Canada’s first experiment with a floating exchange rate lasted 12 years. In 1962, prompted by concerns that the dollar was overvalued, a new fixed rate of 92.5 cents US was introduced. This rate was maintained until 1970, when a combination of high interest rates (intended to control surging inflation), rising commodity prices and strong demand for Canadian exports all resulted in substantial capital inflows into Canada. Because this inflow of money was undermining the efforts to combat inflation and placing considerable stress on the level fixed for the exchange rate, Canada re-floated the currency to ease the pressure.(3) The effect was immediate. The Canadian dollar rose sharply, to about 97 cents US, and continued to appreciate, reaching a high of US$1.0443 in 1974.

Figure 1 – The Canada–US Exchange Rate, 1951-2007
Fluctuations in the Canada-US Exchange Rate from 1951 to 2007
Source: Data obtained from Bank of Canada. Figure prepared by Michael Holden, Parliamentary Information and Research Service, Library of Parliament.

Canada has maintained a floating exchange rate since that time. Since the mid-1970s, however, the Canadian dollar has experienced a long-term decline relative to the US dollar. In 1976, the Canadian dollar was trading at about par with the US dollar, but fell from about US$1.01 to 76 cents US over the next 10 years. This trend was reversed temporarily in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the dollar rose from a low of 71 cents US in 1986 to over 87 cents in 1991. However, this rise proved to be short-lived. A wide range of factors contributed to the dollar’s fall to a low of about 62.5 cents US in April 2002.

Factors Affecting the Exchange Rate

Like any other traded good, the value of the Canadian dollar relative to the US dollar – or to any other currency, for that matter – is determined by the interaction of the forces of supply and demand. Any factor that increases (or decreases) demand for the Canadian dollar, or that decreases (increases) demand for foreign currency, will place upward (downward) pressure on the exchange rate.(4) Similarly, factors that increase (decrease) the relative supply of the Canadian dollar will push the exchange rate lower (higher).

Economic theory and empirical evidence have identified a number of factors known to affect movements in exchange rates. In isolation, these have a predictable effect on currency values. However, since many economic variables are closely interconnected, they rarely, if ever, act in isolation from one another. This makes anticipating or explaining movements in exchange rates notoriously difficult, a difficulty exacerbated by the fact that many factors known to affect currency values are evident only in hindsight. Furthermore, these factors are often themselves affected by movements in exchange rates. In other words, while the Canadian dollar moves in response to prevailing economic conditions, it influences those conditions as well.

In general, the value of the Canadian dollar relative to the US dollar is influenced by two distinct categories of catalyst. The first is domestic or comparative factors – fundamental economic conditions in Canada, especially relative to those in the United States. The second is external factors – those over which Canada or Canadian policy have little to no influence. It should be borne in mind that while each individual factor has a predictable effect on the exchange rate, this cause-and-effect relationship is clouded by the presence of other economic influences that may magnify, or even offset, the predicted outcome. Indeed, in some cases, certain historic indicators have pointed to a stronger (or weaker) dollar, when in fact the reverse occurred over that period.

A. Domestic and Comparative Factors

1. Relative Economic Growth

Perhaps the most significant domestic influence on the Canadian dollar is the relative health of the Canadian economy. A strong economy makes Canada an attractive place to invest in because of the promise of solid financial returns. This raises demand for Canadian dollars, which in turn raises their price on international markets. Conversely, weak economic growth reduces the attractiveness of investing in Canada and thus lowers demand for, and the value of, the Canadian dollar.

In discussing the Canada–US exchange rate, however, it is important to note that the strength of the Canadian economy is a relative measure. If robust growth in Canada were matched by comparable strength in the United States, then there would be little effect on demand for the Canadian dollar relative to the US dollar.(5) Similarly, economic weakness in Canada could in fact place upward pressure on the dollar if the performance of the US economy were significantly weaker still.

2. Interest Rate Differentials

The difference between interest rates in Canada and the United States is also a major determinant of the exchange rate between the two currencies. When Canadian interest rates are higher than those in the United States, Canada becomes a more attractive destination for interest-sensitive foreign capital because the rates of return are higher. This results in higher demand for assets denominated in Canadian dollars (e.g., short-term paper, bonds) and thus places upward pressure on the dollar itself. When Canadian interest rates are lower than in the United States, then the opposite holds true and the Canadian dollar typically weakens.

3. Inflation Rate Differentials

Differences in inflation rates between Canada and the United States also affect currency movements in the long term. Inflation is the rate at which prices rise over time, and it thus measures the erosion of the purchasing power of a dollar. If prices in Canada were to rise faster than in the United States, this situation would, over time, erode the purchasing power – and thus the value – of the Canadian dollar relative to the US dollar. That erosion of value would be reflected in a decline in exchange rates. Similarly, if inflation in Canada were low compared to that in the United States, some upward pressure on the Canadian dollar would result.

4. Current Account Balance

The current account measures the flow of goods, services and investment income between Canada and the rest of the world. It can be thought of as the sum of the merchandise trade balance, the services trade balance and the investment balance (the net flow of interest and dividends). Merchandise trade is by far the largest component of the current account. Currently, since Canada has a merchandise trade surplus that is great enough to offset deficits in both services and investment flows, it has an overall current account surplus.

A current account surplus means that since Canada is selling more than it is buying, there is a net flow of money into Canada. This implies increased demand for Canadian dollars, pushing up the value of the currency. The opposite is also true: a current account deficit suggests a flow of money out of Canada, placing downward pressure on the exchange rate.

B. External Factors

1. World Commodity Prices

Because Canada is a large producer and net exporter of resource-based goods, the Canadian dollar is often referred to as a commodity-based currency. In other words, the value of the Canadian dollar is correlated to the strength of world commodity prices. When world commodity prices are high, then resource-based industries in Canada are more profitable, making the Canadian economy stronger and thus attracting investment and placing upward pressure on the Canadian dollar. When commodity prices fall, they undercut revenues for resource-based firms, eroding profits, dampening the domestic economy and pushing down the Canadian dollar.

2. World Economic Growth

Commodity prices are largely determined by the strength of the global economy. A strong global economy tends to raise demand for – and therefore prices of – basic commodities; conversely, in times of economic weakness, demand for (and prices of) those commodities falter. Accordingly, in times of world economic strength, the Canadian dollar tends to rise; in times of weakness, the dollar tends to fall.

Similarly, since the United States is by far the largest economy in the world, economic strength in the United States plays a large role in determining the health of the global economy. A robust US economy often suggests a strong global economy. Since this situation, in turn, leads to higher world commodity prices, a strong US economy can have a positive effect on the Canadian dollar.(6)

3. Global Stability

In times of economic uncertainty or instability, investors tend to gravitate toward what are considered “safe” currencies until the uncertainty passes. The US dollar has traditionally been the safe haven of investors. Thus, in times of global economic turmoil, the US dollar has typically strengthened relative to most major currencies, including the Canadian dollar. Most recently, this occurred during the Asian Financial Crisis, when uncertainty in Asia, Latin America and Russia led investors to flock to US markets.

C. Other Factors

1. Investor Sentiment/Speculative Investment

Economic theory states that economic forces alone determine exchange rate movements. However, empirical evidence suggests that while exchange rates may ultimately respond to economic fundamentals over the long term, speculative interests and investor sentiment tend to exaggerate those movements in the short run. A rise in the Canadian dollar could become at least partly self-perpetuating if investors begin to buy assets denominated in Canadian dollars based solely upon the expectation of continued appreciation in the exchange rate. Similarly, a falling exchange rate could be magnified if investors lose confidence in the currency, prompting a sell off of Canadian dollars.

2. Political Stability and Confidence

For the most part, investor confidence is swayed by economic factors. However, when assessing prospects for future growth, factors such as government policies, public perception and political uncertainty can all influence exchange rates. Uncertainty about a country’s future in any of these areas can deter investment and push down exchange rates. For example, the threat of Quebec secession in the early to mid-1990s, and the uncertainty created by the 1995 referendum, were believed to have had a dampening effect on the value of the Canadian dollar.

Explaining the Current Rise in the Canadian Dollar

Research at the Bank of Canada shows that, of all the factors known to affect the value of the Canadian dollar, most long-term movements in the exchange rate can be attributed to fluctuations in four variables: the difference in Canadian–US inflation rates; interest rate differentials between the two countries; the world price of energy; and the world price of non energy commodities. The Bank of Canada operates a mathematical model that plots a simulated value for the Canadian dollar over time as a function of these four variables, and until recently it has closely tracked the actual performance of the Canadian dollar since the mid-1970s.

Since 2003, however, a gap has emerged between the Bank’s simulation and the actual value of the Canadian dollar. The four factors listed above are still contributing to the current rise in the dollar, but the magnitude of the increase in the exchange rate is greater than recent movements in those variables suggest. Clearly, another factor is at work. Specifically, analysts suggest that, although rising commodity prices and the relative strength of the Canadian economy are contributing to the rising exchange rate, another, more significant, factor is the weakening of economic fundamentals in the United States.

A. Decline in the US Dollar

That the rise in the Canadian dollar is in large part a US-based phenomenon is evident in the fact that the Canadian dollar is not the only currency to have appreciated against the US dollar since 2002. Indeed, most major currencies worldwide have done so, and some have appreciated even more rapidly than the Canadian dollar. The Australian dollar, another “commodity currency” like the Canadian dollar, rose by 73.1% from January 2002 through October 2007. The Euro has also soared versus the US dollar, rising by 61.4% over the same period.

The significant difference between the performance of these (and other) currencies and that of the Canadian dollar is the period in which the bulk of the currency appreciation took place. In many countries, domestic currencies made considerable gains relative to the US dollar from early in 2002 through to early 2004. For example, from January 2002 to January 2004, the Euro had already appreciated by 43.2% against the US dollar. The Australian dollar gained even more, rising by 48.1% over the same period. By contrast, the appreciation in the Canada–US exchange rate was more modest; the Canadian dollar rose by 23.1% from January 2002 through January 2004.

Figure 2 – World Currencies are Gaining Strength against the US Dollar
Comparison of World currencies (Euro, Yen, British Pound, Australian Dollar, Canadian Dollar) against the US dollar from January 2002 to January 2007
Source: Data obtained from US Federal Reserve Board. Figure prepared by Michael Holden, Parliamentary Information and Research Service, Library of Parliament.

Since that time, however, the Canadian dollar has dramatically outperformed most other currencies vis-à-vis the US dollar. From January 2004 through October 2007, the Canadian dollar rose by 32.7% against the US dollar. By comparison, the Euro gained 12.7%, the Australian dollar 16.9%, and the British pound 11.5% over that period. The Japanese yen lost 8.2% relative to the US dollar.

There are two facets to the explanation for the decline in the US dollar. The first is that the US dollar had been overvalued in recent years and the current decline represents a return to equilibrium levels. The second is that weakness in economic fundamentals in the United States is driving the exchange rate lower. Each is discussed below.

1. Overvalued Currency

Many economists believe that a major factor behind the depreciation of the US dollar is that the dollar had been overvalued in recent years. Beginning in the mid-1990s, the US dollar began to appreciate significantly in response to domestic and international conditions. In this context, the current decline represents not a deterioration in the value of the currency, but rather, its return to a more appropriate value.

Two major factors were responsible for the rapid appreciation of the US dollar in the late 1990s. The first is that the US economy was in the midst of a period of prolonged expansion, sustained by a “virtuous cycle” of economic conditions. Surging investment in machinery and equipment led to healthy productivity gains, which in turn allowed wages, profits and equity prices to rise without triggering inflationary pressures. Low inflation allowed the US Federal Reserve to keep monetary policy loose, thus further attracting capital investment and productivity gains, and prolonging the economic expansion. As demand for US assets grew in the wake of the booming economy, the US dollar began to rise, further dampening inflationary pressures.

The second factor was a series of economic and political crises that shook confidence in world markets and led investors to flock to “safe” US-dollar assets. The first of these incidents was the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997-1998. The crisis began in Thailand when investors lost confidence in that country’s ability to maintain its fixed exchange rate and began a run on the Thai currency. This financial crisis quickly became a contagion, spreading through East and Southeast Asia, as well as Brazil and Russia. The resulting turmoil in international markets placed further upward pressure on the US currency.

Figure 3 – The Value of the US Dollar, 1988-2007
Fluctuations in the value of the US Dollar from 1988 to 2007
Source: Data obtained from US Federal Reserve. Figure prepared by Michael Holden, Parliamentary Information and Research Service, Library of Parliament.

The collapse of the tech stock bubble in September 2000, far from deterring investment in the United States, created further economic uncertainty and pushed the US dollar even higher. Similarly, the effect of the terrorist attacks a year later was to undermine global stability and certainty, providing further impetus for investors to seek out safe assets.

All told, the US dollar rose considerably in the late 1990s and into the current decade. Using a broad trade-weighted index of the US dollar relative to its major trading partners, the US currency rose by 26.7% from 1996 to the end of 2001, a stark contrast to the modest downward trend that had prevailed from 1988 to 1996.(7)

2. Weakening Economic Fundamentals

The cost of a rising US dollar through the late 1990s, however, was a deterioration in economic fundamentals in the United States that ultimately contributed to the present decline in the value of the US currency. In the late 1990s, solid wage gains in the United States created an upsurge in consumer spending which, in turn, increased demand for imported goods. This increased demand was magnified by the rising US dollar, which lowered the price of imports. As a result, the US trade balance began to deteriorate.

Since merchandise trade balances are by far the largest component of the current account, the ballooning trade deficit has caused the current account deficit to grow as well. From less than 2% of GDP in 1997, the current account deficit in the United States is over 6% of GDP. By comparison, Canada has a current account surplus of about 1.9% of GDP.

Figure 4 – US Current Account and Merchandise Trade Balances
US Current Account and Merchandise Trade Balances from 1985 to 2005
Source: Data obtained from US Bureau of Economic Analysis. Figure prepared by Michael Holden, Parliamentary Information and Research Service, Library of Parliament.

Because a current account deficit implies an outflow of US dollars, it also implies that foreigners’ claims on the United States must be increasing. In other words, since the United States must raise funds in order to continue to buy imports, it does so by selling assets such as government bonds and private sector equities, as well as by direct foreign investment in US physical assets such as machinery, plant and equipment. As a result, the United States’ net foreign debt has soared in recent years, and the country has gone from being the world’s largest creditor in the early 1980s to the world’s largest debtor today.

In the past, there has been no shortage of investors willing to finance the current account deficit. Private investors were eager to take advantage of the strong US economy and lucrative equity market returns. More recently, foreign governments have also been willing to buy and hold US dollar bonds and other assets to build up their foreign reserves or to keep their own currency values low. China, in particular, now has US$1.43 trillion in foreign reserves, the bulk of which is in US dollar holdings. This is equivalent to more than the entire value of economic output in Canada in 2006.

As economic conditions change, the market for US dollar assets is weakening. The current account deficit shows no sign of abating, and the US government continues to amass record budgetary deficits as well. As the dollar loses value, investors are less likely to buy or hold US assets if they believe that the value of those assets will erode.

For the United States, this is a particular concern with respect to China. China is such a large holder of US assets that, should it decide to divest itself of those holdings, there are fears that it could trigger a total collapse in the US dollar. China has made public assurances that it has no interest in initiating such a sell-off, but it has indicated that it will make a greater effort to diversify its foreign reserve holdings in the future, buying more assets denominated in Euros or other foreign currencies.

The current decline in the currency can also be viewed as a natural, and ultimately corrective, response to current economic conditions in the United States. A lower US dollar will make that country’s exports more competitive, raise the price of imports, and thus help alleviate its trade and current account deficits. At the same time, while a lower dollar erodes foreigners’ returns on current investments, it will also lower the cost of making future investments, thus helping attract capital into the United States.

B. Other Factors: The Global Economy and Commodity Prices

Although the appreciation of the Canadian dollar can be seen to be largely a US-based phenomenon, other factors are also contributing to the currency’s rise. One of the most significant of these is the effect that rapid economic development in some parts of the world is having on global commodity markets. As countries like China and India continue their rapid economic growth, they are contributing to the soaring global demand for energy and base materials to supply manufacturing and construction. The resulting increase in world commodity prices is providing a further boost to the Canadian dollar. Indeed, as mentioned above, so-called “commodity currencies” such as the Canadian and Australian dollars have made some of the strongest gains against the US dollar.

Figure 5 – Real Commodity Prices and the Canadian Dollar
Comparison of Non-energy Real Commodity Prices, Real Energy Prices and the Exchange Rate of the Candadian dollar
Source: Data obtained from Bank of Canada. Figure prepared by Michael Holden, Parliamentary Information and Research Service, Library of Parliament.

Since January 2002, world non-energy commodity prices, in real terms, have increased by 56.9%. There have been gains in nearly all major commodity types, but prices for base metals and minerals have seen particularly strong growth over that period. Precious metals prices have risen by 127.5% since 2002. Growth in non-precious metals and minerals prices has been even stronger. Led by copper and uranium, those commodities have more than tripled in price since 2002.(8)

Energy prices have been considerably more volatile than non-energy commodity prices, but they too are having an impact on the Canadian dollar. In October 2007, energy prices were 227% higher than at the beginning of 2002, in spite of the fact that prices in late 2007 remain well below their peak of two years earlier.

Moreover, some believe that the influence of energy prices on the Canadian dollar is increasing as Canada continues to grow as a producer and exporter of energy. Recent estimates place Canada second only to Saudi Arabia in terms of known energy reserves. As the Canadian energy sector continues to grow in importance – petroleum is already Canada’s most important export product – energy prices are likely to exert an increasing influence on the Canadian dollar.

Conclusion: Where Will the Dollar Go From Here?

In the early stages of the Canadian dollar’s rise, it was widely agreed that the currency’s appreciation from a low of 62.5 cents US was an appropriate reflection of economic conditions in Canada and the United States. Indeed, economic indicators had pointed toward a higher Canadian dollar for a number of years before its eventual rise. When the Canadian dollar reached a temporary plateau in 2006, trading between 86 and 90 cents US for much of the year, this price was considered to be a reasonably accurate, if perhaps slightly overvalued, estimate of the worth of the Canadian dollar.

Late in 2007, the dollar is trading at or above parity with the US dollar. Economists generally agree that, given the output, productivity and purchasing power of the Canadian economy relative to the US economy, the Canadian dollar is trading above its fundamental value.

Even though some argue that the dollar is overvalued, this does not suggest that the Canada–US exchange rate is likely to fall in the near future. In fact, the dollar’s performance in recent years has highlighted the fact that it is nearly impossible to make accurate predictions about short-term exchange rate movements. Exchange rates are affected by too many variables – global commodity prices, economic policy and conditions in the United States, the ability of the Canadian economy to adapt to the higher dollar, to name but a few – for any such prediction to be reliable.


Endnotes

  1. As a member of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Canada was committed to the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates. The decision to float the Canadian dollar violated that commitment.
  2. J. Powell, A History of the Canadian Dollar, Bank of Canada, Ottawa, 1999.
  3. Ibid.
  4. In this report, the exchange rate refers to the cost, in Canadian dollars, of buying a unit of foreign currency. Economists more typically consider the exchange rate to measure how much foreign currency can be purchased with one Canadian dollar.
  5. The Canadian dollar would, in all likelihood, rise against the currencies of other slower growing economies.
  6. As stated earlier, however, economic growth differentials between Canada and the United States also affect the value of the Canadian dollar. Therefore, the argument that economic strength in the United States can have a positive effect on the Canada–US exchange rate holds true provided that the two economies are growing at comparable rates.
  7. This exchange rate index is developed and maintained by the US Federal Reserve. Data and information on methodology are available on the Federal Reserve’s Web site.
  8. These figures are based on the commodity price indices maintained and published by TD Economics.

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