Exchange Rates: Everything You Need to Know

Irina Tsymbaliuk

Exchange rates are the bedrock of the global economy, shaping international transactions and impacting financial flow worldwide. A relative price of one currency against another currency, exchange rates determine how much it would cost to buy goods and services across borders, as well as the profitability of international investments. So, understanding this economic variable is crucial for company owners, investors, politicians, and even simple travelers.

But what is the exchange rate? How do exchange rates work? In this guide, we’ll discuss the basics and unveil some intricacies of foreign exchange markets to help individuals and businesses make more informed financial decisions. 

What is the Exchange Rate?

First, let’s look into the exchange rate definition. At its core, it represents how much of one currency can be exchanged for another. These rates are constantly changing, depending on various factors, from the state of economy and governmental policies inside a country to global geopolitical events.

How does the exchange rate work? There are three major ways currencies are measured that showcase how they impact different aspects of financial markets:

  • Bilateral exchange rates focus on the direct relationship between two currencies, often forming the basis for many financial transactions, trade agreements, and international investments. However, this measuring method does not consider the broader dynamics within the global market or other currencies;
  • Cross rates come into play when dealing with several currencies not directly involving the domestic currency. They're derived from the prices of two separate currencies using a third common currency. As such, they allow for indirect conversions, important for global financial markets, especially for traders and investors dealing with multiple currencies;
  • The Trade-Weighted Index (TWI) is a currency value measurement relating to a basket of other currencies, weighted according to the importance of each country in a specific trade relationship. Compared to a bilateral exchange rate, it provides a more comprehensive view of a currency's performance against multiple trading partners.

3 Main Types of Exchange Rates

Understanding exchange rate types is crucial for businesses navigating international markets and individuals involved in cross-border transactions. Below, we’ll consider how the major rate types stack up. 

Nominal vs Real Exchange Rates

A nominal exchange rate reflects the current value of one currency in terms of another currency without considering other factors like inflation or changes in purchasing power.

By way of contrast, the real exchange rate adjusts for changes in price levels between two countries. It accounts for the effects of inflation and stands for the actual purchasing power of one currency relative to another. Hence, it’s a more accurate measure for comparing the true value of goods and services across borders.

Fixed vs Floating Exchange Rates

As the name suggests, the fixed exchange rates definition is that a country's currency value is pegged to the value of another currency, a basket of currencies, or even a commodity like gold. Governments or central banks often interfere with the market to maintain the fixed value by buying or selling funds.

The floating exchange rates, on the other hand, are determined mainly by market forces of supply and demand. Under this system, currencies freely fluctuate, and their values depend on various economic factors, such as inflation, geopolitical events, interest rates, and market speculation.

Spot and Forward Exchange Rates

The spot rate is the price at which currencies are traded at the moment. Typically, “the moment” refers to 1-3 business days. It’s the prevailing market rate for immediate delivery transactions.

A forward rate, in turn, is a predetermined rate at which two parties agree to exchange currencies at a specified date in the future. These contracts are used to minimize the effect of currency fluctuations and manage risks associated with future operations. 

What Factors Influence Foreign Exchange Rates

At this point, it’s clear what a foreign exchange rate is and how it works. However, this economic variable is not stable and is prone to changes and fluctuations caused by a whole range of factors. The most common ones include:

  • Interest Rates: Central banks set up interest rates, which greatly impact exchange rates. Higher interest rates attract foreign investment, leading to an increased demand for the currency of the country with higher rates, consequently strengthening that currency;
  • Inflation Indices: A lower inflation index implies a rise in the currency purchasing power, attracting foreign investors and bolstering the demand for that currency;
  • Balance of Payments: A country's balance of payments, comprising trade balance, foreign investment, and government payments, directly affects its currency value. A trade surplus (exporting more than importing) strengthens a currency, while a trade deficit makes it weaker;
  • Economic Indicators: Various economic indicators, including GDP growth, employment rates, trade balance, and consumer confidence, influence currency valuation. Strong economic performance normally leads to a stronger currency, reflecting stability and growth potential;
  • Geopolitical Events and Market Sentiment: Unforeseen geopolitical events, such as elections, conflicts, or policy changes, can significantly affect market sentiment, leading to sudden fluctuations in exchange rates as investors react to new information.

Understanding these diverse factors helps market participants and policymakers anticipate currency movements and make informed decisions.

What Happens When the Exchange Rate Changes

From the foreign exchange rates definition, it should be clear that the rates themselves are quite volatile. As we’ve already mentioned, they react to a whole range of factors and largely hinge on economic, political, financial, and social changes. The changes in foreign exchange, in turn, have deep implications across different domains: 

  • Rise and Fall of Exchange Rates: Dependent on economic performance indicators and bank interest rates, the rise and fall of exchange rates impact the import and export activities accordingly. Increasing exchange rates make importing goods and services more affordable while boosting export prices. Lower exchange rates have the exact opposite effect;
  • Exchange Rate Fluctuations: Unexpected fluctuations are usually caused by market sentiment and large-scale currency speculations. This creates uncertainty for businesses engaged in international trade and investments, impacting pricing strategies and profit margins;
  • Exchange Rate Changes: Government and central bank policies, as well as global economic trends, affect currency rates in the long run, impacting the competitiveness of whole industries. Persistent exchange rate fluctuations can also influence the overall microeconomic stability both positively and negatively, depending on the character of the change. 

Final Thought

Volatile, prone to external influences, and highly impactful themselves, exchange rates reflect the intricate dance of supply and demand, investor sentiments, geopolitical events, and economic policies. Deep comprehension of exchange rates helps individuals and organizations make informed decisions, seize opportunities, and navigate the currents of the global economy with resilience and insight.


What is an exchange rate, and how is it calculated?

The exchange rate definition is simple. It is the value of one currency expressed in terms of another currency. Exchange rates can be calculated using various methods depending on the types of exchange rates and the currency pair involved.

How do interest rates, inflation, and economic growth affect exchange rates?

These factors directly impact foreign exchange markets, and the currency prices are sensitive to them as well. Higher interest rates, lower inflation, and consistent economic growth strengthen a currency and its purchasing power.

What is an example of an exchange rate?

As of December 2023, the exchange rate of 1 USD equals 0.93 EUR, which means that one US dollar costs 0.93 EUR. The euro, in turn, costs 1.07 USD.