Chapter 14: Foreign Exchange (FX) Risk Management

How to Export in Foreign Currencies

This chapter is also available via download in PDF format.

Foreign exchange (FX) is a risk factor that is often overlooked by small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that wish to enter, grow, and succeed in the global marketplace. Although most U.S. SME exporters prefer to sell in U.S. dollars, creditworthy foreign buyers today are increasingly demanding to pay in their local currencies. From the viewpoint of a U.S. exporter who chooses to sell in foreign currencies, FX risk is the exposure to potential financial losses due to devaluation of the foreign currency against the U.S. dollar. Obviously, this exposure can be avoided by insisting on selling only in U.S. dollars. However, such an approach may result in losing export opportunities to competitors who are willing to accommodate their foreign buyers by selling in their local currencies. This approach could also result in the non-payment by a foreign buyer who may find it impossible to meet U.S. dollar-denominated payment obligations due to a significant devaluation of the local currency against the U.S. dollar. While losses due to non-payment could be covered by export credit insurance, such “what-if” protection is meaningless if export opportunities are lost in the first place because of a “payment in U.S. dollars only” policy. Selling in foreign currencies, if FX risk is successfully managed or hedged, can be a viable option for U.S. exporters who wish to enter and remain competitive in the global marketplace.

Characteristics of a Foreign Currency-Denominated Export Sale

Applicability

Recommended for use (a) in competitive markets and (b) when foreign buyers insist on purchasing in their local currencies

Risk

Exporter is exposed to the risk of currency exchange loss unless FX risk management techniques are used

Pros

  • Enhances export sales terms to help exporters remain competitive
  • Reduces non-payment risk because of local currency devaluation

Cons

  • Cost of using some FX risk management techniques
  • Burden of FX risk management

Key Points

  • Most foreign buyers generally prefer to trade in their local currencies to avoid FX risk exposure.
  • U.S. SME exporters who choose to trade in foreign currencies can minimize FX exposure by using one of the widely-used FX risk management techniques available.
  • The sometimes volatile nature of the FX market poses a risk of unfavorable FX rate movements, which may cause significantly damaging financial losses from otherwise profitable export sales.
  • The primary objective of FX risk management is to minimize potential currency losses, not to profit from FX rate movements, which are unpredictable.

FX Risk Management Options

A variety of options are available for reducing short-term FX exposure. The following sections list FX risk management techniques considered suitable for new-to-export U.S. SME companies. The FX instruments mentioned below are available in all major currencies and are offered by numerous commercial banks. However, not all of these techniques may be available in the buyer’s country or they may be too expensive to be useful.

Non-Hedging FX Risk Management Techniques

The exporter can avoid FX exposure by using the simplest non-hedging technique: price the sale in a foreign currency in exchange for cash in advance. The current spot market rate will then determine the U.S. dollar value of the foreign proceeds. A spot transaction is when the exporter and the importer agree to pay using today’s exchange rate and settle within two business days. Another non-hedging technique to minimize FX exposure is to net foreign currency receipts with foreign currency expenditures. For example, the U.S. exporter who receives payment in pesos from a buyer in Mexico may have other uses for pesos, such as paying agent’s commissions or purchasing supplies in pesos from a different Mexican trading partner. If the company’s export and import transactions with Mexico are comparable in value, pesos are rarely converted into dollars, and FX risk is minimized. The risk is further reduced if those peso-denominated export and import transactions are conducted on a regular basis.

FX Forward Hedges

The most direct method of hedging FX risk is a forward contract, which enables the exporter to sell a set amount of foreign currency at a pre-agreed exchange rate with a delivery date from three days to one year into the future. For example, U.S. goods are sold to a German company for €1 million on 60-day terms and the forward rate for “60-day euro” is 0.80 euro to the dollar. The U.S. exporter can eliminate FX exposure by contracting to deliver €1 million to its bank in 60 days in exchange for payment of $1.25 million. Such a forward contract will ensure that the U.S. exporter can convert the €1 million into $1.25 million, regardless of what may happen to the dollar-euro exchange rates over the next 60 days. However, if the German buyer fails to pay on time, the U.S. exporter will still be obligated to deliver €1 million in 60 days. Accordingly, when using forward contracts to hedge FX risk, U.S. exporters are advised to pick forward delivery dates conservatively or to ask the trader for a “window forward” which allows for delivery between two dates versus a specific settlement date. If the foreign currency is collected sooner, the exporter can hold on to it until the delivery date or can “swap” the old FX contract for a new one with a new delivery date at a minimal cost. Note that there are no fees or charges for forward contracts since the FX trader makes a “spread” by buying at one price and selling to someone else at a higher price.

FX Options Hedges

If an SME has an exceptionally large transaction that has been quoted in foreign currency and/or there exists a significant time period between quote and acceptance of the offer, an FX option may be worth considering. Under an FX option, the exporter or the option holder acquires the right, but not the obligation, to deliver an agreed amount of foreign currency to the FX trader in exchange for dollars at a specified rate on or before the expiration date of the option. As opposed to a forward contract, an FX option has an explicit fee, a premium, which is similar in nature to the premium paid for insurance. If the value of the foreign currency goes down, the exporter is protected from loss. On the other hand, if the value of the foreign currency goes up significantly, the exporter simply lets it expire and sells the foreign currency on the spot market for more dollars than originally expected; although the premium would be forfeited. While FX options hedges provide a high degree of flexibility, they can be significantly more costly than FX forward contracts.


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