I don't know if I'd call it a flaw in your thinking, but what you say
is true as far as it goes. But the results are different if you make
For the sake of simplicity here, I'm going to talk about dollars and
pesos and say that one dollar equals 10 pesos. It's easier for me to
keep track of things that way.
In your example, you say that a hamburger that sells for $1 in one
country sells for 10 pesos in the other country. If that is the case,
you're right that it doesn't matter where you buy the hamburger.
But let's say that a hamburger costs $1 dollar in the first country
and only 5 pesos in the other country. Then you could go to the poorer
country and use the same dollar to buy two hamburgers instead of one.
So all other things being equal, the trend would be for hamburgers to
be exported from the peso country and imported into the dollar
country. So we might say that the price of the hamburger is less in
pesos than it is in dollars. In this case, we'd say that the dollar is
stronger than the peso, or that the peso is weaker than the dollar.
(Of course, I'm oversimplifying things quite a bit, since hamburgers
aren't the only trading item.)
It's interesting that you mention hamburgers. There's a commonly used
index developed by the Economist magazine that compares the cost of
Big Mac hamburgers (the kind from McDonald's) from country to country
as a fun-but-serious exercise to see how much currencies are really
You can see the hamburger index on this page:
The Hamburger Standard
If you look at this chart, you can see that there is a wide variation
in what a Big Mac hamburger costs in U.S. dollars, ranging from $1.20
in China to $2.65 in the United States to $5.04 in Sweden. (In real
life, of course, exchange rates and such aren't the only things
affecting prices. Taxes in Europe can make prices there higher even if
their currencies aren't particularly weak.)
Another way of explaining this chart is to say that the dollar is
worth more in China than in the U.S., but worth less in Switzerland
than in the U.S. (Again, this is assuming that the hamburger is the
only commodity, which it is not.) So if hamburgers could be shipped
across the oceans and there were no import/export taxes, it would make
sense for everyone to buy their hamburgers from China.
Let's go back to the original example, where 10 pesos equals a dollar
and where you can buy a hamburger in the dollar country for a dollar
but in the peso country for the equivalent of half a dollar. As you
can see, this disparity in the buying power of the currencies would
mean lots of hamburgers leaving the peso country and going to the
dollar country. Suppose the dollar country doesn't like this. One
thing it could do is weaken its currency. Suppose the exchange rate
changes to 5 pesos per dollar. Then all of a sudden the peso-valued
hamburgers will cost the same in either country.
Let me give a personal example that shows a little bit of how this
works. I'm a U.S. resident. A few summers ago I vacationed in Canada
when the exchange rate was about $1.55 Canadian = $1 U.S. Things
seemed really cheap for me. I remember taking a family of five to a
restaurant and all of us eating for $30 Canadian, which then was about
$19.35 U.S. Nowadays, though, the Canadian exchange rate is $1.33
Canadian to $1 U.S., so the same meal would cost the equivalent of
$22.56 U.S. That's still not bad, but it does make Canada less
attractive as a vacation destination.
I'd also point out that I live fairly close to the Canadian border.
When the exchange rate was high for Canadians, there were very few
Canadians shopping in the stores near where I live. But now, shopping
by Canadian customers has increased over what it was (but it's still
less than it was when the exchange rate was $1.15 Canadian to $1
Something similar is happening now for U.S. residents traveling in
Europe. Prices there are high for Americans, so fewer are traveling
there. But the U.S. is more of a bargain for Europeans, so more are
coming here. The prices are more or less the same in dollars as they
have always been (except for a small amount of inflation), and the
prices in euros are the more or less the same they have always been,
but the changing exchange rates changes the prices for those using a
To get back to your question, the reason some Asian countries want a
weak currency is so they can sell more products. With a weak Asian
currency, the price for Americans (for example) buying is less. (On
the other hand, imports into those Asian countries are priced higher.)
By undervaluing their currency, they can export more.
Here are some resources that explain this, maybe better than I have.
A Beginner's Guide to Exchange Rates and the Foreign Exchange Market
This is an eight-part explanation of exchange rates. Despite the
title, not all of it is at the beginner's level. The most useful
section for answering your question is the second part.
How Exchange Rates Work
This site provides an understandable explanation of exchange rates.
The Effect of Exchange Rates
This page has some graphs to help explain.
This brief technical paper explains the affect of exchange rates on
the Lithuanian economy.
Foreign Trade and Foreign Debt
This notes for a college-level class explain in influence of exchange
rates not only on imports/exports, but also on national debt and other
items of interest to economists.
The Euro -- Cause for Concern?
This article explains not only why a weak euro can lead to more
exports from Europe, but also what negative consequences a weaker euro
I hope my answer and these additional documents fully answer your question.
Google searches used:
site:howstuffworks.com "foreign exchange"
economist "big mac"
"exchange rates" "affect exports"
I also searched for the word "exchange" in this page:
Economics - The A to Z List
Clarification of Answer by
23 Feb 2004 09:36 PST
That's correct. To use one example I gave, the meal that cost me $30
Canadian in Canada three years ago still costs $30 Canadian.
(Actually, it probably has gone up a bit due to inflation, but the
U.S. and Canadian inflation rates are about the same, so that factor
balances out.) So its price has gone up for me, an American earning
American dollars, but not for my Canadian friends.
Of course, I have simplified things quite a bit, so you raise a good
point. In the real world, the sellers in the peso country might try to
raise prices because they don't have competition at their price, and
the sellers in the dollar country might lower theirs to be more
competitive. There also can be various pressures for a country to have
a realistically valued currency. One of the pressures is international
debt. Suppose the peso country has a large international debt that has
to be paid in dollars; if it devalues its currency too much, it's not
going to get enough dollars to pay its debts. This is one reason why
some countries try to keep their currency high. So there are lots of
factors that enter into the situation. Similarly, if a country's
currency is too weak, there is little incentive for foreign investors
to help develop businesses and that sort of thing. A weak currency can
also lead to inflation, partly because imports become expensive.
So things can get quite complicated as countries take steps to
regulate the value of the currency. But the basic premise of the
answer remains true, that as the currency of country A drops in value
compared to other currencies, the tendency will be for its exports to
increase. As its value of the country's currency increases, it will
tend to import more and export less.
So you're right that over the long term, assuming completely free
markets (which we don't have) and lack of any government intervention
into any economy, prices would tend to equalize everywhere. But in the
short and medium term, currency price manipulation can be one way a
country can increase its exports.
Here are some articles that touch on this matter. They clearly
indicates how countries do manipulate their currencies for trade
reasons, but they also demonstrate that there are problems with doing
The Dollar Debacle
Gold and the U.S. Elections
U.S. - Japan Joint Devaluation Needed