Reduction in the exchange value of a country's monetary unit in terms of gold, silver, or foreign currency. By decreasing the price of the home country's exports abroad and increasing the price of imports in the home country, devaluation encourages the home country's export sales and discourages expenditures on imports, thus improving its balance of payments.
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Devaluation is a reduction in the value of a currency with respect to other monetary units. In common modern usage, it specifically implies an official lowering of the value of a country's currency within a fixed exchange rate system, by which the monetary authority formally sets a new fixed rate with respect to a foreign reference currency. In contrast, (currency) depreciation is most often used for the unofficial decrease in the exchange rate in a floating exchange rate system. The opposite of devaluation is called revaluation.
Depreciation and devaluation are sometimes used interchangeably, but they always refer to values in terms of other currencies. Inflation, on the other hand, refers to the value of the currency in goods and services (related to its purchasing power). Altering the face value of a currency without reducing its exchange rate is a redenomination, not a devaluation or revaluation.
Later, paper currencies were issued, and governments decreed them to be redeemable for gold or silver (a gold standard). Again, a government short on gold or silver might devalue by abruptly decreeing a reduction in the currency's redemption value, reducing the value of everyone's holdings. Naturally, a government which made a habit of doing this would lead its citizens to hold gold or silver in place of the government's notes, so such governments would often outlaw private hoarding of precious metal in order to prevent Gresham's Law from taking effect.
In an open market, the perception that a devaluation is imminent may lead speculators to sell the currency in exchange for the country's foreign reserves, increasing pressure on the issuing country to make an actual devaluation. When speculators buy out all of the foreign reserves, a balance of payments crisis occurs. Economists Paul Krugman and Maurice Obstfeld present a theoretical model in which they state that the balance of payments crisis occurs when the real exchange rate (exchange rate adjusted for relative price differences between countries) is equal to the nominal exchange rate (the stated rate) (Krugman, Paul and Maurice Obstfeld. International Economics (2000), Chapter 17 [Appendix II]). In practice, the onset of crisis has typically occurred after the real exchange rate has depreciated below the nominal rate. The reason for this is that speculators do not have perfect information; they sometimes find out that a country is low on foreign reserves well after the real exchange rate has fallen. In these circumstances, the currency value will fall very far very rapidly. This is what occurred during the 1994 economic crisis in Mexico.
Generally, a steady process of inflation is not considered a devaluation, although if a currency has a high level of inflation, its value will naturally fall against gold or foreign currencies. Especially where a country deliberately prints money (a usual cause of hyperinflation) to cover a persistent budget deficit without borrowing, this may be considered a devaluation.
In some cases, a country may revalue its currency higher (the opposite of devaluation) in response to positive economic conditions, to lower inflation, or to please investors and trading partners. This would imply that existing currency increased in value, as opposed to the case where a country issues a new currency to replace an old currency that had declined excessively in value (such as Turkey and Romania in 2005, Argentina in 2002, Russia in 1998, or Germany in 1923).