Over the last few weeks and months I’ve noticed quite a few commentators suggesting that GBP might now be attractive because it is very cheap. For instance “the pound looks increasingly “cheap” in a historical context” (Morgan Stanley March 7). “The pound looks cheap at current levels” (ANZ December 6). “The pound is looking “cheap” from a longer-term point of view” (Scotia Bank March 2). There are plenty of others. The consensus seems to be that the pound is cheap because it is suffering from Brexit woes, and that if those were to fade, or be overtaken by concerns elsewhere in the world, the pound would recover. But I would argue that although the pound is obviously cheaper than it was, it still isn’t really cheap against most of the other major currencies.
If something falls a lot it doesn’t necessarily mean it is now cheap. It’s possible of course. But it is also possible that it is falling in line with long-term equilibrium – i.e. it is no cheaper than it was. Or, more likely, it could be that it has fallen from expensive levels and is now just less expensive, or fair. How to decide? Well, some sort of sensible model of fair value is necessary, otherwise we don’t know where we are starting from, or what affects long term equilibrium.
A lot of people run a mile as soon as they see the word “model”. Models are distrusted. So I’m not going to create anything complicated or use any fancy econometrics. I’m simply going to point out three things.
- It is the real value of a currency that matters, not the nominal value. This is just another way of saying that if prices rise in one country or currency area relative to others, then unless the currency falls, things are now more expensive in that country/currency area. In other words, to keep the real value of the currency stable, currencies have to fall if relative inflation is high in their area.
- Trade balances and current accounts matter. The bigger your current account deficit the more capital you need to attract to finance it and, other things equal, the lower your currency has to be.
- Interest rates make a difference. If you have higher interest rates than others there will be more demand for assets denominated in your currency. This ought to apply to real interest rates (interest rates minus expected inflation) rather than nominal rates, because future inflation would typically lead to currency depreciation (point 1).
I don’t think anyone would argue with these three points. But if these are accepted, I don’t see why people see GBP as cheap.
Point 1 is really the most crucial. While terms of trade and interest rates are clearly important, the impact from changes in export and import prices can take some time to be felt and can be offset by other flows. Similarly, interest rate variations affect short-term demand, but if such variations are cyclical they may not have much impact on long-term value. But where we are starting from in terms of the real value of the currency is critical.
So where does the pound stand in real terms? There is more than one way to measure this, but I will use two main methods. First, let’s looks at the commonly used measure of the real effective exchange rate. The chart below shows the narrow real effective GBP exchange rate, and on the face of it, GBP does look quite weak by historic standards. But looking at it next to the EUR effective exchange rate, it isn’t so clear. Since the financial crisis the EUR has weakened more on a trade weighted basis than GBP. Even more dramatically, the USD is well above the highs seen in the last 20 years
So what’s going on? Well, a little more light is shed if we look at another measure of value – namely GBP versus purchasing power parity (PPP). Below is a chart of EUR/GBP against EUR/GBP PPP.
As this shows, EUR/GBP remains some way below PPP. This is not unusual – it has only briefly traded above PPP in the past. This is itself a little puzzling, and I would argue that it is hard to justify, of which more later. But even taking that as given, EUR/GBP is only marginally stronger relative to PPP than its average in the last 20 years.
So GBP isn’t really weak against the EUR at all. What we are seeing here is not GBP weakness, but USD strength.
This is all the more obvious if you look at GBP/USD relative to PPP, shown below.
The USD is as strong against the pound (relative to PPP) as it has been since the 80s and the Reagan era. But the USD is strong against (almost) everything. Only the CHF among the majors looks stronger relative to long run fair value.
Now, USD strength is based on the cyclical strength of the US economy, and to that extent is justified in the short to medium term because US interest rates are higher than the UK and Eurozone, and rising. While the UK economy is (arguably) similarly strong to the US, given low levels of UK unemployment, the UK doesn’t have the interest rate advantage. Indeed, real UK rates are the lowest in the G10. Not only that, but the UK also has a massive trade and current account deficit. The chart below illustrates the situation.
Source: OECD. Real rates based on 2018 forecasts of PCE deflator
The further north-east you can get in this diagram, the more attractive your currency should be. A big current account surplus, like Switzerland, will normally allow you to have low real rates while high real rates, like New Zealand, will normally allow you to run a big current account deficit. The UK is currently enjoying the worst of both worlds. It’s also noticeable that real rates in the US aren’t all that attractive, and may not be high enough to justify the very high level of the USD. As far as the EUR is concerned, there are clearly other issues at play, including existential concerns. But without even considering the potential future negative impact of Brexit (though of course some of this is included in the real yield), it would make sense for GBP to be well below fair value. The fact that it still trades well above PPP against the EUR, and close to it against the USD, suggests it is far from cheap.