Category Archives: GBP

The UK needs a weak pound

UK Chancellor Philip Hammond welcomed the rise in the pound that accompanied the announcement of the UK election last month. He should be careful about cheerleading GBP strength, because right now the UK is more in need of a weak pound than it has been for a long time, and a significant recovery in GBP could be a big problem for the UK economy.

The UK economic situation is dangerous, not only because of Brexit, but because of the perilous position of the UK’s consumer finances. This is well illustrated by the chart below showing the financial balances of the three sectors of the UK economy, balanced by the position with the rest of the world.

sector balances

Source: ONS

The UK household deficit is at record levels, and as can be seen from the chart, the existence of a deficit is a rarity, seen only briefly in the late 80s and then for a few years in the mid 2000s. It is a danger signal. In both cases, the deficit was followed by a recession, as consumers retrenched, as can be seen from the chart below.

householdbalance and GDP

Source: ONS

The process see in the past is instructive. Most of the time, GDP grows as the household balance moves towards deficit, fuelled by deficit spending. However, when the household balance moves into deficit, it tends to reverse, and this has historically led to a recession. If this is not to happen this time around, the inevitable reversal in the household balance must be accomplished slowly while other sectors are adding to growth. With the government constrained by longer term budget issues, this really only leaves investment and net exports. This makes the danger from Brexit fairly obvious. If firms are worried about access to the single market then investment in the UK may be curtailed. Longer term, the terms of Brexit will be key for net exports, but shorter term, the export sector looks likely to be the healthiest, as UK exporters benefit from the combination of a lower pound and strengthening Eurozone domestic demand. But this is why a significant recovery in the pound is not desirable. It would both undermine export growth and discourage investment.

Is a recession inevitable when households retrench? Not necessarily – it will depend on the conditions. In 2000 when the dotcom bubble burst the UK avoided recession in spite of a very extended household sector which did retrench, because rate cuts encouraged firms to borrow. But this underlines how important business confidence is in the current UK cyclical situation. With no rate cuts available to encourage businesses or households to spend, confidence in the future is key if spending is to be maintained.

All this makes the timing of Brexit look extremely inopportune. In the mid 2000s, the household sector ran a financial deficit for a few years before the crash, but the crash was all the more severe when it came for that reason. If growth is maintained in the coming years ahead of Brexit, the situation will be similar when Brexit actually happens. If Brexit hurts exports and investment, there will be no safety net.

Policywise, this should make it clear to the government that “no deal” with the EU is not an option. The fear is that they will  believe their own publicity and see limited economic damage if they fail to get a deal. Or take the view that, politically at least, falling back on the WTO will be favourable to accepting a deal that is like EU membership only worse. Hopefully sense prevails.

But in the meantime, the UK economy needs to be managed into a position where it can deal with a potential shock. This means managing a retrenchment of household finances now – while exports are strong enough to offset the negative growth impact. Unfortunately, it is hard to think of a policy mix that will achieve the desired outcome of slower consumer spending with strong exports and investment. Higher rates would help increase saving, but would also likely undesirably boost the pound. Higher taxes wouldn’t reduce the household deficit, only consumer spending, but would give the government more scope to react to shocks in the future, so are probably desirable. Direct restrictions on consumer borrowing might also make sense. But a stronger pound would not be helpful. Hammond should not be talking it up.

UK retail sales – the beginning of a slump?

Unusually I think it’s worth highlighting a monthly release. There is a lot of randomness in most monthly data and UK retail sales is one of the most vulnerable to monthly glitches, often because of seasonality problems. However, if you look at a 3 month average of sales the trend has been quite clear in recent years, until the last couple of months where it looks like everything fell off a cliff.

uk retail

Source: ONS, FX Economics

Now, it’s as well to be cautious in interpreting such sharp moves in retail sales, especially around the turn of the year when Christmas effects can be unpredictable. The plunge we have seen is really based on just a couple of months data. But as can be seen from the series, it is rare for the 3m/3m trend to move so sharply. If we see a similar story in March it would be fair to conclude that there has been a clear weakening in the trend.

Which leads me to the March data due for release tomorrow, Friday April 21. Looking at the screens today, the market median expectation for retail sales is for a m/m decline of 0.2% in the headline number, and a 0.4% decline in the core. Now, this seems to me to be quite a pessimistic forecast. The impact on the 3m/3m growth rate would be minimal, as shown below.

UK retail march

Source: ONS, FX Economics

Retail sales only makes up around 40% of personal consumption, but even so, a 1.2% decline in a quarter is quite a serious slump. Even if we assume the rest of spending carried on as before at the 0.7% q/q rate seen in Q4, then this would still mean negative consumer spending growth in Q1. As I was last month, I am a little sceptical that spending has been quite that weak. Last month we got a rise of 1.4% m/m, which was still far too little to prevent a sharp weakening in the 3m/3m trend, but was nevertheless well above the monthly forecasts. Markets saw this as good news, simply because the outcome was better than expected on the month, but it’s very hard to see how this sharp weakening in the retail sales trend is actually positive news for GBP. This month we may get more of the same. It would take something above a 3% m/m gain to prevent retail sales falling q/q in Q1. But a better than expected outcome of a 1% rise or so seems quite likely, as this would still mean a fall of 0.75% q/q. But surveys don’t suggest any major recovery, with the BRC survey showing the weakest quarter since May 2011 for non-food sales.

So we might get a knee jerk positive reaction because the monthly forecasts once again look quite weak and the m/m rise may be better than forecast. But any positive GBP reaction could prove a selling opportunity for GBP as the strength of the UK economy that Theresa May and the IMF have been telling us about in the last week looks to have come to something of a shuddering halt in Q1. Who knows, this may be another reason that May has called an election now. There are initial signs of a slowdown, and she may want to get an election in now in case they become more obvious in the coming months and years. We are in the sweet spot when it seems consumer confidence is still high, or at least was until Q1, exports are getting some support from a weak pound and there are as yet no negative consequences of Brexit to deal with. Things might not look so rosy in a few months.

UK election – GBP surge may last a while but…


So May calls and election, saying she’s fed up with having opposition from the – er – opposition, and also from the Lords. Someone should tell her an election isn’t going to have much impact on the unelected House of Lords, but it’s true it may have the desired effect on the House of Commons. In practice, she is likely to increase her majority because even though she may lose a fair few seats in the South to the Lib Dems campaigning on a Remain ticket, she looks like picking up a lot of Labour seats in the North, and also gaining votes from UKIP now the Tories have become the party of Brexit.

What I find depressing is the process of British politics. I suppose it is no surprise that politicians are power hungry – it is in their nature – and they will grab as much as they can given the chance. That is probably true pretty much everywhere, but let’s not pretend there is any higher motive for the election than that. But it is particularly depressing in the UK, where the first past the post system means the governing Tory Party already has a degree of power that is unrivalled is the vast majority of western democracies which generally have some form of proportional representation. The desire for an even bigger majority than the 17 the Tories currently have, so that there is no effective opposition at all (even within the Tory Party) is, in my view, faintly obscene, but that’s (British) politics. What is mystifying is why Corbyn and the Labour Party seem so happy to accede to her wishes. Sure, he was calling for an election after the referendum, but she refused. Now he should refuse. That’s the point of the Fixed Term Parliament Act. The timing of the election should not be based on the whim of the governing party (or any other party). His agreement to an election just underlines that Corbyn is a political idiot.

Anyway, it looks like May will get her wish and get an election and a bigger majority. The market consensus is that this is a good thing in practice, because it will give her more negotiating power at the Brexit table. This is true, in that there will be no election looming over her as the end of negotiations approach. However, the idea that she will take a more moderate and compromise friendly approach because she will be less dependent on her right wing looks a little speculative to me. It’s possible, but I don’t detect an air of compromise in her recent statements. I think it’s just as likely that the elimination of an effective opposition will allow the government to take a much more hard line approach. The security of the Conservative political situation domestically will allow them to indulge prejudices that are not necessarily optimal for the long term health of the economy.

While she will of course say she wants the best deal for Britain, what does that actually mean in practice? No-one really knows what the best deal is. Although the vast majority of economists believe something as close as possible to Remaining would be best economically, it is clearly not just about economics. In fact, it is probably not about economics at all. For politicians, the best deal is the deal that will given them the best chance of winning the next election with the biggest majority. The economic impact of Brexit may be large or may be small, but it will not be easily observable because there is no counterfactual. We won’t know what a good Brexit looks like any more than what a bad one looks like. We won’t know if Remaining would have been better. Even if the next election isn’t until 2022, the economic impact very likely won’t be clear by then.

But some things will be easier to measure. The level of immigration for instance. If the government manage to restrict immigration significantly they will probably benefit in the polls (regardless of whether that is actually beneficial). If they win the June election with an increased majority it seems likely to send them a signal to continue to work the nationalistic angle. This is not a conviction government. May has U-turned on Brexit and U-turned on an election. She will go with what works, and if she can sell an image of the UK battling for independence from a sclerotic Europe she will do it. I could easily be wrong here, but markets must beware of believing politicians are thinking about the economy. They are thinking about politics, and right now the economics isn’t clear enough (at least to the layman voter) for that to be the main factor.

As far as FX is concerned, for now at least, there’s no point bucking the market consensus. GBP is benefiting from the more positive view of Brexit, helped in large part by the heavy short positioning that has been evident for some months in the futures data. Some of that has now been eliminated, but the wind is still with the pound. I stick with the view that there isn’t much long term value in the pound here, but there may still be some more upside in the short term. In the absence of news from the US on tax reform the USD looks to be on the back foot for the moment, with expectations of Fed hikes fading, and we are likely to see GBP/USD gains beyond 1.30.  The EUR’s near term chances depend largely on the French election. If Macron gets to the second round he should win and the EUR should benefit modestly from this, but will suffer sharply if the run off is between Melenchon and Le Pen. On the positive EUR outcome I would see EUR/GBP as a buy below 0.83.

Looking a little further forward, the election may not be quite as smooth a victory as the polls currently suggest, and the current perception of the strength of the UK economy seems to be lagging behind what looks like a fairly sharp consumer slowdown in Q1. I would still be looking to sell GBP post election, or possibly before if the current euphoria dies down or we have some positive developments for the EUR or the USD.


GBP isn’t cheap

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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


Source: BIS

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.

eurgbp 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.

Policy mistakes should not always be reversed


UK inflation is rising

The Bank of England cut rates by 25bp and increased asset purchases in August in anticipation of a loss of confidence after the Brexit vote on June 24. The objective was stated to be to “provide additional support to growth and to achieve a sustainable return of inflation to the target.” Subsequently, growth was substantially stronger than expected through the remainder of 2016, mainly due to strong consumer spending, funded by increased borrowing. Now, many (including myself) thought the cut was a mistake at the time. But we all make mistakes. The Bank’s assessment of the impact on confidence appears to have been incorrect. Of course, some might argue that growth was stronger because the Bank eased policy, and no-one can prove that is wrong, but I think it is far-fetched. The fact is that the majority of the population (or at least half) are in favour of Brexit, so there is no good reason why the vote should have undermined consumer confidence. Business confidence might have been damaged in the longer run, but very few investment decisions are changed in a short time frame, so if there is a negative impact, it is yet to be felt. In practice, the relative resilience of spending may convince businesses to hold their nerve until the new trade arrangements become clearer, which may well take some time, as long as growth doesn’t start to slip back.

So it certainly seems as if the Bank of England made a policy error. While there is still very likely to be a longer term supply side shock from Brexit, that may not happen for quite some time, and the demand side shock the Bank initially expected has not materialised thus far. So what should they do? Should they reverse their easing and admit their error? The latest Inflation Report certainly shows inflation is expected to move above target soon and stay above target for the whole forecast horizon, which would suggest there is a pretty good prima facie case to raise rates or at least halt the increase in asset purchases. But the best way to fix an error is not always to simply reverse policy. Unless the reversal is done very quickly, the environment faced is different from the one faced initially. Things have changed.

In this case, the most notable change has been the decline in the pound. This has been good in some ways, as it has helped sustain manufacturing an export confidence in the face of uncertain future trade relationships, but it will lead to substantially higher inflation going forward, starting quite soon, as higher import prices feed through to CPI. It has also already led to higher inflation expectations. The key question as to whether this is sufficient reason to reverse the policy easing is whether the coming rise in inflation leads to an increase in wages and other factors generating domestically generated inflation. At this stage this is not clear, and is important. If wages don’t respond, we will see a sharp decline in real income growth as inflation rises, and if we also see a rise in rates from the Bank, there is a danger this will lead to a sharp decline in consumer confidence, potentially at the same time as sterling rises in response to a rise in rates. This could make the current optimism about the UK economy evaporate quite quickly.

So at this stage it seems sensible to wait. Inflation is coming, and it would be as well to see how this impacts spending and confidence before acting to reverse the move made in August. There has been a lot of British bravado since the Brexit vote, but high levels of debt and declining real incomes, plus the uncertainty surrounding the trade relationship with the EU and elsewhere, suggest that confidence is likely to be fragile. After making a policy mistake it is important not to compound it. The Bank mustn’t act looking in the rear view mirror.



EUR weighed down by GBP not Draghi


Looking at the markets, it seems as if Draghi said that the ECB would be easing further come December, or at the very least March. The EUR has gone into a tailspin since the ECB meeting, and journalists are queuing up to blame Draghi. The trouble is, no-one seems quite sure what he said that triggered the move. One headline said “Euro close to 8-month lows vs dollar Friday after ECB chief Mario Draghi ruled out an abrupt end to QE.” Another headline “Euro wallows near March lows after Draghi quashes tapering talk”. So did he quash taper talk, or did he say the ECB would taper? Because if you don’t end abruptly, you taper (it’s one or the other). And which is better for the EUR? Because when it was suggested that the ECB would taper a month or so ago (by some unnamed committee member that Draghi emphasised had no insight) the EUR went up. So presumably if they don’t taper it goes down? Except Draghi said they would taper. Which I would have thought was sensible, and less likely to be EUR positive than an abrupt end to QE if anyone thought about it. Which all probably goes to show how silly the original “taper tantrum” was, but doesn’t really explain why the EUR has been so weak since Draghi’s press conference, especially since the effects of the initial taper tantrum were fairly short-lived in any case because on reflection most saw that the initial story didn’t mean a great deal, true or not.

In reality I don’t think the market really saw anything new in Draghi’s comments, but in the absence of anything new, the downtrend in EUR/USD remains in place. EUR/USD has been in a downtrend since the Brexit vote, and with the market expecting a Fed rate hike in December and currently seeing a probable Clinton victory as favourable (presumably because it is essentially the status quo – no nasty surprises), the burden of proof is now on those that want to oppose the EUR/USD downtrend. It is interesting that the Brexit situation appears to be the key factor that has pushed EUR/USD lower, though the UK is a small economy by comparison to the US and Eurozone giants. It is certainly the case that EUR/USD has never regained the 1.1377 high seen on June 24 and had been edging higher into the vote. It is hard to see that the economic news form the two economies since then has been particularly USD positive or EUR negative. If anything the opposite is true. Certainly since the beginning of this year the performance of the Eurozone in both growth and inflation has been broadly in line with expectations, while US growth has significantly underperformed. In fact, the OECD currently expect US GDP growth to be weaker than the Eurozone’s this year, and although many expect the Fed to raise rates in December, this is significantly less tightening than had been anticipated  at the start of the year.

So we need some change in market perceptions for the EUR to stop falling, at least until we reach the key levels in the 1.05-1.08 area in EUR/USD. A less negative view of Brexit from the perspective of both the UK and the Eurozone is the most obvious potential trigger, though that doesn’t seem imminent with the EU ruling out negotiation until the UK invokes Article 50, which most likely will be in Q1 2017. The other main possibility is a change in the perception of the Fed, though the way things have turned out this year suggests that even if the Fed don’t raise rates in December, the hit to USD strength may only be temporary unless the ECB turn out to be unexpectedly hawkish at their December meeting. The third chance of a Trump victory is one I hope we don’t have to consider.

GBP weakness overdone?

Well, yes and no. I think the lows seen overnight represent a reasonable idea of the base for GBP, but we may well have another look at them before we go higher. I would argue that while the bad news about Brexit is now broadly in the market, there are few reasons to buy GBP, and levels are still not that attractive, so I would still prefer the downside for now.

The overnight moves were clearly exacerbated by poor liquidity in Asian hours, though it’s still surprising to me that liquidity is that poor. It seems that in the new algo dominated world such moves are becoming more frequent, though it is more surprising in GBP than it was in the CHF when there was a clear change in regime in the removal of a floor. Exotic options structures may have been responsible, but I am not totally convinced by the explanations I have heard.

Anyway, GBP has bounced back after the sharp dip overnight, but buyers will now be even more wary than they were and the prospects of recovery consequently that much less. Was the weakness overnight justified by events? No, in that nothing changed dramatically enough to trigger such a sharp fall. Underlying concern about a “hard” Brexit is behind the negative GBP sentiment, but does this mean GBP is weak indefinitely until the reality of the trade arrangements are realised? Surely not, as we may see no clarity for years. What we are seeing from May, Hollande, Juncker, Merkel et al. isn’t even negotiation yet. The UK hasn’t even triggered Article 50. This is just the pre-negotiation posturing – the trash talk before the big fight. I don’t know what the trade relations between the UK and the EU will look like in the end, but I suspect there won’t be the radical step change in trade that some seem to think. The bad news of a “hard” Brexit is now essentially in the market, so may be there is no more to come and GBP has hit its lows. This is certainly possible, but the problem is that the pound still isn’t particularly cheap.

There is more than one way of assessing value in FX, but I will show three charts here to illustrate why I think GBP is far from being significantly cheap. It is broadly fair against the USD, but it is still expensive against the EUR. I have published these before back in June before the Brexit vote as reasons why, even if there had been a vote to Remain, GBP was too high.

The first chart underlines that GBP is still well above PPP against the EUR. While currencies don’t necessarily trade near PPP, it is a good starting point, and it can be seen from the chart that GBP has generally traded a lot closer to PPP against the EUR than it did in recent years. There was some justification for higher GBP valuation at the height of the EUR crisis, including higher UK yields and greater perceived security, but the yield advantage has effectively vanished and GBP now also looks more risky and less secure, so the justification for trading above PPP is much reduced.

Against the USD the tendency until the mid noughties was to trade close to PPP. Subsequent GBP strength may have been a result of reserve diversification by major central banks (among other things) but current PPP is around 1.32, so we are only marginally below there.

The third chart illustrates how major currency levels versus PPP generally correlate to the size of the current account deficit/surplus in each currency. On this basis GBP looks about fair, while the EUR looks very obviously cheap and the CHF exceptionally expensive. The relatively high valuation of the NZD and AUD reflect their higher yields. The cheapness of the EUR and the high level of the CHF suggests the CHF is the proxy DEM, but sooner or later I expect this will also be corrected.


Source: OECD, FX Economics


Source: OECD, FX Economics


Source: OECD, FX Economics