The pound has fallen to its lowest rate against the euro since July 2013 and the lowest rate against the US dollar since 1985. Since August 2015, the pound has depreciated by 23.4% against the euro and 22.2% against the dollar. And since the referendum of 23 June, it has depreciated by 15.6% against the euro and 17.6% against the dollar.
On Sunday 2 October, at the start of the Conservative Party conference, the Prime Minister announced that Article 50, which triggers the Brexit process, would be invoked by the end of March 2017. Worries about what the terms of Brexit would look like put further pressure on the pound: the next day it fell by around 1% and the next day by a further 0.5%.
Then, on 6 October, it was reported that President Hollande was demanding tough Brexit negotiations and the pound dropped significantly further. By 7 October, it was trading at around €1.10 and $1.22. At airports, currency exchange agencies were offering less than €1 per £ (see picture).
With the government implying that Brexit might involve leaving the Single Market, the pound continued falling. On 12 October, the trade-weighted index reached its lowest level since the index was introduced in 1980: below its trough in the depth of the 2008 financial crisis and below the 1993 trough following Britain’s ejection from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism in September 1992.
So just why has the pound fallen so much, both before and after the Brexit vote? (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.) And what are the implications for the economy?
The articles explore the reasons for the depreciation. Central to these are the effects on the balance of payments from a possible decline in inward investment, lower interest rates leading to a net outflow of currency on the financial account, and stimulus measures, both fiscal and monetary, leading to higher imports.
Worries about the economy were occurring before the Brexit vote and this helped to push sterling down in late 2015 and early 2016, as you can see in the chart. This article from The Telegraph of 14 June 2016 explains why.
Despite the short-run effects on the UK economy of the Brexit vote not being as bad as some had predicted, worries remain about the longer-term effects. And these worries are compounded by uncertainty over the Brexit terms.
A lower sterling exchange rate reduces the foreign currency price of UK exports and increases the sterling price of imports. Depending on price elasticities of demand, this should improve the current account of the balance of payments.
These trade effects will help to boost the economy and go some way to countering the fall in investment as businesses, uncertain over the terms of Brexit, hold back on investment in the UK.
Pound Nears Three-Decade Low as May Sets Date for Brexit Trigger Bloomberg, Netty Idayu Ismail and Charlotte Ryan (3/10/16)
Sterling near 31-year low against dollar as May sets Brexit start dat Financial Times, Michael Hunter and Roger Blitz (3/10/16)
Sterling hits three-year low against the euro over Brexit worries The Guardian, Katie Allen (3/10/16)
Pound sterling value drops as Theresa May signals ‘hard Brexit’ at Tory conference Independent, Zlata Rodionova (3/10/16)
Pound falls as Theresa May indicates Brexit date BBC News (3/10/16)
The pound bombs and stocks explode over fears of a ‘hard Brexit’ Business Insider UK, Oscar Williams-Grut (3/10/16)
Pound Will Feel Pain as Brexit Clock Ticks Faster Wall Street Journal, Richard Barley (3/10/16)
British Pound to Euro Exchange Rate’s Brexit Breakdown Slows After Positive Manufacturing PMI Halts Decline Currency Watch, Joaquin Monfort (3/10/16)
7 ways the fall in the value of the pound affects us all Independent (4/10/16)
The pound and the fury: Brexit is making Britons poorer, and meaner The Economist, ‘Timekeeper’ (11/10/16)
Is the pound headed for parity v US dollar and euro? Sydney Morning Herald, Jessica Sier (5/10/16)
Flash crash sees the pound gyrate in Asian trading BBC News (7/10/16)
Flash crash hits pound after Hollande remarks Deutsche Welle (7/10/16)
Sterling mayhem gives glimpse into future Reuters, Swaha Pattanaik (7/10/16)
Sterling takes a pounding The Economist, Buttonwood (7/10/16)
Government must commit to fundamental reform The Telegraph, Andrew Sentance (7/10/16)
Interest & exchange rates data – Statistical Interactive Database Bank of England
- Why has sterling depreciated? Use a demand and supply diagram to illustrate your argument.
- What has determined the size of this depreciation?
- What is meant by the risk premium of holding sterling?
- To what extent has the weaker pound contributed to the better economic performance than was expected immediately after the Brexit vote?
- What factors will determine the value of sterling over the coming months?
- Who gain and who lose from a lower exchange rate?
- What is likely to happen to inflation over the coming months? Explain and consider the implications for monetary and fiscal policy.
- What is a ‘flash crash’. Why was there a flash crash in sterling on Asian markets on 7 October 2016? Is such a flash crash in sterling likely to occur again?
Newspaper headlines this week read that the UK’s balance of trade deficit has widened to £34.8bn, the largest since 2010. And when you exclude services, the trade in goods deficit, at £119.9bn is the largest ever in nominal terms and is also likely to be the largest as a percentage of GDP.
So far so bad. But when you look a little closer, the picture is more mixed. The balance of trade deficit (i.e. on both goods and services) narrowed each quarter of 2014, although the monthly figure did widen in December 2014. In fact the trade in goods deficit increased substantially in December from £9.3bn to £10.2bn.
At first sight the widening of the trade deficit in December might seem surprising, given the dramatic drop in oil prices. Surely, with demand for oil being relatively inelastic, a large cut in oil prices should significantly reduce the expenditure on oil? In fact the reverse happened. The oil deficit in December increased from £598m to £940m. The reason is that oil importing companies have been stockpiling oil while low prices persist. Clearly, this is in anticipation that oil prices will rise again before too long. What we have seen, therefore, is a demand that is elastic in the short run, even though it is relatively inelastic in the medium run.
But the trade deficit is still large. Even when you strip out oil, the deficit in December still rose – from £8.7bn to £9.2bn. There are two main reasons for this deterioration.
The first is a strong pound. The sterling exchange rate index rose by 1.8% in December and a further 0.4% in January. With quantitative easing pushing down the value of the euro and loose monetary policies in China and Australia pushing down the value of their currencies, sterling is set to appreciate further.
The second is continuing weakness in the eurozone and a slowing of growth in some major developing countries, including China. This will continue to dampen the growth in UK exports.
But what of the overall current account? Figures are at present available only up to 2014 Q3, but the picture is bleak (see the chart). As the ONS states:
The current account deficit widened in Q3 2014, to 6.0% of nominal Gross Domestic Product GDP, representing the joint largest deficit since Office for National Statistics (ONS) records began in 1955.
This deterioration in performance can be partly attributed to the recent weakness in the primary income balance [see]. This also reached a record deficit in Q3 2014 of 2.8% of nominal GDP; a figure that can be primarily attributed to a fall in UK residents’ earnings from investment abroad, and broadly stable foreign resident earnings on their investments in the UK
The primary income account captures income flows into and out of the UK economy, as opposed to current transfers (secondary income) from taxes, grants, etc. The large deficit reflects a decline in the holding by UK residents of foreign assets from 92% of GDP in 2008 to 67% by the end of 2014. This, in turn, reflects the poorer rate of return on many of these assets. By contrast, the holdings of UK assets by foreign residents has increased. They have been earning a higher rate of return on these assets than UK residents have on foreign assets. And so, despite UK interest rates having fallen, as the quote above says, foreign residents’ earnings on their holding of UK assets has remained broadly stable.
UK trade deficit last year widest since 2010 BBC News (6/2/15)
UK’s trade deficit widens to 2010 high as consumers take advantage of falling oil The Telegraph, Peter Spence (6/2/15)
UK trade deficit widens to four-year high The Guardian, Katie Allen (6/2/15)
UK trade deficit hits four-year high Financial Times, Ferdinando Giugliano (6/2/15)
Balance of Payments ONS (topic link)
Summary: UK Trade, December 2014 ONS (6/2/15)
Current account, income balance and net international investment position ONS (23/1/15)
Pink Book – Tables ONS
- Distinguish between he current account, the capital account and the financial account of the balance of payments.
- If the overall balance of payments must, by definition, balance, why does it matter if the following are in deficit: (a) trade in goods; (b) the current account; (b) income flows?
- What would cause the balance of trade deficit to narrow?
- Discuss what policies the government could pursue to reduce the size of the current account deficit? Distinguish between demand-side and supply-side policies.
- Why has the sterling exchange rate index been appreciating in recent months?
- What do you think is likely to happen to the sterling exchange rate index in the coming months? Explain.
One effect of an expansionary monetary policy is a depreciation of the exchange rate. Take the case of countries using a combination of a reduction in central bank interest rates and quantitative easing (QE). A fall in interest rates will encourage an outflow of finance; and part of the money created through quantitative easing will be used to purchase foreign assets. Both create an increased demand for foreign currencies and drive down the exchange rate.
The latest case of expansionary monetary policy is that employed by the ECB. After months of promising to ‘do whatever it takes’ and taking various steps towards full QE, the ECB finally announced a large-scale QE programme on 22 January 2015.
With people increasingly predicting QE and with the ECB reducing interest rates, so the euro depreciated. Between March 2014 and 21 January 2015, the euro depreciated by 20.2% against the dollar and the euro exchange rate index depreciated by 9.7%. With the announced programme of QE being somewhat larger than markets expected, in the week following the announcement the euro fell a further 2.3% against the dollar, and the euro exchange rate index also fell by 2.3%. The euro is now at its lowest level against the US dollar since April 2003 (see chart).
The depreciation of the euro will be welcome news for eurozone exporters. It makes their exports cheaper in foreign currency terms and thus makes their exports more competitive. Similarly Japanese exporters were helped by the depreciation of the yen following the announcement on 31 October 2014 by the Bank of Japan of an increase in its own QE programme. The yen has depreciated by 7.7% against the dollar since then.
But every currency cannot depreciate against other currencies simultaneously. With any bilateral exchange rate, the depreciation of one currency represents an appreciation of the other. So just as the euro and yen have depreciated against the dollar, the dollar has appreciated against the euro and yen. This has made US goods less competitive relative to eurozone and Japanese goods.
The danger is that currency wars will result, with monetary policy being used in various countries to achieve competitive depreciations. Already, the Swiss have been forced, on 15 January, to remove the cap with the euro at SF1 – €0.833. Since then the Swiss franc has appreciated by some 15% to around SF1 – €0.96. Will the Swiss now be forced to relax their monetary policy?
The Danish and Canadian central banks have cut their interest rates, hoping to stem an appreciation of their currencies. On 28 January, the Monetary Authority of Singapore sold Singapore dollars to engineer a depreciation. The Singapore dollar duly fell by the most in over four years.
But are these policies simply beggar-my-neighbour policies? Is it a zero-sum game, where the gains to the countries with depreciating currencies are exactly offset by losses to the those with appreciating ones? Or is there a net gain from overall looser monetary policy at a time of sluggish growth? Or is there a net loss from greater currency volatility, which will create greater uncertainty and dampen cross-border investment? The following article explore the issues.
Massive Devaluation of the Euro Seeking Alpha, Sagar Joshi (26/1/15)
Devaluation and discord as the world’s currencies quietly go to war The Observer (25/1/15)
Why is dollar strong vs. 18 trillion of USA’s debt? Pravda, Lyuba Lulko (26/1/15)
Central Bankers Ramp Up Currency Wars Wall Street Journal, Anjani Trivedi, Josie Cox and Carolyn Cui (28/1/15)
The Raging Currency Wars Across Europe The Market Oracle, Gary_Dorsch (29/1/15)
Why ECB action is likely to stoke global currency wars Financial Times, Ralph Atkins (22/1/15)
Euro slides as ECB launches QE Financial Times (22/1/15)
Will Australia join the Currency Wars? The Daily Reckoning, Australia, Greg Canavan (23/1/15)
Australia’s central bank cuts rates to record low; currency plunges and stocks spike The Telegraph (3/2/15)
Singapore loosens monetary policy Financial Times, Jeremy Grant (28/1/15)
Currency Wars Have a Nuclear Option Bloomberg, Mark Gilbert (12/2/15)
- Explain how quantitative easing results in depreciation. What determines the size of the depreciation?
- How is the USA likely to react to an appreciation of the dollar?
- In the UK, who will benefit and who will lose from the depreciation of the euro?
- What are the global benefits and costs of a round of competitive depreciations?
- How does the size of the financial account of the balance of payments affect the size of a depreciation resulting from QE?
- What determines a country’s exchange-rate elasticity of demand for exports? How does this elasticity of demand affect the size of changes in the current account of the balance of payments following a depreciation?
- Might depreciation of their currencies reduce countries’ commitment to achieving structural reforms? Or might it ‘buy them time’ to allow them to introduce such reforms in a more carefully planned way and for such reforms to take effect? Discuss.
The latest balance of payments data for the UK show that in the final two quarters of 2013 the current account deficit as a percentage of GDP was the highest ever recorded. In quarter 3 it was 5.6% of GDP and in quarter 4 it was 5.4% of GDP. The previous highest quarterly figures were 5.3% in 1988 Q4 and 5.2% in 1989 Q3. The average current account deficit from 1960 to 2013 has been 1.1% of GDP and from 1980 to 2013 has been 1.6% of GDP.
The current account has four major components: the balance on goods, the balance on services, the balance on current transfers and the balance on income flows (e.g. investment income). The chart below shows the annual balances of each of these components, plus the overall current account balance, from 1960 to 2013.
There are large differences in the balances of these four and the differences seem to be widening. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
Traditionally the balance on goods has been negative. In 2013 Q3 the deficit on goods reached a record 7.3% of GDP. It fell back somewhat in Q4 to 6.5%, still significantly above the average since 2000 of 5.5%. With the economy still recovering slowly, it would normally be expected that the trade deficit would be low. However, the high exchange rate has made it difficult for UK exporters to compete. Also with consumer confidence returning, imports are rising, again boosted by the high exchange rate, which makes imports cheaper.
The services balance, by contrast, is typically in surplus. In the final two quarters of 2013, the surpluses were 4.9% and 5.1% of GDP respectively. These compare with an average of 3.3% since 2000. It seems that the service sector, which includes banking, insurance, consultancy, advertising, accountancy, law, etc., is much more able to compete in a global environment.
The balance of current transfers to and from such bodies as the EU and UN have traditionally been negative, although as a proportion of GDP this has gradually widened in recent years. In 2013 the deficit was 1.7% compared with an average of 1.0% since 2000.
The most dramatic change has been in income flows and particularly those from investment. Before the crash in late 2008, the returns to many of the risky investments abroad made by UK financial institutions were very high. Income flows in the 12 months 2007 Q4 to 2008 Q3 averaged a surplus of 2.8% of GDP. They stayed positive, albeit at lower levels, until 2012 Q1, but then became negative as UK institutions reduced their exposure to overseas investments and as earnings in the UK by overseas investors increased. In the last two quarters of 2013, the deficits on income flows were 1.4% and 2.5% of GDP respectively.
How do these figures accord with the Chancellor’s desire to rebalance the economy towards exports? In terms of services, the export performance is good. In terms of goods, however, exports actually fell in the last two quarters from £78.4bn to £74.8bn. Although imports fell too in the final quarter, there is a danger that, with recovery and a high pound, these could begin to rise rapidly
So should the Bank of England attempt to bring the sterling exchange rate down? After all, the exchange rate index has risen from 79.1 in March 2013 to 85.9 in February 2014 (an appreciation of 8.6%). But if it did want to do so, what could it do? The traditional methods of reducing Bank rate and increasing the money supply are not open to it at the present time: Bank rate, at 0.5%, is already about as low as it could go and the Bank has ruled out any further quantitative easing.
The articles consider the latest balance of payments figures and their implications for the economy and for economic policy
UK current account deficit far bigger than forecast The Guardian, Katie Allen (28/3/14)
UK current account deficit near record high at £22.4bn BBC News (28/3/14)
UK current account gap second widest on record The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (28/3/14)
When will the UK pay its way? BBC News, Robert Peston (28/3/14)
Current account deficit crisis creeping up on UK can no longer be ignored The Guardian, Larry Elliott (30/3/14)
Balance of Payments, Q4 and annual 2013 ONS (28/3/14)
Statistical Interactive Database – interest & exchange rates data Bank of England
- If the current account is in deficit, how is the overall balance of payments in balance (i.e. is in neither deficit nor surplus)?
- If the current account is in record deficit, why has sterling appreciated over recent months? What effect is this appreciation likely to have on the balance on trade in goods and services?
- Why has the balance on investment income deteriorated? In what ways could this be seen as a ‘good thing’?
- To what extent do the balance of payments figures show a rebalancing of the economy in the way the Chancellor would like?
- What could the Bank of England do to bring about a depreciation of sterling?
- What would be the benefits and costs of a depreciation of sterling?
- Why do investors overseas seem so willing to lend to the UK, thereby producing a large surplus on the financial account?
In an interview with the Yorkshire Post, Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, said that under current circumstances he did not feel that further quantitative easing was justified. He said:
My personal view is, given the recovery has strengthened and broadened, I don’t see a case for quantitative easing and I have not supported it.
In response to his speech, the pound strengthened against the dollar. It appreciated by just over 1 cent, or 0.7%. But why should the likelihood of no further quantitative easing lead to a strengthening of the pound?
The answer lies with people’s anticipation of future interest rates. If there is no further increase in money supply through QE, interest rates are likely to rise as the economy recovers and thus the demand for money rises. A rise in interest rates, in turn, is likely to lead to an inflow of finance into the country, thereby boosting the financial account of the balance of payments. The increased demand for sterling will tend to drive up the exchange rate.
However, an increase in aggregate demand will result in an increase in imports and a likely increase in the balance of trade deficit. Indeed, in July (the latest figures available) the balance of trade deficit rose to £3.085bn from £1.256bn in June. As recovery continues, the balance of trade deficit is likely to deteriorate further. Other things being equal, this would lead to a depreciation of the pound.
So if the pound appreciates, this suggests that the effect on the financial account is bigger than the effect on the current account – or is anticipated to be so. In fact, given the huge volumes of short-term capital that move across the foreign exchanges each day, financial account effects of interest rate changes – actual or anticipated – generally outweigh current account effects.
Yorkshire can reap benefits from turnaround says Mark Carney Yorkshire Post (27/9/13)
Sterling Jumps as BOE Chief Signals No More Bond Buying Wall Street Journal, Nick Cawley and Jason Douglas (27/9/13)
Carney’s Northern Exposure Sends Sterling Soaring Wall Street Journal, David Cottle (27/9/13)
Pound Gains as Carney Sees No Case for QE, Confidence Improves Bloomberg, Anchalee Worrachate & David Goodman (28/9/13)
Exchange Rate Bounces as Strong UK Data Supports Sterling FCF (Future Currency Forecast), Laura Parsons (30/9/13)
Currency briefing: What if the pound sterling has been overbought? iNVEZZ, Tsvyata Petkova (30/9/13)
Pound rises after Carney rejects increasing QE BBC News (27/9/13)
Pound Rises for Fourth Day Versus Euro on Housing, Mortgage Data Bloomberg, Emma Charlton (30/9/13)
$ per £ exchange rate (latest month) XE (You can access other periods and currencies)
Effective exchange rate indices (nominal and real) Bank for International Settlements
Balance of Payments, Q2 2013 Dataset ONS
- Explain how quantitative easing affects exchange rates.
- What is happening concerning quantitative easing in the USA? How is this likely to affect the exchange rate of the US dollar to sterling; other currencies to sterling?
- Why may an increase in the balance of trade deficit lead directly to an appreciation of the exchange rate?
- Why is an anticipation of a policy change likely to have more of an effect on exchange rates than the actual policy change itself? Why, indeed, may a policy change have the reverse effect once it is implemented?
- Under what circumstances may speculation against exchange rate changes be (a) stabilising; (b) destabilising?
- How is quantitative easing (or an anticipation of it) likely to affect each of the main components of the current and financial accounts of the balance of payments?
- For what reasons might sterling have been ‘overbought’ and hence be overvalued?
- What is meant by the real exchange rate (REER)? Why may reference to the REER suggest that sterling is not currently overvalued?