The UK’s Foreign Exchange Reserves and the value of Sterling

Last week was the worst for the pound for a year as holders of sterling sold it following the collapse of the talks between the Conservatives and Labour on how to proceed with Brexit.  On the foreign exchange markets, the price of a currency is determined by supply and demand and, if holders of sterling wish to sell it to buy euros or dollars, then the supply of sterling increases and the price falls. Simultaneously, given the state of political uncertainty, demand for sterling on the foreign exchange market fell, further weakening the value of the pound against other currencies. As a result, sterling dropped to $1.27, losing 1.85% of its value during the week.

Most forex transactions are made using the U.S. dollar, euro, pound and Japanese yen; although one might think that currency is mainly traded on the FOREX market to buy foreign goods and services, this is not the case. On average $5.5 trillion is traded each day but less than 5% of this is to buy goods and services. The majority is to purchase financial assets (e.g. foreign shares and government bonds and to place money into an overseas bank account) or to speculate about the likely movements of currencies to make a profit. Therefore, confidence in an economy is crucial in determining its value.

The UK’s reserves of foreign currency, currently standing at $137bn, are used by the Bank of England to protect the value of the pound on the foreign exchange market. The reserves, at their highest level for at least 21 years, are held mainly in US dollars and can be used to buy pounds on the foreign exchange market, thus increasing the demand for pounds and hence increasing the price, or rate of exchange of the pound against other countries.

According to the IMF, they grew 19% in the last quarter of 2018 because the government wanted to have them available in case they were needed after the originally-planned Brexit date. However if one compares the value of our reserves against the £420 billion of sterling traded daily by UK financial institutions one can see that, while the UK authorities might be able to nudge the value of sterling and slow down its fall, we do not have the resources to withstand a major fall in its value unless the government decides to borrow heavily overseas from foreign governments, banks and the IMF.


A look at the world economy.

Recently there has been considerable attention given to the current, positive economic indicators for the UK economy. The three months to February showed the number of people in work reaching a new high of 32.71 million, or 76.1%, the highest for 48 years, the unemployment rate falling to 3.9%, the lowest since 1975 and average weekly earnings increasing by 3.5% in the year to February. With March CPI inflation unchanged at 1.9% (and core inflation also unchanged at 1.8%), real incomes are increasing although there is  concern that inflationary pressure will increase as earnings continue to rise while productivity remains weak.

However for the UK, which is a very open economy, what happens elsewhere has a significant impact on our performance. Three areas are significant – Europe, China and the USA.

Europe is struggling. Its strongest economy, Germany, has cut its growth forecast for 2019 for the second time in three months, now predicting growth of only 0.5%. The reasons cited for the slowdown are the continuing trade dispute between the USA and China, a general world slowdown, Brexit uncertainty and falling car sales. Italy is also a cause for concern. Not only is it predicting growth of only 0.2%, its financial situation is worsening and there is concern that it will breach the targets agreed with the European Commission for government borrowing and its national debt. While the Eurozone was able to deal with a financial crisis in Greece, if Italy, a key member of the Eurozone, continues to run excessive deficits, the implications for financial stability would be more serious.

The Chinese economy appears to be doing well. Over the first three months of the year, GDP grew at an annual rate of 6.4%. However there is concern over the impact of the continuing trade dispute with the USA, worry about the increases in China’s debt, which is financing the growth, and, possibly most importantly, fears over the sustainability of its growth because of its reliance on infrastructure spending. In most countries, high infrastructure spending would be a positive feature but there is concern in China about an infrastructure “bubble” with reports of new cities being constructed which have few people, cars or shops.  One way of appreciating the scale of the spending is to consider a Washington Post report that China used more cement between 2011 and 2013 than the USA used during the entire 20th century. These concerns coincide with China’s diminishing balance of payments surplus as the Chinese buy more foreign goods and travel overseas more and its exports are falling. In 2007, the surplus was 10% of GDP, it is now only 0.4%. While this is good for the UK if Chinese consumers buy more UK exports and decide to visit UK tourist destinations, if it heralds a slowing of China’s growth, the positive impact might be short-lived.

The third pillar of the global economic triangle is the USA and US economic growth slowed to an annual rate of 2.6% in the last three months of 2018. The high growth in 2018 was partially caused by a large tax cut and an increase in government spending and it is expected that once the effects of the stimulus wears off, growth this year will fall towards its long-term level which the Federal Reserve suggest is between 1.7% a year and 2.2%, some way below President Trump’s target of 4%. USA prospects are likely to be influenced by the impact of trade negotiations with China and the EU which are unknown at present but if we are unable to strike a trade deal with the US and UK businesses find tariffs placed on their exports, the impact on the UK could be severe.

Brexit, the WTO and the Irish Border

The World Trade Organisation was established in January,1995 to promote free trade since it believes that it provides benefits in the form of greater choice and lower prices, stimulates economic growth, raises incomes and promotes world peace. It also acts as a forum for negotiations to reduce tariff barriers,  provide technical assistance for developing countries and  resolve trade disputes between its 164 members. For example, in August 2018, Turkey complained to the WTO about US sanctions on Turkish exports of aluminium and steel. If, after investigation and consultation, the WTO believes a country has broken its rules, it can authorise retaliatory tariffs.  Until the Brexit referendum, the WTO had not featured  in UK newspapers. However since the vote and the lack of progress in  talks with the EU, there has been increased interest in its role in regulating world trade  since, if no agreement is reached, the UK will fall back on WTO rules following its departure from the EU on 29th March.

Anyone wishing to join the WTO must agree to accept all its rules, particularly the  ‘Most Favoured Nation’ agreement whereby countries  must apply the same tariff to similar goods, irrespective of the exporting country, unless there is a free trade agreement between the importing and exporting countries. Thus if we leave the EU without an agreement, the EU will apply the same 10% tariff on UK car exports into the EU as it does to those coming in from other non-EU countries. Similarly, if the UK government were to announce a unilateral move to zero tariffs on agricultural products from the EU, without a trade deal, we could not levy tariffs on agricultural goods from elsewhere.

A significant concern is that WTO rules do not reduce regulatory barriers. At present, because of the Single Market, a UK car manufacturer can sell products as easily in Rome as Romford. This will cease if there is no agreement with the EU and therefore we would expect UK goods to be inspected when entering the EU, in the same way that British goods entering  Japan are currently examined to ensure that they meet EU standards. This might not seem a major problem but exporters fear that administrative burdens of completing customs forms and the delays to drivers at borders will be significant, therefore increasing costs.  This will be particularly important for those trading in perishable goods, some medical products which need to be refrigerated, and companies currently operating with minimal stocks in order to reduce costs.

A third concern is that WTO rules do not currently provide as much freedom for trade in services as they do for trade in goods. At present, for example, UK banks provide services for individuals, businesses and other banks across the EU without needing to duplicate all of their physical locations overseas. Leaving the EU will make trade in services, which make up 80% of the UK’s GDP, far more difficult and explains why UK financial consultants, bankers, accountants, etc are moving staff and  have established physical locations overseas.

Some in favour of leaving the EU argue that these arguments will not be significant since much non-EU trade is done under WTO rules. However the Economist pointed out (4th August 2018) that the UK would be the only large country trading solely on WTO rules and many other countries have arrangements in place to reduce the administrative customs burdens which hinder trade.

The problem with the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland is also causing difficulties in our negotiations with the EU since two almost incompatible ideas need to be reconciled. On the one hand, the EU is insisting that, unless there is a new  form of customs union between the UK and the EU (which some pro-Brexiteers resist since it will reduce our ability to sign other deals), there must be a border between the UK and the EU to allow for customs checks to ensure that goods pay the appropriate tariffs and meet regulatory standards. For England, Scotland and Wales, this will be a sea border. However between Northern Ireland and the Republic, it will be a land one. Not only will this be  hard to enforce since there are many possible routes between the two, there are also very major political difficulties in re-establishing a hard border which relate to historical issues between the two countries. The idea of a “back-stop” which would allow free trade between the two countries would involve a different regulatory regime for Northern Ireland compared to the rest of the UK, something which is equally politically difficult to accept.

It is difficult to predict what the effects on our trade will be until the Brexit agreement is reached. As part of the EU, we currently benefit from free trade treaties between the EU and other countries and we do not know whether we will be able to negotiate to keep these agreements. A recent example of this is the recently-signed EU-Japan trade deal which we hope to replicate. However the Japanese have made it clear that it will not be ready to be signed by 29th March and, given the importance of Japan-UK trade, this is potentially a serious issue. Indeed, Dr Fox’s claim in 2017 that  the UK would be able to replicate up to 40 EU free trade deals, immediately we leave the EU is not going to happen. So far we have signed  agreements with Australia, Chile, the Faroe Islands, some African nations, Israel,  Palestine and Switzerland. The failure to sign agreements is already impacting on British businesses trading with Asia since goods now being shipped will not arrive until after 29th March and exporters do not know whether they will be liable to tariffs or potentially might even be sent back to the UK. If there is no deal by 29th March, then 18th April becomes the next key date since, by then, the UK must confirm whether it will make contributions to the EU’s 2019 budget which are due by the end of April. A decision to make these payments will  require a vote in Parliament. If we do not make these payments, then our relations with the EU will deteriorate further and the chances of a trade deal will diminish even further.

Heading for a crash?

The last week has not been kind to the British motor industry. Production fell to 1.52m cars in 2018, a five year low, with a 22% fall in December making the drop the largest yearly drop since the Financial Crisis.  At the start of the week, Nissan confirmed stories circulating over the weekend that it would not be building its new X-Trail SUV in Sunderland. This is despite a government announcement two years ago that it had reached a deal with Nissan to ensure, among other things that the new model would be built in Sunderland. Last month, Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) announced that they are planning to cut 4,500 jobs and this was followed by figures they published last week announcing a £3.4bn loss in the last three months of 2018 as a result both of falling diesel sales and falling demand from China which previously accounted for almost 1/3 of their sales. This loss compares with profits of £190m over the same period in 2017. In addition, their new electric vehicle is being developed and built in Austria and they have announced that the Land Rover Defender will be built in Slovakia.

The industry has suffered from two major factors. Firstly, sales of diesel vehicles have slumped following the VW emission scandal in 2015 and tighter emission controls on cars. As a result, British sales of diesel cars slumped by 30% in 2018. This means that rather than have one factory in Japan and another in Europe for the X-Trail, the Japanese factory will be large enough to meet the expected demand.

Secondly the lack of progress over Brexit, combined with a trade deal between Japan and the EU, which the UK will not be a part of if we leave with “no deal” has impacted on Nissan’s decision. The Japan-EU deal will create the largest free-trade area in the world with virtually all customs duties being abolished between the participants. Over the next seven years tariffs will be phased out and, equally as important, the EU and Japan will agree to accept international product specifications, thereby making it easy for them to compete in the other’s market. If we do not reach a deal with the EU, car exports to the EU will face a 10% tariff.

Why is the motor industry so important? We are the 11th largest car manufacturer in the world and the 4th largest in the EU behind Germany, France and Spain, with JLR, Ford, Nissan and BMW Mini being the four largest UK producers, employing 54,000 workers between them, almost 75% of total direct employment in the industry. There are many more who are employed in producing components and transporting finished vehicles and parts. The industry accounts for almost 4% of GDP and is  a major exporter, particularly to the EU and the USA, producing 10% of our exports. Last year 1.24 million of the 1.52 million cars produced were exported. It attracts significant foreign investment; in the year before Brexit, there was £5bn of inward investment into the industry from overseas. Last year this fell to £½bn.

However not all in the industry is gloomy. High value manufacturers, such as Aston Martin, McLaren and Rolls Royce, are doing well. The problem is that they are dwarfed by the larger producers who are suffering.

The impact of a fall in sterling.

Since the referendum in 2016, sterling has fallen from £1 = 1.27 euros to 1.16 euros today and from $1.45 to $1.32, having dropped to 1.1 euros and $1.25 earlier in the month, and there is talk about further falls depending on whether we do or do not reach an agreement with the EU. For those looking for a longer perspective, £1 was worth $4 after the Second World War, dropped to $2.8 when sterling was devalued in 1949, then $2.4 when it was devalued again in 1967 and it fell once flexible exchange rates were introduced during the 1970s.

Economic theory predicts that the fall in sterling would lead to an improvement on the current account of our balance of payments as exports of goods and services increased because of their fall in price while imports, now more expensive, dropped as UK consumers and businesses sought cheaper alternatives. The size of the changes in imports and exports are determined by the price elasticity of demand, summed up by the Marshall Lerner condition which states that a devaluation or depreciation of the exchange rate will improve a country’s balance of payments if the sum of the price elasticities of demand for imports and exports are greater than one. The improvement is not immediate because demand for imports and exports is inelastic in the short term, giving rise to the J Curve effect where, following devaluation, a country’s balance of payments first deteriorates and then improves. Even if UK firms do not cut prices in overseas markets, the higher profits they are now receiving from exports should encourage them to devote more resources to their export markets.

Therefore, we should, by now, be experiencing a significant improvement in the balance of payments but this has not happened. In the time following the fall in sterling, the quarterly deficit in goods increased from £31.2bn (March – May 2016) to £34.7 (September – November 2018).  So why has the balance of payments not improved? Firstly, there is recent evidence that some companies are stockpiling imports (both components and finished products) in case of a disorderly Brexit. Another current issue has been the relatively slow GDP growth in UK export markets which has reduced the demand for our products.

There are two more significant reasons for the failure of our trade balance to improve and these cast doubt on the validity of using devaluation to improve one’s balance of payments. Firstly, because of globalisation, supply chains are highly integrated, with UK firms needing to import far more components to manufacture products than twenty years ago. Therefore, exporters will find that, rather than being able to cut their prices by the full extent of the drop in the value of the currency, they will have to take account of the higher costs of their imported components and raw materials, thus reducing the beneficial impact of devaluation. Secondly, the validity of devaluation depends on the price elasticity of demand and, increasingly, non-price factors, such as marketing and reliability, are becoming more important. Unfortunately, as Brexit nears, short-term doubts over its impact on such things as delivery dates and the ease of obtaining spare parts, will not help boost our exports, irrespective of the exchange rate.

How are we really doing?

This post looks at the current state of the economy.  Although the data may seem to be a few months out of date, it is the latest available and indicates a difficulty for economic bodies such as the Bank of England who try to control the economy. Their task is made even more difficult because, for example, not only are the Labour Force Survey figures out of date, they also do not respond quickly to changes in the economy since employers often wait a few months before hiring or firing workers to see if changes they experience are permanent or temporary.

GDP growth slowed at the end of 2018 from 0.4% to 0.3% in the three months to the end of October. This was largely due to a 0.8% fall in the manufacturing sector, particularly the manufacture of vehicles and pharmaceuticals. Our productivity continues to disappoint having been almost flat for 10 years, and about 20% below what it would be if it had grown at the trend rate for the last ten years. Investment has fallen for the last nine months, unlike our G7 partners who have experienced double digit growth.

However, the labour market continued to do well between August and October with the number of people in work increasing to 32.48 million, 396,000 more than a year earlier. The employment rate (the proportion of people aged from 16 to 64 years in work) was 75.7%, higher than a year earlier (75.1%) and the joint-highest estimate since comparable estimates began in 1971 while the unemployment rate (unemployed people as a proportion of all employed and unemployed people) was 4.1% or 1.38 million people. As a result, the proportion of people inactive was approximately 21%, again the joint lowest since 1971.

Inflation, measured by the CPI, dropped to 2.1% in December, the lowest since January 2017 when it was 1.8%, caused by falling air fares and oil prices (causing falling petrol and diesel prices among other things). Employee average weekly earnings increased by 3.3% over the year, giving a real increase of 1.2%, a welcome change from recent years when the rate of inflation has exceeded the increase in earnings. However, over the year, poverty increased, with 14 million people (22% of the population) in relative poverty (defined as 60% of the median income after housing costs). This includes more than 4 million children, with more than half of the children in single parent families in poverty. Food bank use has increased by 13% in the last year.

The balance of payments current account deficit increased to £26.5 billion between July to September, 2018, which equated to 5% of GDP, the largest deficit recorded for two years in both value and percentage of GDP terms. Contributing to this was an increase in the deficit on trade in goods and services, as the service sector surplus fell, and an increase in the primary income deficit caused by an increased net outflow of profits from FDI in the UK. (Primary income is the net flow of profits, interest and dividends from investments in other countries and net remittance flows from migrant workers). The majority of the deficit was financed by foreigners purchasing UK shares and UK investors selling part of their overseas portfolios.

Finally – an apology to younger readers. The latest government figures have shown that the share of UK wealth held by those over 65 has grown to 36% of the total, averaging £1.1 million.  The proportion of over 65s who are millionaires increased from 7% in 2006 to 20% in 2016. This wealth is in the form of property, their pension funds, holdings of shares and other savings. The biggest losers were those in the 35 – 44 age group whose share has dropped from 15% to 10% (although the value of their wealth rose from £180,000 to £190,000. This is a major change over the last 20 years when 21% of pensioners were in poverty.

20 Years of the Euro

The origins of the euro were set out in 1992 in the Maastricht Treaty, which set out the pathway to economic and monetary union (EMU). This involved increased co-ordination of monetary policy, more converged economies and then the establishment of the European Central Bank and a single currency. In 1999, the euro came into existence as an accounting tool and, three years later, it became a physical currency, the official currency of the Eurozone.

In order to be successful, a single currency requires that member countries are both in similar stages of the economic cycle and are converged in terms of key economic variables. This means they will respond similarly to external shocks such as rising oil prices or a major demand-side shock in the world economy and changes in interest rates will have a broadly similar effect on businesses and households in each country.

The countries joining the eurozone had to meet convergence criteria to join. These were:

  • an inflation rate no more than 1.5% greater than the average of the 3 lowest countries
  • long term interest rates no more than 2% greater than the average of the 3 lowest countries
  • a stable exchange rate within the exchange rate mechanism (an agreement to limit the flexibility of exchange rates) for 2 years
  • a budget deficit less than 3% of GDP and a national debt less than 60% of GDP or falling towards it.

The advantages of belonging to a single currency revolve round greater economic stability because there are no exchange rate fluctuations, leading to increased investment, including foreign direct investment, economies of scale and greater international trade, in line with comparative advantage. There are also lower costs since commissions paid when changing currencies no longer apply to members of the single currency (but still apply when trading with counties outside the single currency area). There is also greater price transparency which increases competition since it is easier to compare prices in different countries

The UK did not join because it believed that the disadvantages would outweigh the benefits. The key one was the loss of economic sovereignty. Not only did member countries lose control of their interest rates, there now being a single one set by the European Central Bank which might have different priorities to the UK government, there was also no possibility of adjusting the exchange rate to boost exports and cure a balance of payments deficit. This meant that adjustment to economic problems would have to be internal, via cuts to real wages, probably accompanied by higher unemployment, in order for a country to improve its competitiveness. Furthermore  the UK government did not want  to limit its scope for fiscal adjustment because of government borrowing restrictions. There was also the fear that the UK economy, because of its higher level of home ownership (and therefore more homeowners with mortgages), closer links with the USA and its role as an oil producer, was not sufficiently converged with the members of the eurozone. There was also the issue of losing the pound which weighed heavily with politicians.

So how has the eurozone done since it began? It survived the financial crisis and the debt crises faced by the PIGS, the weakest eurozone countries, (Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain), setting up a fund to provide support to members in difficulty. The currency has also been accompanied by a growth in foreign trade, with eurozone trade doubling between 1999 and 2008, (but we do not know what would have happened without it). Furthermore, it has grown from the original 11 members and now has 19 members -Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Spain. As the FT pointed out, “the euro has become the second most important currency in the world. It accounts for 36% of global payments and 20% of central banks’ foreign reserves, second only to the dollar. The euro is used by 340m people in 19 countries. Another 175m people outside the eurozone either use it or peg their currency to it”.

However there is a more pessimistic view. Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel prize-winning economist, argued last year that the euro has not been that successful, when one compares its growth with that of the USA. He also argues that there could be a new euro crisis in the offing with high Italian government borrowing, continued inequality in incomes between richer and poorer members of the eurozone with the latter suffering from low growth and poor competitiveness. The Economist (5th Jan 2018) talked of the ECB being too restrictive in terms of its interest rate policy, low rates of growth and high unemployment among some eurozone members. How the eurozone will cope if interest rates increase in 2019 or if there is another debt crisis remains to be seen.