Sterling set to strengthen

A string of stronger than expected data.

The sterling seems set to strengthen. At least against the Euro. That is the message that macro-economic fundamentals are giving us right now: robust Retail Sales figures, higher than expected core inflation, and rapidly reviving housing markets, the latest in a string of stronger than expected data.

There now seems little prospect that the new Bank of England Governor, Mark Carney, will preside over any more quantitative easing or cuts in base rates after he takes the helm in July. Indeed the sterling interest rate futures markets have already started to anticipate rises in rates, with the first 0.5 per cent hike now expected as early as the end of next year.

Short-term interest rates can be an important determinant of exchange rates; especially when the differential between the two rates involved changes rapidly, and one finds it hard to envisage a rise in Euro rates any time soon. Indeed, we are lead to believe that debate continues to rage within the European Central Bank as to whether they should take their deposit rate into negative territory.

I personally do not expect that to happen, principally because of the "locomotive effect" from an American recovery which is gathering pace by the day. The UK also stands to benefit from this effect, but much more so given the absence of the idiosyncratic challenges which face the Eurozone, in the shape of extreme imbalances between regions, ongoing steroidal austerity and the ever present threat of violent social unrest this summer as tragic levels of unemployment drive voters onto the streets.

The UK’s flexible labour market also places us in a much better position to expand. The foreign exchange markets have a knack of moving very rapidly to discount these sorts of changes in prospect for both the economy and interest rates.

If this move in sterling went too far, however, the new Governor may start protesting. He may well see the tightening in monetary conditions that this would imply, as too much, too early for a still nascent recover. However, the foreign exchange markets can move a long way, and very quickly, before he settles into his seat next month.

Bank of England Governor, Mark Carney. Photograph: Getty Images

Chairman of  Saxo Capital Markets Board

An Honours Graduate from Oxford University, Nick Beecroft has over 30 years of international trading experience within the financial industry, including senior Global Markets roles at Standard Chartered Bank, Deutsche Bank and Citibank. Nick was a member of the Bank of England's Foreign Exchange Joint Standing Committee.

More of his work can be found here.

Photo: Getty
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Something is missing from the Brexit debate

Inside Westminster, few seem to have noticed or care about the biggest question mark in the Brexit talks. 

What do we know about the government’s Brexit strategy that we didn’t before? Not much, to be honest.

Theresa May has now said explicitly what her red lines on European law and free movement of labour said implicitly: that Britain is leaving the single market. She hasn’t ruled out continuing payments from Britain to Brussels, but she has said that they won’t be “vast”. (Much of the detail of Britain’s final arrangement is going to depend on what exactly “vast” means.)  We know that security co-operation will, as expected, continue after Brexit.

What is new? It’s Theresa May’s threat to the EU27 that Britain will walk away from a bad deal and exit without one that dominates the British newspapers.

“It's May Way or the Highway” quips City AM“No deal is better than a bad deal” is the Telegraph’s splash, “Give us a deal… or we walk” is the Mirror’s. The Guardian opts for “May’s Brexit threat to Europe”,  and “May to EU: give us fair deal or you’ll be crushed” is the Times’ splash.

The Mail decides to turn the jingoism up to 11 with “Steel of the new Iron Lady” and a cartoon of Theresa May on the white cliffs of Dover stamping on an EU flag. No, really.  The FT goes for the more sedate approach: “May eases Brexit fears but warns UK will walk away from 'bad deal’” is their splash.

There’s a lot to unpack here. The government is coming under fire for David Davis’ remark that even if Parliament rejects the Brexit deal, we will leave anyway. But as far as the Article 50 process is concerned, that is how it works. You either take the deal that emerges from the Article 50 process or have a disorderly exit. There is no process within exiting the European Union for a do-over.  

The government’s threat to Brussels makes sense from a negotiating perspective. It helps the United Kingdom get a better deal if the EU is convinced that the government is willing to suffer damage if the deal isn’t to its liking. But the risk is that the damage is seen as so asymmetric – and while the direct risk for the EU27 is bad, the knock-on effects for the UK are worse – that the threat looks like a bad bluff. Although European leaders have welcomed the greater clarity, Michel Barnier, the lead negotiator, has reiterated that their order of priority is to settle the terms of divorce first, agree a transition and move to a wider deal after that, rather than the trade deal with a phased transition that May favours.

That the frontpage of the Irish edition of the Daily Mail says “May is wrong, any deal is better than no deal” should give you an idea of how far the “do what I want or I shoot myself” approach is going to take the UK with the EU27. Even a centre-right newspaper in Britain's closest ally isn't buying that Britain will really walk away from a bad deal. 

Speaking of the Irish papers, there’s a big element to yesterday’s speech that has eluded the British ones: May’s de facto abandonment of the customs union and what that means for the border between the North and the South. “May’s speech indicates Border customs controls likely to return” is the Irish Times’ splash, “Brexit open border plan “an illusion”” is the Irish Independent’s, while “Fears for jobs as ‘hard Brexit’ looms” is the Irish Examiner’s.

There is widespread agreement in Westminster, on both sides of the Irish border and in the European Union that no-one wants a return to the borders of the past. The appetite to find a solution is high on all sides. But as one diplomat reflected to me recently, just because everyone wants to find a solution, doesn’t mean there is one to be found. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.