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
Show Hide image

Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.