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.

Getty
Show Hide image

BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.