In part one of this series we looked briefly into the history of sterling crises that originated after the end of World War II.
Two important aspects were highlighted. The first is that over the past seventy years, a depletion of international sterling reserves has routinely coincided with exchange rate crises, whilst the second indicates that a slew of sterling downturns since 1945 have weakened substantially its role as a reserve currency.
We will now examine why Britain leaving the European Union through a ‘hard‘ Brexit may prove a harbinger for the first major sterling crisis of the 21st century.
In 2018 the media began publishing what mutated into incessant warnings about the dangers of leaving the EU with no withdrawal agreement. The majority were and continue to be focused on possible disruptions to food and medical supplies, the UK’s beleaguered car industry and the prospect of a Brexit induced recession.
What has not been given the same degree of analysis is the impact a no deal scenario could have on the position of sterling as a reserve currency. Ever since the post referendum decline of the pound, it generally only attracts attention if its value against the dollar rises significantly above daily fluctuations, or declines a percentage point or more amidst fears of a ‘disorderly‘ exit.
Let’s briefly summarise the few occasions where the pound’s reserve status has been called into question since 2016, as well as matters interconnected with the subject.
A month before the referendum, ratings agency Standard and Poor’s issued a warning that sterling could cease to be a reserve currency if the UK left the EU. They also declared that Britain’s triple A credit rating could come under pressure. The line was that national governments might seek alternatives to the pound as a store of value should a leave vote materialise. As for why they could do this, a breakdown in existing trading arrangements, a depreciation of sterling and an increasing current account deficit were all cited as reasons by S&P.
With S&P having stripped the UK of its triple A credit rating (as they suggested would happen following a leave vote), Reuters reporter Jamie McGeever penned an article which detailed how the decline of sterling since the referendum had so far been the biggest of any of the world’s four major currencies since the collapse of the Bretton Woods system in the early 1970s.
The day after the vote (June 24th) saw sterling’s value drop by 8%, marking the largest one day fall in the pound since the introduction of free-floating exchange rates following the collapse of Bretton Woods.
Five months before Article 50 was invoked, Standard and Poor’s issued a new warning about the pound’s reserve status. Ravi Bhatia, the director of sovereign ratings for Britain, was reported by The Independent as saying a ‘hard‘ Brexit eventuality could jeopardise sterling’s reserve currency role. Bhatia summarised reserve status as countries having trust in a currency, with governments and traders content to hold assets in a particular denomination.
At the time of S&P’s latest intervention, the pound was down 17% against the dollar since June 2016.
S&P were at it again later in the month, with the Financial Times detailing that pronounced falls in sterling could end up ‘reducing confidence and eventually threaten its role as a global reserve currency.’ They added that sterling would no longer be considered a reserve currency by the S&P if its share of reserves dropped below 3%. They currently stand at 4.49%.
On top of this, S&P warned of further cuts to Britain’s credit rating should they ‘conclude that sterling will lose its status as a reserve currency or if public finances or GDP per capita weaken markedly beyond our current expectations‘.
Reuters Jamie McGeever followed up his article from July 2016 by questioning the pound’s position in global foreign exchange reserves. Here, McGeever linked sterling’s role as a reserve currency to the UK’s current account deficit, which to this day remains one of the largest in the world. He pointed out that this particular deficit requires hundreds of billions of overseas capital inflows every year to balance Britain’s books. According to McGeever, central bank demand for sterling reserves are a vital and stable source of these inflows. He went on to report that the amount the UK needs to attract in order to balance its books is around £100 billion a year.
S&P’s fellow ratings agency Moody’s were credited by McGeever as warning about the danger of ‘substantial and persistent‘ capital outflows, and how this would raise serious doubts about the pound’s reserve status.
McGeever also quoted Brad Setser, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former economist at the U.S. treasury, as saying that a fall in reserve share to 3% would be sterling ‘punching a little below its weight‘.
As no deal Brexit coverage gathered momentum in the press, an article again published by Reuters on sterling’s future as a reserve currency gained next to no attention. This time it was the turn of Bank of America Merrill Lynch (BAML), who made a connection between the UK leaving the EU with no withdrawal agreement and central banks selling the pound in response. BAML estimated that a 1% decline in sterling’s share of international reserves would equate to upwards of £100 billion of selling. This calculation was based on the pound’s average share of 3.6% of reserves since 1995. Should banks re-denominate their holdings in line with this long term average, the theory goes that this would point to over a £100 billion reduction in reserves.
BAML stressed that this potential scenario would be off the back of a no deal exit from the EU. ‘Central bank flows are an important source of flow which could determine whether sterling succumbs to a more protracted current account crisis‘.
As demonstrated above, both Jamie McGeever at Reuters and Bank of America Merrill Lynch have touched on the subject of Britain’s current account deficit. Latest figures released in December showed that the deficit in the third quarter of 2018 was the highest in two years at £ – 26.5 billion (4.9% of GDP).
When you look at how this was interpreted within the financial media, the link back to sterling’s position as a reserve currency – although not raised directly – lingers in the background. The current account deficit has not only called into question its sustainability, but also whether foreign investors will continue to finance the deficit to the same level by purchasing UK assets after Brexit.
Other noteworthy data released at the same time as the current account numbers included a cut in investment by firms of 1.1% from July to September. This represented three consecutive quarters of cuts, the first time this has occurred since 2008-2009. Households were shown as net borrowers for the eighth straight quarter – the biggest stretch since the 1980s. Lastly, the UK’s household savings fell to 3.8%, the lowest on record.
Looking back on the EU referendum of 2016, my perspective is that the depreciation of sterling in the aftermath cannot be construed as a crisis. Before the result was confirmed, the pound was trading as high as $1.50. Once the reality of the leave vote had dawned, an initial sharp drop of 8% was followed by further declines leading to a low of $1.19 recorded in January 2017. In seven months, sterling had shed as much as 20% of its value (for a limited time at least).
The reason why this is not befitting of a crisis is due to global reserves of sterling remaining consistent throughout the period. Indeed, international reserves of the pound grew in 2018 amidst the rising uncertainty of the Brexit withdrawal process.
At no stage so far have the Bank of England acted to defend the currency from speculators or central banks adapting their compositions. Their initial reaction post referendum was to cut interest rates by 0.25% and expand quantitative easing by £60 billion.
Fifteen months later, with inflation running at over 3% and the value of sterling remaining suppressed, the BOE raised interest rates for the first time in a decade. They followed this up with another quarter point hike in August 2018.
It is logical to think that the impact of a ‘hard‘ Brexit on sterling would precipitate a far steeper decline than witnessed three years ago. Consider that the fall witnessed then was simply off the back of a referendum result. Nothing material had changed in the relationship between the UK and EU.
I believe it is also logical to surmise that in response to a renewed depreciation, not only would inflation pick up once more, but the Bank of England would defy conventional wisdom and raise interest rates. The bank themselves have indicated that the most likely ramifications of a no deal Brexit would be inflationary. They continue to state publicly that the response to such a scenario would likely be to tighten rather than loosen monetary policy.
However, this does not account for what would happen to global reserves of sterling. Historically, exchange rate crises have seen a depletion in reserves of the pound. Whereas inflationary pressures take time to feed through the system, a run on sterling can materialise in a matter of minutes. Therefore, it is conceivable that the Bank of England could raise interest rates in response to try and stabilise the currency, a measure entirely separate to their mandate of 2% inflation.
Allied to this measure would likely see the BOE convert foreign currency holdings into sterling to counteract international holders dumping the pound.
As documented in part one, the BOE hold close to $150 billion in foreign currency total reserves. Total reserve assets amount to around $180 billion. The majority of these assets are denominated in dollars and euros.
How sustained any selling could be is impossible to gauge at this stage, as is the scale of damage which may be inflicted on sterling reserves.
If warnings issued by Standard and Poor’s and Bank of America Merrill Lynch are taken at face value, the pound is in danger of diminishing to the level of no longer being a global reserve currency should a ‘disorderly‘ Brexit happen. Only if this does occur would we be able to assess the validity of their warnings.
Anyone who regularly follows communications emanating from national central banks, the IMF and the Bank for International Settlements will have seen a developing narrative of ‘money in the digital age‘ and how currencies in future could be provided. The combination of a possible ‘hard‘ Brexit and an escalation in the ‘trade war‘ between the United States and China may not only put sterling at risk, but also the role of the dollar as world reserve currency. Brexit is one strand of what I have suspected for some time is an attempt by globalists (think the IMF and the BIS) to administer institutional reforms in the manner of a currency framework, which would mean a realignment in currency compositions with the IMF’s Special Drawing Rights part of this process.
As ever, to achieve this scale of reform globalists would require sustained crises events to distract away from what are long held intentions. Will Brexit and actions stemming from the Trump administration prove to be to their benefit? 2019 will surely begin to answer that question.