The British Pound dropped, losing all the recent gains after global stock markets fell.  Analysts, however, hope that the vaccine rollout will help offer some support, thus limiting the pound’s losses. 

As mentioned in our previous article on the pound, the British currency is influenced by wider market trends and sentiment, which has recently become more obvious, once the Brexit negotiations were completed. This is going to become the default scenario in 2021, which will see the pound rising against major currencies when markets are going up, and, on the other hand, see it falling when global markets are underperforming.

On Wednesday, the pound reversed its gains after global markets fell and investor “risk off” sentiment drove equity and commodity markets to fall, and the dollar to strengthen. There was no obvious reason behind the decline and analysts believe that a fall in stock markets is expected, as more traders close their trades. In a report from Reuters, it was noted that traders were making leveraged trades taking profits to cover losses from other trades, leading to significant falls in overcrowded trades. Additionally, increased trading volume in certain sectors of the market created volatility.

Slow vaccine rollout disappoints

Markets appear to have been too optimistic about a quick economic recovery based on the prospect of vaccinating billions of people. According to CNBC, “a sluggish rollout of the Covid vaccines  threatens Wall Street’s rosy outlook.” In the UK, the pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca continued on Thursday its dispute with the European Commission, after telling the bloc last week there would be a 60% shortfall in supplies due to production problems. The dispute could trigger a UK-EU trade war amid frustration at the speed of the vaccine rollout in Europe.

In an interview with Euronews, German MEP Peter Liese said that it was unfair the way European citizens were treated by the UK pharmaceutical company:

"For five weeks now the BioNTech vaccine that is only produced in Europe, that has been developed with the aid of the German state and European Union money, is shipped to the United Kingdom. So people in the United Kingdom are vaccinated with a very good vaccine that is produced in Europe, supported by European money. If there is anyone thinking that European citizens would accept that we give this high-quality vaccine to the UK and would accept to be treated as second class by UK based company. I think the only consequence can be to immediately stop the export of the BioNTech vaccine and then we are in the middle of a trade war. So, the company and the UK better think twice.

In relation to the demand for more vaccines, Barbara Rockefeller of Rockefeller Treasury Services Inc. noted that “We were all so enamoured of the blazingly fast development of vaccines that we neglected to consider production bottlenecks—and were misled by company and government announcements alike that the stuff could be produced on demand. It seems we really do have a global shortage of vaccines that will persist for many months.”

If the vaccine rollout continues smoothly and more vaccines become widely available, then the pound will rally. However, the lack of vaccines and a possible trade war between the UK and the EU could threaten the British currency.

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Pound Falls after Weak UK Data

Sterling has fallen after the release of weak UK data, and is trading lower against both the dollar and the euro. The fall comes after yesterday’s gains when the pound reached the highest level since spring 2008.

UK retail sales in 2020 post record fall

Despite expectations for a 1.2% gain, retail sales volumes in the UK rose by just 0.3% in December from January, according to data from the Office for National Statistics released on Friday. Clothing sales rose 21.5% after a 19.6% drop in November. In 2020, retail sales fell by 1.9% when compared with 2019, due to the coronavirus lockdowns. On the other hand, online and mail order sales rose 32% in 2020. Clothing stores, petrol stations and department stores recorded significant falls in sales volumes when compared to 2019.

Jonathan Athow, deputy national statistician for Economic Statistics, said: “December’s retail sales increased slightly, driven by an improved month for clothing sales, as the easing of some lockdown measures for parts of the month meant more stores were able to open. Food store sales this month were subdued as retailers reported lockdowns and restrictions on the sale of non-essential items impacted on footfall. Retail sales for 2020 saw their largest annual fall in history as the impact of the pandemic took its toll. Clothing retailers fared particularly badly, with a record annual fall of over 25%, while movement restrictions led to a record year-on-year decline for fuel sales.”

Ian Geddes, head of retail at Deloitte, noted that retail showed resilience as “Strong performance in grocery and record-breaking online sales for non-food meant that Christmas 2020 was the most digital ever.” He also added: “For now, pent-up demand is likely to see shoppers out in force once restrictions lift, as we saw in summer at the end of the first lockdown. Crucially, the reopening of the high street will this time coincide with the ongoing vaccine rollout, which should boost consumer confidence and see them return to stores once more.”

Paul Dales, chief UK economist at Capital Economics, also commented: “The tiny rise in retail sales in December shows that it wasn’t a very merry Christmas for retailers. And January’s lockdown means it won’t have been a happy start to the new year either. But at least retailers are more immune to lockdowns than many other consumer-facing businesses. The upshot is that retail sales added almost nothing to GDP in December and January’s lockdown means sales will probably drop back again this month. Admittedly, they won’t fall as far as non-retail consumer spending. According to daily data of electronic card payments, so far this month consumption has declined from being slightly above its pre-pandemic level in December to about 35% below. We suspect that GDP may fall by around 2% m/m in January. But hopefully that will be the last decline.”

Government Borrowing

The release of separate data showed that the UK’s borrowing rose in December to the highest level and it marked the third-highest borrowing in any month since 1993 when records started. The ONS said that public sector net borrowing was £34.1bn in December 2020, £28.2bn more than in December 2019.

Samuel Tombs, chief UK economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, said that it is possible that total borrowing could be close to the OBR’s £393.5bn forecast. He explained that December’s high borrowing “reflected a 26.1% year-over-year jump in central government expenditure, mostly related to the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme. Tax receipts were only down 1.2% year-over-year, thanks to growth in corporation taxes and stability in income tax receipts. However, borrowing will fall once the support schemes expire at the end of April –– and next year we could see sharp tax rises, to get the public finances back on track, Tombs predicts. Public borrowing will fall sharply from about 20% of GDP this year to between 8% and 10% in 2021/22, if the government stops the furlough and self-employment income support schemes in the spring, and healthcare spending declines. We doubt that the Chancellor will go a step further in the Budget on March 3 and push through large immediate tax rises or non-health spending cuts.” He noted that fiscal policy will tighten, and taxes are expected to rise significantly in 2022.

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The British Pound has risen following comments by the Bank of England's Governor Andrew Bailey that the rate will not be cut to 0% or below in the coming weeks. With the ongoing vaccine rollout and positive market sentiment about a quick economic recovery, the Bank appears to be willing to wait and see how the UK economy fairs before taking interest rates into negative territory.

Vaccine rollout

The government has promised to vaccinate 15 million people in the top four priority groups over the next five weeks and 17 million more in the five remaining groups by spring. According to the government’s immunisation plan, fifty special vaccination centres will support hospitals and doctors to provide 2 million jabs a week by the end of January.

The inoculation plan was unveiled on Monday as the NHS announced that 866,000 people in England were vaccinated the first week of January. On Monday, seven national vaccination centres opened in England, as well as 200 hospital sites and many GP centres. 50 more special centres will open by the end of the month. Many GPs believe that the 2m-a-week target can be achieved, despite MPs’ complaints in the parliament that the supply was chaotic.

More Vaccinations, Stronger Pound

The more people are vaccinated, the sooner the pandemic will be controlled, and the economy will recover. If everyone is strong and healthy, then the body of the economy and the country will also be strong and healthy. This will ensure a robust economy and will affect whether the Bank of England changes interest rates and its quantitative easing programme. If the BoE chose to lower interest rates, this would have been with the aim of stimulating lending and injecting a flow of money into the economy during the lockdown. However, such drastic measures would have pushed the pound lower. 

The governor of the BoE highlighted that there were too many concerns about negative interest rates, and that members of the Bank's Monetary Policy Committee debated their possible benefits. He has also warned that negative interest rates may hurt economic recovery and he appeared to be against such a move followed by such countries as Sweden, Denmark and Japan. He said: there are “a lot of issues” when considering using negative interest rates as a fiscal tool: “At first glance they are counter-intuitive.” He added: “First of all, no country has really used negative interest rates at the retail end of the market.”

There is, however, growing speculation after the recent comments by Silvana Tenreyro, a member of the Bank’s rate-setting Monetary Policy Committee, that using negative rates is a possibility and can be done without depriving the banking system. Interest rates have been at a historic low of 0.1% since last March in an attempt to protect the economy from the pandemic. If the possibility of negative interest rates is slowly reduced in the coming weeks, the pound is expected to get a further boost.

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The possibility of the Bank of England pushing interest rates into negative territory has been hinted at by a member of the BoE’s Monetary Policy Committee. If interest rates go lower, it is expected that the pound will be negatively impacted in the next few months. The decision to use negative interest rates is considered by the bank as positive in regard to offering further support to a struggling economy.

MPC member Silvana Tenreyro said in an online speech that negative interest rates will boost UK growth and inflation. "Cutting Bank Rate to its record low of 0.1% has helped loosen lending conditions relative to the counterfactual (of no policy change), and I believe further cuts would continue to provide stimulus," Tenreyro noted. Tenreyro said the Bank of England has been in contact with financial services firms discussing the potential impact of negative interest rates. She said: "Once the Bank is satisfied that negative rates are feasible, then the MPC would face a separate decision over whether they are the optimal tool to use to meet the inflation target given circumstances at the time."

How has the pound performed in 2021?

The pound has not enjoyed a good start to the new year, as it dropped against the euro and the dollar. The fact that the UK and EU reached an agreement on Christmas Eve has not made the situation better either, despite the hopes of some economists. Additionally, they are increasing concerns about the economy due to the stricter lockdowns. This has raised expectations of a further interest rate cut by the BoE.

The possibility of lower interest rates will also make UK money markets less attractive, turning investors away from the pound and towards other investments.

What do analysts and traders say?

Analysts expect that the upcoming Bank of England meeting on 4th February will garner a lot of attention, and as we get closer to it there will be growing speculation on the possibility of an interest rate cut.  

The pandemic has not helped either, as many economists believe that it has dampened sentiment towards Sterling and resulted in concerns about a slower economic recovery and a more cautious Bank of England. At the same time, other analysts disagree and do not expect an interest rate cut this February. Robert Wood, UK Economist at Bank of America said: "We do not expect the BoE to cut Bank Rate in February. Banks do not seem ready and some rate setters argue negative rates could be counterproductive when GDP is falling.” If this happens then the pound may rise.

With the pandemic and ongoing vaccinations, it is not yet clear how the UK economy will fair. Nonetheless, the UK government is committed to delivering CovidD-19 vaccines to the most vulnerable categories by mid-February. If everything goes as planned, and people are successfully vaccinated, then the BoE might reassess its plans and reconsider whether cutting interest rates is the best possible solution. If the economy shows signs of recovery, then the pound will respond favourably.

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With a lot less Brexit uncertainty and projected gains by 2022, the UK economy and the pound are expected to recover. In the short term, and due to lockdown measures, the pound will be weighed down by negative sentiment which will also lead to economic contraction. But economists are positive that following the rollout of vaccines there will be a sharp recovery in economic activity and investor sentiment which could see Sterling rising against major currencies such as the euro and dollar.  

The recent lockdown restrictions to control the spread of a new strain of the coronavirus will slow down the economy and hurt the pound, but a swing in sentiment might also be materialising soon as the market has reached its negativity point against the pound. Kit Juckes, Macro Strategist at Société Générale, has said that things will improve with the new vaccines and positive news about controlling the virus: "If the new lockdown does work, and more so if vaccine deployment does go quickly from here inwards, Sterling could have a good year. In the meantime, it seems clear that a lot of gloom is priced in already.”

England is currently under a strict national lockdown as the government struggles to rein in the rise in infection. On Wednesday, the UK recorded its greatest daily surge in coronavirus-related deaths since 21 April, with a total of 1,041 registered deaths.

Short-term forecasts for the pound

In the first quarter, the UK economy could contract due to further lockdown measures which will slowdown economic recovery. A rebound in economic activity, however, is expected immediately after the lockdown measures are lifted. With more vaccinations, as a 2 million weekly target is set to be successfully completed by the end of January, economists are hopeful that the economy will slowly bounce back. The government has obtained access to 100 million dosages of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, with tens of millions of vials to be delivered once the MHRA has quality checked them. There are more than 730 vaccination sites across the UK, and more are opening this week to provide access to Covid-19 vaccines to a wider group of people at risk. In this respect, as vaccinations increase, so will market sentiment towards the pound.

"We expect a gradual re-opening from early March onwards, with faster progress of normalisation thereafter as more people are vaccinated and springtime heralds the natural remission of seasonal respiratory viruses,” Kallum Pickering of Berenberg said. Analysts at Berenberg highlighted that the near-term outlook will be “much worse than before” and forecasted a 2% decline in the first quarter of the current year estimated growth of 6% for the whole of 2021. Kallum Pickering said that the forecast for the first quarter might be gloomy, but the second quarter will see “faster catch-up growth” of 9% and the third quarter is forecast to see 4.5% growth than the 2.3% previously.

Growth rebound in the Second Quarter

According to Pickering, the growth rebound in the second quarter of 2021 will be greater than originally estimated with +9% expected, against the 6% growth forecast previously. For the fourth quarter he sees 1.3% forecast versus 0.9% previously. Pickering said: “we now project an 11.5% decline in 2020 followed by gains of 6.0% in 2021 and a 6.5% gain in 2022 (previously -11.6%, 7.3% and 4.9%, respectively). Despite the near-term hit, the UK medium-term outlook remains positive. With much less Brexit uncertainty and strong gains in global demand ahead, UK real GDP can still recover to its pre-pandemic level by the end of 2022 as previously expected.”

Are you Transferring Funds Abroad?

If you are transferring funds overseas, contacting a currency specialist could save you time and money. Whether you are sending money to family or paying your employees abroad, get in touch with Universal Partners FX to find out how much you can save in your international money transfers. Universal Partners FX can provide invaluable help on efficient risk management and tailored solutions to your personal or business’ transfer needs.