The outlook for Sterling will remain at risk as market analysts are cautious for the UK currency, especially with the new week having started with further pound declines.

Bank of England policy meeting

While the pound has enjoyed gains in the beginning of the new year and until recently, analysts are slowly becoming more cautious following last week’s sharp decline with traders less confident in the currency. Therefore, traders will focus on this week’s Bank of England policy meeting on Thursday for some direction for Sterling. If the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee delivers a more hawkish than expected message then the pound could regain some of its recent losses against the US dollar, analysts believe. On Thursday, the Bank of England will provide their latest assessment on the UK economy but is not expected to take any action and it will leave interest rates unchanged. It will be in August’s policy report that any possible major changes in the Bank’s direction will be announced, and the market will focus on such expectations and whether economic recovery will drive the Bank to change interest rates next year. If the Bank reveals any signs that it is going to move towards this direction, then the pound might be lifted by the end of the week.

Potential dangers for the pound

Some analysts believe that much of the positive news is already priced in and that the pound will be vulnerable to downside moves if economic data disappoints. It has also been noted that we should be more optimistic as the pound has responded rather well to economic data, but that currency risks are indeed real and could potentially hurt the pound. For example, there are currency risks related to the futures market as there are traders who are holding long positions—meaning they have purchased Sterling and are waiting for the currency’s price to go up—and when those positions are undone and the pound is sold, they will expose the pound to a fall.

There are also risks regarding the pound’s performance and the loss of momentum. The Sterling 2021 rally has now stopped, and this is a possible reason for concern.

Another possible reason for concern is the rising tensions between the UK and EU and a potential trade war about the Northern Ireland protocol. The EU has threatened the UK with tariffs on UK exports if Britain fails to implement the Northern Ireland protocol. Analysts remain cautious as discussions continue and further potential challenges arise. It was announced last week that the UK government requested from the EU the suspension of some elements regarding the Northern Ireland protocol until October, while they strive to reach an agreement on transporting chilled meat products from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. Any news regarding tensions between the UK and EU on the Northern Ireland protocol could trigger Sterling volatility.

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The pound’s performance in the week ahead will be determined by yesterday's news that Covid restrictions will not be relaxed further until 19th of July. On Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday, investors will focus on the releases of a series of market data, including employment data, inflation figures and UK retails sales numbers, respectively. With investors being interested to see how well the UK economy is recovering, and how the Bank of England will eventually respond by raising interest rates, any sign of strong data will be pound positive.

Covid restrictions

On Monday, markets reacted to the news that the UK government will not fully relax Covid restrictions on 21st June as planned due to the rise of Covid-19 infections over the past week. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson may also announce further government support for businesses, as junior health minister Edward Argar said on Monday.

Foreign exchange markets had already priced in a possible delay, so the news has not provided any immediate volatility. 

However, if the Indian variant of the coronavirus pushes infections and hospitalisations up and the vaccines do not prevent a rise in cases . hospitalisations and deaths, then the pound may be vulnerable to volatility down the line. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab had said on Sunday that the government’s decision on ending Covid restrictions on 21st of June would depend on whether there was no link whatsoever between infections and hospital admissions - so the change suggests that this is the case.

Economic Data

The coming week will also see a number of important economic data releases, which if they come out strong, then this could prompt the BoE's Monetary Policy Committee to start thinking of terminating its quantitative easing programme before raising interest rates in 2022. This scenario will support the pound.

  • Employment data

On Tuesday, with the release of employment data, investors will be looking to see whether 50K jobs in the three months to April have been added to the economy. The unemployment rate is forecast to come in at 4.7%, down from 4.8% previously. If numbers are better, then the pound will find further support, while any move lower could impact on the pound in the near-term.

  • Inflation numbers

On Wednesday, May inflation numbers are expected to show an increase of 1.8% year-on-year, up from 1.5% previously.  This is almost the mid-point of the Bank’s 1%-3% target range. This will be positive for the pound.

UK retail sales

On Friday, UK retail sales figures could be up, with a reading of 36.8% growth year-on-year in May, which could boost consumer confidence.

The data predictions are generally optimistic and any digression from the numbers could hurt the pound and disappoint the markets.

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The British pound has come under pressure as there are concerns that the UK’s exit from the lockdown will be delayed. With Covid-19 cases on the rise, the government might postpone the final unlocking due on 21st of June. As Health Secretary Matt Hancock said, the government is "absolutely open" to delaying its plans to ease the restrictions, with a possible two-week delay until the 5th of July. This means that any possible delays will affect confidence in the UK economic rebound, and, consequently, hurt the pound which has had a solid performance throughout 2021.

Lockdown Easing, Indian variant and pound performance

Covid restrictions easing could be disrupted as scientists believe that the Indian variant (known as the Delta variant and B.1.617.2) could spread almost 50% faster than the previous strain in the UK, known as the Kent variant. While the Indian variant might be the cause for potential delays, many analysts believe that this is not enough reason for investors and traders to become especially concerned about the pound’s outlook, as the backdrop remains positive. As economists at ING Bank said, "a 'June pause' probably won't significantly derail the UK's recovery,” unless market confidence “goes into reverse.”

This will also be influenced by how strong business and consumer confidence will be as they will determine whether there will be the necessary funds and investment to drive economic growth. Economic data has up till now been positive with increased bookings in restaurants and pubs, as activity picks up. Economists believe that economic growth data for the second quarter of 2021 will be stronger than many have anticipated, and this will offer further support to Sterling. The potential for the UK economy to beat expectations could also increase confidence and possibly drive the Bank of England (BoE) to raise interest rates sooner than expected.

For the pound but also for other currencies, positive news that central banks will exit their pandemic support programmes will offer extra support. Already, we have seen that for those central banks which have reduced their quantitative easing programme and signalled that interest rates will rise, have seen their currencies outperform.

In general, the majority of analysts believes that the pound will benefit as the economy improves in the coming weeks and months, driven mostly by consumer savings during the various lockdowns. However, a rising number in Covid cases and further restrictions could dampen sentiment.

Short-lived pound weakness

For many economists and research analysts, a potential delay in the easing of restrictions will be damaging, but for others, such weakness will only be short-lived. It is believed the pound will be sold briefly by traders, but then renewed interest will resume.

While the pandemic will continue to affect the economy and the pound, other factors such as economic performance, vaccines, and rising UK real yields will also have an impact on the pound’s performance.

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Sterling experienced some volatility after reaching a fresh three-year high against the US dollar due to expectations for an economic recovery and positive house price data. Some analysts have attributed the surge in the pound to positive global investor sentiment about the UK economic recovery, while others pinned the pound’s gains on a retreat in the US dollar.

US dollar weakness & BoE interest rates

According to strategists at Toronto-Dominion Bank, “The whole ‘U.K. vaccine’ story is a little tired.” It’s probably less about the U.K. and more about the USD, which has been drifting lower overall.”

Beyond the prospect of unlocking the economy, the pound found support from expectations that the Bank of England will soon signal that it may start to raise interest rates next year. The UK’s economic recovery and the potential of the Bank of England ending asset purchases and hiking are encouraging traders to buy the pound.

Concerns about the new variant

However, Sterling has also been influenced by concerns over a new coronavirus strain which pushed the currency lower. The new Indian variant along with concerns about reopening the economy on 21st of June have dented some of the pound’s recent gains. The new strain appears to be more transmissible than previous ones. While the variant did not appear initially to pose a big threat, growing concerns from the government as to whether the UK will fully reopen the economy or there will be delays, have hurt the pound.

The Indian variant is spreading across the UK and the latest statistics suggest Covid-19 cases are starting to rise sharply. The strain is mostly found in England. The government is waiting for more data before it decides to relax restrictions. Politics will also play a role, especially after the criticism the government has faced regarding its handling of the pandemic. Boris Johnson’s government is under political pressure following testimony to MPs by Prime Minister Boris Johnson's former senior adviser Dominic Cummings. This might drive the government to adopt a more cautious approach to June 21.

Any delay will be seen by traders and markets as negative for the pound in the short-term as it could hurt business and consumer confidence while postponing the ability of the economy to recover fully. The fact that such concerns about the economy have also coincided with increasing public scrutiny of the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, they could potentially drive the pound lower against both the US dollar and the euro.  

For this week then, the main drivers for the pound will be any signs showing that the government intends to fully lift Covid-19 restrictions on 21 June and any data regarding the impact of the Covid-19 “Indian variant”.

 

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The pound has potential to rise further as more positive news is expected, while some risks remain relating to concerns about the pandemic and a rising euro. The latest Lloyds business barometer for the month of May rose to a three-year high, while Gertjan Vlieghe, an outgoing Monetary Policy Committee member at the Bank of England (BoE), said on Thursday that interest rates could rise by the middle of next year. At the same time, with a thin economic calendar the pound could fluctuate unpredictably in what is expected to be a volatile week ahead. also mean that the pound

Rising Renmbibi exchange rates

The Pound-to-Euro exchange rate could be volatile with the potential to rise higher if the recent boost in Renminbi exchange rates leads the Peoples’ Bank of China (PBoC) to buy non-Dollar currencies in a bid to ward off dollar appreciation pressures. China’s exchange rates rose after a decision to allow USD/CNH to fall. The move was the result of concerns regarding rising Dollar-denominated commodity prices and was driven by an attempt to offset the increase through a stronger exchange rate. This eventually resulted in the rise of other Chinese exchange rates that are a macroeconomic hazard for the PBoC, as research analysts have noted. The fall of the USD/CNH supported the Renminbi against all China Foreign Exchange Trade System (CFETS) currencies.

The rise of Renminbi is problematic for the PBoC because it results in cheaper imported goods and could drive the bank to buy other currencies in an attempt to reduce its other exchange rates. In general, a prolonged period of RMB appreciation and USD weakness could become an issue for policymakers and the PBoC could use further administrative tools to control this.

The currency pair could also be further affected by the BoE Governor Andrew Bailey’s speech on Tuesday on the subject of "Building a Finance System Fit for a Clean, Resilient and Just Future."

Euro appreciation could drive pound lower

Analysts have explained that the euro could be the main currency in Europe to benefit from the PBoC’s potential attempt to manage extreme currency appreciation. The pound-to-euro exchange rate has performed well, However, if the euro rises, this will potentially push the pound to euro rate lower. On Wednesday, when the ECB releases a report on the international role of the euro, the common currency could rise, and this could possibly push the pound lower.

Covid-19

At the moment, the markets might be relatively calm in both the US and the UK, and after Friday's volatile trading, but fears of Covid-19 variants may send sterling down, some analysts are saying. FXStreet’s analyst Yohay Elam stated that “People residing in the UK may enjoy the long weekend at home and in several European countries – but not in France nor Germany, where they are required to quarantine. These restrictions serve as a reminder of the B.1.167.2 variant. Sterling is on the back foot due to these fears.”

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Sterling has fallen against the euro and the US dollar, despite the lack of any clear data that could be responsible for the declines. This is also what makes it difficult to pinpoint what news or events could potentially affect the pound’s performance.  

Analysts have argued that since the UK is no longer at the centre of financial news and data, and as interest has shifted to other currencies such as the euro, the British currency has lost momentum. It has also been noted that markets have priced in all the good news for the pound, so no bigger rises are expected at the moment. The successful vaccination programme and the reopening of the economy has provided support to the pound and the market Many analysts have also said that the weakness in the US dollar has also been partly responsible for some of the recent gains, which also highlights the fact that they are not any clear drivers that will push the pound higher. UK economic data has generally surpassed expectations, but this has not necessarily translated to any obvious additional upward pressure.

Higher Interest rates and Pound

Market expectations for higher interest rates, could also provide support to the pound. But for the market to become confident and positive, the Bank of England will need to show signs that is committed to raising interest rates. However, policymakers have not shown any firm conviction of raising interest rates any time soon. While inflation might be rising, BoE Governor Andrew Bailey believes that inflationary pressures are only temporary. But unless the Bank’s Monetary Policy Committee agrees in its majority that it’s time to raise interest rates, the pound is unlikely to rise unexpectedly. At the moment, the pound will be influenced by global market movements.

Cummings’ Testimony, the Pandemic and Indian variant

Sterling has been the second best performing G10 currency against the US dollar this year, because of investors being positive about the UK economy reopening, following its successful vaccination program. Britain started the third phase of reopening the economy last week, allowing indoor dining in pubs and restaurants. Retail sales data were upbeat as well as surveys of purchasing managers across different industries.

This week’s pound weakness has been partly explained by the lack of data, but also by pandemic concerns and Dominic Cummings’ testimony. Cummings’ testimony on Wednesday has been described as the “Sword of Damocles" and his explosive statements have undermined the government and could potentially keep the pound lower. He has likened the management of government officials during the crisis to "lions" being "led by donkeys". The pound may also be subject to news about the pandemic and the worrying rise of cases. The spread of the Indian variant has also added to pound pressure and these factors have partly kept the pound low, despite dollar weakness.

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The pound has recovered some of its earlier losses, following the release of the UK Consumer Prices Index. Rising in line with market expectations, inflation increased 0.6% month-on-month in April, as the rise in the prices of petrol, gas and electricity pushed the cost of living higher.  

The Office for National Statistics released on Wednesday figures that showed the Consumer Prices Index (CPI) rose by 1.5% in the 12 months to April 2021, making it the highest reading since last March.

The rise in inflation was driven by rising household utility bills, higher motor fuel prices and clothing. The ONS said: “Price movements for household utilities, clothing, and motor fuels are the main reasons for the higher monthly rate this year than a year ago.”

Food prices also rose in April driven by increased prices for chocolate, ice cream, breads and cereals. The ONS noted that: “Food prices rose by 0.9% between March and April 2021 but were little changed between the same two months in 2020. Prices for a variety of bread and cereal items rose this year but fell a year ago, resulting in an upward contribution of 0.04 percentage points. There was a similar upward contribution from across a range of sugar, jam, syrups, chocolate and confectionery items, with standout movements coming from large bars of chocolate and chocolate covered ice-cream bars. Prices for these items rose between March and April 2021 but were being discounted between the same two months in 2020.”

The Bank of England’s target is for inflation is 2% in the medium term, and analysts expect inflation to continue to rise in the next few months, as the economy improves and recovers from the pandemic. A stronger pound will help inflation as the cost of imports will fall.

Will rise in inflation be short-lived?

Ruth Gregory, senior UK economist at Capital Economics, believes that April’s rise in inflation will be short-lived: “There were pockets of inflation in those sectors that are reopening, with clothing inflation bouncing back from -3.5% to +0.5%, as retailers continued to reverse the aggressive discounting during lockdowns, and furniture inflation rising from 4.5% to 5.8%.… But in April, these movements were partially offset by some of the pandemic-induced surges in inflation continuing to fade. Data processing equipment fell further from 5.9% in March to 0.2%. Meanwhile, second-hand car inflation dropped from 1.2% to 0.2%.”

Factory gate inflation rose by 3.9%

The rise in commodity prices, drove UK manufacturers to increase their prices in April. The cost of goods after they leave the factory (factory gate prices) rose 3.9% in the 12 months to April 2021. Producer prices rose 0.4% during the month, something that could eventually affect consumers in the shops. Metal, crude oil and mineral prices also rose affecting manufacturers with higher input prices, which jumped by 9.9% compared to April 2020.

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Sterling rose for a second week against the dollar on Friday, supported by a hawkish Bank of England and a successful vaccination program which has enabled the gradual reopening of businesses.

The Bank has begun tapering asset purchases, while the country is restructuring its vaccine rollout program to help protect more quickly those in areas where a specific variant of the coronavirus, first detected in India, has emerged. The UK has been among the top countries with the fastest vaccination in the world, giving a first shot to almost 70% of the adult population and a second one to 36%, helping to reduce infection rates and deaths.

Near-term gains

The British Pound will likely remain supported against the euro and dollar over the coming weeks according to foreign exchange analysts. The fast vaccine rollout has allowed a sharp economic rebound which has been unprecedented. The positive sentiment around the vaccine rollout is expected to offer further near-term support, analysts have noted. NatWest analysts have said that "While the pace of rollout has been a factor, it’s the UK economy’s underlying sensitivity to the vaccine that has been the most important aspect," they add. "The UK has suffered the greatest hit to GDP of the developed economies during the pandemic and therefore has the most to benefit from the easing of restrictions." The positive vaccine story has already been priced in the current level of the pound and as such analysts do not expect many more gains. The vaccine programme and the latest Scottish elections which have eased anxieties about a second Scottish independence referendum, offered support to the pound, but further gains might be limited.

Upside potential for the pound?

With expectations of a third major unlocking on Monday 17th of May and a final unlocking on 21st of June, analysts see further upside potential for the pound. The recent gains are partly due to the Bank of England's policy meeting on the 6th of May where it was announced that the Bank will be reducing the scale of weekly quantitative easing purchases and raise economic forecasts. As the global economic recovery gathers momentum, strategists at UBS Wealth Management also expect the pound to advance further.

The Bank of England expects the UK economy to return to pre-pandemic levels before the end of 2021. However, NatWest analysts have warned that there are significant risks as we move ahead: “Brexit is weighing on trend growth. Softer productivity trends, deep economic scarring and a deteriorating sustainable current account deficit position are expected to impact negatively.”

Danske Bank has also said that they retain a bullish stance, but they believe there "is no obvious trigger for another sharp move" higher in GBP/EUR near-term. Strategists at Rabobank have also said this week that further advances will be rare, with a new 2021 high possible by year-end. Senior FX Strategist at Rabobank, Jane Foley said: "we continue to expect only a slow drift lower for EUR/GBP.

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With market sentiment strong as the economy is recovering and more people are vaccinated, economists will be looking with great expectations at today’s Bank of England interest rate decision. Despite the current optimism, the bank is not expected to raise interest rates from their current record low of 0.1%.

Will the bank raise its growth forecasts?

The economy has improved: the private sector has experienced fast growth, mortgage lending is at a record, and economists are forecasting that UK GDP will rise at its highest since the 1940s. The FTSE 100 share index hit its highest level in over a year yesterday, with banks, mining and oil companies benefiting from the global economic rebound.

Britain’s services sector has also posted its fastest growth in more than seven years, as the latest Service PMI jumped to 61.0 for April. Companies saw sharp increases in business and consumer spending, new projects and new orders rose at their fastest rate since December 2013. Service providers noted that the easing of Covid-19 restrictions across the UK has helped businesses and growth. Firms also employed more staff and employment growth accelerated to its fastest since October 2015.

Since the economy is doing so well, the BoE is expected to raise its growth forecasts today, in its latest Monetary Policy Report which will also be released on Thursday. Elsa Lignos of RBC has noted that the Bank will predict a smaller increase in unemployment this year: “Significantly, the extension of the government’s furlough scheme, which was announced at the budget, is likely to see the MPC lower its estimate of where it expects unemployment to peak once support is withdraw.”

Will the bank slow its stimulus programme?

At the same time, the Monetary Policy Committee will be considering when to slow its £895bn asset purchase stimulus programme, which is buying up around £4.4bn of government bonds each week. If there are any strong signals that it may do so, then the pound could rise.

Shamik Dhar, chief economist at BNY Mellon Investment Management, said that the “economy looks set to bounce back strongly in the second half, probably at double digit annualized growth rates, returning overall activity to pre-crisis levels this year. Inflationary pressures might build, but will probably be contained by a strong supply response in those industries that have been locked down. The Bank of England (BoE) remains a long way off tightening monetary policy, but could be one of the first central banks to signal it’s thinking about it, possibly in early 2022.” Despite the bright outlook, the economy will not return to pre-Covid levels. He added:

“The economy will return to pre-crisis levels of economic activity quickly, and possibly recover the pre-crisis trend level next year. But the composition of the UK economy has probably changed permanently thanks to the pandemic. While we will see a strong bounce back in ‘close contact’ industries, such as hospitality and travel, this year and next, they may never recover their pre-crisis share of the economy. ‘Remotely-consumed’ goods and services will remain a larger proportion of the economy than they were pre-pandemic.”

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May is expected to bring some volatility for the pound which can be a good thing for traders of the currency. The first week of May will be an important one for the pound as on the 6th of May, the Bank of England (BoE) will deliver its monetary policy decision and its quarterly Monetary Policy Report. Investors and analysts are also expecting the Scottish election to be a pound-sensitive event as it could result in a majority for pro-independence parties. In the near term, both events could affect the pound and set the tone for currency trading throughout the last month of Spring.

A hawkish tone from the bank could weigh on the pound

Economists will be closely watching the BoE’s upcoming meeting to understand whether the bank will change its quantitative easing programme by reducing its rate of asset purchases.  This is seen as a necessary measure to provide liquidity to the economy, and it will open the path for raising interest rates in the future. For this reason, if the bank decides to make such a move, markets will be pleasantly surprised, as three months ago the bank was seriously considering pushing interest rates into negative territory.

While such a move is welcomed and appropriate since the economy is recovering, it is still too early, and some economists believe that the bank will not be raising interest rates anytime soon. The BoE is more likely to remain cautious, and this might put some pressure for the pound. While the market expects interest rates to remain unchanged, they are not quite sure about the bank’s intention to reduce quantitative easing. For some analysts, there are concerns about the pandemic and unemployment which could rise following the withdrawal of the government’s support.

Scottish elections

Scotland will be voting for the next Holyrood parliament on 6th of May and political commentators say a strong result for pro-independence parties will inevitably lead to another independence referendum. However, financial analysts do not expect the Scottish elections to have a major impact on GBP. Regardless of the result, most experts do not believe this will immediately lead to an imminent vote for independence, as a second independence referendum is probably years away.

As things stand, it is also unlikely that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government will grant consent to hold a second referendum.  While who holds the power to allow a vote could ultimately be tested in the courts, at the same time the probability for an imminent referendum is small. A refusal from Boris Johnson could also further strengthen pro-independence sentiment in Scotland. The possibility of a second independence referendum is not going to go away and will play a key role in the next UK-wide general election in 2024.

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