The pound rose on Tuesday against both the euro and the US dollar, as stock markets increased, and expectations for an early November rate hike by the Bank of England remained strong. This is the highest level since the pandemic started in March 2020. If the Bank of England proceeds to an early rate hike, then markets will not be disappointed and the pound will rise further, as many analysts suggested. However, if it strikes a more cautious tone and reduces expectations for further rate hikes in 2022, then the pound could fall.

A hawkish statement by the Bank of England suggesting a faster cycle of hikes than is currently expected might boost the pound further, but this is not anticipated.

Interest rates

If the Bank of England raises interest rates as soon as the 4th of November, then the UK central bank will be the first major central bank to raise rates ahead even of the European Central Bank (ECB). The pound rose against the dollar, but the gains were not substantial as the US Federal Reserve is on target to raise interest rates in 2022 with the November policy meeting likely to confirm this.

The lower number of Covid-19 cases has helped boost market sentiment and has given the Bank of England further evidence that the economy has the potential to grow as we come to the end of the year.

Current and potential obstacles

However, Britain's weak economic data, such as Friday's unexpected drop in retail sales has capped further gains. UK growth momentum is also weakening. There are also concerns about potential tax hikes that could be announced on Wednesday's budget statement, alongside tensions between the EU and the UK post-Brexit provisions relating to the trade between Britain, Northern Ireland, and the European Union member Ireland.

A possible headwind for the pound is the failure of the negotiations between the two sides over the Northern Ireland protocol, as Britain has threatened to take unilateral action if talks fail. #

Rishi Sunak’s budget announcement on Wednesday

Traders are now awaiting finance minister Rishi Sunak's budget statement on Wednesday. Markets might be already aware of his plans for higher corporation tax and national insurance contributions, but the devil is in the details. He is expected to end the public sector pay freeze for millions of workers and there has been speculation that the minimum wage for those aged 25-plus could increase from £8.91 an hour to £10 before the next election. For the NHS, there have also been announcements for a £5.9bn for NHS backlogs, diagnostic services and elective surgeries funding, while a £2.1bn is going to improve IT across the NHS. Another commitment has been for £5bn on health research and development over three years. A total of £850m has been promised to inject new life into the arts as a “post-pandemic funding boost.” £700m has been promised to be spent on the new post-Brexit borders and immigration system, and a new maritime patrol fleet. Among his other pledges, is a six-month extension to the COVID recovery loan scheme to June 2022.

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Brexit might had gone away for a while, replaced by more prescient concerns such as the pandemic, slower economic growth, supply chain issues and higher inflation, but it is making a comeback. Tensions between the EU and UK over the Northern Ireland agreement could put an end to potential gains, analysts gave argued, while inflation worries could also put more pressure on the currency.

A weaker US dollar and falling US Treasury yields have also helped both the euro and pound rise. Despite higher wages in US inflation data and rate hike expectations, the US dollar fell from Wednesday’s almost one-year high.

Bank of England: First to raise interest rates

The pound was higher yesterday following data that showed the economy grew 0.4% in August, 0.8% smaller than February 2020, the Office for National Statistics said. Economists were expecting a monthly gross domestic product growth of 0.5% for August. The biggest impetus for the pound is the expectation that the BoE will be the first central bank to raise interest rates since the start of the pandemic, with some investors expecting a rise to 0.15% by December.

Sterling was at a two-week high on Monday due to weekend headlines that Bank of England governor Andrew Bailey, and MPC policymaker, Michael Saunders, warned of inflationary risks and the need to act, raising interest rates earlier and preventing inflation from becoming permanently embedded.

Analysts believe that the Bank of England's move towards raising interest rates will push demand for the pound higher. However, other analysts have argued that moving too early might risk economic growth, especially at a time when the growth outlook is subdued.

Brexit

The positive news that Brussels plans to reduce checks on goods entering the region has done little to provide fresh impetus to the pound. The new plan, which seeks to resolve a dispute over a key part of the Brexit agreement, would remove about 80% of spot checks, while customs paperwork would also be cut by 50%.

However, UK Brexit Minister Lord David Frost’s demand to rewrite the Protocol to remove the oversight role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) might create further tensions.  On Wednesday, a UK government spokesman said both sides should start a new round of "rapidly conducted" talks to tackle such issues as governance, since a solution needs to be found that protects the Good Friday Agreement and strengthens the relation between the EU and UK.

Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MP Ian Paisley told the BBC that Prime Minister Boris Johnson told him "personally that after agreeing to the protocol he would sign up to changing that protocol and indeed tearing it up, that this was just for the semantics".

Talks between the EU and UK on the new proposals might last for several weeks. Any renewed tensions and disagreements could spark more pound volatility.  

 

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The pound is not expected to rise higher from current levels, analysts have said.  Brexit tensions and an early interest rate hike by the Bank of England could eventually push the pound lower. Barclays warned of possible Brexit tensions rattling the foreign exchange market, while HSBC analysts said that the pound is not cheap and that there are significant risks to the UK outlook.

HSBC analysts

HSBC currency analysts believe that the pound should have been higher than current levels, considering market expectations for an earlier rate hike. The fact that the British currency has failed to advance despite these developments, suggests that political risks are returning to the currency.

HSBC analysts do not see scope for further Sterling gains, as the pound faces opposing forces including growth, inflation, rate expectations and external balances. They argue that the pound’s trajectory will become clear once one of these forces dominates the other. The bank said that Sterling could gain in the near-term due to the Bank’s expected rate increases but this would be offset by a deteriorating economy as the Bank’s monetary tightening fades quickly. The high energy costs combined with higher inflation will slow economic growth, the analysts added.

  • Brexit vote and financial crisis

HSBC noted that the pound has been deeply affected by the Brexit referendum in 2016 and earlier by the 2008/9 financial crisis. Both events have influenced the fair value assessments of the pound and they argue that currently the UK currency is closer to fair value and even expensive against other currencies.

  • Inflation

HSBC bank notes that the UK is expected to grow at a slower pace while exhibiting the highest inflation in over a decade, with fears of stagflation hurting the pound. In a survey conducted by Barclaycard, 90% of the shoppers said they were concerned that rising costs of everyday items would affect their household finances.

Barclays

Barclays analysts are also concerned with the pound outlook as they have pointed out that tensions between the EU and UK over the Northern Ireland protocol could negatively impact on the foreign exchange market. Failure to reach an agreement might result in the UK triggering Article 16 of the protocol, triggering retaliation measures by the EU such as tariffs and impacting on the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA). Any such scenarios will hurt the pound.

Britain wants to negotiate a “new protocol” to regulate post-Brexit trade in Northern Ireland, Britain’s Brexit Minister David Frost said in Lisbon on Tuesday. Ahead of the European Commission's formal response to the UK’s plan, Lord David Frost said the EU would be making a “historic misjudgement” if it refused to rewrite the Brexit deal covering trading arrangements for Northern Ireland. Brussels has warned the UK that they are not in a position to indulge themselves in important renegotiations.

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The pound was up against the euro on Wednesday, strengthened by higher UK bond yields and expectations of an earlier interest rate hike by the Bank of England. Sterling rose to a three-week high against the euro yesterday, as traders returned their attention to the prospect of interest rate hikes in Britain. The pound was down last week, due to rising inflation concerns, but it has now recovered.

Sterling’s recovery is mainly due to the prospect of the BoE raising interest rates sooner than expected, but analysts have commented that the pound should have risen even higher especially because of the important difference between the European and UK central banks. While the BoE has clearly stated its intention for an earlier rate hike, the European Central Bank has no plans to raise rates soon. Economists have warned that caution should be exercised though, as the pound’s gains might not be long-lived. It is still unclear whether the BoE will proceed to raise interest rates while the UK is facing ongoing supply problems.

Inflation

On Tuesday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said inflation fears were baseless. The final reading of the IHS Markit/CIPS composite Purchasing Managers’ Index showed that companies increased prices at the fastest pace on record, following shortages of staff, raw materials and transport.

Brexit

The pound has yet to react on Brexit risks after the UK told the European Union on Monday it would  “trigger safeguard measures in their divorce deal if the bloc failed to agree to changes to smooth trade with Northern Ireland.” Speaking at the Conservatives' annual conference in Manchester, Brexit minister David Frost stated that "Without an agreed solution soon, we will need to act, using the Article 16 safeguard mechanism, to address the impact the protocol is having on Northern Ireland." The EU is putting together a package of measures to ease the passage of goods from Britain to Northern Ireland, using flexibilities in the protocol, which will announce next week.

Tighter policy could weaken pound

Goldman Sachs Asset Management has said that tighter policy could weaken Sterling. The firm’s strategist for the global fixed income team said that high inflation and energy prices, and Brexit implications could further complicate the inflation outlook. Fears of higher inflation combined with the ongoing supply-chain crisis and an end to the government’s furlough program have worried investors who believe the BoE may choose to raise interest rates sooner than necessary, risking economic recovery.

Other firms and financial analysts are less concerned as challenges are not seen as dangerous and are merely transitory. They don’t believe that the Bank will be forced into a dangerously fast pace of tightening.

What to watch

A key indicator to watch is the UK's labour market as unemployment is expected to increase in October since the government's job support scheme ended on the 30th of September and furloughed staff might not be able to return to their old jobs. The furlough scheme which started in March 2020, supported 11.6 million jobs across the UK and government figures suggest that around a million people were still on furlough when it ended.

If unemployment is lower than expectations, the consensus is that the Bank could move towards a rate hike as a strong labour market will increase the potential for wage rises which push inflation higher.

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The pound fell and remains vulnerable to global growth concerns and the ongoing fuel crisis in the UK as analysts fear of a difficult winter ahead. The fuel crisis has sparked concerns that growth will slow down, while rising inflation will aggravate problems. The panic buying of petrol was the result of fears regarding supply chain issues as the UK is struggling to recover from the Coronavirus pandemic.  

150 soldiers prepared to drive tankers

UK business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has said that military tanker drivers are ready to help with the fuel crisis and transport petrol to stations, as 150 soldiers will be driving tankers within a few days. Despite calls to motorists to stop panic-buying at petrol stations, queues have continued. Kwarteng admitted that the last few days have been difficult, with large queues, but the situation is stabilising and that with soldiers driving the tanker fleet and getting petrol into the forecourts, things will return back to normal soon. In regard to issues in the run-up to Christmas, where people are busier, Kwarteng explained that it was difficult to make any predictions, but, nonetheless, he reiterated that the “situation is stabilising.”

The fuel crisis has generated more concerns about who will have priority access and many unions have requested that doctors, nurses and other essential workers to be given priority access to fuel. The Prime Minister has resisted this. The worst shortages have been experienced in London and English cities with fights and, in one incident in south London, a driver pulling a knife.

The supply chain issue and the shortage of lorry drivers is linked to Brexit and the government has said that it will deal with the driver shortage by providing temporary visas to 5,000 foreign drivers.

Bank of England to raise interest rates

The Bank of England will be forced to raise interest rates to fight inflation. Markets are concerned about the Bank having to tighten its policy against a weak background, with analysts describing it as a “stagflation story.”

The UK is especially vulnerable as it appears to be the hardest hit by the energy and supply chain crisis. The energy crisis is affecting economic activity, while the rising gas prices are a real issue for the currency. With the ongoing energy crisis, the pound will remain under pressure, and once it clears it will be able to stabilise. The gas price surge is also a global phenomenon as Asian countries are also competing for the same supplies. Growing fears of an energy shortage in China have led to Sinopec, an LNG importer, to outbid European competitors.

Traders and analysts are now focusing on the fuel crisis as they are worried about how the UK economy will fare and whether the current crisis is temporary or will last longer.

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The pound was higher against the US dollar on Monday amid little economic data releases and thin trading. The US dollar fell after Friday’s dovish speech by Fed Chair Jerome Powell. Jerome Powell indicated Friday that the central bank will possibly begin tapering before the end of the year, but a rate hike was not imminent as there is still “much ground to cover” before the economy reaches full employment. At the same time, there could be some risk ahead for the pound, due to renewed Brexit concerns.

Jackson Hole symposium

In his much-anticipated speech at the Jackson Hole symposium, Fed Chair Jerome Powel said that the central bank could start tapering its stimulus programme by the end of the year, easing market fears for a quicker withdrawal of its funding.

The Fed took its benchmark rate down to almost zero and accelerated its quantitative easing programme in an attempt to resuscitate the economy during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The question of when the Fed will begin to tighten its programme has been the main concern for markets for some time now, and it might remain as Powell avoided to give any definite answers. The Fed is aware that any specific answers could seriously impact the global economy, this is why it has chosen to postpone any reduction of its funding.

“The timing and pace of the coming reduction in asset purchases will not be intended to carry a direct signal regarding the timing of interest rate liftoff, for which we have articulated a different and substantially more stringent test,” Powell said during the summit. He added that inflation is close to the Fed’s 2% target rate, but “we have much ground to cover to reach maximum employment.” Markets reacted positively to Powell’s comments, with major stock indexes rising higher.  

Fed Vice Chairman Richard Clarida also agreed with Powell’s remarks. He explained that tapering could be possible by the end of this year, as long as labour gains continue: “I think that if that materialises, then I would support commencing a reduction in the pace of our purchases later this year,” Clarida noted.

The Fed said that “substantial further progress” will need to be seen before tightening policy. Powell said that in terms of inflation the “test has been met” and that there “has also been clear progress toward maximum employment.” He said that the Fed agreed at the July Federal Open Market Committee meeting that “it could be appropriate to start reducing the pace of asset purchases this year.”

Powell defended the Fed’s policy and decision not to make an “ill-timed policy move” and stated: “Today, with substantial slack remaining in the labour market and the pandemic continuing, such a mistake could be particularly harmful. We know that extended periods of unemployment can mean lasting harm to workers and to the productive capacity of the economy.” Additionally, he stressed that the delta variant “presents a near-term risk” but “the prospects are good for continued progress toward maximum employment.”

Renewed Brexit concerns

The UK government supply chain crisis could have a significant impact on Christmas and create further food shortages over the next year too. Iceland, Nandos, KFC, McDonald’s, and Tesco are among the many businesses that are reporting stock issues as a result of lorry driver shortage due to Brexit. Restaurant chains Nandos and KFC are facing chicken shortages, McDonald’s is finding it difficult to make milkshakes and Iceland is running out of bread and soft drinks. The problem has become noticeable over the summer when social media was flooded with images of empty shelves.

The disruption was then largely blamed on the “”, but businesses have for a long time now warned of a chronic shortage of lorry drivers due to Brexit. Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Iceland managing director Richard Walker said the lack of lorry drivers “is impacting the food supply chain on a daily basis.” “We’ve had deliveries cancelled for the first time since the pandemic began, about 30-40 deliveries a day,” he said.

British Poultry Council chief executive Richard Griffiths said last week that “When you don’t have people, you have a problem - and this is something we are seeing across the whole supply chain. The labour crisis is a Brexit issue,” he said.

Nick Allen of the British Meat Processors Association warned that such shortages will impact on Christmas staples: “We are cutting back and prioritising lines and cutting out on things, so there just won’t be the totals of Christmas favourites like we are used to.”

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The improved global market sentiment and the slowing of Covid-19 case rates has helped the pound to recover, but Brexit anxieties could pose a potential threat to the currency.

Covid-19 and the NHS app

This week alone 96 deaths have been reported, the highest number since March. While on 1 June there were 0 coronavirus deaths, 1,114 deaths have been reported since then with 73 deaths being reported on Wednesday (21 July). The vaccination programme has not managed to break the link between infections and fatalities, with the total number of deaths from the pandemic reaching 128,896. However, new cases have not risen considerably, as the number of new cases that were reported on Wednesday was 44,104, slightly higher than the previous week’s 42,302. As it stands, 46,388,744 people have been vaccinated at least with the first shot in the UK. According to statistics, around 39,035 people had their first jab on Tuesday, while 161,279 people had their second shot yesterday, with 36,404,566 people now being fully inoculated.

With the ongoing self-isolation of workers due to coming into close contact with a positive coronavirus case, businesses have been affected, while the government has expressed its apologies for the inconvenience. Director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium Andrew Opie told The Times that the "pingdemic” has put pressure on retailers who found it difficult to keep stores open and shelves stocked, demanded that the government needed to act fast.

Boris Johnson, speaking at the last PMQs before the summer recess, said "everybody understands the inconvenience of being pinged". The prime minister himself had to isolate after coming into contact with Covid-positive Health Secretary Sajid Javid last week.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer accused the prime minister of the mixed messages regarding the NHS Covid-19 app and said: "When it comes to creating confusion, the prime minister is a super-spreader.” Starmer had to isolate himself following one of his children being tested positive.

According to the figures from the ONS, around 9 in 10 adults in all parts of the UK could possibly have Covid-19 antibodies with the estimates ranging from 88.6% in Scotland to 92.6% in Wales, 90.0% for Northern Ireland and 91.9% for England.

Brexit and Covid-19: How will the pound fair?

It simply depends on improved market sentiment and the management of the Covid-19 Delta variant. The near-term outlook for Sterling will be determined by concerns regarding the Delta variant and whether investors have fully priced in the news.  If they have done so, then possibly the currency and market sentiment will improve. 

Brexit remains a threat to the currency too, as the UK and EU could find themselves at the opposite end of the table over the Northern Ireland question. On Wednesday, the UK announced its intention to renegotiate certain points included in the Northern Ireland protocol, and argued that in its current form it will create problems for trading goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The release of the command paper outlining the UK government proposals about how the Protocol should be changed poses a major challenge to the EU.  This move could potentially hurt the pound, according to analysts. However, they believe that this could become a more serious concern as we move closer to 1 October with potential legal battles and EU threatening the UK with the imposition of trade sanctions.

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Brexit is back in the picture, as there are talks of a potential trade war between the UK and EU over the coming days after both sides failed to reach agreement on the Northern Ireland protocol. The EU has threatened to impose sanctions on UK exports to Northern Ireland if it fails to implement the terms of the Northern Ireland protocol next month. If things escalate, the pound will also be affected, as it usually falls when concerns around Brexit rise.

EU press conference

On Wednesday, UK and EU officials met in an attempt to resolve any disputes over trade rules for Northern Ireland. In the EU press conference following talks with Lord Frost on Northern Ireland protocol, Maroš Šefčovič, the vice-president of the European Commission who serves as the EU’s lead on post-Brexit negotiations with the UK, said that fundamental gaps remained in the UK’s implementation of the deal. On the Northern Ireland protocol, both sides agreed in 2019 this was the best solution to protect the Good Friday agreement. In December last year some solutions were agreed, including grace periods and exemptions in areas where the UK was not ready to implement the protocol. But he highlighted that “we cannot undo the core of the protocol”, as there are still “numerous and fundamental gaps” in the UK’s implementation of the deal.

He also confirmed that the EU could take retaliatory action. Šefčovič says the EU is a peace project, and, as he said, he did not arrive with a list as he is looking for a solution. But he did confirm that the EU could impose tariffs on some UK goods if the Northern Ireland protocol was not implemented. The protocol is designed to prevent checks at the border with Ireland. So, the EU agreed to let the UK conduct these checks at the GB/NI border. The easiest thing would be for the UK to accept EU SPS standards. Nonetheless, Šefčovič says he has a good and honest relationship with Frost and believes in Frost’s “best intentions”.

How will the pound react?

If the relationship with Brussels breaks this could weigh on Sterling sentiment in the short-term. If the EU does take any retaliatory action, and tensions escalate, then the possibility of the UK losing access to the single market would raise significant risks for the UK economy and hurt the pound.

The Prime Minister’s spokesman said: "The protocol was formed in a spirit of compromise, in challenging circumstances. It was not a finished solution... and we didn't expect the EU to take such a purist approach to it. We are working very hard to resolve these issues consensually. But the Prime Minister has always made clear we will consider all our options in meeting our responsibility to sustain peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland.”

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The British pound fell against the euro and US dollar, after the remarkable recovery it enjoyed during the first three months of the year. With the euphoria about the UK’s successful vaccination programme starting to wear off and a wider demand for the euro, the Sterling outlook is not looking as promising.

The pound performed very well against the euro in the opening quarter of 2021, but since February’s highs, it has dropped, suggesting that the Eurozone is performing comparatively better as the European coronavirus vaccination rates have increased. For many economists, further gains for the pound might prove to be difficult as most of the good news has already been priced in.

Bright Outlook for the Pound might be threatened

The UK economy managed to recover after a difficult 2020, as economists grew optimistic after the successful and rapid vaccine rollouts and the easing of the lockdown restrictions. The economy is expected to expand 5% this year, something that has boosted the pound the first quarter. The reopening of the economy has been now priced in, while the sell-off in UK government bonds, pushed yields higher and supported the pound. However, economists are questioning about how much higher the pound could possibly go. Foreign exchange analysts are warning that the UK is in a more difficult position than other economies due to the fact it was severely affected by the Covid-19 crisis earlier on, despite economic momentum accelerating. Additionally, there are worries about the potential impact of Brexit, with exports and imports with the EU having fallen dramatically in January.

The pound will find support if the UK manages to continue attracting investments such as cross-border mergers and acquisitions which are a significant part of the conditions required for continued growth.

Pound sensitive to BoE Andy Haldane’s departure

News that the Bank of England Chief Economist Andy Haldane would be leaving the Bank's Monetary Policy Committee has also affected the pound. One of the reasons was that Haldane was a hawk on the MPC, supporting higher interest rates and being optimistic about the UK economy. A hawkish central bank is linked to a solid and strong currency, and as such his departure was interpreted as a crucial factor in the pound’s weakness. His views on the economy were seen as vital for boosting the pound in February.

With Haldane leaving, the MPC may now react to any forthcoming inflation risks a little later, but markets will need to wait and see who the new chief economist will be and reassess the new policy changes. For other economists, Haldane’s departure might not have a long-lasting effect on Sterling as there weren’t any plans of tightening the BoE policy in the coming months anyway.

The recent declines of the pound might also be short-lived as some economists expect the pound to continue its outperformance, particularly against the Euro.

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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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