Sterling’s major weakness in the near future is a potential weakening in risk sentiment which will also weigh on global stock markets, hitting risk-correlated currencies. According to analysts, global risk sentiment will remain one of the key external drivers of the UK currency. At the same time, if global developments improve and equities stabilise, the pound will still need a boost from domestic factors such as stronger domestic data to recover some of its most recent losses. For the pound to continue to strengthen, the market will need to become convinced that the medium-term growth outlook for the UK economy is improving markedly. This would require some real productivity gains to be realised over the coming months and years.
While UK fundamentals have proven to be supportive, the global picture is very important for Sterling, especially when stock markets suffer, risk sentiment is low, and investors are usually spooked.
Risk appetite in global financial markets
Analysts have noticed a pattern emerging where the pound falls against the euro in times of risk off conditions. The pound commonly benefits from strong global growth, which has also been the case for the euro. When there is limited financial risk, investors tend to take more risks, therefore creating a “risk-on” situation. However, when there is uncertainty and high volatility, what is also called a “risk-off” environment, traders want to avoid risk and they sell their higher-yielding assets and move their funds to safe-haven currencies.
The euro as a risk-off currency
While the euro like the pound has been the beneficiary of positive market sentiment, more recently, this has changed, and it seems that the single currency benefits against the pound when global investor sentiment weakens. What this means, is that the euro has become a risk off currency.
A risk off currency gains when stock markets decline as investors want to avoid risk and sell their risky assets.
The euro used to be seen as a cyclical currency but is much less now. Cyclical currencies such as the pound and AUD tend to appreciate when global economic growth is expanding, unlike the US dollar, the yen and Franc which are seen as safe havens.
The euro has benefited when stock markets are selling off and it has given the impression that is a safe-haven asset. According to research from HSBC, due to the low interest rate environment in the Eurozone, billions of cheap euros are borrowed, sold and repatriated into euros, creating demand on the currency and “establishing an impression that it is now a 'safe haven' asset during times of market stress.” Head of FX Research at HSBC Paul Mackel explained that this shift in the euro “comes down to the low growth, low rates environment that has become seemingly endemic in the region,” and is “a consequence of the ECB’s quantitative easing programme and shift to negative rates.” Mackel added that "Signs that rates may be lower for even longer could encourage these outflows to continue, or even exacerbate them.”
"For many years, the EUR was seen as a cyclical play, which benefited from strong global growth. However, the last decade or so has seen overseas asset accumulation outstrip inflows from foreign investors. This could start to change the way in which the EUR behaves,” Mackel said.
If you are a business exchanging pounds to euros or vice versa, it is beneficial to understand this dynamic and how risk sentiment and appetite affect the currency pair. For the pound then to appreciate against the euro, there will need to be improvement in global market conditions. If, on the contrary, global growth and markets are at risk, the euro could appreciate. The rapid spread of another Covid variant or any quick move by the Federal Reserve to withdraw its financial support are seen as major risks to the global economy and the pound in particular.
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