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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Sterling strengthened as a result of a combination of factors including the reopening of businesses in April which helped support the pound at the start of the new week. April has been a typically good month for the pound with gains historically occurring in the second half of the month, and this could also be partly the reason. Foreign exchange strategists believe that this could be enough for the pound to continue trading well against the euro, especially with many economic data due to be released this week.

Economists and traders are expecting that this week’s economic releases will be proof that the UK economy is recovering as businesses reopen and the quick vaccination programme continues. With inflation coming out on Wednesday and the PMI survey for April out on Friday, markets are optimistic that the data will support the view that the UK is on track for a quick economic rebound. The PMIs are expected to show that economic activity is increasing as restrictions have been eased.

UK economic rebound

The pound has experienced a solid year, as investors speculated on a quick economic recovery due to growing confidence in the vaccine rollout programme. The UK economic outlook has improved the past few months as the successful vaccination programme supported a strong Sterling. Financial analysts and investors forecast that the UK economy will recover as more people are able to go out and spend money in retail shops. Already, there is an increase in shopping following the three-month lockdown, when on 12th of April non-essential stores reopened.

UK businesses report better than expected sales

With many UK businesses reopening, trading has increased as consumer demand was higher, and the reopening proved to be a success confirming that a strong rebound in the second quarter is possible. The ability of consumers to spend was also due to the government’s important furlough scheme which protected consumer income. From bank transactions to restaurant bookings and shop visits, it was evident that people were eager to spend when businesses reopened on 12th of April. Already, the first three days after the reopening, visits to retail and other shops increased instantly, pointing to a sharper recovery than initially expected.  

Consultancy Springboard’s statistics showed that footfall last week across all UK retail shops was 25 per cent lower than in the same week of 2019. However, the gap narrowed by more than half in a single week, reaching the level of trading after two months following the first lockdown. Retail parks was the major driver behind the surge, which was only 2 per cent down when compared with the 2019 level. Diane Wehrle, insights director at Springboard, described the first week of reopening as “an outstanding performance” for the UK retail sector and that with the reopening of indoor hospitality on 17th of May 17, “a further boost” to retail destinations is also to be expected.

Fable Data statistics also showed that spending in pubs and restaurants recovered to 42 per cent and reflected similar numbers in restaurant bookings tracked by Open Table. Government figures on public transport also showed that people were on the move, while vacancies also increased to pre-pandemic levels in April. Such measures showing people’s mobility, shopping and restaurant bookings are increasingly considered crucial indicators of the health of the economy and much more accurate when compared to official economic numbers. These near-real-time indicators reflect a more accurate picture of the economy as economists are hopeful that everything is going as well as could have been hoped.

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After a dovish performance from the US Federal Reserve yesterday, investors have been waiting to see what the Bank of England thinks about the UK economy. Economists were expecting the bank to signal that it will raise interest rates, something that would help to extend the current Pound Sterling rally. However, the bank has disappointed by announcing that it will not raise interest rates until inflation is under control and has risen considerably.

The Pound has strengthened in 2021 after the bank confirmed that it won’t take interest rates into negative territory and the assumption now was for the bank to raise them and support the pound.

Bank remains cautious

However, while economic recovery and the vaccination programme have offered a positive outlook, the bank chose to maintain the current pace of quantitative easing (£4.4bn weekly) and reach its inflation target. The bank said that "The Committee does not intend to tighten monetary policy at least until there is clear evidence that significant progress has been made in eliminating spare capacity and achieving the 2.0% inflation target.” After the employment fell during the pandemic the Bank expects it to recover so that rising wages start pushing inflation higher. The bank’s decision reflects a more cautious stance as it prefers to wait and see how things develop and whether inflation rises above 2.0% as employment recovers closer to pre-pandemic levels.

The pound fell as investors and traders were expecting a more hawkish tone from the bank.

Bank expectations

The Bank noted that recovery from April 2022 onwards will slow down due to the March Budget which will create a medium-term fiscal tightening. They stated that there is little hope that CPI inflation will rise above the target at the end of this year. According to Samuel Tombs, Chief U.K. Economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics: "The MPC chose not to push back against the recent rise in rate expectations and gilt yields. This was never likely, given that the first rate hike isn’t fully priced-in by markets until Q1 2023; the Committee can’t make credible commitments that extend so far into the future.” Tombs added that interest rates will be raised soon as long as the markets recover. More generally, though, the Bank of England appeared to be less gloomy about unemployment and that a more resilient than expected economy will help improve the employment landscape.

BoE: signs of economic recovery

While the Bank of England’s MPC voted 9-0 to leave interest rates and QE unchanged, there are several signs that point that the economy is improving. Since the MPC’s previous meeting, the near-term economic activity had been positive. The issue now is whether companies and households will increase their spending once the lockdown ends or whether they’ll be cautious. Minutes of the meeting said that Rishi Sunak’s decision to extend the furlough until the end of September has also helped to change the outlook for the unemployment rate.

Indeed, Hugh Gimber, global market strategist at J.P. Morgan Asset Management, highlighted that the economic outlook has improved as “the Monetary Policy Committee is feeling a little more comfortable about the prospects for the economy than at its last meeting six weeks ago. The latest budget confirmed that government lifelines for the labour market will continue, the vaccine rollout is progressing at pace, and a gargantuan stimulus package across the Atlantic should have positive spillover effects across the globe. Against this backdrop, the UK economy is poised for a strong rebound this year.”

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The pound strengthened against the euro, due to positive market sentiment as a result of the intense and ongoing vaccination rollout programme. Goldman Sachs has speculated that the pound could even rise further against the euro.

Rishi Sunak’s Budget announcement boosts sentiment

Following the budget announcement, the Wall Street investment bank told its clients to trade in Sterling as the UK economy is expected to grow in the coming months.  UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s budget announcement last Wednesday revealed spending and taxation plans that were better than expected. Sunak announced that an additional £65 billion will be provided for spending, grants and tax breaks with the total additional spending and benefits reaching £352 billion. "The UK economy is well-positioned for the coming recovery," Goldman Sachs’ Zach Pandl said. "The support program laid out by the government surprised consensus expectations to the upside, and included a number of economic incentives aimed at medium-term investment." Most economists believe that supporting the economy generously during the covid crisis will help the economy grow stronger faster and avoid any long-term negative effects.  

Vaccination programme also offers support to pound

Goldman Sachs’ economist Pandl also noted that the UK’s vaccination programme has helped the economy. He said: "Solid household and business balance sheets should soon translate into robust growth, as the UK’s strategy of prioritising getting more people vaccinated with a single dose appears to be paying dividends. We are therefore keeping open the short EUR/GBP component of our long GBP/CHF cross trade.”

Britain has outperformed on its vaccination programme, especially when compared to other European countries, with more than 21 million people having received the first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine.

UK business confidence hits 12-month high

The UK’s fast vaccination programme has also had a positive effect on businesses’ confidence. According to the latest Business Trends report from accountancy and business advisory firm BDO LLP, service sector confidence jumped in February to its highest level since the pandemic began.

BDO’s Services Optimism Index rose to 94.13 in February from 86.60 in January, back towards the long-term average of 100. This is the highest reading in 12 months for the survey, which covers a a wide range of industries from retail and hospitality to professional services.

Also, according to polling firm YouGov, British consumer confidence has risen to its highest level since the coronavirus pandemic started, according to polling firm YouGov. YouGov reported that  consumer confidence rose to 105.4, driven by expectations for house prices, business activity, and household finances over 2022.

The governor of the Bank of England, Andrew Bailey, has also expressed optimism about the economy but also cautioned for unrealistic expectations, as life will not return to pre-Covid levels. He noted that there is a “growing sense” of economic optimism building. He said that Covid has hurt demand and supply which some of the structural changes in the last year will not really change.

Bailey said: “The best we can say is that how the output gap develops in the recovery from Covid will depend on the net effect of the two [demand and supply], both of which will need to move by more than in normal recoveries. There is another element to this part of the story which is hard to assess at present, namely to what extent the more structural changes we have seen during the Covid crisis will persist, and what effect they will have on the recovery? In general, however, economists remain optimistic and the pounds recent surge owes a lot to the government’s successful vaccination programme.

 

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The UK’s successful vaccination rollout programme, along with the BoE’s decision not to lower interest rates, have boosted market sentiment about the UK’s speedy economic recovery and pushed the pound higher. The pound is trading almost close to a nine-month high against the euro, and at a 33-month high against the dollar. It is almost getting closer to its highest levels in over three years.

Rabobank’s Jane Foley said: “GBP bulls have been flexing their muscles since the start of the year based on relief about the EU/UK trade deal and on hopes that the relatively rapid vaccine roll-out programme will lead to a fairly fast economic recovery this year.”

Weaker dollar

The pound’s strength is a result of it capitalising on the US dollar’s losses. The prospect of a major new US stimulus package has weakened the dollar, which continued to fall lower after last week’s disappointing US payrolls report. The wider increased confidence has turned investors away from the safe haven dollar and towards riskier assets.

JP Morgan explained that "The broader USD continues to trade with a much softer tone, drivers seem to be the relentless CNH bid into Chinese New Year and the fact that US yields backed aggressively off key levels and have now calmed down." According to JPMorgan, the USD selling by Chinese traders has also push the dollar lower, a move that is highlighting the importance of the Chinese Yuan in broader market movements.

The past three days’ weakness of the dollar shows that the recent dollar rally has come to an end and that the trend of depreciation has come back into play. JP Morgan said: "We added to our modest sterling longs yesterday via GBP/USD and look for this move to keep going at least until the end of the week (Chinese New Year on Friday).”

Quick vaccinations and market optimism

The UK economy might experience its troubles, but the swift pace of vaccinations suggests that economic recovery will be stronger and faster. The vaccination programme will soon impact health outcomes and boost the Bank of England’s positive outlook. If the Bank shows further optimism and investors are upbeat about economic prospects, then the pound will rise higher.

The general positive market sentiment has helped the pound, as it has become linked to risk appetite during the crisis.

With downside risks for Sterling expected and priced in, analysts see further potential for the pound as the vaccination rollout continues strong. As NatWest Markets analysts said, a "quicker pace of vaccine roll-out will likely lend support to Sterling.” However, they expect any pound increases to be short-lived, as the UK economy struggles post-Brexit.

The Bank of England has said that a strong economic rebound is possible once the lockdown restrictions are lifted and consumers start spending again.

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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.

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.