The pound rose against the US dollar following strong UK labour-market numbers. British employers added a record 241,000 staff in August, pushing the total number of employees on company payrolls above pre-pandemic levels, official data showed on Tuesday.

The latest unemployment report by the Office for National Statistics shows job vacancies rose above one million for the first time since records began as the UK economy continues to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic, while payrolls rose by more than expected. The strong data will possibly help persuade Bank of England policymakers that perhaps UK monetary policy could be tightened sooner than expected.

Jobs data

The latest unemployment report showed the number of vacancies in the three months to August to have reached above one million, as firms struggled to fill positions mainly in the hospitality, transport and storage sectors. It also showed a lower unemployment rate and a monthly increase in August payrolls.

The ONS stated: “The fastest rate of growth was seen in other service activities, which grew by 93.3% (12,500), followed by transport and storage at 76.3% (20,300) and accommodation and food service activities at 75.4% (57,600). In the latter two categories labour demand has increased rapidly while staff availability fell because of a mix of employees leaving these sectors to find employment elsewhere and a reluctance of workers to return to their previous roles.”

Minister for Employment Mims Davies MP has welcomed the rise in payrolls and said: “As we continue to push ahead with our recovery, it’s great to see another significant fall in unemployment and the number of people on payrolls rising by 241,000 in August – the biggest monthly increase on record – showing our Plan for Jobs is working. We’re helping employers recruit for the record number of vacancies out there, particularly in growing sectors, and supporting people of all ages and backgrounds to overcome barriers, land their next role, and progress in work.”

While payroll employment is back at pre-pandemic levels, there are still many years ahead of recovery, with employment more than 700,000 down and long-term unemployment up 45%. There are still more than a million people furloughed and with the scheme ending this month, more people will be looking to find employment.  

Furlough scheme concerns

Economists and politicians are worried that with the furlough scheme ending this month, jobs recovery will be hurt, after the rise in payrolls and vacancies. A lot of furloughed staff might not even return to their jobs as a lot have had their wages subsidised and might not be kept into full-time employment.

There is also a skill shortage as many industries have reported a lack of available labour and hiring difficulties. With Covid adding more uncertainty after Brexit and the new national insurance tax adding more costs to employers, it is unclear how businesses will respond to future hiring needs.

While the data is positive for the pound, investors remain cautious ahead of Wednesday’s UK inflation data, which could show an increase in the core rate in August to 2.9% year/year from July’s 1.8%.

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The British pound has dropped against the US dollar after the latest YouGov poll predicted 20 fewer seats for the Conservatives.

As polls open on Thursday morning, it is anyone’s guess what the results of the general election will be as the Conservatives could be winning with a majority or facing the risk of a hung parliament. 

After the release on Tuesday night of the YouGov MRP poll, a detailed constituency-by-constituency poll which predicted a reduced majority for Boris Johnson, the election is expected to be a very close-fought one.

As the Prime Minister himself stated, “This is a very close-fought election, and we need every vote. The only mathematical alternative to a working majority for a Conservative government is the real, real risk of another hung parliament. That’s another five years of confusion, chaos, dither and delay. We cannot go down that route.”

The prospect of a hung parliament could threaten PM Boris Johnson’s ability to deliver Brexit on time and will continue to put more pressure on the GBP.

YouGov poll

The YouGov poll puts the Conservatives on 43% and Labour on 34%, after gaining two points, without ruling out the possibility of a hung parliament. The survey was based on more than 100,000 interviews conducted the last six days. The result shows Johnson’s notional majority being cut from 68 to 28, with his party’s seat count falling to 339 and Labour’s improving to 231.

The YouGov poll used the MRP method (modelling technique called multilevel regression and post-stratification), which bases a result for each constituency by creating a profile for how different demographic groups might vote.

The gains for Labour come from London’s Putney and Chipping Barnet, while the Conservatives’ gains come from Labour in the Midlands and north of England.

Time is limited

According to Reuters, “Sterling’s rally will be limited even if U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson wins a parliamentary majority in the general election and finds a way to pass the withdrawal bill by Jan. 31. That’s because the clock is ticking on a trade agreement in a transition period that runs out at the end of 2020. Any longer-term economic and Brexit uncertainty can increase the chance of a Bank of England rate cut next year, which would weigh on the currency and prop up gilts.”

In the case of a Conservative Majority, the pound will continue to be under pressure due to the threat of a no-deal Brexit and the risk of reaching a trade agreement by next year. The prospect a 2020 rate cut is also real, especially with a hard Brexit and the ensuing weak economic conditions, as Market Live strategists predict.

The possibility of a hung parliament will complicate things even further, spread uncertainty and hurt the pound, while making the passing of Johnson’s deal very difficult.

Another outcome, according to Reuters, is Labour forming a government, requesting a Brexit extension and holding a second referendum, which is seen as the worst-case scenario, with the pound falling significantly.

With the release of the latest GDP figures showing that the economy has stagnated due to Brexit uncertainty, failing to grow during the August-October period, economists have criticised the ongoing Brexit chaos and the global economic slowdown. So, while the elections have temporarily boosted the pound on hopes of a Conservative majority, the long-term economic prospects appear to be grim for the economy.

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Historically, financial markets have favoured the Tory party and Conservative neoliberal and free-market economics. On the other hand, investors have disliked hard left policies that seek to protect the rights of the many at the expense of the few, such as nationalizations and wealth redistribution. It is not surprising then that Corbyn’s Labour policies would be seen by many as potentially damaging to the pound.

Here we have a look at the possible outcomes for the pound in case of a Conservative or a Labour majority, as well as some of the pledges each party has made.

Getting Brexit done

For economists, this is clear. If the result of the next general election is a Conservative majority, then the British Pound will rise. This is the most positive outcome for Sterling as it will end political uncertainty, get Brexit done, and eliminate the prospect of a Corbynite government.

In other words, a Conservative majority will enable Johnson’s deal to pass smoothly through parliament and it will help to stabilise the political and economic landscape. Markets understand that a Tory majority means the immediate implementation of Boris Johnson's Brexit deal and Brexit taking place on 31 January 2020.

In this sense, an unfavourable result will be a weak conservative win or a Labour majority. A Labour government will create uncertainty, as it will introduce a new Brexit deal to be negotiated all over again and a referendum to pass the deal, further threatening the pound.

Additionally, many argue that further uncertainty will be created if there is a Labour coalition. According to Peter Kinsella of the Swiss private bank Union Bancaire Privée, “We certainly have not priced in anything like a Labour-type coalition, and if we did, it (the Pound) would certainly be an awful lot lower. We have priced out no-deal but we have not priced in any electoral certainty yet.”

A coalition could be positive for Sterling?

However, others are more optimistic.  JPMorgan sees that a “hung parliament which delivered or held out the prospect of a softer-Brexit coalition of the left-of-centre parties (Labour/Lib Dems/SNP) might actually be GBP positive." Jordan Rochester at Nomura has also said back in May: “GBP would also benefit from Labour’s stance on Brexit being somewhat ‘softer’ than the Conservatives, especially if it forms a coalition with the SNP and Liberal Democrats. A coalition government may encourage some to argue GBP should be lower owing to the uncertainty. But the removal of austerity (leading to higher real yields) and renewed arguments as to a ‘softer’ Brexit are likely to inspire less GBP negativity as once thought.”

Taxes and spending

The Conservatives have pledged to spend more than £250m to invest in broadband, roads, the NHS, schools, roads and police. The Chancellor Sajid Javid has said that the money, which will come from the Housing Infrastructure Fund will help improve roads, schools and transport links. He said: “I have now launched an infrastructure revolution and this step-change in funding will ensure that all parts of the country benefit as we level-up opportunities. This £250m will increase the number of houses available to buy and help support people to achieve their dream of home ownership.” Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell criticised Javid's "pathetic publicity stunt announcement" and said: "When there are millions of people on our housing waiting lists and families with children living in containers, we need real change and real investment in our infrastructure, not this derisory drop in the ocean."

In terms of personal taxes, Conservatives will increase the threshold for the 40p rate of income tax from £50,000 to £80,000 and raise the starting point for national insurance (NI), which will be worth £460 per worker. The income tax will cost £8bn a year and help 2.5 million of the highest-earning employees.

Labour has not made any specific promises yet but according to its 2017 manifesto, it will increase income tax rates to 45 percent for salaries over £80,000 and to 50 percent for salaries over £123,000. They will spend £250bn on upgrading transport, energy and broadband infrastructure.

This is why, the latest newspaper headlines highlight fears of a Labour government and how wealthy individuals are transferring their money abroad before the general election, since as they stated, “If Corbyn gets in, we're sending our money to Switzerland.” Another recent article, “Super-rich prepare to leave UK 'within minutes' if Labour wins election,” shows how the UK’s richest families are preparing to shift their fortunes and make early gifts to their children in order to avoid Corbyn’s threat to tax inheritances above £125,000. Lawyers and advisers for these millionaire and billionaire clients have said that for these rich individuals, a Corbyn-led government is a bigger threat to their wealth than a hard Brexit.

Health and social care

Conservatives will spend £13bn under a “Health Infrastructure Plan” to build 40 new hospitals in England, but only £2.8bn and six hospitals will go ahead at first. Labour will increase spending which will be paid by the income tax rises on the highest 5 percent of earners and will increase tax on private medical insurance. It will create a new National Care Service for social care for those over-65s (cost £6bn), scrap prescription charges (cost £750m) and develop a state drug company to develop cheaper drugs. It will also increase GP trainee numbers in England by 50 per cent. While more is expected from Labour’s latest manifesto, the 2017 election pledge referred to £30bn in extra funding.

Brexit and NHS: “everything is on the table”

Brexit has complicated the issues of the NHS, with fears of medicine shortages in a no-deal Brexit scenario. It has also opened the possibility of negotiating new trade deals with such countries as the US. Back in June, during a press conference with the then Prime Minister Theresa May, President Trump claimed that “everything is on the table” when it comes to striking a deal with the UK, including the NHS. He said: “So NHS or anything else. A lot more than that.” Whether he meant it or not, this has now created fears that the UK would be paying more for medicines under a US trade deal and passing on costs to both patients and the NHS.

Following the comments of drug pricing expert Dr Andrew Hill on Dispatches that the US spends more per capita than the UK on medicines, something that would equate to an extra £500 million a week in the UK, Labour has used the £500 million figure in an attempt to also criticise Brexiters’ early claims of funding the NHS with £350 million a week.

It is within this context that Jeremy Corbyn accused Boris Johnson of wanting to “hijack Brexit to unleash Thatcherism on steroids.” He added: “Johnson and the Leave campaign promised to rebuild our NHS. Johnson stood in front of a bus and promised £350 million a week for the NHS. Now we find out that £500 million a week could be taken out of the NHS and handed to big drugs companies under his plans for a sell-out trade deal with Donald Trump.”

Of course, this has been denied by the Conservatives who said that it was “shameful” that Labour was spreading “lies about the NHS.”

Boris Johnson already clarified at a press conference with Trump that the NHS “is not for sale.” His health secretary Matt Hancock and trade secretary Liz Truss also said that “The price the NHS pays for drugs won’t be on the table. And the services the NHS delivers won’t be on the table.”

With no concrete evidence, Labour is using political rhetoric to set itself as the party that is committed to protecting the NHS from any such threat. For many commentators, speculation will continue as Johnson will delay the Conservative manifesto launch until just two weeks before the general election. Labour’s manifesto will be out next week after officials decide this Saturday on which policies to include.

As the election campaign heats up, and as the parties publicise their manifestos, the pound will continue to be impacted by political developments. For investors, the only thing certain at the moment, is that a Conservative government appears to be the best possible deal for the future of the pound.