A set back for the pound

The multi week rally in the pound (GBP) has hit a snag as the currency has failed to extend gains above its recent highs around 1.66 against the dollar (USD).  The surprising fall in UK retail sales, with sales dropping by 0.6% from April compared to expectations of a 0.3% increase, dealt GBP another blow.   Sales were down 1.6% from a year earlier.  This is bad news for those that had believed that the UK consumer was enduring the economic downturn with some resilience. 

The reality is that the recovery in the economy will be a bumpy ride.  Whilst there have been some signs of improvement in the economy it is by no means a broad based pattern.  I would warn at getting too carried away with recovery expectations.  There have been clear signs of strengthening in both manufacturing and service sector survey data but they still only point to a gradual recovery in the months ahead. 

Moreover, some UK housing market indicators have pointed to early signs of recovery but a lot of this is due to a lack of supply and at best the housing market is entering a period of stabilisation.   Despite the signs of economic stabilisation the British Chamber of Commerce (BCC) cut its forecasts for the UK economy to -3.8% this year compared to a previous forecast of -2.8%.  

Meanwhile, UK banks continue to restrain credit and may even need more equity capital on top of the $158 billion in capital already raised according to Bank of England governor Mervyn King in his Mansion House speech.  He also warned about a “protracted” economic recovery. The good news is that the BoE is in no rush to take back its aggressive monetary easing and £125 billion asset purchase plan, but unless banks pass the benefits of this onto borrowers the fledgling recovery could stall quite quickly.   

The desire not to act quickly to reverse monetary policy was echoed in the minutes of the June BoE meeting, which revealed a unanimous 9-0 vote to maintain the status quo on policy.  The minutes also noted that the near term risks to the economy had lessened but monetary policy committee members remained cautious about the medium term prospects.  It is likely that the BoE will take several more months to gauge how successful policy has been. 

All of this highlights that GBP will be vulnerable to periodic bouts of profit taking and reversal.  Its ascent from its lows against the USD below 1.40 has been dramatic and rapid.  I believe that much of its gain has been justified especially as it had fallen to extreme levels of undervaluation.  Moreover, aggressive policy actions, both on fiscal and monetary policy, suggest that UK economic recovery will come quicker than Europe. This implies that GBP will at the least continue to recover against the euro (EUR) despite the weak retail sales induced set back.   

I also look for GBP to extend gains against the USD over coming months, with GBP/USD likely to end the year in the 1.70-1.80 region rather than low 1.60s where it is now. Market positioning leaves plenty of scope for GBP short covering over coming weeks adding further potential for recovery.  GBP appreciation will not continue in a straight line however, but set backs going forward should be looked upon as providing opportunities to rebuild long positions.

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