Lost interest?

What do England’s exit from the World Cup and a pending interest rate decision have in common?  |  Since Mark Carney hinted that UK interest rates might rise by the end of 2014 in his Mansion House speech on the 12th June, Sterling has strengthened, reaching a peak against the Dollar last seen in 2009. By the end of the week, Sterling had slipped back slightly and the debate had focused again on how this would affect the enduring problem of UK growth: that without a seismic shift in the productive, and hence export, capacity of the economy, any chance of sustainable recovery remains in the hands of Britain’s consumers. In essence, this is the same as leaving the chances of getting out of the group stages of the World Cup to Italy or Costa Rica. And we all know what happened there.

It is a mistake to think that interest rates changes are going to make much difference to exports at all. For example, the correlation of the USD-GBP spot with exports is only 0.41 while for the GBP-Euro rate it is 0.46. Similarly imports are only 0.38 correlated with the USD-GBP spot and 0.56 correlated with the GBP-Euro spot. In other words, don’t expect interest rates to make much difference to trade at all.

The mystery is why anyone should be surprised at this. Figure 1 shows the two currency spot rates (USD per Pound Sterling and Euro per Pound Sterling) against the one-month Libor rate.



Figure 1  |  The USD-GBP and GBP-Euro spot price, Last Price Monthly, June 2001-May 2014

Source  |  Bloomberg


Over the time period, the volatility in base rates is relatively clear to see, as is the dramatic drop in interest rates to near zero as a reaction to the financial crisis. The substantial reduction in the value of Sterling against the dollar and the Euro between 2007 and 2009 can also be seen. And although there has been a slight improvement in the value of Sterling against both currencies over the past 12 months, this is both independent of interest rates, since these have not changed and, more importantly, in no sense a recovery to the pre-crisis levels. What is interesting about Figure 1, however is the fact that the relationship between interest rates and the value of Sterling against the Euro is much stronger at -0.80 compared to short term interest rates against the value of the US dollar against Sterling, where the correlation is 0.64. In other words, UK interest rates are more likely to provoke a sharper correction of Sterling against the Euro than they are against the dollar.

But whether or not this will impact trade is debatable. Figure 2 shows the historical relationship between short term interest rates and trade over the period since 2001.



Figure 2  |  The Value of UK exports and imports (USDm) versus short term base rates, June 2001-May 2014

Source  |  DeltaMetrics 2014, Bloomberg


Mark Carney is clearly correct to think he can gamble on raising interest rates and it having a minimal effect on trade: the correlation of short-term base rates with exports over the period is -0.18 while for imports it is -0.25. While this is, of course, purely for illustrative purposes, it points to something that economists have suspected for a while of UK trade: that a change in interest rates that leads to a change in the value of the currency will have little or no impact on levels of trade. There has been a near 25% reduction in the value of Sterling since 2008; there has not been a commensurate increase in trade.

Figure 3 illustrates how the Terms of Trade have changed against the value of Sterling against the Euro and against UK base rates.



Figure 3  |  UK Terms of Trade versus GBP per Euro spot, Last Price Monthly, June 2001-May 2014

Source  |  DeltaMetrics 2014, Bloomberg


There is a strong correlation over the period between the strength of the pound against the Euro and the terms of trade of 0.75. In other words, if Sterling strengthens, then the terms of trade over the period will also improve: exports will become more expensive relative to imports. This would almost be a truism were it not for the fact that the equivalent correlation with the Dollar is 0.18 – i.e. there is practically no relationship at all. So why would there be such a difference between the two exchange rates?



Figure 4  |  Why UK trade with Europe is more vulnerable to a change in interest rates

Source  |  DeltaMetrics 2014


First, Europe accounts for 43% of UK goods trade and the US 10%. The UK’s top sectors are medicines, oil (crude and refined), cars and turbo-jet engines and turbines. The US is the biggest destination for both pharmacueticals and turbo jets engines and turbines, and the third and second largest destination for crude and refined oil respectively. Nevertheless, thirteen of the top 3 export destinations for Europe’s top five products are in Europe, helping to explain why the value of Sterling against the Euro is more important than it is against the dollar to UK trade.

Second, the USD-GBP rate is used more for speculation. Across the piece, its correlations with trade are weaker: the Euro is a trade-based currency so Sterling’s value against it is determined by trade rather than by speculation. This may make UK export trade itself more vulnerable should interest rates rise.

Relying on small-scale and incremental interest rate changes is likely to have little impact either on the value of Sterling or on the UK’s trade. The reason for putting up interest rates is usually to quell inflationary tendencies by making the cost of borrowing more expensive. In this case, the goal will be to dampen pressure on house prices which may create unsustainable growth in the UK economy.

But look again at Figure 2 and the trend in exports since September 2011. The values are actual historical values of trade and while the seasonal fluctuations in trade are clear, what is also obvious is a downward pressure on the value of UK exports in US Dollar terms. In other words, we are already seeing disinflationary tendencies affecting the value of UK exports. If interest rates do go up, this puts further negative pressure on inflation, which could create similar downward pressure on UK export prices in spite of a strengthening currency. The danger then would be of deflation brought on by the very instrument that was meant to be a cure: interest rates.

As a recent leader in the Financial Times* pointed out, the issue is one of a large productivity gap between the UK and the rest of the world, particularly the US and Germany. This weakens our manufacturing trade position and, arguably, makes UK exports uncompetitive not in price terms but in terms of the added value embodied in our high-end manufactured goods.

As was pointed out in a previous Trade View, the correlation between skills and UK trade is low at just 0.54 compared to figures of between 0.94 and 0.98 in the US, Germany and India and unless this gap can be closed, our progress towards global high-end competitiveness will be restricted by our productivity base. Like the post World Cup inquest, maybe we should be looking at the drivers of our own weak performance and not at the dominance of foreign players in our markets.


* Leader (June 13th 2014) | ‘Carney’s journey from dove to hawkFinancial Times


Be wary what you wish for

Why the anti-European protest movement is missing the point | As the dust settles from last week’s European Elections one thing will be quite clear: there is a real momentum behind anti-establishment and Euro-sceptic protest parties across the continent.  From the “Alternative für Deutschland” (AfD) party promoting Germany’s exit from the Euro, through the Front Nationale in France, to UKIP (UK Independence Party) advocating the UK’s exit from Europe altogether, the mistrust in established politicians is manifest.  Beyond the clear fact that voters are frustrated with national politicians, the core of Euro-sceptic sentiment is rooted in anger, indeed frustration, at the failure of Europe’s politicians to create economic security for its voters because of the tortured recovery from the financial and sovereign debt crisis, perceived threats to job security from immigration and a failure of European institutions more generally.

As Europe and the UK’s mainstream politicians start to re-calibrate their dialogue with the electorate about Europe, they would do well to focus on trade, not least because one of the two founding principles of the European Union was free trade between Member States.

Trade is central to understanding why European Union is important.  First, take the country with the most vocal advocates of European exit, the UK.  Trade with Europe was worth an estimated £301bn to the UK economy in 2013 and the Centre for European Reform (CER) estimates that some 30% of the UK’s total trade is reliant on membership with the EU.  Second, there are signs that economic conditions in Europe are improving: our forecast for European trade has risen from a negative forecast for 2014 three months ago to a flat growth forecast (-0.08%) now reflecting an improvement in underlying drivers of trade included in Delta’s model, including lower market volatility, improved GDP and greater migration which improves the downward pressure on trade of aging populations.

Europe remains a long way from sustained growth, still less rapid growth, but there are positive signs of internal rebalancing since Mario Draghi’s commitment to “do whatever it takes” to ensure that the Euro did not collapse.  But while Mr Draghi concentrated on the need for the ECB to shore up the Euro as required, the Delta Economics view is that Europe’s longer-term solutions lie in its international competitiveness represented through its external trade balance.  Figure 1 shows why we see this as the case.



Figure 1 | The Value of EU 28 and Eurozone trade (USDm) versus the USD per Euro exchange rate, Lat Price Monthly, June 2001-April 2014


What is remarkable about the relationship between the value of Europe’s and the Eurozone’s exports and the USD-Euro currency spot price is the strength of the correlations: 0.86 NS 0.87 respectively.  In itself, this helps to explain why, even at the depth of the sovereign-debt crisis there was never a serious or sustained run on the Euro.  The currency is a trade currency and this means that it is less vulnerable to speculative volatility.

Similarly, European markets are also highly correlated with EU28 and Eurozone trade.  Taking the DAX as a proxy, the correlations are 0.76 and 0.75 respectively, as illustrated in Figure 2.




Figure 2 | The value of EU 28 and Eurozone Exports (USDm), June 2001-Dec 2016 versus the DAX Last Price Monthly, June 2001-April 2014


Figure 2 shows a weaker correlation with the value of the Euro since mid 2011 for the Eurozone reflecting the sovereign debt crisis, the relationship between  EU 28 trade and the value of the Euro has remained strong, suggesting that the DAX reflects the economic fundamentals of trade to a greater extent than does, say, the FTSE 100.

Figure 3, which shows the relationship between the value of the UK’s exports to the EU and shows that, although the relationship is weaker (correlation of 0.69) the UK’s trade relationship with Europe is an important driver of market sentiment.




Figure 3 | Value of UK exports to the EU (USDm), June 2001-Dec 2016 vs FTSE 100 Last Price Monthly, June 2001-April 2014


What all this suggests is that the value of the Euro and key European stock markets are highly linked with European trade generally and UK trade with Europe in particular.  The UK’s trade with Europe is even reasonably correlated with the value of the DAX at 0.64.  In other words, markets can use trade statistics as a proxy for underlying fundamentals and react accordingly. Indeed, unlike the S&P 500, which appears to have gone in the opposite direction to trade recently, European markets seem to reflect European trade quite closely.  The conclusion? That Euro-sceptic political parties do not need to worry as much as they thought about economic mismanagement if a focus on long term growth, competitiveness and trade can supersede the shorter-term focus on austerity and rebalancing over time.

During the course of the next year, however, Europe’s politicians need to worry about the consequences of a potential UK exit from Europe, following the proposed referendum should the Conservatives win the next election.  The debate will focus around the benefits to the UK of European membership and a cursory look at the correlations between the USD-Euro, Sterling-Euro and Sterling-Dollar spot prices confirms that the value that the UK extracts from its EU in currency terms is far less than the value that the EU gets from its trade with the UK.



Figure 4 | Why Europe matters to the UK
Source | Delta Economics (Estimated proportion of trade dependant on EU – Centre for European Reform)


The correlations are much stronger between UK trade with Europe and the value of the Euro than they are for the value of Sterling, particularly against the Euro where the correlation is minimal.

This is hardly likely to have an impact on the average British voter, however, and, far from suggesting that the UK’s trade with Europe is valueless in currency terms, the fact that the correlations are weaker simply illustrates how the value of Sterling is more volatile in response to market sentiment rather than economic fundamentals.  Actually, as Figure 4 suggests, the value to the UK economy of trade with Europe is significant and, if the UK were to exit from the EU then the country would lose some £425bn, or over £6,000 per head of population in lost export trade value by 2022.

More than this: our forecasting model suggests that trade is highly correlated with skills, at some 0.98 across key countries in the European Union, the US and India.  In other words, across the developed and the emerging world, higher skills lead to more trade.  Here the UK has a gap with its European competitors: the skills component of trade is actually mildly negatively correlated with trade itself at -0.30 where it is 0.98 in other European countries.  In other words, the bulk of UK trade is currently not skills dependent and on the face of it may actually benefit from having lower skills (and hence lower costs) associated with it. Similarly innovation is only mildly positively correlated with UK trade at 0.35.

Two other countries with skills and innovation correlations like this are Brazil and China suggesting that the UK could easily lose out to lower cost nations if the bulk of its trade remains at this lower value end unless it can find cheaper ways of producing the same goods. Reports in May suggested that migration may actually have a positive effect on trade by reducing costs.

But there are two significant issues with assuming a low cost-low skill trade base for the UK is adequate. The first is one of principle: the UK should remain competitive at the higher value end of goods trade where innovation and skills are highly correlated with trade and where cost is less important. It is imperative that it increases the innovation component of its trade and recruits people with the skills to work in an innovative and international environment.  The second is one of practicality: if the UK is to find the people to take these roles, then it will have to compete with the rest of Europe as well as emerging economies like India which have high correlations of trade with skills and innovation. Accessing wider skills and innovative capacity through immigration is a central pillar of a strategy to build high-end competitive.  For example, Germany, having identified skills shortages in its productive and exporting base a decade or longer ago, now has its highest net-migration since 1993.

If Europe’s economy is improving, the benefits of trade to individual member states so great and the benefits of migration in skills and innovation terms so clear, Eurosceptics would do well to remember to be wary what they wish for.