I am surprised at the nonchalance in the UK personal finance scene about the fall in the pound as a result of the Brexit vote. I am not making a long-term prognosis about whether or not Brexit is a good thing, but what is incontrovertible is that it has led to a sudden drop in the pound relative to other currencies. To avoid the vicissitudes of other countries’ fortunes I am using IMF Special Drawing Rights to compare the pound with. Let’s have a definition
The value of the SDR is currently based on a basket of four major currencies: the U.S. dollar, euro, the Japanese yen, and pound sterling. The basket will be expanded to include the Chinese renminbi (RMB) as the fifth currency, effective October 1, 2016.
Since the SDRs include the pound, a fall in the pound slightly devalues the SDRs, so the picture looks slightly better than it really is for a drop in the pound 😉 If you don’t trust those cheese-eating varmints at the IMF you can see the same effect in the good ole United States Dollar down below.
A fall in the pound relative to other currencies makes us poorer than the rest of the world. We have to exchange more pounds for foreign goods – these foreign goods include most of the food we eat and the fuel we heat our homes with and put in our cars, it’s not academic. Because of lags in the distribution of goods this shows up as higher prices over time, typically over a year. I was a Remain voter so my view is that this change is a strategic impairment of the pound. This is my opinion – it is perfectly possible that the pound will rise over the coming year as the myriad delights of Brexit make themselves manifest in a cornucopia of joy. In that case my thesis is entirely wrong, and it will all come good. If you believe, nay, if you know that to be the case then save yourself the trouble and stop reading this pusillanimous piffle right now.
Let’s have a fact check – has Brexit made the pound fall?
I think that’s a yes, so far. Probably about 10% this year. It’s not the only time, we all got a hell of a lot poorer following the financial crisis. Stands to reason, we make jack shit[ref]we actually manufacture more in real terms value than we did in the heyday of manufacturing in the 1970s, but do it with far fewer people[/ref] and sell financial services, and the GFC was, well, a global financial crisis. And that’s what most of the services are, I guess.
So we took it straight between the eyes
Does it matter?
Well, Britain imports most of its food and fuel, while we focus on being clever whizzes at financial services, Ricardian advantage to the fore, eh. So you get to pay more for that food and fuel compared to people in other countries. However, there have been deflationary effects on these – the oil price has dropped since the GFC for instance. So let’s narrow this to does it matter to investors?
Well, yeah. Let’s take a look at the price of VWRL in pounds. Hmm, that’s not so bad, it actually went up after Brexit. I managed to buy some in the confusion, so I am feeling chipper, look at me, ain’t I clever?
Now if I were an American and had done that after the initial drop, I would be feeling different. Not bad, but no turbo boosters from the falling pound.
So the fall in the pound has made foreign assets dearer for me compared to if I were not buying with pounds. While that makes me think whoopee-do when I look at my ISA screen and I think hey, I am a fantastic investor. Not only did I stay the course through Brexit and even buy, I am up on the deal because all the numbers are going up, it also means something else.
I have lost my compass
I have lost my main navigational instrument, and my ISA allowance has just fallen by 10% in real terms compared to the rest of the world. So have my tax allowances, and for those rich enough to worry about such things, so has your Lifetime allowance.
Now one of the cogent arguments against this mattering is
Some commentators seem to think that there’s both a perfect level for sterling and that they know what it is. I didn’t hear wailing when sterling fell from over $1.70 in 2014 to under $1.50 in 2015. If it ends up at c$1.40 after the current turmoil, so what? No need to sacrifice our first born to Cthulhu just yet.
Well, I was wailing earlier in the year 😉 There is something up with me, I am much more nervous about the pound than most other people. It scared me in 2009 as I was shovelling money into foreign assets in my AVCs while Mervyn King was printing money and devaluing the pound. So let’s take a butcher’s hook at the GBP against USD (unfortunately I couldn’t find one for IMF SDRs going out that far)
This is not a continuous story of success, or even random noise against a mean, and it’s a headwind against UK investment – even against the Euro we are 20% down over the same period. If I’d held exactly the same portfolio as an American investor over those 12 years, I would pat myself on the back because my numbers on my screen would have risen 40% up on his. And I would be lying to myself. The truth lies somewhere in between, and we normally just don’t see that.
So I’m not saying I know what the perfect level of sterling is. Devaluation of the currency is how governments charge us for the taxes we aren’t prepared to pay for the services we demand, though this last hit can’t be blamed on the government. So while I don’t know what the level should be, I do know that it’s headed in the wrong direction, has been for years, and I’m getting poorer relative to the rest of the world if I hold cash in GBP. We will notice that in higher inflation in the years to come, particularly if the oil price continues to rise in USD. Of course Donald Trump may help us with that in November, though I suspect we may have other problems then.
It is true that long term adjustments to exchange rates are A Good Thing. It allowed the Greeks to pay themselves more and more and feel good about that while the Drachma depreciated so tourists could still afford to go there and their rice filled vine leaves were cheaper in British supermarkets in Pounds. And then they joined the Euro. Basically floating exchange rates allow you to be lazy bastards collectively relative to the rest of the world and get away with it. If somebody asks you to take a pay cut of 10% there’s hell to pay and rioting on the streets. If you get the same pay and you currency drops by 10% then there’s the same fiscal result but no rioting. Stopping that happening is the original sin behind the Euro, but that’s a fight for a different day. I am still of the opinion that the Euro will blow one day, and we may be glad of our Brexiteering spirit as blood and guts rain down in the aftermath.
Those stock market rises you’re seeing ain’t real, guys
And being less productive is what we have all just voted for, but I am surprised at the simplicity of UK investors so being chuffed at their portfolios going up. Now of course that’s a win on having sat on the cash, or worse still, having sold and then rebuying, but do the thought experiment. Say you bought your portfolio with pounds the night of the Referendum. For some reason it bounces, so you issue the same purchase order now. And it’s dearer, so you get to pay more money for the same portfolio. That is Not a Good Thing. When that happens to the price of food, petrol, Starbucks lattes, wine and German cars that won’t be a good thing either.
Which is why I wince when people celebrate on the rise in the stock market. It’s not real. Indeed, my portfolio is the highest it’s even been. My pension will be worth less, the cash I hold is worth less, yes I am richer in the ISA but poorer is so many other areas. Oh and I am stuck on an island with these guys.
Deep joy. I’m putting a hold on the champagne.