One of the reasons that steel plants have been closing in the UK rather than Germany or France, and that UK manufacturing output has fallen for the last two quarters, is the strength of sterling and the weakness of the Euro. The weakness of the euro relative to the dollar could be explained (at least qualitatively) by interest rate expectations: whenever interest rates do rise in the US, they will surely rise well before they do in the Eurozone. When domestic interest rates are expected to rise relative to overseas rates, a currency should appreciate.
The same logic could be applied to sterling. Indeed some still believe interest rates could rise in the UK before they rise in the US. If the UK looks like the US, you would expect on these grounds for the pound relative to the dollar to be roughly stable, but sterling to follow the dollar in appreciating against the Euro. To a first approximation that is what has happened.
The only problem comes if you look at the UK’s external performance. The current account deficit as a percentage of GDP has wobbled around 2% for most of this century, but in the last few years it has increased sharply, coming in at over 5% of GDP in 2014. All these deficits are taking their toll on the UK’s net financial position: twenty years ago we owned about as many overseas assets as there were UK assets owned overseas, but we are now a net debtor by an amount that will just get larger if we continue to run large current account deficits. (For more on this, see Felix Martin in the FT.)
When I calculated an equilibrium sterling euro rate in 2003, my estimate was 1.365 E/£. As current rates are close to that, and given the point about expected interest rates, what is the problem? Unfortunately there are three. First, that calculation was based on an assumption that the sustainable UK current account was balance. In other words, if the rate had stayed at 1.365 E/£, then over time and on average the current account should have been in balance. Instead we have had persistent deficits. In the early 2000s that might have been partly explicable because sterling was a little stronger than my estimate, but since the beginning of 2008 quite the reverse has been true, but we have still run deficits. That either suggests my estimate was wrong (the equilibrium E/£ rate should have been lower), or the equilibrium rate has depreciated since 2003.
Second, persistent current account deficits that weaken our net foreign asset position will in any case imply a gradual depreciation in the equilibrium exchange rate. The worse our net asset position gets, the greater the trade surplus we need to pay interest on that net debt. Third, and perhaps more speculatively, if the recent stagnation in productivity also represents a stagnation in innovation in the variety and quality of goods produced in the UK, that will also mean a depreciation in the equilibrium exchange rate.
All this suggests to me that sterling may currently be overvalued. How can I say this when there are a huge number of people in that market trying to make money from getting the ‘right’ rate? Quite simply from experience. The market is totally focused on very short term movements, and pays very little attention to estimates of equilibrium rates. When I did my equilibrium rate calculation in 2002, the actual rate was wandering around 1.6 E/£, and there was no clear reason why it should be so much higher than the equilibrium rate. So, even allowing for expectations about interest rates, it would be quite possible for sterling to be currently overvalued.