The History of the Australian Dollar (Aussie)

In today’s article, we continue our series on the History of Currencies, with a particular focus on the popular carry-trade currency: the Australian Dollar. According to the BIS Foreign Exchange Turnover, the Aussie stands at the 5th position (straight after the British pound) in terms of volume with a daily average of 348 billion US Dollars (which represents 6.9% in percentage shares of average daily turnover).

This article is organized as follows. In the first section, we quickly introduce some important historical events for Australia and its currency. In section 2, we explain the trends and reversals of the Australian Dollar (versus. USD) since the end of the Bretton Woods system in addition to stating the main potential drivers of the currency pair. In Section 3, we quickly present a few [practical] charts using the Aussie for our case study.

I. Important events in Australia and the history of the Aussie until the end of the Bretton Wood System (1971)

A. Origins and History

From being the land of the indigenous Australians (60,000 years ago) to becoming a Federal Constitution on January 1st 1901, Australia attracted the interest of many conquerors. But the two main European explorers were the Dutch (Willem Janszoon, 1606) and the British (James Cook, 1770).

Despite the first European settlement taking pace in the late 1788 at Port Jackson in New South Wales (Sydney today), the latter colony experienced money shortage for the next three decades as the British [Empire] was challenged by France under Napoleon, investing large amounts of capital and resources to win. Hence, the mean of exchange (what today could be called ‘Store of Value’ or ‘Reserves’) during that period was Rum.

Then, the first coinage issuance happened in 1813, after Lachlan Macquarie (Governor of New South Wales) took the initiative of using 10,000 British pounds worth of Spanish Dollars received by the British government. The plan, that took a year to complete, was to convert the 40 thousand imported coins to 39,910 holey dollars (coins with a hole inside) and 39,910 dumps. Then, in 1817, the Bank of New South Wales (first bank in Australia) was established to provide economic stability for the citizens of the state, and started to issue paper currency.

Eventually, Sterling coinage was introduced in 1825 in all British colonies as a result of the Coinage Act 1816 (British Gold Standard) and the decline in the supply in Spanish dollars due to Latin American wars of independence, and the Holey dollar went out of circulation in the late 1820s (no longer legal tender in 1829). Due to a large increase in the population, and a rejection from Britain to the requests from Australian colonies to make gold coins, unofficial gold coins were used during the Victorian gold rush of the 1850s. Then, in 1855, Australia’s first official mint was established in Sydney, and started to produce gold coins called sovereigns (worth 1£), half sovereign and private bank notes.

B. Australian Pound, Gold Standard and WWI

After the Federation in 1901, Australia started to prepare for a national currency as the government started to realize the importance of a stable currency regime. Hence, in 1910, the Australian pound was born, consisting of 20 shillings. As the Australian pound was pegged to the British pound, Australia was therefore on a Gold Standard. If we look at the bilateral exchange rate against the US Dollar, we know from Figure 1 that the British Pound was roughly worth 5 units of USD, hence the USD/AUD exchange rate at that time was fixed at $5.

In 1914, Britain temporally exited from the Gold Standard as a consequence of WWI, creating inflation pressures, but returned to it in 1925 at the parity. As the exchange rates (both the British and Australian Pound) devaluated during and after the War, the sharp revaluation of the two currencies reduced exports drastically and raised deflationary waves resulting in both an increase in the unemployment rate and a contraction in productivity (See Australia Terms of Trade history in Figure 2 (Gillitzer and Kearns, 2005)).

Australia left the Gold Standard in 1929 due to the Great Depression and started a series of devaluation against the Sterling pound. All we know is that in December 1931, a Sterling pound was then worth 1.5 Australian pound. Between 1929 and 1932, the sharp contraction of the terms of trade as a result of a fall in commodity prices severely impacted the Australian economy. The unemployment rate soared to over 20 percent in the early 1930s (Figure 4), leaving hundreds of thousands of Australians out of work, and the country’s national income declined by 30 percent.

The devaluation of the currency and the improvement of major trading partners’ economies (United Kingdom and US) led to a slow recovery, with improvement in the Balance of Payment and an unemployment rate slowly converging to its long-term mean (5 percent) thanks to an explosion in the manufacturing sector.

C. World War II and Bretton Woods period

As we described in our article History of the British Pound, an agreement between the US and UK pegged the Sterling pound to the US Dollar at a rate of $4.03 in 1940. That exchange rate remained fixed after the start of Bretton Woods agreement in 1944, but UK Chancellor of the Exchequer Sir Stafford Cripps announced a 30-percent devaluation from $4.03 to $2.80 in September 1949. At the same time, Australian Prime Minister Ben Chifley followed the British move and devalued the Australian pound from $3.224 to $2.24 in order to not experience an over-valued currency relative to its Sterling zone countries. That means during all that period (before and after the devaluation), the Australian pound was worth 1.25 per unit of Sterling pound.

D. The Birth of the Australian Dollar (and the RBA)

After several names suggestions for the currency (i.e. royal, austral, koala, digger…), the Australian pound was eventually replaced by the Australian Dollar in 1966 (February 14th), almost 6 years after the establishment of the Reserve Bank of Australia (i.e. Australia’s current central bank). The rate of conversion was set at two [Australian] dollars per unit of Australian pound, which means that the Australian Dollar was worth US $1.12. The UK government of Wilson announcement of a 14-percent Sterling depreciation against the US Dollar (from $2.80 to $2.40, see figure 1) didn’t impact the Australian Dollar, which rate remained pegged to the US Dollar at a rate of $1.12.

II. The trends and reversals of Cable since the End of the Bretton Wood System in 1971

Note that all the periods and important events are marked in Chart 1 (see end of article).

A. The Nixon Shock and the Smithsonian Agreements (1971 – 1973)

After the Nixon Shock in August 1971, the Australian Dollar was revalued several times against the US Dollar, from its starting point at $1.12 to a historical high of $1.488 in 1974. Unlike many countries that decided to let their currency float at the end of the Smithsonian Agreements in February 1973, Australia tried to keep its exchange rate fixed (against the greenback).

B. 1974 – 1986: A Decade of Depreciation

The deterioration of the terms of trade in the mid-1970s (See Figure 2), coming from a change in economic circumstances in addition to a strong exchange rate (even versus booming economies such as Japan and Germany), led to a series of exchange rate devaluations. The first one occurred in September 1974, when the Australian Dollar was devalued by 12 percent to $1.31. The second one happened in November 1976 when the Government decided to devalue the currency by 17.5 percent, and the Aussie reached a low of $1.0160 after that announcement. The pair consolidated in the late 1970s and early 1980s to reach a high of $1.19 in January 1981, thanks to an investment boom in 1980 and 1981 following the 2nd oil shock in 1979. However, the recession that hit most the OECD countries in the early 1980s (due to the Oil Shock) reduced drastically the demand for Australia’s minerals and energy, and the inflationary pressures generated by the wage explosion of 1981-1982, both led to a perception that the Australian Dollar was starting to be overvalued. The Australian Dollar then started a two-year depreciation against the greenback, and ended its fixed regime area by a 10 percent devaluation in March 1983, when PM Bob Hawke came to power and announcement the third big depreciation in hope of spurring the export sector.

C. 12 December 1983: From a Crawling Peg to a Floating Regime

In March 1983, one unit of Australian Dollar was worth roughly 85 cents of US Dollar. The exchange rate again consolidated until the end of the year and in December 1983, the Aussie Dollar was floated and foreign exchange controls were dismantled [during the night on December 12].

In the last few years before moving to a floating regime, the Australian Dollar was pegged to the Trade Weight Index (see computation of the TWI Index in Table 1) and the value of the exchange rate was determined each day by the RBA in consultation with the government. The reason of the float move was mainly to improve the efficiency of the financial system, in addition to providing the authorities better control over domestic monetary policy (Blundell-Wignall et al., 1993).

The change in the policy resulted in a sharp appreciation of the volatility of the Australian Dollar [both bilateral exchange rate and TWI], adding pressure on the commodity currency. The exchange rate experienced significant losses against the US Dollar, reaching a low of $0.5960 in August 1986.

D. 1986 – 1989: The Aussie Strength

When it comes to Australia, the terms of trade has always been one of the fundamental drivers of the exchange rate, which is strongly correlated to commodity prices. As a result of a 50 percent increase in commodity prices between 1986 and 1989 (due to a strong increase in the world’s demand), Australia terms of trade increased from 52 in Q3 1987 to 63 in Q3 1989, hence pushing up the exchange rate USD/AUD from $0.5960 to $0.8960. During that period, Australia was experiencing an investment ‘boom’, a strong business confidence and rising national savings. Concerned about the sustainability of this economic ‘boom’ and RBA policymakers started to run a tightening monetary policy as a response to ‘deflate’ the asset price inflation wave.

E. 1990s: Weak global demand, low commodity prices and the Aussie depreciation

The US recession in the early 1990s, Japan’s beginning of the deflationary deleveraging decade in addition to the 1990s Financial Crises in Nordic Countries have decelerated global demand, impacting commodity prices and therefore shrinking Australia’s term of Trade. According to the Bloomberg Commodity Index (BCOM), commodity prices fell 42 percent between Q2 1997 and Q2 1999 (chart 2). During that same period, the Aussie depreciated by roughly 20 cents against the US Dollar, dropping from $0.80 to $0.60.

F. 1998 – 2002: The Dollar appreciation (Aussie Weakness)

As we discussed in our previous articles on FX history, the turn of the millennium was expressed by a US Dollar strength against the major currencies (we saw it with the Euro, Sterling pound and the Yen). The second part of the 1990s was characterized by the famous Clinton Dollar rally, where the USD index increased from 80 in early 1995 to 120 in early 2002 on the back of significant productivity gains, budget surpluses and capital inflows in the equity market (and especially tech stocks).

During that period, USD/AUD went down from $0.65 to hit a historical low of $0.48 in late 2001.

 G. 2002 – 2008: Global Demand and Super Cycle

The emergence of China (and other emerging market economies known as the BRICs) at the turn of the millennium led to a sharp unanticipated increase in commodity prices (see chart 2, Super Cycle), with the BCOM Index rising from the low 90s in early 2002 to almost 240 in July 2008, which resulted in a levitation of all commodity currencies. The Australian Dollar increased from its record low of $0.48 to $0.9850, more than doubling its value during those 6 years. If we look at the chart of the USD/AUD overlaid with the BCOM index (chart 2), we clearly an important correlation between the currency pair and commodity prices.

In a recent publication, Ferraro, Rogoff and Rossi (2015) showed that there exists a relationship between changes in the price of a country’s major commodity export price and changes in the nominal bilateral exchange rate for short frequency time series (daily data).

During that period, investors were also chasing the carry trade strategy, one of the most popular strategy in FX, where a typical trade would involve borrowing the currency with the lowest interest rate (such as the Japanese Yen) and investing in the currency with the highest interest rate (i.e. Australian or New Zealand Dollar).

H. July – December 2008: Risk-Off, Carry Unwinds and Aussie Crash

In the second semester of 2008, the Aussie experienced significant depreciations against the safe-heaven currencies, such as the US Dollar, the Japanese Yen and the Euro. For instance, between July and October 2008, USD/AUD went plummeted from $0.985 to 60 cents ($); more surprisingly, the Aussie depreciated almost 50 percent against the Yen, JPY/AUD went down from 104.50 to 55 during the same period.

We will talk more about the potential explanations behind the crash in our case study (Section 3), but one important thing to understand is that investors typically look at the Aussie as a risk-on asset and the currency tends to be highly correlated with equities in general. Hence, when economies plunge into recessions, equities typically fall, and so the Aussie (Chart 4).

I. 2009 – 2013: Commodity recovery and an overvalued Aussie

In reaction to the Financial Crisis, central banks lowered their interest rates down to record levels (zero bounds) and started a series of outstanding purchases of assets (QE). The recovery was immediate in commodity prices (Oil surged from 40 in 2009 to over 110 in 2011), which was one of the key drivers of the Aussie strength during that period. Note that Australia is perceived as an export driven economy: according to the World Bank, it exports totalled $190bn in 2015, with Iron Ore ($37.5bn) and Coal ($30.2bn) being the top-2 earners, with China ($62.3bn) and Japan ($$30.7bn) accounting for roughly 50 percent of the exports (see Picture 1).

Australia is also the beneficiary of a ‘double Chinese dividend’. In addition to export goods and commodities to the giant China, the shiny coasts are trending destinations for Chinese tourists. Hence, we can state that this after-crisis period was saved by Chinese demand.

On the top of that, Australia was offering a higher interest rate that developed economies; the cash rate in 2012 was 3.5%, while it was 75bps, 50bps and 0bps in Europe, UK and US respectively. It was also the only economy not to fall into a recession after the Financial Crisis in 2008, and is one of the few countries left with a triple-A rating. One interesting fact about Australia is that the last recession happened in 1991, and the country is on its way to surpass the Netherlands and its 26 consecutive year of economic growth (between 1982 and 2008).

The problem (or the curse) of all export-driven economies in periods of booms is how to deal with a strengthening currency. Thanks to its mining industry (primary industry and contributor of the country’s economy), Australia has experienced several episodes of mining boom in its history, bringing interest of foreign investors in both the country’s assets and currency, which tend to result in a currency appreciation. A mining boom resulting in a real exchange rate appreciation is what economists have called the ‘Dutch Disease’ as a persistent strong currency tends to have a negative effect on exports and various import-competing industries.

Therefore, when the Australian Dollar started to trade above parity against the greenback, there were many talks of an overvalued currency, from 20 to 30 percent above its historical mean according to some economic models.

J. May 2013 and beyond: QE Taper, End of the Super-Cycle and the Freefall of the Aussie

 On May 22 2013, the announcement of a potential “QE Taper” by Fed chairman Ben Bernanke triggered a sudden spike in volatility, with an aggressive sell-off in the emerging market. As a reminder, the Fed had been on a $85bn monthly purchase program since December 2012 at that time. Hence, the sudden comments from US policymakers created a little panic in the market that we now refer as the Taper Tantrum. Della Corte, Riddiough and Sarno (2016) worked on global imbalances and currency prermia, showing that debtor countries issue riskier currencies and offer a [currency] risk premium to compensate the risk in high periods of volatility.

Following those comments, the Aussie Dollar experience a 16 percent devaluation between May and September 2013, which was the start of a bear trend in the commodity currency. The fall in commodity prices in 2014, which analysts called ‘the end of the commodity super-cycle’, in addition to the 2014 Dollar rise and lower expected growth rates printed by China, pushed down the Aussie to a low of $0.68 in the beginning of 2016 (the same time when the front-month WTI oil contract was trading at $26 per barrel).

Since then, USD/AUD experience a consolidation, up north 10 cents mainly due to a US Dollar weakness over the past 7 months. As you can see on Chart 3, commodity prices have been steady over the past with Oil (WTI) trading at mid-40s.

III. Case study: The Aussie and the Carry Trade

The carry trade is one of the most popular strategies in the currency market, and simply consists in borrowing the currency with the lowest yield (i.e. the Yen) and invest in the currency with the highest yield (i.e. the Aussie). Chart 4 represents the JPY/AUD spot rate overlaid with the SP500 Index between 2002 and 2012. As you can see, the carry strategy during all that period was heavily correlated to equities, which tells you that you should treat carry trade currencies like a risk-on asset (i.e. equity), and that risk-on assets [all] tend to do bad in periods of rising volatility (i.e. VIX). Hence, a traditional long-equity investor who thought he was diversified by holding a carry trade portfolio experienced significant drawdowns during the financial crisis. The SP500 Index plummeted from 1,300 to 800 when the JPY/AUD exchange rate fell almost 50 percent in the summer 2008.

There is a vast amount of literature on carry trade and currency crashes; for instance, Brunnermeier, Nagel and Pedersen (2009) showed that carry trade strategies are negatively skewed, and that this skewness is due to sudden positions unwinding (carry traders are usually very leveraged). Hence, we now say that carry trade strategies ‘go up by the stairs and down by the elevator’.

In my opinion, the JPY/AUD chart is one of the (if not the) most important chart in Finance, and especially for short-term investors like myself. Every morning, I start my day with a coffee in front of the JPY/AUD, to see if something happened overnight. In Chart 5, I plotted a 5-minute history data of the JPY/AUD (black line) overlaid with the SP500 index (purple line). We can clearly see that a higher JPY/AUD is usually accompanied by a higher stock market; a sort of Pavlovian response of Cheaper Currency = Higher Equities. Hence, an positive overnight momentum on the Aussie Yen (i.e. Yen depreciation) is a good signal for the economy, and can be usually translated by ‘nothing serious happened in Asia’ (either China, Japan or Australia). However, a strong  Japanese Yen appreciation, like the one on August 28th / 29th in our chart, isn’t usually representative of a positive signal in the market, and equities tend to be red in Asia, Europe and US usually. My typical reaction would be to see what happened in Asia. This time, the Yen Strength was due to the headline of North Korea firing ballistic missile over Japan. Big {negative] overnight moves are usually link to disappointing Bank of Japan meetings, Australia lowering interest rates or a Chinese Yuan sudden devaluation.

Chart 1. USD/AUD exchange rate history (Source: Reuters)

AussieHist

Chart 2. USD/AUD spot rate (candlesticks) and the BCOM Index (line) (Source: Reuters)AussieBCOM

Chart 3. USD/AUD spot rate (black line) and the Oil prices (WTI, red line) (Source: Reuters)

AussieOil.PNG

Chart 4. JPY/AUD spot rate (candlesticks) and the SP500 Index (red line) (Source: Reuters)AussieSPX.PNG

Chart 5. JPY/AUD (5-min) spot rate (black line) and the SP500 Index (purple line) (Source: Reuters)AUDJPY.PNG

Figure 1. USD/GBP exchange rate since 1971 (Source: Bank of England)

GBP.PNG

Figure 2. Australia Terms of Trade History and Real TWI (Source: Gillitzer and Kearns, 2005)

Picture 1. Aussie Exports for 2015 (Source: OEC)Aussie Exports.PNG

A History of the British Pound

In today’s article, we will provide a recap of the history of the British Pound. According to the yearly BIS Foreign Exchange Turnover published in April 2016, the British pound is part of the G10 currencies and is the fourth most ‘traded’ currency with a daily average of 649 billion Dollars. Its percentage share of average daily turnover stands at 12.8%, and its two main ‘counterparties’ are the US Dollar ($470bn) and the Euro ($100bn).

Note that the exchange rate $/£ [or USD/GBP] is also called Cable, a term that derives from the advent of the telegraph in the mid-1800s. Transactions between the British pound and the US Dollar were executed via a Transatlantic Cable, and the first exchange rate was published in The Times on August 10th 1866.

This article will be split in two parts; the first one [briefly] retraces the origin and the history of Sterling until the End of the Bretton Woods system in 1971, and the second part explains the trends and reversals of Cable in addition to stating what I believe were the main drivers of the currency pair (from 1971 to today).

I. Origin and History of the Sterling pound between the mid-700s and the end of the Bretton Woods system (1971)

A. Quick history recap

Considered to be the oldest living currency in the world, the pound is 1,200 years old and was born in the latter half of the 8th Century, when silver pennies were the main currency in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms. The name [Sterling] pound (or Livre sterling in French) comes from the Latin word Libra Pondo, which means pound weight.

Back in the 8th century, 240 silver pennies represented one pound of weight and it was not until 1489 (under Henry VII) that appeared higher denominated coins with the first pound coin. Then, paper notes began to circulate after the establishment of the Bank of England in 1694, the world’s second oldest central bank (after the Sveriges Riksbank, the Swedish central bank). The Bank of England started as a ‘private company’ with the immediate purpose of raising funds for King William III’s war against France (issuing notes in return for deposits).

Even though there is an infinite amount of [inspiring] work on the Bank of England and the British currency, I am going to move directly to the 19th century when the British pound became the world’s reserve currency for a century after the Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in June 1815 (Foreign Exchange Reserves, Image 1). Great Britain arose as the leading exporter of manufactured goods and services and the largest importer of food and industrial raw materials. Between the mid-1800s and the outbreak of WWI in 1914, 60 percent of the global trade was invoices and settled in British pound (B. Eichengreen, 2005). London became the world’s financial capital in the late 19th century and the export of capital was a major based for the British economy until 1914. As foreign governments were seeking to borrow in sterling, British financial institutions established branches in the colonies and colonial banks opened offices in London. In 1913, Sterling’s share in the Official Foreign Exchange Assets stood at 48%, above Francs (31%) and Marks (15%) according to Lindert’s calculation (1969).

B. WWI outbreak and its consequence on the UK (and Sterling)

Although the US economy surpassed the British economy in size [in real terms] in 1872 (Gheary-Kamis, 1990), the important switch occurred in the early 1910s:

  • the US became an net creditor while the became a net debtor
  • and more importantly, the Federal Reserve was established in 1913 (December 23rd), with the enactment of the Federal Reserve Act

At the outbreak of WWI, the gold standard was suspended and restrictions were placed on the export of gold, which obviously had a negative impact on the British pound (vis-à-vis the US Dollar) as we can see it on Chart 2a. Prior to and during most of the 19th century, one pound was roughly worth 5 US Dollar (Chart 2b), with some ‘turbulence’ in 1860s due to the American Civil War.

Severe inflation (20%+), lack of demand, a high unemployment rate (above 10%) in addition to a 25-percent drop in economic output between 1918 and 1921 launched the Great Depression in United Kingdom at the end of WWI, which last for two decades. The pound first plummeted from $4.70 to $3.50 during that 3-year period before swinging back to its prewar levels (at $4.87).

C. ‘In between’ the Two Wars

The pound ‘rebound’ in the early 1920s (Chart 2a) could be explained by the political desire to maintain the value of Sterling at a ‘high’ rate (i.e. prewar levels) to give Britain an [economic] successful image to the rest of the World. In order achieve that, the UK had to run contractionary fiscal and monetary policy (Image 2a), which increased interest rate differentials (i.e. attracted savings in Britain) and pushed the UK inflation rate below the US one. As the US inflation rate was already very low at that time, the UK was experiencing deflation at that time (Image 2b).

Then, in 1925, Britain re-adopted a form of Gold Standard where the exchange rate was determined by the relative values of gold in the two countries, with a fixing at 4.86 US Dollar per unit of Pound. This Gold Standard ‘return’ was considered to be disastrous (Churchill’s biggest mistake as he was serving as the Chancellor of the Exchequer at that time), as it resulted in persistent deflation, high unemployment rate that led to the General Miners’ Strike of 1926. The UK was stuck in the debt vicious spiral; running a contractionary fiscal and monetary policy during a deflationary recession was increasing both the amount of UK debt in real terms and its burden (high interest rate increased the cost of borrowing). This led to a Balance of Payments issue, and led to a run on the pound. On the top of that, the Wall Street Crash and the beginning of the Great Depression put the British economy under intense pressure, which eventually came off the Gold Standard in September of 1931. In the year that followed, the British pound dropped to lower lows to around 3.25 against the US Dollar. However, as Barry Eichengreen noted in his paper Fetters of Gold and Paper, countries that came off the Gold Standard early (i.e. UK) did better [or less worse] than the countries that remained on it for longer (i.e. US). After a 3-year [1930-1932] pronounced deflationary period in the US (Image 3), rapidly rising prices in the summer of 1933 (after the US went eventually off the gold standard on June 5th 1933) eased the ‘strain’ on other countries and kicked off the dollar depreciation. The British pound rapidly recovered its losses and surged to a new high of $5 by 1934 (Chart 2a). The pound remained afloat and oscillated at around $5 until 1939 and the outbreak of WWII. This depreciation (which brought back the British pound to its low of 3.25 against the greenback) was mainly due to uncertainty around the outcome of the war, as fundamentals were expected to deteriorate very quickly (output collapse, a rise in inflation) indebting the British economy even more.

D. World War II and Bretton Woods period

In 1940, an agreement between the US and UK pegged the pound to the greenback at a rate of $4.03 per unit of pound. This exchange rate remained fixed during WWII and was maintained at the start of the Bretton Woods system (Chart 2a). British emerged from WWII with an unprecedented debt of nearly 250 percent as a share of GDP (most of it owned to the US) with ‘strong’ currency, a [much] less dominant market in terms of competitiveness and a degrading balance of payments (Hirsch, 1965). Despite the soft-loan agreement (a 3.75 billion-dollar loan to the UK by the US negotiated by JM Keynes at a low 2% interest rate with repayment over fifty years) to support British overseas expenditure post WWII, the British pound remained under intense pressure. Chancellor of the Exchequer Sir Stafford Cripps eventually announced a 30-percent pound devaluation from $4.03 to $2.80 in September 1949.

However, the devaluation was not enough as the following two decades were characterised by persistent balance of payment problems and led to the Sterling crisis of 1964-1967. The UK was forced to seek assistance from the Bank of International Settlement and the IMF more than once. Despite persistent current account deficits and a deteriorating balance of payments in 1964-1965 (Image 4), UK officials didn’t react (i.e. devalue) as they argued that devaluation would severely strain Britain’s relations with other countries when the main holders of sterling would begin to withdraw their balances from London and also threaten the international monetary system (Bordo & al., 2009). The pound weakness persisted in 1966 and 1967, covered by lines of credit received by other central banks (i.e. swaps with the NY Fed) and the IMF. But the government eventually ceded and PM Harold Wilson announced that the pound would be devalued from $2.80 to $2.40 on Saturday 18 November 1967. It then remained at that level until end of Bretton Woods.

II. The trends and reversals of Cable since the End of the Bretton Wood System in 1971

Note that all the periods and important events are marked in Chart 1 (see end of article).

A. The Nixon 1971 Shock and Smithsonian Agreements (1971 – 1973)

In addition to signing the Smithsonian agreement at the December 1971 G10 meeting, where the US pledged to peg the dollar at $38 an ounce (instead of $35 during BW) with 2.25% trading bands (instead of 1 percent), the UK also agreed to appreciate their currency against the US Dollar. The pound was worth $2.65 by the end of the first quarter 1972.

B. 1973 – 1976: a rough start

However, it did not take too long for troubles to ‘come back’ in the UK and the pound experienced a series of speculative attacks in the mid-1970s. Cable hit a low of $1.5875 in the last quarter of 1976 and the UK had to call the IMF to counter persistent runs on Sterling. This loan was followed by a series of austerity measures, which helped reduce inflation and improve the economic activity, hence boosting the pound in the second half of the 1970s.

C. 1976 – 1980: US inflation and the Dollar depreciation

The positive UK-US carry trade due to low interest rate run by the Fed in the mid-1970s (as a response to the post first-oil shock recession) gave birth to a four-year shining period for Cable, which recovered by 54% to hit a high of $2.45 in the last quarter of 1980.

D. The V shape of the 1980s

I like to describe the 1980s as a V-shape curve for Cable as there were two major trends during that period. As a result of the second oil shock caused by the Shah revolution in Iran in 1979, oil prices doubled in the following year leading to a sharp increase in inflation in the US in 1979-1980 (peaked at 15% in the first quarter of 1980). In order to reign in the double-digit inflation, Fed chairman Volcker reacted immediately by orchestrating a series of interest rate hikes that levitated the Fed Funds target rate from 10% to nearly 20%. Even though the dramatic increase in interest rates caused a painful recession and a surge in unemployment rate (11%) in the US, it eventually led to international capital inflows as high [real] interest rates became attractive to foreign investment. What followed was a severe appreciation of the US dollar vis-à-vis the major currencies; Cable lost more than half of its value and hit a historical low of $1.0520 in the first quarter of 1985 (Chart 1). This Dollar Rise under the Reagan administration was a problem for the US economy as the current account fell into substantial and persistent deficit (Image 5a). In addition, the US was also running large budget deficit of 5%+ during the same period (Image 5b), which put the country in a twin deficits anomaly and caused considerable difficulties for the American industry (i.e. car producers, engineering and tech companies…).

Therefore, in order to re-boost the US economy, the Plaza Agreement was signed in New York on September 22nd 1985 and France, Japan, West Germany and the United Kingdom agreed to depreciate the US Dollar by intervening in the currency markets. This decision created a secular change in the financial market and immediately reversed the 5-year bull momentum on the US Dollar. The Pound reacted and appreciated roughly 80 percent in the following three years. I am not sure if the [financial] sentence ‘Don’t fight the central banks’ came from this decade, but I think it is a good example to show you how much effect a central bank cohort move can have on the market.

E. 1988 – 1992: the volatile period

We saw a consolidation between 1988 and 1989 to $1.51 after Margaret Thatcher’s Chancellor of the Exchequer Lord Lawson decided to unofficially peg the British pound to the German Mark (UK wasn’t in the Exchange Rate Mechanism yet (Image 8, green period). This caused inflation, a credit bubble and a property boom that eventually crashed in 1989-1990 followed by a recession.

Cable started to recover in the first quarter of 1990 as the interest rate differential increased preference for the British pound (Chart 3). In the middle of 1989, the Federal Reserve began to run a loose monetary policy in order to boost the US economy weakened by the Savings and Loan crisis of the 1980s and 1990s. Fed’s chair Alan Greenspan decreased the Fed Funds rate from 9.75% in March 1989 to 3% in September 1992 to boost productivity (Chart 3). Cable double topped at [perfect] resistance $2.00, a first time in Q1 1991 and a second time in Q3 1992.

It is also important to note that during that time, the Conservative government (Third Thatcher ministry) decided to join the Exchange Rate Mechanism on October 8th 1990 (Image 8, grey period), with the pound set at DM2.95.

16 September 1992: Black Wednesday and ERM exit (Source: Inside the House of Money)

Also called [another] Sterling crisis, the British government was forced to withdraw the Pound Sterling from the ERM on that day, sending the pound into a free fall. Cable tumbled by 30% from [Q3 92] peak to [Q1 93] trough. But what really happened then?

As we mentioned before, the UK tardily joined the ERM in 1990 at a central parity rate of DM2.95 and a trading range band of +/- 6 percent. The exchange rate was arguable judge too strong by many economists at that time, therefore the overvalued currency in addition to high interest rates and falling house prices led the country into a recession in 1991. It became difficult for UK officials to maintain the value of the Pound at around its target against the Deutsch Mark. Meanwhile, Germany was suffering inflationary effects from the 1989-1990 Unification, which led to high interest rates. Therefore, despite a recession, the UK was ‘forced’ to keep interest rates high (10% in September) to maintain the currency regime. Speculation began and global macro traders (i.e. Soros) increasingly sold pounds against the Deutsche Mark. To discourage speculation, UK Chancellor Lamont increased rates to 12% on September 16th with a promise to raise them again to 15%. However, traders continued to sell British pounds, as they knew that increasing rates to defend a currency during a recession is an unsustainable policy.

Eventually, on 16 September 1992, the UK government announced that it would no longer defend the trading band and withdrew the pound of the ERM system. The pound lost 15 percent of its value against the DM in the following weeks and traded as low as DM2.16 in 1995.

Even though we usually do our analysis of a specific currency vis-à-vis the US Dollar, I thought it was important to mention the presence of the Deutsch Mark as it explained Cable’s depreciation in 1992 and 1993.

F. 1993 – 1998: the Dull period with shy Sterling Gains

After the ERM exit, it was dull period for the USD/GBP, Cable oscillated around $1.60 with a shy little upward trend (i.e. shy GBP gains) helped by the small interest rate differentials and a series of trade balance surpluses. It looks like the $1.70 psychological resistance was hard to break between 1996 and 1998 and the Pound traded within a ‘tight’ 10-figure range during these years.

One important event during that period was that the Monetary Policy Committee was given operational responsibility for setting interest rates in 1997 with one [only] mandate: maintain a 2-percent inflation rate in the long run. Traditionally, the Treasury set interest rates.

G. 1999 – 2002: The Sterling Depreciation

 As we saw for the Euro (and the Yen at a lesser extent), the turn of the century was marked by a Dollar appreciation between 1999 and 2002. Cable lost a bit of steam during that period and spent a lot of time flirting with the $1.40 support in 2000 and 2001 (it even hit a low of $1.37 in Q2 2001). I have not found any supportive literature to explain this downward bias, but it is not absurd to assume that some of the dollar strength came from a surge in the equity market capitalization in the US – with the Tech Boom – and potentially a higher productivity than in the United Kingdom.

H. The 2002 – 2008 GBP appreciation (or US Dollar depreciation)

The US Dollar started to tumble in late 2001 / early 2002, which was the beginning of a 6-year bull period for Cable. The exchange rate went north 50% and reached a high of $2.11 in the last quarter of 2007 (with a small consolidation in 2005). The (inflation-adjusted) trade-weighted dollar exchange rate (i.e. see REER) steadily depreciated, falling by roughly 25 percent (Image 6). During that period, US was printing persistent twin deficits: Current Account deficits print a high of 6 percent in 2006 (Image 7a) while Budget deficits were ranging between 2 and 3.5 percent as a share of GDP (Image 7b). In addition, the Fed decreased interest rates to 1.75% after the 9/11 attacks and then to 1 percent in 2003, helping the government to roll its debt at lower costs and finance the Iraq War (total cost to the United States was at 3 trillion USD according to Stiglitz and Bilmes, 2010).

I. 2008: Financial Crisis and the Risk-Off aversion

The British pound saw a massive depreciation in 2008 due to the risk-off sentiment and the sudden demand for Dollars; Cable tumbled 36%+ from [Q4 2007] peak of $2.11 to [Q1 2009] trough of $1.35. In the early 21th century, Sterling had lost its reserve currency for a long time, so when asset prices took a massive hit in 2007-2008 the pound did too. The two currencies that acted as ‘strong’ safe-havens were the US Dollar and the Japanese Yen. This raised an interesting debate on whether countries should have huge amount of debt (denominated in their local currency) in order to have a currency that acts as a safe-haven in harsh period. When you think about it, the two safe-havens are the currencies of the two most indebted nations ($20tr for the US and $11tr for Japan, as of today).

The UK was sharply impacted by the crisis; to give you an idea, the pound’s [36-percent] fall vis-à-vis the US Dollar wasn’t even enough to make up for weakening foreign demand. It took the country’s economy 6 years to come back to its pre-crisis level (summer 2014, ONS), with a debt-to-GDP ratio that soared from 51% in 2008 to 89% in 2014.

Bank of England’s answer: Like many other central banks, the BoE slashed rates from 5 percent in the beginning of 2008 to 0.5% in Q1 2009 (the lowest since the BoE establishment in 1694). In addition, the Bank of England press the QE bottom like in the US and created £375bn of new money between 2009 and 2012.

The series of measures adopted by central bankers brought back interest in the Sterling pound, considered to be ‘cheap’ or undervalued relative to its peers. Cable regained 50% of its value in three quarters and hit a high of $1.71 during the third quarter of 2009; however, the recovery wasn’t very long as the Sovereign debt crisis emerged in Europe (at that time is was Greece) and impacted the British economy (and its currency) as well.

J. 2011 – summer 2013: the other dull period

Bizarrely, the British pound wasn’t affected too much during the [second] EZ sovereign debt crisis between Q3 2011 and mid-2012. For almost two-and-a-half years, Cable traded around $1.50-$1.60 with pressure on the downside in the beginning of 2013. The pressure came after it lost its top AAA credit rating for the first time since 1978 on expectations that growth would ‘remain sluggish over the next few years’. At that time, traders were starting to predict that Cable would retest its 1.40-1.4250 support range as the Pound was clearly not a hot currency in the beginning of 2013. In addition, investors were also starting to look at the Euro’s momentum after the buy-on-dips that followed Draghi’s ‘Whatever it takes’ in July 2012.

Despite the UK weakness, the British pound didn’t fall to further levels as it was ‘saved’ by a dovish Fed and a US Dollar in the coma. In the last quarter of 2012, Bernanke announced a further round of QE with monthly purchases totalling $85bn (of Treasuries and MBS) in order to boost productivity. This prevented the British pound of depreciating too much and raise interest in the cheap Euro at that time.

K. August 2013: New BoE Governor Mark Carney took office and the Pound experienced a fantastic year

In the summer of 2013, Marc Carney left the Bank of Canada to take over Mervyn King’s place as the new Governor of the Bank of England. Then, what followed was a series of good news and positive fundamentals in the UK; the British pound switched from the no-interest status to traders’ favourite currency (with the Euro, there were the market’s Darlings). Cable soared from its $1.48 lows to hit a 6-year high of $1.72 with market participants pricing in a sooner interest rate hike. Cable’s good driver of that one-year bull period was the increase in implied rates [looking at the short-sterling futures contract]. Moreover, Britain was the fastest-growing major economy in 2014, printing an annual growth of 2.9% (surpassing the US and its 2.4%).

L. Summer 2014: the Dollar wake-up and the start of a Bear currency market for the Pound

As I already wrote it in a previous post on the UK, the last positive words on the British economy came out of Carney’s mouth during a speech he gave at the Mansion House on June 12th 2014 (the same night of the kick-start of the World Cup in Brazil). He said that the UK was on a positive momentum (i.e. fundamentals were good) and hinted that the Bank of England may rise rates sooner than the market expected. At that time, I remember that the futures market was pricing in a 25bps hike by the end of Q4 2014.

However, everything vanished a few weeks later and more and more participants were starting to notice that the British pound was showing signs of ‘fatigue’ and that a consolidation was coming. In addition, May 2014 was also the announcement of the ‘Euro’s Death’ and that the single currency expected depreciation may spur an overall Dollar strength. And it happened… According to the DXY index, the Dollar strengthen by 25 percent against its main trading partners between July 2014 and March 2015. Cable tumbled from a $1.72 to $1.4635 during that same period.

In early 2015, most of the market participants was pricing in another 15 to 20 percent increase in the Dollar on expectations of the Fed starting a tightening cycle (taking the two previous Dollar Rally that we described earlier as empirical data: the Reagan Rally in the beginning of the 1980s and the Clinton Rally that occurred in the late 1990s).

2016: The Brexit effect and monetary policy divergence

After a brief pause in 2015 as the Fed halted its tightening cycle [due to the sharp sell-off that occurred in the beginning of 2016], Cable continued its bear market against the US Dollar in 2016 on speculation of a Brexit Yes vote first (in favour of leaving the EU), and then on the concretisation of the Yes vote (52% in favour of Brexit) following the referendum held on June 23rd. The pound traded below the 1.20 level against the greenback after the announcement, its lowest level in 21 years, and remains currently under pressure as Brexit uncertainty will continue until Article 50 gets triggered.

BoE answers to Brexit

After four years of status quo [and hints of potential rate hikes], the Bank of England announced a new round of QE in August last year targeting £60bn of monthly purchases (of which £10bn of corporate debt) and cut its Official Bank rate by 25bps to 0.25%. With the Fed now [seriously] reconsidering starting a tightening cycle after a first hike last month and three potential rate increase in 2017 (DotPlot Gradual Path), the monetary policy divergence between the US and UK and the political uncertainty in Europe (and UK) will weigh on the pound in the near future.

Chart 1. GBPUSD historical monthly candlesticks since 1971 (Source: Bloomberg)

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Chart 2a. Cable historical rate 1915 – 2013 

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Chart 2b. Cable historical rate since 1791

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Chart 3. UK Official Bank Rate (Red Line) versus US Fed Funds Rate (White Line)

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Image 1. Reserve currency status (Source: JP Morgan)

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Image 2a. UK Budget deficit in the 1920s (Source: ONS)

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Image 2b. UK Inflation Rate in the 1920s (Source: ONS)

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Image 2c. UK Unemployment Rate in the 1920s (Source: ONS)

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Image 3. US Annual Inflation in 1930-1939 (Source: BLS)

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Image 4. UK Current Account in the 1960s (Source: Trading Economics)

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Image 5a. US Current Account in the 1980s (Source: Trading Economics)

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Image 5b. US Budget Deficits in the 1980s (Source: Trading Economics)

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Image 6. US Dollar REER (Source: OECD)

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Image 7a. US Current Account in the 2000s (Source: Trading Economics)

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Image 7b. US Budget Deficits in the 2000s (Source: Trading Economics)

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Image 8. Exchange-rate regimes for EU members starting 1979 (Source: Wikipedia)

Purchasing Power Parity: A quick introduction

After the familiar introduction on PPP (Big Mac Index), we can start by introducing Rudiger Dornbusch’s NBER Paper on PPP published in March 1985. In his working paper, Professor Dornbusch states that the PPP theory of exchange rate has ‘the same status in the history of economic thought and in economic policy as the Quantity Theory of Money (QT)’. The QT version most commonly used is the Fisher Identity (Economist Irving Fisher in his book The Purchasing Power of Money) defined by:

M.V = P.T, where

M = Money supply, or stock of money in coins, notes and bank deposits

V = Velocity of circulation

P = Some measure of the Price level (i.e. CPI)

T = Volume of Transactions in the economy

1. Historical context
The notion of purchasing power parity PPP can be traced to the 16-century Spanish Salamanca school, but the protagonist of the theory is the Swedish Economist Gustav Cassel. During and after WWI, he observed that countries like Germany or Hungary a sharp depreciation of the purchasing power of their currencies in addition to hyperinflation. Therefore, he proposed a model of PPP that became a benchmark for long run nominal exchange rate determination.

2. Statement of the PPP theory:
Let Pi and Pi* be the price of the ith commodity at home and abroad respectively (both in local currencies) and e the exchange rate. Let P and P* represent the price level at home and abroad.

In an integrated, competitive market (no cost for transport and no barriers to international trade for the good), the concept is based on the Law of one Price where identical goods will have the same price in different markers when quoted in the same currency.

For unless Pi = e.Pi*        (1)

There will be an opportunity for profitable arbitrage.
Arbitrage:  Recall that arbitrage is the possibility to make a profit in financial market without risk and without net investment of capital. A portfolio π has an arbitrage opportunity if there exists T > 0 such that Xo = 0, Xt >= 0 (P – a.s.), P(Xt > 0) > 0.

For instance, if Pi < e.Pi*, then an arbitrageur will buy the good domestically for Pi, sell it abroad for Pi* and realize a risk-free profit as Pi*.e – Pi > 0. Such arbitrage, purchasing the cheap good and selling it where it is dear, would continue until the equality (1) held.

As we said, equation (1) states that the price of the ith commodity must be the same in both markets (i.e. two different countries, for instance US and UK). The Equation is known as Commodity Price Parity (CPP).

Example: Let’s say that the price of one ounce of gold sold in London is 846 GBP, whereas it is sold of for USD 1,290 in New York. If we apply equation (2), we can conclude that the implied rate for Cable (GBP/USD) is 1.5248 (as a result of 1,290 / 846).

Limits:  As we all know, in the real world, CPP may not hold for different reasons:
– Transactions costs (transportations costs, insurance fees)
– Non-traded Goods: items such as electricity, water supply, or goods with very high transportation costs such as gravel.
– Restraints of Trade
– Imperfect Competition

3. Purchasing Power
In an economy with a collection of commodities, ‘purchasing power’ is defined in terms of a representative bundle of goods. We evaluate purchasing power by constructing a price index based on a basket of (consumption) goods.

3.1. Absolute purchasing power parity
Let P = f(p1,…, pi,…,pn) and P* = g(p1*,…,pi*,…pn*) be domestic and foreign price indices.
Then, if the prices of each good (in dollars) are equalized across countries, and if the same goods enter each country’s market basket with the same weights, then Absolute PPP prevails.

e = P/P* = ($ price of a standard market basket of foods) / £ (price of the same standard basket)     (2)

If pi / pi* = k for i = 1,…,n , then

e = P/P* = k     (3)

There can be no objection to equation (2) as a theoretical statement. However, as we mentioned it earlier (limits), objections arise when equation (2) is interpreted as an empirical proposition (Tariffs, transportation costs make it difficult for the spot prices of a commodity i to be equal in different location at a given time).

Strong (Absolute) PPP implies that whatever monetary or real disturbances in the economy, the price of a common market of basket of goods will be the same, i.e. P/e.P*=1.

3.2. Relative Purchasing Power Parity
The relative version of PPP restates the theory in terms of changes in relative price levels and exchange rate: e = C. P/P*,

where C is a constant that reflect the trade obstacles. The difference in the rate of change in prices at home and abroad – difference in the inflation rate – is equal to the percentage depreciation or appreciation of the exchange rate:

ê = π – π*   (4)

where ^ denotes a percentage change, π – π* the inflation differences between two markets (i.e. countries) reflected in percentage changes in the exchange rate. For instance, if the inflation rate is π = 2% in the US and π* = 1% in the UK, then the British Pound (GBP) should appreciate by ê = π – π* = 1% against the USD.
Prices in the US are rising faster than in the UK, therefore UK exports are becoming more competitive (compare to US ones), raising importers’ interest. This should generate a higher demand for GBP (relative to USD), hence sending Cable (GBP/USD) higher.

Equation (4) was applied by Gustav Cassel to an analysis of exchange rate changes during World War, as according to PPP, the fair value of an  exchange rate between two countries is determined by the two countries’ relative price levels.

4. Opening
Since the early 1980s (after the collapse of Bretton Woods), advances in econometrics and longer time series covering the period of floating exchange rates were two important developments in the new generation of fair value models. The next article will focus on the two dominating families of currency fair values widely used today: the Behavioural Equilibrium Exchange Rate (BEER) models and Underlying Balance (UB) models adopted for flexible exchange rates.

References:

Dornbusch, Rudiger (1985), “Purchasing Power Parity”. NBER Working Paper No. 1591.

Isaac, Alan G. Lecture in Purchasing Power Parity.

Jerry Coakley and Stuart Snaith (2004), “Testing for Long Run Purchasing Power Parity”.