The Illusion of a Risk Premium
Many in FX markets are suggesting that there could be a lot of upside for GBP in the event of a positive Brexit outcome, which would involve either a soft version of Brexit, probably encompassing staying in the Customs Union, or possibly no Brexit at all. This idea depends on the assumption that there is some sort of political risk premium currently inherent in GBP—charts like Figure 1 have been used to illustrate this.
It’s All Relative
The problem with this idea is that it ignores the issue of actual and relative inflation. EURGBP is trading at 0.88, but 0.88 now is not the same as 0.88 in 2009. Since then, the UK has seen much higher inflation than the Eurozone (EZ), both in consumer price and producer price terms. As a result, GBP is, in real terms, effectively much higher and thus less competitive.
Furthermore, nominal yields in the UK are higher than they are in the EU, and particularly the EU core. However, this is not the case in real terms because of the combination of relatively high inflation in the UK, juxtaposed with persistently low inflation in the EZ. When we adjust the currency for the relative rise in the UK price level over time and 10-year yields for the relatively high level of UK inflation (using a 2-year average), we get a different version of the GBP/yield spread (Figure 2).
Figure 2: Tighter GBP/Yield Spread in Real Terms
Source: Continuum Economics
Real Rates Offer the Real Story
While there may still be a modest political risk premium in GBP, it is nothing like as large as the nominal chart suggests. This is important because if a positive Brexit agreement is reached, the benefits for GBP will probably be quite modest, and would be unlikely to undermine the attraction of UK equities, which remain very cheap by international standards and look attractive as long as a “no deal” Brexit is avoided.
Of course, even if there is what looks like a favorable or “soft” Brexit agreement, this is also unlikely to be the end of the story. There will still be a lot of uncertainty about the eventual shape of any trade agreement with the EU, and the political repercussions of reaching a deal could further polarize both Parliament and the electorate. So, a solution is unlikely to eliminate political risk. And if, as the real data suggests, the political risk premium embedded in GBP is in any case quite modest, the upside scope for GBP on any deal looks quite limited.