Two main statements enunciated by UK policy makers in the past few days have sent Sterling plunging to a three-year low. The first was Prime Minister Theresa May’s revelation after weeks of speculation that Brexit negotiations will begin in early March 2017. The second is statements by UK Trade Secretary Liam Fox which many have interpreted to show a preference for a “hard brexit”, that is, leaving the EU single market altogether and trading with the EU under WTO rules.
Investors were not too happy with these developments. According to CNBC, the pound dropped to a low of 1 GBP to 1.2818 USD on Monday, almost as low as the 31-year low set in the days following the Brexit result of June 23rd. In the weeks following its Brexit low, the pound had regained some ground and appeared to stabilise somewhat around 1 GBP to 1.32 USD. The chart below from MoneyAM shows the 6-month performance of the GBP/USD.
So what does this new slump in the pound mean for UK-Caribbean trade? The majority of Commonwealth Caribbean countries have fixed currencies which are pegged to the US dollar. The Barbados dollar, for instance, has been pegged BBD$2 to US$1 since 1975. The Eastern Caribbean dollar is pegged at 1 USD to EC $2.70. This means that any depreciation of sterling against the US dollar also strengthens US-pegged Caribbean currencies against sterling.
There are both positives and negatives to this development. Let us start with the positives. As I had indicated in an earlier article, this latest drop makes British goods and services cheaper for Caribbean importers and consumers of UK products. Some of the major beneficiaries of this are students studying in the UK or doing online courses at UK educational institutions who would find their tuition is cheaper. For Caribbean persons who have been longing for that UK trip, now is the time to book your ticket!
Another upside is that a lower pound increases the competitiveness of UK exports which, ceteris paribus, bodes well for the UK economy, and by extension, those Caribbean countries like Barbados for which the UK is the main source market for tourist arrivals and a major source of foreign direct investment.
The severity of the impact will depend on the level of risk exposure Caribbean economies have to the UK economy and by extension to the fluctuation of sterling. There are several channels through which Caribbean countries can be affected economically.
Caribbean merchandise and services exports will be more expensive for UK buyers and importers. Although the US and in recent years China have replaced the UK as the top trade partners for many Caribbean countries, the UK is Commonwealth Caribbean countries’ top market in Europe. One way for Caribbean exporters to the UK to mitigate this might be to quote their UK buyers in pounds to eliminate currency risk for the buyer. The Brexit-related uncertainty could also dampen UK foreign direct investment in the region as investors adopt a “wait and see” approach.
In Barbados, British tourists comprise nearly 40% of tourist arrivals and are a major source of visitor expenditure. As this report by Deutsche Welle suggests, it is likely that Britons may choose to spend their vacations closer to home to cut down on costs. Those who do travel to the Caribbean may cut back their length of stay and/or expenditure. Recent media reports in Barbados seem to indicate that British tourists to the island are spending less.
Remittance data is quite limited. However, for countries like Jamaica and Barbados with sizable diasporas in the UK, it is not surprising that the UK is one of their major sources of remittances inflows. According to data published by the World Bank’s Bilateral Remittance Matrix, of the US$108 million in recorded remittances Barbados received in 2015, US$21 million (or a roughly a quarter) were from the UK, making the former Mother Country the island’s second largest source of remittances after the US. In Jamaica, which has a higher dependence on remittances than Barbados, $US 292 million out of the total of $2338 million that island received were from the UK. Unlike foreign direct investment, remittances tend to be counter-cyclical. However, it will now be more expensive for Caribbean-UK residents to repatriate remittances and the spending power of the money they send will be less.
The bottom line
Despite what appeared to be “buyers’ remorse” on the part of the British public in the days and weeks following the Brexit vote, Prime Minister May has indicated that “Brexit means Brexit”. Her unequivocal announcement of a firm timeline for the UK’s Article 50 notification shows that there will be no reneging on the will of the British people who voted 52 to 48% to leave.
Although several international agencies, including the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in its latest Economic Outlook, have downgraded their growth forecasts for the UK economy, the latest post-Brexit vote economic data released by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) has shown no major negative impact on the UK economy thus far. However, with fears of a hard Brexit spooking investors, my hunch is that we have not seen the last of sterling’s roller coaster ride which may intensify as trigger day draws near. Caribbean economies need to brace themselves for the continued volatility come what may.
Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B. is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.