Most investors understand the importance of diversification within an investment portfolio as a way of mitigating risk, and also appreciate the need to seek out funds that aim to produce strong returns. Some investors, however, fail to take currency risk into account, which has the potential to influence the investment returns achieved.
For UK investors, the exchange rate versus the Dollar carries high importance. The US Dollar has been the dominant reserve currency since the end of World War II, and according to the International Monetary Fund, 58% of global foreign exchange reserves are held in US Dollars.
Why currencies fluctuate against each other
The relative strength of a currency against another global currency can be influenced by a number of different factors, many of which we have seen play out over the last 18 months. Perhaps the most important factor is economic and political stability, as a nation with good economic prospects and a positive environment for business is likely to attract inflows of foreign investment. This can help drive demand for that currency.
Conversely a period of political instability, as we saw last Autumn during Liz Truss’ brief tenure as Prime Minister, can lead to sustained weakness in a currency. Almost a year ago, the Pound slid sharply against many other leading currencies, and indeed the Pound very nearly fell to parity against the US Dollar at one point. Political and economic instability can drive longer term trends, too. A good example of this is the weak performance of the Pound against most major global currencies in the period following the vote to leave the EU in 2016.
Other factors that can influence the direction of a currency are generally linked to the economic landscape, with factors such as the direction of domestic interest rate policy, and prevailing and expected rates of inflation, influencing the relative strength, or weakness, of a currency. During 2023, markets have continued to price in further hikes in UK base interest rates, whereas other developed nations, such as the US, now appear to be close to the peak of their rate hiking cycle. This has led to a rally in the Pound over the course of this year; however, with UK interest rate expectations moderating of late, the US Dollar has regained some of the ground lost earlier in the year.
Currency considerations for UK investors
Some investors who invest exclusively in UK listed assets, may incorrectly assume they are immune from currency risk. The reality is that over 80% of the earnings generated by companies listed on the FTSE100 are derived from overseas, in particular through US Dollars. Whether currency weakness has a positive impact depends on how a company derives its’ earnings and profits. A UK listed company that earns much of its’ income from overseas (such as HSBC or BP) will welcome a weak Pound, as those overseas earnings, when translated back to Sterling, will look more attractive. Weak Sterling, on the other hand, will hamper the prospects of companies that import components or products, as the weak exchange rate will mean the costs of importing goods increases.
One of the ways currency risk can be reduced is by hedging, and some funds actively choose to hedge their currency exposure back to Sterling. This can be seen as an insurance, as this removes the potential for currency movements to impact investment returns, and is achieved by holding complex financial instruments such as swaps or futures. Other globally diversified funds choose not to hedge, therefore aiming to generate additional returns through currency appreciation. Whilst such currency calls can amplify investment returns achieved from the portfolio, a wrong decision can lead to returns looking less attractive.
Some argue that hedging is not important, and good levels of natural hedging can be achieved by building a portfolio of global Equities funds, as the investor will be exposed to a number of different currencies which will help offset some of the currency risk. Furthermore, as returns from Equities tend to be stronger over time, the impact of currency fluctuations will have less bearing on returns achieved. For a Bond investor, the impact of currency movements can be much more severe as returns are more predictable over time. For this reason, the majority of Sterling Bond funds that invest overseas in global Bonds, will hedge returns back to Sterling, thus reducing or eliminating the additional currency risk.
The prospects for Sterling
The FAS Investment Committee actively monitors currency movements and the impact these will have on our investment decisions. For example, returns achieved from our unhedged allocations to US Equities were boosted by the weak Pound during 2022. Whilst the Pound has regained some of the lost ground during the first half of this year, we have seen the US Dollar strengthen once again over the last month, and we feel this trend could continue. Should the US Dollar find further strength, this is likely to boost returns from global Equities and reinforces our view that holding a portfolio of global Equities could achieve strong returns as we move towards the end of this year and into 2024.
Currency risk is an area that many investors overlook, although good levels of global diversification can help reduce the need to actively hedge currency exposure in a portfolio.
Speak to one of our experienced planners here if you would like to review your current investment portfolio.