LOOKING FORWARD to your summer holiday? Going back to that gite in the south of France that you enjoyed so much last year? Or perhaps to that hotel in Italy where you spent many a relaxing hour sipping martinis by the pool? Well, think again.
There may be no physical impediment to your heading off to sunnier climes but you may, nevertheless, bump into a major financial constraint. Compared with last year, your holiday is going to be a whole lot more expensive. Sterling has fallen by about 10 per cent against the euro. So, make sure you pour yourself a stiff drink when your post-holiday credit card bill drops on the mat. You could be in for a bit of a shock.
From an economic point of view, movements in currencies produce both winners and losers. British manufacturers may be looking at latest developments with some degree of relish. Having failed to deliver any decent productivity gains in recent years, they now stand to be bailed out by a good old-fashioned sterling decline. British workers looking forward to a nice rest after a stressful year in the office will find themselves having to pay top dollar - or should it be top euro? - for their sojourns in the sunny south of Europe.
On the other hand, Europeans will find holidays in Britain relatively cheap. Just imagine the typical French conversation: "Ma cherie, we could have our usual holiday in Biarritz but I am a little bored with it. Maybe this year we should try Margate for a change. I hear the British have a fashionable line in knotted headgear and apparently prices have come down a long way."
Perhaps I'm letting my imagination run away with me. Nevertheless, for policy makers, currency movements matter. John Butler and David Bloom, my colleagues at HSBC, last week gave warning that sterling could fall a lot further over the next 18 months, driven down by a loss of UK growth momentum, a deteriorating fiscal outlook and, of course, wobbles in the housing market.
Falling house prices provide a particularly strong case for a weaker currency: if growth is to be maintained but consumers are unwilling to spend in the light of falling house prices the most obvious way to keep things going is to switch the source of growth away from consumer spending towards exports. Of course, policy makers don't always voluntarily choose to go down this route but even when they don't, the market can force the decision upon them. Think back, for example, to sterling's departure from the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) back in 1992.
But this week I'm more interested in things from a continental European perspective. Two or three years ago, everyone knew why the euro was so weak. It was a sign of economic failure within Europe. Growth had stagnated, some countries appeared to be on the verge of recession, unemployment was persistently high and governments imposed far too many restrictions on the ability of markets to reach efficient outcomes. The US, however, was able to flourish and although there were suspicions about New Labour's predilection for red tape Britain was also able to outperform.
Yet now these arguments somehow don't stack up particularly well. Although the eurozone's underperformance against the US economy has continued over the last couple of years, this has not prevented an extraordinary recovery in the euro's fortunes against the dollar. Moreover, the eurozone has also underperformed the UK yet sterling now appears to be in trouble. Relative growth rates are clearly not the only factors that influence currency performance.
The euro's strength reflects two key factors. First, a lot of Europeans were, in effect, ripped off in the late 1990s. They bought a bunch of US assets that proved a lot less valuable than they seemed to be at the time. …