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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 March 2019

UAE expatriates wait for 'optimal time' to buy falling pound amid Brexit turmoil

British residents are hanging on to their dirhams as they expect the UK currency to plunge even further

Swedish national Edward Hartung is now considering abandoning plans to purchase a buy-to-let property in the UK.  Reem Mohammed/The National
Swedish national Edward Hartung is now considering abandoning plans to purchase a buy-to-let property in the UK.  Reem Mohammed/The National

This has been another disastrous year for the pound, and another great opportunity for dollar-earning British expatriates in the UAE to take advantage by sending money home at hugely attractive rates.

They have another opportunity right now, after Prime Minister Theresa May controversially pushed back the vote this week on her unpopular Brexit deal to as late as January 21 next year.

However, British residents living in the UAE now face a tough decision: should they send money home at today’s attractive exchange rates or wait a little longer in hope of getting an even better deal if the crisis worsens?

Dubai-based Brit Bradley Simpson, 51, who works as an insurance broker, has decided to wait longer. “We are sending UAE dirhams into an offshore account but aren't converting them into sterling yet," he says. "Instead, we are waiting for the optimal time, because we think all this has further to run, and the pound could have further to fall.”

Conservative MPs will hold a no-confidence vote on Prime Minister Theresa May later today that will see her removed as party and government leader if she loses.

The pound plunged on the news then recovered as May pledged to fight the challenge “with everything I have got”. Markets are betting she will win, which would protect her from a leadership challenge for 12 months, increasing hopes of a softer Brexit and driving up the value of the pound. However, if she loses, sterling could plummet as the Conservatives may replace her with a more hardline leader who could push the country into a "no-deal" Brexit.

Earlier this week, Mrs May pledged to return to Brussels to secure assurances the UK will not be locked into the controversial backstop that could keep the UK in an indefinite customs union, even as European Council leader Donald Tusk warned that European leaders will not renegotiate the deal.

This will only prolong the agony for the British and their beleaguered currency, while extending the currency transfer opportunity for expats.

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Britons Calum McKie, 53, and his wife Angela, who are moving back the UK in March to enjoy semi-retirement after 15 years in the UAE, are also keeping a close eye on developments. “We are holding out to see how low the pound is going because there could be some bargain prices in the coming weeks and we want to take advantage if the pound drops lower," says Mr McKie.

It isn't hard to see why expats are watching and waiting, because the pound looks set to continue its slide and if it does, they will reap the rewards.

At time of writing, £1 bought $1.26, and Gaurav Kashyap, head of futures at Equity Global Markets in Dubai, says sterling could fly in either direction from here. “If Brexit negotiations go badly the pound will come under immense selling pressure and could move to around $1.23, or even $1.20.”

Source: Bloomberg
Source: Bloomberg

At $1.26, somebody sending $100,000 to the UK would get £79,365. If it slipped to $1.20 they would get £83,333, an extra £3,968.

Mr Kashyap says that in the event there is a deal, the pound could fly to $1.33 and beyond, but this looks highly unlikely at the moment.

He says it is far more likely that the pound will continue its decline as the uncertainty stretches into 2019, although Brexit is not the only issue here.

The US Federal Reserve is expected to hike interest rates three or four times next year and this will strengthen the dollar. “I would suggest waiting and watching as opportunities to buy GBP at even more favourable exchange rates should prevail through the first three months of 2019," says Mr Kashyap.

However, he also acknowledges there is a risk in hanging on as the pound would rise rapidly if some kind of deal was struck.

Steve Cronin of DeadSimpleSaving.com, warns that watching currency movements too closely can be bad for your mental health. Antonie Robertson/The National
Steve Cronin of DeadSimpleSaving.com, warns that watching currency movements too closely can be bad for your mental health. Antonie Robertson/The National

Steve Cronin, founder of DeadSimpleSaving.com, a non-profit site helping people invest their money sensibly by themselves, warns that watching currency movements too closely can be bad for your mental health, especially in volatile times like these. “The fate of the pound hinges on Brexit and never has the outcome been so uncertain. If we crash out of the EU with no deal, sterling will tank. If we stay in the EU, it is likely to recover rapidly.”

Nobody can say with any certainty which option it is going to be. “If you are converting money into GBP, then you better have a good reason, for example, you are purchasing something there or moving back within the next five years," says Mr Cronin. "If you are buying the pound purely because it seems low against the dollar, then you are speculating on currencies and should be careful.”

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Many expats who plan to retire in their home country build a retirement pot in the local currency and Mr Cronin advises them to send regular monthly sums rather than trying to time transfers. “Mentally, it’s hard enough dealing with stock market movements, let alone worrying about currency fluctuations as well.”

You can further reduce the uncertainty by using a currency transfer service to lock into a fixed exchange rate for a year or two, he adds. Now would certainly be a favourable time to do that.

Matthew Harries, an expat living in Dubai for 10 years who works in the financial services industry, sends regular sums back to the UK and is happy to accept the prevailing spot rate as he believes the ups and downs of currency fluctuations even out in the end. “There are times when rates are more favourable but instead of trying to be opportunistic your priority should be to create a regular savings habit to build your retirement pot.”

Tuan Phan, a board member of SimplyFI.org, says speculating whether the pound will drop further is not a good idea. Antonie Robertson/The National
Tuan Phan, a board member of SimplyFI.org, says speculating whether the pound will drop further is not a good idea. Antonie Robertson/The National

Tuan Phan, a board member of SimplyFI.org, a non-profit community of UAE investment enthusiasts, agrees that British expats should transfer money home on a regular basis whenever they have a bit of cash to spare. “No one truly knows what the currency will do next week, let alone next month or year so speculating whether the pound will drop further is not a good idea.”

Whether you are sending money home to pay off debt or invest for retirement, delaying can work against you, Mr Phan warns. “The sooner you pay down debt the better, as this will reduce your interest payments. Similarly, if you delay investing your money you will miss out on compound growth. The losses from waiting for the pound to possibly slide further could be much greater than the possible currency gains if it does.”

Guy Bradshaw, head of residential sales at UK Sotheby’s International Realty, says the biggest winners at the moment are those buyers eyeing up London property from overseas. “Cancelling the vote has seen the pound take a huge tumble, sitting at its lowest point in the last 18 months.”

While some expatriates will see this as a buying opportunity, others have given up on the UK altogether.

Swedish national Edward Hartung, 30, had been exploiting sterling weakness to build funds in the UK and invest in a buy-to-let property, but now he is having a rethink. "The UK is simply too high risk at the moment, and I am playing safe by investing in Sweden instead. Being a landlord in Sweden is not as attractive but at least I don't have to worry about Brexit.”

Millions of Britons, both in the UAE and the UK, are wishing they could say the same thing.

Updated: December 12, 2018 06:33 PM

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