Marine Le Pen could be unlikely saviour of pound sterling battered by Brexit

Victory for the far-right candidate in France's upcoming presidential election would be bad for European financial stability and negative for growth, experts say

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The Independent Online

Political turmoil on the other side of the English Channel may give the pound an improbable respite from its Brexit-induced weakness.

A presidential-race victory for France’s National Front leader Marine Le Pen, whose opposition to the euro is one of the hallmarks of her campaign, could throw into doubt the future of the both the currency bloc and EU, and so boost sterling’s allure, according to fund managers. While polls suggest Ms Le Pen’s prospects of winning the second round are slim, investors aren’t ignoring the possibility, given 2016’s big market surprises such as Brexit and Donald Trump’s US election win.

“If we get a Le Pen outcome, that’s going to be a negative for financial stability overall and with that negative for growth,” said Mark Nash, the head of global bonds at Old Mutual Global Investors, which oversees about £30bn. “What you would see in that situation is the UK looking better than the rest of Europe. You’d have the issue of the euro zone breaking up and therefore you’d have sterling becoming a safe-haven asset essentially.”

The premium on two-week contracts to sell the euro versus the pound over those to buy widened above 2 percentage points Wednesday. That was the biggest premium based on end-of-day prices since records began in 2005, Bloomberg risk-reversals data showed.

The UK currency has fallen about 10 per cent since the 23 June vote, and currently is at about 84.78p per euro. A recovery to 75p per euro in the event of a Le Pen win “isn’t unreasonable,” according to Nash. That’s stronger than the level the pair was at on the day of the referendum.

The outcome of the French presidential election is far from certain at this point. The race is becoming a four-way contest as far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon surges to catch Republican Francois Fillon less than two weeks before voting. While polls show Ms Le Pen is unlikely to become president, markets are still showing signs of nerves. The yield spread between 10-year U.K. gilts and their French counterparts narrowed to the least since 2013 this week.

The recent out-performance in UK bonds was likely due to a “spillover from the European crisis into gilts,” according to Francesco Garzarelli, co-head of global macro and markets at Goldman Sachs International.

“We’ve lost France as a core, risk-free market because of the political situation there and so people are trying to find, in this time zone, a market that they can park their money in,” he said in a Bloomberg TV interview on Wednesday. “Gilts offer some premium.”

While a win for the euro-skeptic French politician doesn’t automatically mean a break-up for the EU, if Ms Le Pen does manage to dismantle the bloc “it is certainly good news for the UK,” which would become “a good alternative to all these economies for investment,” according to Vontobel Asset Management’s head of global flexible bonds Ludovic Colin.

Zurich-based Mr Colin has “limited risk to France in the portfolio” given the uncertainty the elections pose. His central scenario is still for a Le Pen loss which will see the euro appreciate against the pound. With that in mind his strategy is to buy volatility.

“The vol is so low that the price you have to pay for the insurance is nothing — so if you’re wrong you lose the insurance premium but if you are right you get the convexity that allows you to make a huge amount of return. That’s the sort of position we have in our portfolio right now,” Mr Colin said.

“Brexit or hard Brexit is a UK problem, France can be a global problem.”