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Chart of the week: UK International Reserves

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 13 Apr 2022

We take a look at the UK’s official international reserves that are held to safeguard sterling and support monetary policy.
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Our chart this week is on the UK International Reserves, which comprise foreign currency securities and deposits, gold, investments in the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and other financial instruments primarily used to manage sterling as a national currency and support monetary policy.

As illustrated by the chart, the combined total of UK government and Bank of England international gross reserves was £175bn at 31 March 2022, comprising £101bn in foreign currency securities and deposits, £36bn invested in the IMF, £15bn in gold and £23bn in other financial instruments. This was offset by £109bn in liabilities to arrive at net reserves of £66bn.

According to the Bank of England, the £101bn in foreign currency securities consisted of £75bn in bonds and notes issued by foreign governments, £15bn in foreign government money market investments, £6bn in foreign central bank deposits and £5bn in private sector securities. The £36bn invested the IMF comprises £6bn in IMF reserves (effectively the IMF’s share capital) and £31bn in Special Drawing Rights (SDRs), a government-specific financial asset underpinned by a basket of currencies (US dollar, Euro, Chinese Yuan, Japanese Yen and sterling). The UK government also owned or had rights to 9,976,041 fine troy ounces of gold worth £15bn on 31 March 2022, while other financial instruments of £23bn included £20bn of claims against counterparties on account of reverse repo transactions.

Reserve assets were offset by £109bn in liabilities, comprising loans and securities used to finance reserve assets, repo obligations, and derivative financial instruments including foreign currency forwards, cross currency interest rate swaps and sterling interest rate swaps.

Not shown in the chart is the split between the UK government’s net reserves of £66bn, consisting of £151bn in gross assets less £85bn in liabilities, and the Bank of England’s approximately zero net reserve position, consisting of £24bn in gross assets (£12bn in foreign currency securities and bonds plus £12bn in other financial instruments) less £24bn in liabilities.

The Bank of England manages both its own foreign currency reserves, used to support its monetary policy objectives of controlling inflation, and the UK government’s international reserves, most of which sit in the Exchange Equalisation Account established in 1932 to provide a fund that can be used, when necessary, to regulate the exchange value of sterling. In normal circumstances the Bank of England’s main objectives in managing the reserves are to ensure the liquidity of sterling, the liquidity and security of the reserve assets themselves, and to ensure the reserves are managed in a cost-effective way.

In normal circumstances, the reserves are not used to actively intervene in foreign exchange markets, but are kept ‘in reserve’ on a precautionary basis in case there is any change in exchange rate policy in the future or in the event of any unexpected shocks. More prosaically, they are used to provide foreign currency services for government departments and agencies needing to transact in foreign currencies, as well as to buy, hold and sell SDRs as required by the UK’s membership of the IMF.

Although relatively small in the context of over £1trn a year in UK public spending and £2.3trn in public sector net debt, the UK’s international reserves provide HM Treasury and the Bank of England with a substantial amount of firepower in the foreign exchange markets should there ever be a need to intervene to support sterling. Fortunately, almost all of the foreign currency securities and deposits held in the reserves are invested in governments and central banks of allied countries, a contrast to the position of Russia, which has seen a substantial proportion of its international reserves frozen following its invasion of Ukraine.

One piece of good news amid all the economic gloom at the moment is that the UK International Reserves aren’t hitting the headlines. Because when they do, you really will know that all is not well.

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