Switzerland's getting into a currency war with us? Brilliant!

Spend, spend, spend.

It's sort of like the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon – you hear a relatively rare phrase once, and then it starts springing up all over the place. Today's is "currency war".

At the Telegraph, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard has uncovered evidence that Switzerland and the UK are "effectively fighting a 'low intensity' currency war against each other". He writes:

It seems you can’t debase your coinage these days even if you try.

The Bank of England is straining every sinew to drive down sterling with quantitative easing, and what happens?

The Swiss National Bank trumps Threadneedle Street with an outright blitz of Gilt purchases. They just print it, and buy.

Switzerland is one of the most forthright currency manipulators out there at the moment, as it struggles to hold its franc above 1.20 to the euro. This chart, from the ECB, shows the effect of that fight:

Although currency speculators have been battering at the floor, the Swiss central bank has held to its promise (but it did drop down to 1.1997 francs for a few minutes back in April last year) by buying a metric shittonne (technical term) of eurobonds. Now that it owns so many of those, it is trying to diversify its holdings into other currencies, "allegedly into Aussies, Loonies (Canada), Scandies, Won?, Real? but above all pounds" according to Evans-Pritchard.

The Swiss are doing it because a weaker currency, particularly relative to the Eurozone, is good for them – it boosts deficits and interest rates, both things which ought to keep them out of recession. But we want the same thing. Hence: currency war.

In the US, meanwhile, some economists have argued that America needs to get tough on currency manipulators. The Washington Post's Dylan Matthews writes:

In a new working paper, Joe Gagnon and Fred Bergsten at the Peterson Institute argue not just for import tariffs like those Schumer advocates, but for a full-frontal assault on countries that are manipulating their currencies… Specifically, they want the U.S. to offer the eight worst currency manipulators — China, Denmark, Hong Kong, Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Switzerland and Taiwan — an ultimatum: Stop manipulating, or else we’ll do the following:

Buy up exactly as many assets in their currencies as they have in ours… tax the earnings from dollar-denominated assets as punishment… treat currency manipulation the same way we treat export subsidies for the purposes of imposing retaliatory tariffs [or] take the manipulators to the World Trade Organization (WTO).

The first of those options is an archetypal currency war. Gagnon and Bergsten argue that making that threat would "currency manipulation, make the dollar less expensive, and thus promote U.S. exports"; the standard refrain of those entering currency wars.

And Matthews offers the standard objection:

The risk is that Gagnon and Bergsten’s policies would only provoke the targeted countries, leading them to respond with still more manipulation and/or tariffs on U.S. goods, setting off a full-fledged currency and trade war that just leaves all parties worse off.

Except that that's not really true (well, the trade war part is). A full-fledged currency war – whether it's between America and all eight of its named "manipulators" or Britain and the Swiss – is indeed a zero-sum game when it comes to the actual level of the currencies. Both GBP and CHF cannot weaken against each other at the same time, definitionally.

But while the war is pointless, the act of fighting it could be a good thing. The Atlantic's Matthew O'Brien writes:

The downside of devaluation is that no country gains a real trade advantage, and weaker currencies means the prices of commodities like oil shoot. But and here's the really important part devaluing means printing money. There isn't enough money in the world. That's the simple and true reason why the global economy fell into crisis and has been so slow to recover. It's also the simple and true reason why the Great Depression was so devastating. We know from the 1930s that such competitive devaluation can turn things around.

War is good if it creates more of something you want. A "charity war" between friends is good because it leads to more donations. A currency war is good because it leads to more money. If war is politics by other means, a currency war is stimulus by other means.

Think of it by analogy to fiscal stimulus. Sometimes, a government decides to do that directly. But just as frequently – say, during the Second World War – it embarks on a massive deficit-funded spending programme because it feels it has to, and it just so happens to be macroeconomically beneficial as well.

So please, Switzerland, keep buying British bonds. It will force the Bank of England into making the moves it ought to have done a long time ago.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Inside Big Ben: why the world’s most famous clock will soon lose its bong

Every now and then, even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care.

London is soon going to lose one of its most familiar sounds when the world-famous Big Ben falls silent for repairs. The “bonging” chimes that have marked the passing of time for Londoners since 1859 will fall silent for months beginning in 2017 as part of a three-year £29m conservation project.

Of course, “Big Ben” is the nickname of the Great Bell and the bell itself is not in bad shape – even though it does have a huge crack in it.

The bell weighs nearly 14 tonnes and it cracked in 1859 when it was first bonged with a hammer that was way too heavy.

The crack was never repaired. Instead the bell was rotated one eighth of a turn and a lighter (200kg) hammer was installed. The cracked bell has a characteristic sound which we have all grown to love.

Big Ben strikes. UK Parliament.

Instead, it is the Elizabeth Tower (1859) and the clock mechanism (1854), designed by Denison and Airy, that need attention.

Any building or machine needs regular maintenance – we paint our doors and windows when they need it and we repair or replace our cars quite routinely. It is convenient to choose a day when we’re out of the house to paint the doors, or when we don’t need the car to repair the brakes. But a clock just doesn’t stop – especially not a clock as iconic as the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster.

Repairs to the tower are long overdue. There is corrosion damage to the cast iron roof and to the belfry structure which keeps the bells in place. There is water damage to the masonry and condensation problems will be addressed, too. There are plumbing and electrical works to be done for a lift to be installed in one of the ventilation shafts, toilet facilities and the fitting of low-energy lighting.

Marvel of engineering

The clock mechanism itself is remarkable. In its 162-year history it has only had one major breakdown. In 1976 the speed regulator for the chimes broke and the mechanism sped up to destruction. The resulting damage took months to repair.

The weights that drive the clock are, like the bells and hammers, unimaginably huge. The “drive train” that keeps the pendulum swinging and that turns the hands is driven by a weight of about 100kg. Two other weights that ring the bells are each over a tonne. If any of these weights falls out of control (as in the 1976 incident), they could do a lot of damage.

The pendulum suspension spring is especially critical because it holds up the huge pendulum bob which weighs 321kg. The swinging pendulum releases the “escapement” every two seconds which then turns the hands on the clock’s four faces. If you look very closely, you will see that the minute hand doesn’t move smoothly but it sits still most of the time, only moving on each tick by 1.5cm.

The pendulum swings back and forth 21,600 times a day. That’s nearly 8m times a year, bending the pendulum spring. Like any metal, it has the potential to suffer from fatigue. The pendulum needs to be lifted out of the clock so that the spring can be closely inspected.

The clock derives its remarkable accuracy in part from the temperature compensation which is built into the construction of the pendulum. This was yet another of John Harrison’s genius ideas (you probably know him from longitude fame). He came up with the solution of using metals of differing temperature expansion coefficient so that the pendulum doesn’t change in length as the temperature changes with the seasons.

In the Westminster clock, the pendulum shaft is made of concentric tubes of steel and zinc. A similar construction is described for the clock in Trinity College Cambridge and near perfect temperature compensation can be achieved. But zinc is a ductile metal and the tube deforms with time under the heavy load of the 321kg pendulum bob. This “creeping” will cause the temperature compensation to jam up and become less effective.

So stopping the clock will also be a good opportunity to dismantle the pendulum completely and to check that the zinc tube is sliding freely. This in itself is a few days' work.

What makes it tick

But the truly clever bit of this clock is the escapement. All clocks have one - it’s what makes the clock tick, quite literally. Denison developed his new gravity escapement especially for the Westminster clock. It decouples the driving force of the falling weight from the periodic force that maintains the motion of the pendulum. To this day, the best tower clocks in England use the gravity escapement leading to remarkable accuracy – better even than that of your quartz crystal wrist watch.

In Denison’s gravity escapement, the “tick” is the impact of the “legs” of the escapement colliding with hardened steel seats. Each collision causes microscopic damage which, accumulated over millions of collisions per year, causes wear and tear affecting the accuracy of the clock. It is impossible to inspect the escapement without stopping the clock. Part of the maintenance proposed during this stoppage is a thorough overhaul of the escapement and the other workings of the clock.

The Westminster clock is a remarkable icon for London and for England. For more than 150 years it has reminded us of each hour, tirelessly. That’s what I love about clocks – they seem to carry on without a fuss. But every now and then even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care. After this period of pampering, “Big Ben” ought to be set for another 100 or so years of trouble-free running.

The Conversation

Hugh Hunt is a Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.