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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle