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.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR