Has the pound turned the corner against the Euro?

As the Italian <em>tuttishambles</em> starts to bite, the currency wars get interesting.

Yesterday saw morning saw a mild spike in the EUR/GBP exchange rate, peaking at £0.8807 to the euro before the results of the Italian election started to become clear and the Euro collapsed:


The spike was widely attributed to the Moody's downgrade, and, insofar as any single cause can be found, it probably was. But it was reported very differently depending on how important the downgrade was felt to be. For instance, whereas I wrote that the pound was "only slightly down against the Euro", others framed the same information as "a new 52-week low".

Both are, of course, true. The pound hit its peak against the Euro last July and has been steadily declining ever since:


Even after improving against the Euro on the back of the news from Italy, you would still have to go back over a year to find the last time before 2013 when the EUR/GBP was so high:

So when we say "the pound hit a 52 week low" after the Moody's downgrade, it's technically correct, but only gets the truth across if you bear in mind that the pound also hit a 52 week low before the Moody's downgrade.

In part, that continued collapse is to do with matters beyond the control of British policy. Until recently, the currency was a safe haven, isolated from the contusions of the eurozone and the US fiscal cliff. That boosted it higher than its resting level, and as the fiscal cliff was sorted and the dust cleared revealing a eurozone still standing.

But it's also an artefact of the growing evidence that the Bank of England is prepared to put up with significantly higher inflation than normal, as well as the perennial driver of all Britain's economic fortunes, our anaemic growth.

In a way, despite the focus on Japan's increasingly aggressive attempts to drive down the yen, it's us who are actually winning the currency wars. The problem is that we aren't getting a huge amount for our victory. Despite what theory says ought to happen, Britain's exports remain flat, and our homegrown industry isn't seeing any benefit either. Meanwhile, the cost of living for Brits soars correspondingly.

It you're looking for the upside of the Italian tuttishambles, then, it's that: your imported truffles and holidays to the French Riviera will finally start to come back down in price.

What do you mean you don't import truffles?

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
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.