How could one devalue the pound?

A new Civitas report suggests devaluing the pound to boost exports. But can it work?

With fascinating timing, Civitas has released a report calling for the UK to devalue the pound. The author, John Mills, argues that Bank of England policy has been too heavily focused on keeping inflation at two per cent, and has instead lost sight of the more important priority, which is to promote full employment and a trade surplus (or at least balanced trade). He thinks that the best way to achieve those goals would be for the bank to chart a course which will reduce the value of the pound.

Mills argues that Britain should: sell sterling and buy foreign currencies; introduce more QE; lend directly to organisations capable of paying the money back from income flows, such as local authorities and housing associations; and "deliberately increase its spending in relation to its revenues to widen the foreign payments deficit temporarily, to assist in making the parity of the currency fall."

To call his argument balshy would be an understatement. He also steers clear of the msot important distinction, which is that between a floating and fixed currency. Most talk of "devalutions" occurs in the context of a fixed currency, like that which Britain had under the Bretton Woods system. Then, devaluations were real government policy; a decision was made to peg the pound to a certain number of dollars (for instance, in 1949, £1=$2.80), and the Bank of England guaranteed that rate. If the government decided it was too high, it would change the rate the Bank paid out at.

With a floating currency, the situation is very different. The bank can still spend pounds buying up dollars, and if it does so the exchange rate will indeed drop. But without a committment to keep the rate at the new devalued level, exports will briefly rocket, dollars will become pounds, and the whole thing will return to the market determined rate.

It is possible to enact that committment in a slightly different way; the bank could commit to buying a certain amount of foreign currency each month, for instance. This would certainly devalue the pound slightly, but it would also leave the nation open to the sort of extremely damaging speculation that caused Black Friday. A speculator has to be brave or foolish to take on a central bank committed to maintaining a fixed rate, but if the bank has already put a maximum on the amount of foreign currency it will buy, then it's a lot easier to enter a face-off. It's like having a staring competition with someone who has told you they blink every ten seconds no matter what.

Of course, it may be that Mills is suggesting a whole return to a fixed currency. If he is, then apart from the obvious question – fixed to what? – it does also feel rather like he's buried the lede. The return to a fixed currency would be a far bigger decision than the subsequent choice of what level to fix it at.

Mills claims that those who are opposed to his idea are people who value low inflation over high quality of life. Be that as it may, it does feel like he values his heterodoxity over quality. Or, to put it another way: Stop trying to be different, and start trying to be right.

Mount Washington Hotel, Bretton Woods, where the pound was fixed to the dollar in 1940.

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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Who "speaks for England" - and for that matter, what is "England"?

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones.

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones. It trotted out Leo Amery’s House of Commons call from September 1939, “Speak for England”, for the headline on a deranged leader that filled a picture-free front page on David Cameron’s “deal” to keep Britain in the EU.

Demands that somebody or other speak for England have followed thick and fast ever since Amery addressed his call to Labour’s Arthur Greenwood when Neville Chamberlain was still dithering over war with Hitler. Tory MPs shouted, “Speak for England!” when Michael Foot, the then Labour leader, rose in the Commons in 1982 after Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands. The Mail columnist Andrew Alexander called on Clare Short to “speak for England” over the Iraq War in 2003. “Can [Ed] Miliband speak for England?” Anthony Barnett asked in this very magazine in 2013. (Judging by the 2015 election result, one would say not.) “I speak for England,” claimed John Redwood last year. “Labour must speak for England,” countered Frank Field soon afterwards.

The Mail’s invocation of Amery was misconceived for two reasons. First, Amery wanted us to wage war in Europe in support of Hitler’s victims in Poland and elsewhere and in alliance with France, not to isolate ourselves from the continent. Second, “speak for England” in recent years has been used in support of “English votes for English laws”, following proposals for further devolution to Scotland. As the Mail was among the most adamant in demanding that Scots keep their noses out of English affairs, it’s a bit rich of it now to state “of course, by ‘England’. . . we mean the whole of the United Kingdom”.

 

EU immemorial

The Mail is also wrong in arguing that “we are at a crossroads in our island history”. The suggestion that the choice is between “submitting to a statist, unelected bureaucracy in Brussels” and reclaiming our ancient island liberties is pure nonsense. In the long run, withdrawing from the EU will make little difference. Levels of immigration will be determined, as they always have been, mainly by employers’ demands for labour and the difficulties of policing the borders of a country that has become a leading international transport hub. The terms on which we continue to trade with EU members will be determined largely by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels after discussions with unelected bureaucrats in London.

The British are bored by the EU and the interminable Westminster arguments. If voters support Brexit, it will probably be because they then expect to hear no more on the subject. They will be sadly mistaken. The withdrawal negotiations will take years, with the Farages and Duncan Smiths still foaming at the mouth, Cameron still claiming phoney victories and Angela Merkel, François Hollande and the dreaded Jean-Claude Juncker playing a bigger part in our lives than ever.

 

An empty cabinet

Meanwhile, one wonders what has become of Jeremy Corbyn or, indeed, the rest of the shadow cabinet. The Mail’s “speak for England” leader excoriated him for not mentioning “the Number One subject of the hour” at PM’s Questions but instead asking about a shortage of therapeutic radiographers in the NHS. In fact, the NHS’s problems – almost wholly caused by Tory “reforms” and spending cuts – would concern more people than does our future in the EU. But radiographers are hardly headline news, and Corbyn and his team seem unable to get anything into the nation’s “any other business”, never mind to the top of its agenda.

Public services deteriorate by the day, George Osborne’s fiscal plans look increasingly awry, and attempts to wring tax receipts out of big corporations appear hopelessly inadequate. Yet since Christmas I have hardly seen a shadow minister featured in the papers or spotted one on TV, except to say something about Trident, another subject that most voters don’t care about.

 

Incurable prose

According to the Guardian’s admirable but (let’s be honest) rather tedious series celeb­rating the NHS, a US health-care firm has advised investors that “privatisation of the UK marketplace . . . should create organic and de novo opportunities”. I have no idea what this means, though it sounds ominous. But I am quite certain I don’t want my local hospital or GP practice run by people who write prose like that.

 

Fashionable Foxes

My home-town football team, Leicester City, are normally so unfashionable that they’re not even fashionable in Leicester, where the smart set mostly watch the rugby union team Leicester Tigers. Even when they installed themselves near the top of the Premier League before Christmas, newspapers scarcely noticed them.

Now, with the Foxes five points clear at the top and 7-4 favourites for their first title, that mistake is corrected and the sports pages are running out of superlatives, a comparison with Barcelona being the most improbable. Even I, not a football enthusiast, have watched a few matches. If more football were played as Leicester play it – moving at speed towards their opponents’ goal rather than aimlessly weaving pretty patterns in midfield – I would watch the game more.

Nevertheless, I recall 1963, when Leicester headed the old First Division with five games to play. They picked up only one more point and finished fourth, nine points adrift of the league winners, Everton.

 

Gum unstuck

No, I don’t chew toothpaste to stop me smoking, as the last week’s column strangely suggested. I chew Nicorette gum, a reference written at some stage but somehow lost (probably by me) before it reached print.

Editor: The chief sub apologises for this mistake, which was hers

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

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