Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the weakest of them all? As G20 finance ministers warn of the threat of a “global currency war” at their meeting in Moscow this weekend, two odd features of this looming financial conflict tend to be overlooked.
The first is that every country’s objective in this war is to “lose” by making its currency weaker. This is because a weak currency tends to support exports, employment and economic growth (if all other things are equal, which they never quite are). The second oddity is that the clear winner in this global currency war has not been Japan, Switzerland, China or any of the other usual suspects, but a country rarely accused of financial aggression: Britain.
Since the global financial crisis started in mid-2007, the pound sterling has been, by a wide margin, the weakest major currency. The Bank of England’s trade-weighted sterling index fell by a record 30 percent in early 2009 and, despite a modest rebound in 2010-12, it remains 24 percent below its level of mid-2007. Japan, by contrast, has endured a rise in its trade-weighted exchange rate of 60 percent from July 2007 to late last year, when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe committed his new government to a more competitive rate. Japan is therefore fully entitled to resent other countries’ accusations of currency warfare, when it has in fact been a long-suffering pacifist, exposing its export companies to the full burden of other countries’ post-crisis currency adjustments.
But let us return to the biggest “winner” in the post-crisis currency wars, Britain. Sterling’s devaluation has clearly been no panacea; Britain has done worse on most measures of economic performance since 2008 than any G7 country apart from Italy. That, however, may have been inevitable. London’s dominant role in international finance made Britain more vulnerable than any other major economy to the greatest banking crisis in history. And once that was over, Prime Minister David Cameron imposed on his country the toughest budgetary austerity in the G7. Whether this policy was wise is an interesting question, discussed in several previous columns. A more important issue today is what may happen next to Britain.
Recent events in the foreign exchange market suggest a possible answer. Since the end of last year the pound has weakened dramatically against all other major currencies, apart from the yen. The British and Japanese currencies seem to be falling for similar reasons. Those countries’ economies have experienced almost no growth since 2009, and their governments are becoming increasingly desperate to end this long-term stagnation.