Thursday, October 8, 2009

The sinking pound in your pocket

Below is today's Business Standard piece about the UK's increasingly flat-earth view of the pound. The world sees London as a great place to live and do business in but the UK currency is an anachronism.

The British currency does give the government some leeway in spending and borrowing compared to Europe, but I think it won't be long now before the weight of EU makes it a club the Brits will have to get full-membership of. Nobody in Washington, Tokyo, Brussels or Beijing loses any sleep over the pound.

The wider point seems obvious: the old powers have lost their way and need new institutions to keep up with the growing muscle of aspirants on the block. In a way Japan was the country that blazed a trail but really this is about designing the world for the new global power centres.

What this means for British electors is that David Cameron, should he be elected PM, will be forced into some face-saving manoeuvres later this year. He will undoubtedly opt to stay in Europe and fight for a bigger say in the Union. He will have allies in Eastern Europe. In this fight for State rights over the Centre, the UK will have to accept that the sun has finally set on Britain.

The pound without a G-string
The time may have come for Britain to adopt the euro

Nearly eight decades after the pound went off the Gold Standard, has the time come for Britain to consider whether it needs the pound at all? Britain’s euro-sceptics have congratulated themselves ever since they rejected then Prime Minister Tony Blair’s abortive attempt to get the pound replaced by the euro, a move that the then chancellor of the exchequer and present Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, had opposed. Indeed, Britain’s euro-sceptics may feel vindicated today as they watch Ireland go into a spin over the decline in its competitiveness vis-à-vis the US because of a strengthening euro (which Dublin had accepted as its currency, replacing the Irish pound). But how long will Britain hold out in the name of its financial district, the City, and because of its desire to remain a global financial centre? Last week’s Irish vote in favour of the Lisbon Treaty, affirming the country’s support for a European Constitution by another name, brings Ireland closer to the European Union at a popular level, even though Britain has also signed onto the Lisbon Treaty. The Irish have demonstrated less discomfort in accepting their European status. Britain’s island mentality may not fit very well with the European integration process, but the City will have to take note of the US’ kite-flying exercise in Istanbul, on a likely four-currency group—yet another ‘G’ to string China along!

An unidentified US participant at the G-7 finance ministers’ meeting in Istanbul has been reported as saying that the US could consider forming a smaller group within the G-20 to take forward the work of the increasingly anachronistic G-7. The G-7 was the ‘management committee of the global economy’ in the old days of the North-South divide. With the eclipse of the G-7 by the G-20, even the US has recognised that it needs a smaller ‘executive committee’ of the ‘management committee’. Who would the US want in such a core group of the world’s key economies? It seems to regard Europe, Japan and China as natural claimants to membership. Hence the suggestion that a G-4 be formed with the managers of the US dollar, the euro, the yen and the yuan working together to ensure stable conditions in global currency markets. This is undoubtedly a concession to China, which has aggressively pushed for a larger global role for the yuan. The US needs China to play ball to come out of the global imbalances trap and is, therefore, willing to co-opt it.

Where does this leave Britain and the pound? A bit lost, and nervous, perhaps. British spokespersons have rubbished the idea of a G-4 and the US has officially denied any such move. But the writing on the wall for the pound is clear. Go along with the euro, like the Irish and the rest, or join the likes of the ‘has-been’ rouble and the ‘wannabe’ rupee! The idea that the dollar, the euro, the yen and the yuan belong to a special club to which the pound will not be invited must be galling. But this moment was coming, as the once pivotal pound lost its sterling edge three-quarters of a century ago.

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