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Why the British Pound Continues to Sink


Over the centuries, British leaders have often gone to extraordinary lengths to protect the pound’s value, viewing its strength as a sign of the country’s economic power and influence. King Henry I issued a decree in 1125 ordering that those who produced substandard currency “lose their right hand and be castrated.”

In the 1960s, the Labour government under Harold Wilson so resisted devaluing the pound — then set at a fixed rate of $2.80, high enough to be holding back the British economy — that he ordered cabinet papers discussing the idea to be burned. In 1967, the government finally cut its value by 14 percent to $2.40.

Other economic crises thrashed the pound. In the 1970s, when oil prices skyrocketed and Britain’s inflation rate topped 25 percent, the government was compelled to ask the International Monetary Fund for a $3.9 billion loan. In the mid-1980s, when high U.S. interest rates and a Reagan administration spending spree jacked up the dollar’s value, the pound fell to a then record low.

The pound’s dominance has been waning since the end of World War II. Today, the global economy is experiencing a particularly tumultuous time as it recovers from the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic, supply chain breakdowns, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, an energy shortage and soaring inflation.

As Richard Portes, an economics professor at London Business School, said, currency exchanges have enormous swings over time. The euro was worth 82 cents in its early days, he recalled, and people referred to it as a “toilet paper” currency. But by 2008, its value had doubled to $1.60.

What might cause the pound to revive is not clear.

The Truss government’s economic program has forcefully accelerated the pound’s slide — the latest in a series of what many economists consider egregious economic missteps that peaked with Brexit.

Much depends on the Truss government.

“The plunge in the pound is the result of policy choices, not some historical inevitability” said Ian Shepherdson, chief U.S. economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics. “Whether this is a new, grim era or just an unfortunate interlude depends on whether they reverse course or are kicked out at the next election.”



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