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Black Wednesday occurred on 16 September 1992 when the British government was forced to withdraw the pound sterling from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM), after a failed attempt to keep the pound above the lower currency exchange limit mandated by the ERM. At that time, the United Kingdom held the Presidency of the European Communities.
In 1997, the UK Treasury estimated the cost of Black Wednesday at £3.14 billion, which was revised to £3.3 billion in 2005, following documents released under the Freedom of Information Act (earlier estimates placed losses at a much higher range of £13–27 billion). Trading losses in August and September made up a minority of the losses (estimated at £800 million) and the majority of the loss to the central bank arose from non-realised profits of a potential devaluation. Treasury papers suggested that if the government had maintained $24 billion foreign currency reserves and the pound had fallen by the same amount, the UK could have made a £2.4 billion profit on the pound sterling's devaluation.
The crisis damaged the credibility of the Second Major ministry in handling of economic matters. The ruling Conservative Party suffered a landslide defeat five years later at the 1997 United Kingdom general election and did not return to power until 2010. The rebounding of the British economy in the years after Black Wednesday led to a reassessment of the legacy of the crisis, as the Major government's adoption of an inflation targeting policy as an alternative to the ERM set the foundation for a prospering economy in the years prior to the Financial crisis of 2007–2008, and the British public turned increasingly Eurosceptic.
When the ERM was set up in 1979, the United Kingdom declined to join. This was a controversial decision, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Geoffrey Howe, was staunchly pro-European. His successor, Nigel Lawson, a believer in a fixed exchange rate, admired the low inflationary record of West Germany. He attributed it to the strength of the Deutsche Mark and the management of the Bundesbank. Thus, although the UK had not joined the ERM, from early 1987 to March 1988 the Treasury followed a semi-official policy of 'shadowing' the Deutsche Mark. Matters came to a head in a clash between Lawson and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's economic adviser Alan Walters, when Walters claimed that the Exchange Rate Mechanism was "half baked".
This led to Lawson's resignation as chancellor; he was replaced by former Treasury Chief Secretary John Major who, with Douglas Hurd, the then Foreign Secretary, convinced the Cabinet to sign Britain up to the ERM in October 1990, effectively guaranteeing that the British government would follow an economic and monetary policy preventing the exchange rate between the pound and other member currencies from fluctuating by more than 6%. On 8 October 1990, Thatcher entered the pound into the ERM mechanism at DM 2.95 to the Pound. Hence, if the exchange rate ever neared the bottom of its permitted range, DM 2.773 (€1.4178 at the DM/Euro conversion rate), the government would be obliged to intervene. In 1989, the UK had inflation three times the rate of Germany, higher interest rates at 15%, and much lower labour productivity than France and Germany, which indicated the UK's different economic state in comparison to other ERM countries.
From the beginning of the 1990s, high German interest rates, set by the Bundesbank to counteract inflationary effects related to excess expenditure on German reunification, caused significant stress across the whole of the ERM. The UK and Italy had additional difficulties with their double deficits, while the UK was also hurt by the rapid depreciation of the United States dollar – a currency in which many British exports were priced – that summer. Issues of national prestige and the commitment to a doctrine that the fixing of exchange rates within the ERM was a pathway to a single European currency inhibited the adjustment of exchange rates. In the wake of the rejection of the Maastricht Treaty by the Danish electorate in a referendum in the spring of 1992, and an announcement that there would be a referendum in France as well, those ERM currencies that were trading close to the bottom of their ERM bands came under pressure from foreign exchange traders.
In the months leading up to Black Wednesday, among many other currency traders, George Soros had been building a huge short position in pounds sterling that would become immensely profitable if the pound fell below the lower band of the ERM. Soros believed the rate at which the United Kingdom was brought into the Exchange Rate Mechanism was too high, inflation was too high (triple the German rate), and British interest rates were hurting their asset prices.
The currency traders act
The UK government attempted to prop up the depreciating pound to avoid withdrawal from the monetary system the country had joined only two years earlier. John Major raised interest rates to 10%[when?] and authorised the spending of billions of pounds of foreign currency reserves to buy up sterling being sold on the currency markets. These measures failed to prevent the pound falling below its minimum level in the ERM. The Treasury took the decision to defend sterling's position, believing that to devalue would promote inflation.
Currency traders began a massive sell-off of pounds on Tuesday 15 September 1992. The Exchange Rate Mechanism required the Bank of England to accept any offers to sell pounds. However, the Bank of England only accepted orders during the trading day. When the markets opened in London the next morning, the Bank of England began their attempt to prop up their currency, as decided by Norman Lamont (Chancellor of the Exchequer) and Robin Leigh-Pemberton (Governor of the Bank of England). They began accepting orders of £300 million twice before 8:30 am, but to little effect. The Bank of England's intervention was ineffective because traders were dumping pounds far faster. The Bank of England continued to buy, and traders continued to sell, until Lamont told Prime Minister John Major that their pound purchasing was failing to produce results.
At 10:30 am on 16 September, the British government announced an increase in the base interest rate, from an already high 10%, to 12% to tempt speculators to buy pounds. Despite this and a promise later the same day to raise base rates again to 15%, dealers kept selling pounds, convinced that the government would not keep its promise. By 7:00 that evening, Lamont announced Britain would leave the ERM and rates would remain at the new level of 12%; however, on the next day the interest rate was back to 10%.
It was later revealed that the decision to withdraw had been agreed at an emergency meeting during the day between Lamont, Major, Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd, President of the Board of Trade Michael Heseltine, and Home Secretary Kenneth Clarke (the latter three all being staunch pro-Europeans as well as senior Cabinet Ministers), and that the interest rate hike to 15% had only been a temporary measure to prevent a rout in the pound that afternoon.
Other ERM countries such as Italy, whose currencies had breached their bands during the day, returned to the system with broadened bands or with adjusted central parities. Even in this relaxed form, ERM-I proved vulnerable, and ten months later the rules were relaxed further to the point of imposing very little constraint on the domestic monetary policies of member states.
The effect of the low German interest rates, and high British interest rates, had arguably[weasel words] put Britain into recession as large numbers of businesses failed and the housing market crashed. Some commentators, following Norman Tebbit, took to referring to ERM as an "Eternal Recession Mechanism" after the UK fell into recession during the early 1990s. While many people in the UK recall Black Wednesday as a national disaster that permanently affected the country's international prestige, some Conservatives claim that the forced ejection from the ERM was a "Golden Wednesday" or "White Wednesday", the day that paved the way for an economic revival, with the Conservatives handing Tony Blair's New Labour a much stronger economy in 1997 than had existed in 1992 as the new economic policy swiftly devised in the aftermath of Black Wednesday led to re-establishment of economic growth with falling unemployment and inflation. Monetary policy switched to inflation targeting.
The Conservative Party government's reputation for economic excellence had been damaged to the extent that the electorate was more inclined to support a claim of the opposition of the time – that the economic recovery ought to be credited to external factors, as opposed to government policies implemented by the Conservatives. The Conservatives had recently won the 1992 general election, and the Gallup poll for September showed a small lead of 2.5% for the Conservative Party. By the October poll, following Black Wednesday, their share of the intended vote in the poll had plunged from 43% to 29%.. The Conservative government then suffered a string of by-election defeats which saw its 21-seat majority eroded by December 1996. The party’s performances in local government elections were similarly dismal during this time, while Labour made huge gains.
Black Wednesday was a major factor in the Conservatives finally losing the 1997 general election to Labour, who won by a landslide under the leadership of Tony Blair. The Conservatives failed to gain significant ground at the 2001 general election under the leadership of William Hague, with Labour winning another landslide majority. Blair guided Labour to a third successive general election victory in 2005, with Michael Howard guiding the Conservatives to a string of gains as the Labour majority was drastically reduced.
David Cameron became party leader in December 2005 and within a year the Conservatives became consistently more popular than Labour for the first time since September 1992. Gordon Brown succeeded Tony Blair in June 2007, but the popularity of the Labour government slumped further the following year as the economy fell into recession. The Conservatives eventually gained the most seats at the 2010 general election, but fell short of an overall majority. However, the Conservatives quickly formed coalition government with the Liberal Democrats led by Nick Clegg. Cameron guided the Tories to their first parliamentary majority in 23 years when they won the 2015 general election by a 12-seat majority. This majority was lost two years later when a snap election under Cameron’s successor Theresa May saw the Conservatives fall short following a late surge in support for Labour under Jeremy Corbyn. However, Boris Johnson delivered an 80-seat Tory majority at the end of 2019 to give the party its largest victory since 1987, while Labour was left with just over 200 seats in its heaviest election defeat since 1935.
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- Black Wednesday is remembered as a dark day in British economic history. But the clouds were lined with gold. Martin Upton, head of the Centre for Financial Management at The Open University Business School tells Ione Mako about the upside, open.edu, 24 September 2009.
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