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Why America’s next Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew had better get himself a better signature

Loopy autograph will be carried across the world on the face of dollar

America’s next Treasury Secretary faces a full in-tray. With only weeks to go before the US is expected to violently bang its head against the debt ceiling, Jacob ‘Jack’ Lew, who was named as President Obama’s nominee, will take charge at a critical juncture. Will he be aggressive or genial? Will he give in easy, or will he stand firm against spending cuts?

Ordinarily, Washington’s legion of political fortune tellers would turn to his record or his friends and colleagues for insights. But instead, they’ve begun focusing on series of loops. Depending on how you count them, there are seven or eight loops (the first is a bone of contention among Beltway experts: it could be a giant loop or a soft J).

Loosely strung together, they constitute Mr Lew’s signature which, in the words of one observer at New York Magazine, resembles a “slinky that’s lost its spring”.

According to handwriting experts, the scrawl speaks either of his softer, cuddly side, or his mysterious nature. Or both. Professional graphologist Kathi McKnight even likened Mr Lew’s script to that of Princess Diana. “Well, Princess Di had very loopy writing,” she told the Washington Post.

The real Mr Lew, some have claimed, could be crouched behind the impenetrable hedge of loops, keeping his cards close to his chest - something that could present a potential hurdle for Republican negotiators as they attempt get a handle on their new foe in the debt ceiling talks.

“People with illegible signatures... like to keep some things private,” says Ms McKnight.

The signature, or “doodle” as it is described by The Atlantic, might also raise eyebrows at the US Bureau of Engraving and Printing, the august body responsible for printing the nation’s currency notes, which, once he is confirmed by Congress, will carry Mr Lew’s scrawl around the world.

Mr Lew’s predecessor, Tim Geithner, famously revised his autograph before signing the notes. Asked last year why he had revisited his penmanship, Mr Geithner’s response might serve as a lesson for Mr Lew: “Well, I think on the dollar bill I had to write something where people could read my name. That’s the rationale… I didn’t try for elegance. I tried for clarity.”

The New York Times has suggested Mr Lew might like to “clean up his penmanship” in preparation for its appearance on dollar bills. But, for now, it is not clear whether Mr Lew, currently the President’s Chief of Staff, is practicing his penmanship between meetings. Asked at a briefing if he was, the White House Press Secretary Jay Carney simply said: “Not that I’m aware of.” Mr Lew might of course decide to follow the example set by the UK Business Secretary, Vince Cable, who has kept his austere, smile-shaped sign-off of a curved line and dot.

Speculation, meanwhile, continues about what exactly Mr Lew’s loops, which were first noticed when one of his memos appeared on the internet a couple of years ago, might mean. One writer at AOL’s Daily Finance website suggested it might be a “surrealistic representation of the US economy, circa 2008,” while another at the Fox News website asked: “Is it modern art?”

He has his defenders, however. “[Lew’s signature] would turn American currency into the best money ever,” Ezra Klien at the Washington Post wrote this week, chiding the “fun destroyer” Tim Geithner for revising his own.

A spider wanders across the page...

Some people sign their names in a way that tells you who they are; others have signatures which make no attempt to communicate. It is an annoying habit because it puts the onus on the reader to work out who the signatory is.

If you went to sign on for benefits, you would have to write your name more clearly than the Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, whose illegible scrawl is reproduced here.

It is said that people who sign their names illegibly do not want others to know who they really are. That might seem an odd thing to say about Winston Churchill, whose signature is barely decipherable, or Rajiv Gandhi, from India’s premier political family.

That fraud Bernard Madoff, on the other hand, had more to hide than just his name – though why should Henry Kissinger sign his name in a way that made sure no one could possibly read it?

Henry VIII was also reckoned to have illegible writing, by Tudor standards. He also loathed paperwork. He got round both problems by being one of the first public figures to have a stamp made of his signature to save himself the trouble of writing it.