In a speech in Edinburgh, Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, considered the implications of Scotland retaining the pound if the Scottish people vote yes for independence. His speech was intended to be non-political. Rather he focused on two main questions: first whether a currency union of Scotland and the rest of the UK (RUK) would be an optimal currency area; second how much economic sovereignty would need to be shared with RUK as a consequence of Scotland keeping the pound.
On the first question, Mark Carney argued that the current UK is close to an optimal currency area as there is a high degree of economic integration and factor mobility. Sharing a currency eliminates exchange costs, improves pricing transparency and hence encourages competition, promotes cross-border investment, improves the flow of technology and ideas, and increases the mobility of labour and capital.
But sharing a currency involves sharing a monetary policy. This would still be determined by the Bank of England and would have to geared to the overall economic situation of the union, not the specific needs of Scotland.
There would also need to be a banking union, whereby banks in difficulties would receive support from the whole currency area. In Scotland’s case, banking accounts for a very large proportion of the economy (12.5% compared with 4.3% for RUK) and could potentially place disproportionate demands on the currency union’s finances.
And then there is the question of fiscal policy. A shared currency also means pooling a considerable amount of sovereignty over taxation, government spending and government debt. This could be a serious problem in the event of asymmetric shocks to Scotland and RUK. For example, if oil prices fell substantially, Scotland may want to pursue a more expansionary fiscal policy just at a time when its tax revenues were falling. This could put a strain on Scotland’s finances. This might then require RUK to provide support from a common pool of funds, such as a ‘regional fund’.
Being in a currency union can amplify fiscal stress, and increase both the risks and consequences of financial instability. In the situation just described [a fall in demand for exports], fiscal policy would ideally help smooth adjustment to the external shock. But its ability to do so could be limited by the budgetary impact of the falls in output, prices and wages. To maintain credibility, fiscal policy may even become pro-cyclical, with the resulting austerity exacerbating the initial fall in demand. In the extreme, adverse fiscal dynamics could call into question a country’s membership of the union, creating the possibility of self-fulfilling ‘runs’ on bank and sovereign debt absent central bank support.6 Such adverse feedback loops turned recessions into depressions in several European countries in recent years.
A separate Scottish currency, by contrast, would, according to Carney, be a valuable shock absorber if domestic wages and prices were sticky.
For example, suppose demand for a country’s exports falls. All else equal, its output will fall, unemployment increase and current account deteriorate. With an independent currency, exchange rate depreciation can dampen these effects by improving competitiveness, and monetary policy can become more accommodative, supporting demand and employment. However, if the country were part of a currency area with its foreign market, its exchange rate would by definition not change, putting the full weight of adjustment on wages and unemployment – a significantly more protracted and painful process. In addition, the responsiveness of monetary policy to weak demand in that country would be diluted by the needs of the broader membership.
But despite the problems of ceding a degree of monetary and fiscal sovereignty, Scotland and RUK are well placed to continue with a successful currency union if Scotland becomes independent. Economic conditions are very similar, as are language, culture and institutions, and there is an effective banking union – assuming such a banking union were to continue post independence.
The existing banking union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom has proved durable and efficient. Its foundations include a single prudential supervisor maintaining consistent standards of resilience, a single deposit guarantee scheme backed by the central government, and a common central bank, able to act as Lender of Last Resort across the union, and also backed by the central government. These arrangements help ensure that Scotland can sustain a banking system whose collective balance sheet is substantially larger than its GDP.
The desirability of Scottish independence is a normative question for the Scottish electorate to decide. Nevertheless, economists have an important part to play in informing the debate. Mark Carney’s economic analysis of currency union if the Scottish electorate votes yes is a good example of this.
Video of speech
Speech at lunch hosted by the Scottish Council for Development & Industry, Edinburgh Bank of England, Mark Carney (29/1/14)
Text of speech
The economics of currency unions Bank of England, Mark Carney (29/1/14)
Articles, podcasts and webcasts
Independent Scotland would be forced to cede some sovereignty if it keeps pound, says Carney The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (29/1/14)
Scottish independence: Currency debate explained BBC News, Andrew Black (29/1/14)
Scottish independence: Key extracts from Mark Carney speech BBC News (29/1/14)
Scottish independence: Carney says Scots currency plan may lead to power loss BBC News (29/1/14)
The sterling price of Scottish independence BBC News, Robert Peston (29/1/14)
Independent Scotland ‘needs to cede sovereignty’ for currency union with UK The Guardian, Severin Carrell (29/1/14)
Mark Carney warns Scotland over currency union hopes Financial Times, Mure Dickie and Sarah O’Connor (29/1/14)
How independent would Scotland really be? Channel 4 News (29/1/14)
BoE’s Mark Carney in currency sovereignty warning The Scotsman, Tom Peterkin (30/1/14)
Carney Says Scotland Must Heed Euro Crisis in Pound Debate Bloomberg, Emma Charlton and Jennifer Ryan (29/1/14)
Independent Scotland ‘meets criteria’ for currency union BBC Today Programme, Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp and Iain Gray (29/1/14)
Scotland must play a high-stakes poker game with Westminster over the pound The Guardian Larry Elliott (12/2/14)
- What are the conditions necessary for a successful currency union?
- To what extent do Scotland and RUK meet these conditions?
- What are meant by asymmetric shocks? Give some examples of asymmetric shocks that could affect a Scotland–RUK currency union.
- Why is there a potential moral hazard in a whole currency union providing fiscal support to members in difficulties?
- Why is banking union such an important part of a successful currency union? What lessons can be learned here from the eurozone currency union?
- What constraints would currency union impose on Scottish fiscal policy? Would such constraints exist in an optimal currency area?