Economic journalists, commentators and politicians have been examining the possible economic effects of a Yes vote in the Scottish independence referendum on 18 September. For an economist, there are two main categories of difficulty in examining the consequences. The first is the positive question of what precisely will be the consequences. The second is the normative question of whether the likely effects will be desirable or undesirable and how much so.
The first question is largely one of ‘known unknowns’. This rather strange term was used in 2002 by Donald Rumsfeld, US Secretary of Defense, in the context of intelligence about Iraq. The problem is a general one about forecasting the future. We may know the types of thing that are likely happen, but the magnitude of the outcome cannot be precisely known because there are so many unknowable things that can influence it.
Here are some known issues of Scottish independence, but with unknown consequences (at least in precisely quantifiable terms). The list is certainly not exhaustive and you could probably add more questions yourself to the list.
||Will independence result in lower or higher economic growth in the short and long term?
||Will there be a currency union, with Scotland and the rest of the UK sharing the pound and a central bank? Or will Scotland merely use the pound outside a currency union? Would it prefer to have its own currency or join the euro over the longer term?
||What will happen to the sterling exchange rate with the dollar, the euro and various other countries?
||How will businesses react? Will independence encourage greater inward investment in Scotland or will there be a net capital outflow? And either way, what will be the magnitude of the effect?
||How will assets, such as oil, be shared between Scotland and the rest of the UK? And how will national debt be apportioned?
||How big will the transition costs be of moving to an independent Scotland?
||How will independence impact on Scottish trade (a) with countries outside the UK and (b) with the rest of the UK?
||What will happen about Scotland’s membership of the EU? Will other EU countries, such as Spain (because of its concerns about independence movements in Catalonia and the Basque country), attempt to block Scotland remaining in or rejoining the EU?
||What will happen to tax rates in Scotland, with the new Scottish government free to set its own tax rates?
||What will be the consequences for Scottish pensions and the Scottish pensions industry?
||What will happen to the distribution of income in Scotland? How might Scottish governments behave in terms of income redistribution and what will be its consequences on output and growth?
Of course, just because the effects cannot be known with certainty, attempts are constantly being made to quantify the outcomes in the light of the best information available at the time. These are refined as circumstances change and newer data become available.
But forecasts also depend on the assumptions made about the post-referendum decisions of politicians in Scotland, the rest of the UK and in major trading partner countries. It also depends on assumptions about the reactions of businesses. Not surprisingly, both sides of the debate make assumptions favourable to their own case.
Then there is the second category of question. Even if you could quantify the effects, just how desirable would they be? The issue here is one of the weightings given to the various costs and benefits. How would you weight distributional consequences, given that some people will gain or lose more than others? What social discount rate would you apply to future costs and benefits?
Then there are the normative and largely unquantifiable costs and benefits. How would you assess the desirability of political consequences, such as greater independence in decision-making or the break-up of a union dating back over 300 years? But these questions about nationhood are crucial issues for many of the voters.
Scottish Independence would have Broad Impact on UK Economy NBC News, Catherine Boyle (9/9/14)
Scottish independence: the economic implications The Guardian, Angela Monaghan (7/9/14)
Scottish vote: Experts warn of potential economic impact BBC News, Matthew Wall (9/9/14)
The economics of Scottish independence: A messy divorce The Economist (21/2/14)
Dispute over economic impact of Scottish independence Financial Times, Mure Dickie, Jonathan Guthrie and John Aglionby (28/5/14)
10 economic benefits for a wealthier independent Scotland Michael Gray (6/3/14)
Scottish independence, UK dependency New Economics Foundation (NEF), James Meadway (4/9/14)
Scottish Jobs and the World Economy Scottish Economy Watch, Brian Ashcroft (25/8/14)
Scottish yes vote: what happens to the pound in your pocket? Channel 4 News (9/9/14)
What price Scottish independence? BBC News, Robert Peston (12/9/14)
What price Scottish independence? BBC News, Robert Peston (7/9/14)
Economists can’t tell Scots how to vote BBC News, Robert Peston (16/9/14)
Books and Reports
The Economic Consequences of Scottish Independence Scottish Economic Society and Helmut Schmidt Universität, David Bell, David Eiser and Klaus B Beckmann (eds) (August 2014)
The potential implications of independence for businesses in Scotland Oxford Economics, Weir (April 2014)
- What is a currency union? What implications would there be for Scotland being in a currency union with the rest of the UK?
- If you could measure the effects of independence over the next ten years, would you treat £1m of benefits or costs occurring in ten years’ time the same as £1m of benefits and costs occurring next year? Explain.
- Is it inevitable that events occurring in the future will at best be known unknowns?
- If you make a statement that something will occur in the future and you turn out to be wrong, was your statement a positive one or a normative one?
- What would be the likely effects of Scottish independence on the current account of the balance of payments (a) for Scotland; (b) for the rest if the UK?
- How does inequality in Scotland compare with that in the rest of the UK and in other countries? Why might Scottish independence lead to a reduction in inequality? (See the chapter on inequality in the book above edited by David Bell, David Eiser and Klaus B Beckmann.)
- One of the problems in assessing the arguments for a Yes vote is uncertainty over what would happen if there was a majority voting No. What might happen in terms of further devolution in the case of a No vote?
- Why is there uncertainty over the amount of national debt that would exist in Scotland if it became independent?
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?