The latest balance of payments data for the UK show that in the final two quarters of 2013 the current account deficit as a percentage of GDP was the highest ever recorded. In quarter 3 it was 5.6% of GDP and in quarter 4 it was 5.4% of GDP. The previous highest quarterly figures were 5.3% in 1988 Q4 and 5.2% in 1989 Q3. The average current account deficit from 1960 to 2013 has been 1.1% of GDP and from 1980 to 2013 has been 1.6% of GDP.
The current account has four major components: the balance on goods, the balance on services, the balance on current transfers and the balance on income flows (e.g. investment income). The chart below shows the annual balances of each of these components, plus the overall current account balance, from 1960 to 2013.
There are large differences in the balances of these four and the differences seem to be widening. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
Traditionally the balance on goods has been negative. In 2013 Q3 the deficit on goods reached a record 7.3% of GDP. It fell back somewhat in Q4 to 6.5%, still significantly above the average since 2000 of 5.5%. With the economy still recovering slowly, it would normally be expected that the trade deficit would be low. However, the high exchange rate has made it difficult for UK exporters to compete. Also with consumer confidence returning, imports are rising, again boosted by the high exchange rate, which makes imports cheaper.
The services balance, by contrast, is typically in surplus. In the final two quarters of 2013, the surpluses were 4.9% and 5.1% of GDP respectively. These compare with an average of 3.3% since 2000. It seems that the service sector, which includes banking, insurance, consultancy, advertising, accountancy, law, etc., is much more able to compete in a global environment.
The balance of current transfers to and from such bodies as the EU and UN have traditionally been negative, although as a proportion of GDP this has gradually widened in recent years. In 2013 the deficit was 1.7% compared with an average of 1.0% since 2000.
The most dramatic change has been in income flows and particularly those from investment. Before the crash in late 2008, the returns to many of the risky investments abroad made by UK financial institutions were very high. Income flows in the 12 months 2007 Q4 to 2008 Q3 averaged a surplus of 2.8% of GDP. They stayed positive, albeit at lower levels, until 2012 Q1, but then became negative as UK institutions reduced their exposure to overseas investments and as earnings in the UK by overseas investors increased. In the last two quarters of 2013, the deficits on income flows were 1.4% and 2.5% of GDP respectively.
How do these figures accord with the Chancellor’s desire to rebalance the economy towards exports? In terms of services, the export performance is good. In terms of goods, however, exports actually fell in the last two quarters from £78.4bn to £74.8bn. Although imports fell too in the final quarter, there is a danger that, with recovery and a high pound, these could begin to rise rapidly
So should the Bank of England attempt to bring the sterling exchange rate down? After all, the exchange rate index has risen from 79.1 in March 2013 to 85.9 in February 2014 (an appreciation of 8.6%). But if it did want to do so, what could it do? The traditional methods of reducing Bank rate and increasing the money supply are not open to it at the present time: Bank rate, at 0.5%, is already about as low as it could go and the Bank has ruled out any further quantitative easing.
The articles consider the latest balance of payments figures and their implications for the economy and for economic policy
UK current account deficit far bigger than forecast The Guardian, Katie Allen (28/3/14)
UK current account deficit near record high at £22.4bn BBC News (28/3/14)
UK current account gap second widest on record The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (28/3/14)
When will the UK pay its way? BBC News, Robert Peston (28/3/14)
Current account deficit crisis creeping up on UK can no longer be ignored The Guardian, Larry Elliott (30/3/14)
Balance of Payments, Q4 and annual 2013 ONS (28/3/14)
Statistical Interactive Database – interest & exchange rates data Bank of England
- If the current account is in deficit, how is the overall balance of payments in balance (i.e. is in neither deficit nor surplus)?
- If the current account is in record deficit, why has sterling appreciated over recent months? What effect is this appreciation likely to have on the balance on trade in goods and services?
- Why has the balance on investment income deteriorated? In what ways could this be seen as a ‘good thing’?
- To what extent do the balance of payments figures show a rebalancing of the economy in the way the Chancellor would like?
- What could the Bank of England do to bring about a depreciation of sterling?
- What would be the benefits and costs of a depreciation of sterling?
- Why do investors overseas seem so willing to lend to the UK, thereby producing a large surplus on the financial account?
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?
The exchange rate for sterling is determined in much the same way as the price of goods – by the interaction of demand and supply.
When factors change that cause residents abroad to want to hold more or fewer pounds, the demand curve for sterling will shift. If, instead, factors change that cause UK residents to want to buy more or less foreign currency, then the supply curve of sterling will shift. It is these two curves that determine the equilibrium exchange rate of sterling.
There are concerns at the moment that sterling is about to reach a peak, with expectations that the pound will weaken throughout 2013. But is a weakening exchange rate good or bad for the UK?
With lower exchange rates, exports become relatively more competitive. This should lead to an increase in the demand for UK products from abroad. As exports are a component of aggregate demand, any increase in exports will lead to the AD curve shifting to the right and thus help to stimulate a growth in national output. Indeed, throughout the financial crisis, the value of the pound did fall (see chart above: click here for a PowerPoint) and this led to the total value of UK exports increasing significantly. However, the volume of UK exports actually fell. This suggests that whilst UK exporters gained in terms of profitability, they have not seen much of an increase in their overall sales and hence their market share.
Therefore, while UK exporters may gain from a low exchange rate, what does it mean for UK consumers? If a low exchange rate cuts the prices of UK goods abroad, it will do the opposite for the prices of imported goods in the UK. Many goods that UK consumers buy are from abroad and, with a weak pound, foreign prices become relatively higher. This means that the living standards of UK consumers will be adversely affected by a weak pound, as any imported goods buy will now cost more.
It’s not just the UK that is facing questions over its exchange rate. Jean-Claude Junker described the euro as being ‘dangerously high’ and suggested that the strength or over-valuation of the exchange rate was holding the eurozone back from economic recovery. So far the ECB hasn’t done anything to steer its currency, despite many other countries, including Japan and Norway having already taken action to bring their currencies down. Mario Draghi, the ECB’s president, however, said that ‘both the real and the effective exchange rate of the euro are at their long-term average’ and thus the current value of the euro is not a major cause for concern.
So, whatever your view about intervening in the market to steer your currency, there will be winners and losers. Now that countries are so interdependent, any changes in the exchange rate will have huge implications for countries across the world. Perhaps this is why forecasting currency fluctuations can be so challenging. The following articles consider changes in the exchange rate and the impact this might have.
A pounding for sterling in 2013? BBC News, Stephanomics, Stephanie Flanders (17/1/13)
UK drawn into global currency wars as slump deepens Telegraph, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard (16/1/13)
Foreign currency exchange rate predictions for GBP EUR, Forecasts for USD and NZD Currency News, Tim Boyer (15/1/13)
Euro still looking for inspiration, Yen firm Reuters (16/1/13)
Daily summary on USD, EUR, JPY, GBP, AUD, CAD and NZD International Business Times, Roger Baettig (16/1/13)
UK inflation bonds surge on Index as pound falls versus euro Bloomberg, Business News, Lucy Meakin (10/1/13)
- Which factors will cause an increase in the demand for sterling? Which factors will cause a fall in the supply of sterling?
- In the article by Stephanie Flanders from the BBC, loose monetary policy is mentioned as something which is likely to continue. What does this mean and how will this affect the exchange rate?
- Explain the interest- and exchange-rate transmission mechanisms, using diagrams to help your answer.
- If sterling continues to weaken, how might this affect economic growth in the UK? Will there be any multiplier effect?
- What is the difference between the volume and value of exports? How does this relate to profit margins?
- Why are there suggestions that the euro is over-valued? Should European Finance Ministers be concerned?
- Should governments or central banks intervene in foreign exchange markets?
- If all countries seek to weaken their currencies in order to make their exports more competitive, why is this a zero-sum game?
From the end of January to the beginning of March, the sterling exchange rate index fell by over 6% – from 81.7 to 76.5. Against the dollar, the fall has been even more dramatic, falling from $1.62 to $1.49 (a fall of 8%). What are the reason for this? And is the depreciation likely to continue? The following clip looks at what has been going on and whether the reasons are political, or whether there are other economic fundamentals that have contributed to sterling’s fall.
Stephanie Flanders on the pound BBC Politics Show, Jo Coburn and Stephanie Flanders (2/3/10)
One-way bet? BBC News blogs: Stephanomics, Stephanie Flanders (1/3/10)
Euro drops to lowest level in 10 months against dollar BBC News (2/3/10)
Fiscal and political fears hit sterling Financial Times, Peter Garnham (1/3/10)
Sterling’s slide is not just about polls Financial Times (2/3/10)
Sterling rout is more than a wobble over political uncertainty Guardian, Larry Elliott (1/3/10)
The pound is weighed down Guardian, Howard Davies (2/3/10)
Sterling jitters The Economist (1/3/10)
Sterling crisis might break Britain’s political and economic paralysis Telegraph, Jeremy Warner (3/3/10)
- What are the reasons for the depreciation of sterling between January and March 2010?
- Why was selling sterling a ‘one-way bet’ for speculators?
- Why might there have been ‘overshooting’ of the sterling exchange rate?
- Who gain and who lose from a depreciation of sterling?
- What is the likely effect of a depreciation of sterling on (a) inflation; (b) economic growth; (c) interest rates? Explain your answers.
- How do problems of government debt affect countries’ exchange rates?
The pound has been rising against the US dollar recently. And as the dollar has fallen, so the prices of various commodities, such as gold and silver, have been rising. So what are the reasons for these currency and commodity price movements? The simple answer is that they merely reflect changes in demand and supply. But why have demand and supply been changing? Are there changes in the underlying economic fundamentals, or do they largely reflect speculation in times of uncertainty and resulting market overcorrection? The following articles address these questions.
Sterling rises on hopes of recovery Financial Times (4/6/09)
Jeremy Warner: Dollar weakness is a sign that things are on the mend Independent (4/6/09)
Stephanie Flanders Blog: What goes down… BBC News (3/6/09)
Dollar on the rack International Business Times (1/6/09)
Sterling hits six-month high against the dollar Times Online (29/5/09)
Exchange rates: What next for the pound? This is Money (2/6/09)
Gold News BullionVault (3/6/09)
The Top 10 Reasons to Hold Gold, Bar None! The Motley Fool (2/6/09)
- Explain why the pound been rising strongly against the dollar.
- What is likely to happen to the exchange rate of the pound against the dollar and the euro over the next few months?
- If it were possible to predict the future exchange rate today, what would happen to the exchange rate today?
- Why might it be a good time to buy gold? Why might it be too late?