An independent Scotland’s currency options redux: assessing the costs and benefits of currency choice

By Ronald MacDonald Adam Smith Professor of Political Economy University of Glasgow and Research Fellow, CESifo Policy Group, Munich


A non-technical resume:

• This paper demonstrates that all of the currency options available to an independent Scotland come with the price tag of an austerity programme. This is due to the need to accumulate foreign exchange reserves.

• The only currency option that maximizes the benefits and minimizes the costs of independence is that of a separate currency. All of the other options have none of the benefits but even greater costs than the separate currency option.

• The ball-park cost of setting up a separate currency, purely in terms of the foreign exchange reserves required, is a minimum £40bn. This is the sum of money similar sized Nordic countries – such as Denmark, Norway and Sweden – need to run a variety of different independent currency regimes, from a float to a fixed rate, and a managed float.

• In this paper we demonstrate that an independent Scotland, even including oil revenues, will have a balance of payments deficit of between 2-5% on its current balance; that is around £6bn. An independent Scotland is also projected to have a budget deficit of 5% of GDP.

• Taken together these so-called twin deficits indicate that to have a separate currency an independent Scotland would need to run a fiscal austerity programme in terms of having a budget surplus of 5% of GDP just to balance the external books. To gather in the sums of money needed to run and independent currency regime would require an even larger fiscal surplus, perhaps up to 10% of GDP.

• The Belgium Luxemburg Economic Union (BLEU) is given as an example of how Plan A might work. However the BLEU does not remotely resemble the sterling zone monetary union, future or present. There were no less than three changes in the exchange rate relationship between Belgium and Luxemburg during its life, they ran a dual exchange rate system with separate exchange rates for current and capital account transactions and a raft of controls on capital and trade run through the banking sector. Neither of the countries was a net exporter of hydrocarbons.

• The retention of a sterling monetary union post-independence – Plan A– will not work because it does not allow an independent Scotland to adjust to changes in competitiveness as a result of becoming a petro currency, post-independence.

• Our calculations show that because of the petro-currency effect the competitiveness of Scotland’s non-oil export sector will worsen by approximately 7% per annum.

• This loss of competitiveness can only be addressed by a dramatic rise in productivity of around 7% or internal adjustment of wage cuts and a rise in unemployment much as what happened in Greece and Spain recently.

• The competitiveness of firms trading in Scotland will be volatile and uncertain containing the same risks and costs as a separate currency with none of the benefits.

• Since Plan A is now regarded as a transitory arrangement to an alternative currency regime, the government would need to accumulate the £40bn of foreign exchange reserves mentioned above, on top of wage cuts and unemployment.

• Plan A is therefore a recipe for austerity +. Of course, such a policy would be extremely unpopular and the Scottish Government would be forced to abandon the fixed exchange rate relationship with rUK.

• However, history shows that governments cling to fixed exchange rate relationships for too long when underlying competitiveness is changing and this eventually produces a classic currency crisis.

• I estimate that a currency crisis would cost the Scottish taxpayer between £25bn to £35bn and could cost up to £100bn. If a banking crisis followed that could add a further £100bn. The cost to rUK will be much greater. Furthermore, a currency crisis would most likely lead to a further banking crisis which would dramatically increase these costs even further.

Adopting the pound informally – Sterlingisation is without doubt the worst possible currency option for an independent Scotland for a number of reasons. First, since sterling would be a foreign currency a reserve balance of at least £40bn would be needed just to smooth out balance of payments deficits and surpluses. Second, because it is a fixed rate system it could not address competiveness issues arising from the petro-currency effect. Third, to insure the sterling retail bank deposits held in Scotland would require a further accumulation of reserves of £120bn. Fourth, an independent Scotland would need to float its debt in sterling and need to acquire foreign exchange reserves to back this, another £6bn, or pay ruinously high interest rates in the absence of such backing. This would be austerity ++.

Adopting the Euro. The Euro zone is another form of one-size-fits all monetary policy, similar to the sterling zone, and would not be a suitable currency regime for an independent Scotland. Since Scotland would be a petro-currency it would suffer a loss of competiveness with respect to other Euro zone member that could not be addressed by a nominal exchange rate adjustments. So, much as in the recent Greek experience, competitiveness could only be maintained by wage / price cuts and higher than average unemployment – an austerity programme. Furthermore, since EU regulations require a country to have a separate currency and central bank before joining the euro an independent Scotland would have to build up the above noted pool of reserve. It is also unlikely to meet the relevant criteria for the government’s fiscal position and total debt provision.

A separate currency is the only option that facilitates an appropriate macroeconomic policy for an independent Scotland. It would give the maximum flexibility in the operation of fiscal and monetary policy and it is the only option that financial markets would find credible. However, given the limited foreign exchange reserves an independent Scotland would inherit, a pure float would need to be run in the initial years of independence, generating considerable uncertainty and risk for trade and investment, although not markedly different to that in a formal monetary union. An austerity programme of budget surpluses would also be required to gain credibility with financial markets and to gather in the required £40bn of foreign exchange reserves to run a managed system. There will be continued turmoil in financial markets until this option is chosen and designed appropriately.

To view the paper in full please visit the CEFiso website or click cesifopaper to  download