Friday, 21 March 2014

Currency unions are like joint accounts

I really did not intend to devote so much space on my blog to the economics of Scottish independence.  I feel obliged to do so because political spin doctors have been engaging overdrive in an apparent attempt to obscure the issues and reduce popular understanding. I have no problem with people making an informed choice.  I do have a problem with people being misled.

In my letter published in yesterday's Falkirk Herald I used the same metaphor that I have previously used on this blog.  When I compare a currency union to the joint bank account of a married couple, I do not of course mean to suggest that they are the same thing, merely that they have a number of helpful similarities.

Not many non-economists have a clear grasp of the nature of currency unions.  Indeed the history of the Eurozone suggests that either a fairly substantial number of economists did not understand these principles either, or that political confidence overwhelmed economic objections.  The disparate economies that were enclosed in the straitjacket of the common currency were simply not sufficiently closely aligned.  A certain number of conjuring tricks were employed to make the figures look reasonably convergent in the qualifying year, but everyone should have realised that the important issue was not the statistics but the underlying reality.

A decade of growth camouflaged the problem; it did not make it go away.  The long rolling series of near defaults was always going to happen. The fact is, that  two divergent macroeconomic policies cannot be accommodated within a single currency zone.

Non-economists will, I hope, find the problem simplified by my analogy.  Like our divorcing couple separating their bank accounts in order to prevent one party from spending the other's money, two countries each need their own currency in order to operate any approximation to an independent monetary policy.  The Eurozone went for the joint account first and  loveless political marriage seems bound to follow if they will not reconsider their mistake.

Scotland is a tenth of the size of the UK and any currency union between the two would never result in her being able to underwrite UK debts.  The UK would have no partners in underwriting Scotland.  In return for taking on unlimited liability the UK is offered freedom from exchange costs that at most would amount to a little more than 1% of what it cost the UK to bail out RBS alone.  Can anyone seriously claim that represents a good deal for the UK?

There is no economic justification for divorcing London in order to marry Berlin.  The Eurozone is going to tighten its political integration.  Unofficial use of sterling can only be a short term stratagem since it would deprive Scotland of any effective monetary policy at all. 

Independence means a new Scottish currency.  There.  It wasn't so hard to say it after all.