Currency Reflections: Currency Options

Published: 12 February 2014
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ESRC Fellow Angus Armstrong discusses currency options for an independent Scotland in the wake of Chancellor George Osborne's speech in Edinburgh.

Chancellor Osborne today ruled out a formal currency union with an independent Scotland. What would be the Scottish Government's next move?

We expect the Scottish Government to argue that a currency union, even if it is an informal union ('sterlingization'), is possible and the path to follow. In our view, because of the level of debt an independent Scotland would inherit, this arrangement is likely to be unstable. An alternative coherent option is for an independent Scotland to introduce its own currency. These options are discussed fully by myself and my ESRC colleague Professor Bell and Professor MacDonald here.

The foundations for an announcement were laid in Governor Carney's speech two weeks ago. It was no coincidence that the two examples of successful currency unions were also political unions (USA and Canada) and the unsuccessful example was not a political union (Euro zone). The issue is whether it can be in both countries interest to agree to cross-border insurance programmes (such as for unemployment benefit) to make a union between sovereign states workable. These are not small matters. Governor Carney showed that in federal states with currency unions, such spending is usually around one quarter of GDP. Why these arrangements are necessary? The dynamics are explained with my colleague Dr Monique Ebell here.

If the press is correct, the two remaining options are (a) an informal currency union ('dollarization' or 'sterlingization' in this case), and (b) re-introducing a Scottish new currency.

The informal currency union or 'sterlingization' option is possible as this would not commit the Bank of England or UK tax payers to any involvement. It would be for an independent Scotland to choose to use sterling but with no influence over Bank of England policy. Whether this is wise is a very different question. Some states have 'dollarized'; although they tend to be either very small such as Monaco and Liechtenstein with the euro and Swiss franc, or bigger but less developed states such as Ecuador or Guatemala with the US dollar. They are either tiny states with minimal debt, countries in transition from communism or countries for which this is very much a last option. The prime example of a long lasting currency board in a modern city with a large financial centre is Hong Kong, which survives specifically because it has no debt.

The other option is for Scotland to issue its own currency. Indeed, when one looks at countries of similar size and level of income (for example, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Denmark) they all have their own currency. The transition from using sterling to introducing a new currency would be long and difficult, but it is possible (see here for some of the challenges). What's more, at the end of the transition an independent Scotland would have all the instruments for economic policy of a modern state. As the Fiscal Commission made clear "in the long run, the creation of a new Scottish currency would represent a significant increase in economic sovereignty, with interest rate and exchange rate policy being two new policy tools and adjustment mechanisms to support the Scottish economy."

One bad idea which has occasionally been hinted at is the possibly that an independent Scotland reneges on paying its share of the UK debt on independence. If an independent Scotland were to do this and then have a fast track into the EU or even NATO, what sort of precedent would this create for any other region in an indebted country around the world? How secure would international investors and even citizens feel about lending to the government? This is unlikely to strike negotiators as a responsible line of argument.

By Dr Angus Armstrong and Dr Monique Ebell

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