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Poundland

robert-burnsThe recent debate over the currency to be used by an independent Scotland has been drearily familiar.  The Yes camp point to the report of the Scottish Government’s Fiscal Commission and claim that the case for a currency union is so blatantly obvious, based as it is on “common sense”, that no other solution can possibly be contemplated.  The No campaign retort that the flaws in the design are so apparent, and the alternatives so non-existent, that Scotland alone of all developed countries will be unable to create an appropriate currency framework, with bankruptcy the presumed result.  The UK Government continues to make blatantly politically motivated threats of non-cooperation which few believe would actually be followed through once the voted have been counted.  At least the old canard about an independent Scotland being “forced to join the Euro” seems finally to have been dropped: the proponents of this absurdity presumably have either finally got around to reading the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, or have come to the conclusion that this is a whopper too far, given the existence of Sweden as clear counter-evidence.

While I understand the desire to reassure people that the arrangements for a newly independent Scotland have been worked out and are set in stone, thus quenching the public thirst for “certainty” (a dubious prospect in any democracy), it seems to me that all sides, but particularly the Yes campaign, were trying a little too hard: not just to provide certainty for the immediate future but to provide certainty for the long term, with the defence of the currency union proposal just a tad too vehement.  (One can also question the dogged fanaticism of their opponents in seeking to expose any tiny flaw in the design, as if this would supposedly invalidate the whole argument.  And by the way, where will UK interest rates be in five years?  Tax rates?)  No one seriously doubts that in the short term Scotland will be retaining sterling: there is a long track record of newly independent countries maintaining their old currency for the purposes of transition.  This ranges from one month after independence in the case of the Czech Republic and Slovakia, to a year for Estonia, to twenty years for the Australian pound to become de-linked to sterling (1910 to 1931) and over fifty years in Ireland, who did not break the one-for-one link with the UK pound until the joined the Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1979.  As the Fiscal Commission has shown, there is a strong case for currency union in the economic circumstances which Scotland finds itself: England would be a major trading partner and currency union eliminates exchange risks and losses.  Due to the integrated nature of the labour market, similar business cycles and parity in productivity and income levels, “one size fits all” policy-making in normal economic times does not pose the same risk that, say Portugal faces in its currency union with Germany.

However, it is incumbent upon those engaged in the debate on Scotland’s future to consider our best long term interests as well as our immediate ones.  After all, economic circumstances can change – sometimes, drastically – and thus the most appropriate policy will change as well.  And there is a definite need to challenge the assumption obscuring the importance of this debate: that monetary policy is safe to leave to others as it is inherently not political – that it is technical engineering best left to experts in central banks, and the less political interference by blundering politicians and rabble-rousers, the better.  This view is based on some admittedly horrendous examples of political interference in the currency, with horrendous economic consequences: hyperinflation in Germany in 1923, caused by the decision of the government to print money in response to the French occupation of the Ruhr, is the best example.  It is also true that the crisis has shown the limits of monetary policy, with interest rates pushing the zero bound and quantitative easing failing to reverse the slump.  Fiscal policy must come into play as well, and it is the precise lack of fiscal policy support due to austerity which has proven most controversial and political.

Nevertheless, monetary policy can be as political as any other aspect of economic policy.  After all, what is the setting of interest rates but a choice between supporting savers and supporting borrowers, or between tackling inflation or boosting employment?  There is also an implicit choice between financial and industrial capital: while John Maynard Keynes forecast the euthanasia of the rentier through permanently low interest rates, the high rates of the early 1980s proved disastrous for UK and American manufacturing.  It has been noted that while the US Federal Reserve has an explicit remit to tackle employment, the European Central Bank does not: this has real world implications.  The decision of the ECB to raise interest rates in the summer of 2011, on the grounds that the recession was over and that inflation needed to be tackled, while the Federal Reserve was providing long term certainty for low interest rates in the US, surely is not coincidental to the respective economic performance of the two super-blocks.  In addition, the two-year agonising of the ECB over whether to support (i.e. reduce) the interest rates paid on government bonds by distressed Mediterranean countries through purchase of these bonds in the secondary debt market (the so-called Outright Monetary Transactions, a dilemma which was finally resolved by Mario Draghi’s statement last summer that the ECB would do whatever it takes to support Spain – a promise which has not had to be fulfilled yet) was due to the inherently political nature of the decision, which would in effect transfer wealth from one Member State to another.  The ECB felt that, in order for true popular legitimacy, this was a decision best taken by – politicians.

So the implications for Scotland of monetary policy decisions are potentially profound: perhaps not so much in ordinary times, but definitely in difficult economic times when bold action is required.  Notwithstanding the undoubted benefits of having no exchange transfers with our largest trading partner (though independence will surely offer us the opportunity of developing new markets), the case for a separate Scottish currency, on pure “flexibility of policy-making” grounds, has a lot to argue for it.  It is certainly superior to another option which has been proposed, that of sharing a currency with the UK without their consent, which would imply giving up monetary policy control entirely.  This is the equivalent of the actions of a number of countries, such as Argentina, who chose to peg their currency to the dollar to promote “stability”.  The results were disastrous: the peso became over-valued by the late 1990s and Argentina lost competitiveness in its critical export markets, contributing to the collapse which occurred in 2001.  Parity with the pound without policy offsets would also potentially entail the sort of currency strength which proved lethal to manufacturing in the 1980s.

Advocating an independent currency on the grounds of controlling interest rates is only part of the story: though an important chapter, as demonstrated by the ECB’s artificially high rates in 2011.  There are several other elements.  First, financial regulation.  The Scottish Government’s Fiscal Commission notes that macro prudential and micro prudential regulation would have to be “discharged on a consistent basis across the Sterling zone.”  The UK system of financial regulation has not covered itself in glory in recent years, from the LIBOR scandal, to the failure to properly investigate initial concerns about reckless banking at HBOS.  The UK Government have proposed watering down the proposals of the Vickers Commission (which will ring fence retail banking protected by deposit insurance from the more risky investment trading) on issues such as leverage ratios, and have been isolated in Europe due to their attempts to weaken European legislation on financial regulation, such as their refusal to support the Capital Requirements Directive due to the desire to protect bankers’ bonuses, and their opposition to the Financial Transaction Tax.  This is not a promising basis for an effective working relationship on financial sector reform, and a strong motivation for Scotland to seek its own solutions.

Flexibility in exchange rate policy is a second advantage of controlling monetary policy.  There can be no better example of these advantages than Iceland, whose currency devalued 50% against the dollar and who imposed capital controls to prevent a debilitating capital flight in the wake of banking collapse (admittedly, membership of the EU would make the latter a more difficult policy option for Scotland).  According to the European Commission’s 2012 Progress Report on Iceland, GDP rose by 2.6% in 2011, with unemployment down, industrial production up and the current account deficit narrowing, with the value of exports up from 2.9b EUR in 2009 to 3.8b EUR in 2011.  Of course, adjustment has not been without pain for the Icelandic people.  However, without the ability to devalue, adjustment in unit labour costs necessary to restore competitiveness can only come through deflation of internal demand – using the very austerity policies which have caused misery in Greece, Spain and Portugal.

Third, freedom in fiscal and macroeconomic policy.  While the exact details of a “fiscal pact” remain to be determined, it would undoubtedly involve spending and borrowing limits to curb excessive deficits.  We are told this is no problem as an independent Scottish Government will not behave “recklessly” in any case.  This is certainly on the face of it true, given the herculean efforts of the present Government to stick within ever-decreasing block grants.  But much depends on the definition of “reckless”, particularly in extraordinary economic times, given the divergences in ideology.  It is not beyond the realms of the imagination to conceive of a UK Government, even more committed to austerity than the current one, demanding strict limitations on a Scottish government deficit to below 3% of GDP during a recession – even though a wiser Scottish Government may be preparing for Keynesian stimulus, with the temporarily higher deficit that involves to offset private retrenchment.  We do not even have to invent a scenario.  The Fiscal Treaty signed by 25 Member States at the end of 2011, committing them to keep government deficits within 3% of GDP, and thus entrenching austerity in their constitutions, was economic madness in the middle of a recession, and impossible to comply with anyway, as the repeated requests from Spain for more time to reduce its deficit have shown.  A currency union could impose an uncomfortable straightjacket that we would be better off without.

Finally, policy in the direst of economic straights: hopefully never to be encountered, but preparations must be made nonetheless.  Financial regulators and central banks control decision making over the recovery, bail-out or liquidation of banks, and over whether to boost the money supply and generate renewed lending through quantitative easing.  Here we can only deal in hypothetical scenarios in a currency union, but they are not difficult to perceive, such as a hard-money Bank of England refusing to purchase bonds or to stimulate the money supply, in similar fashion to the European Central Bank’s actions over the past few years; or the very real-world failure to engage in imaginative forms of QE which ensure that the money actually reaches its intended targets, with overall lending continuing to decline since 2009; or a decision by the UK regulator to liquidate a bank of little importance to the English economy but of great importance to Scotland.  None of these scenarios I feel are entirely outlandish.  They are merely hostages to fortune, and again, we may well feel it more appropriate to seek our own.

Although monetary policy is indeed political, there is nothing necessarily partisan about such debates, in the current Scottish party set-up.  The clear undertone of fear in the currency debate, from all sides, with the resultant slight glibness and lack of open-mindedness to discussing fully all the options, is disappointing, for a full examination of different scenarios, especially for the long term, is nothing to be afraid of.  The point, under independence, is that we will have the freedom to choose.  And that is the positive side of uncertainty.

 

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  1. Dave Coull says:

    Daniel Wyllie claims that the YES Campaign, in particular, has been seeking to provide “certainty”, not just for the immediate future, but for the longer term, with a “vehement” defence of the currency union proposal.

    Eh?

    Which planet did that happen on, Daniel?

    Because it sure as hell wasn’t this one!

    Dennis Canavan has made it clear that he strongly disagrees with the sterling currency union proposal.

    Okay, so he’s only the Chairman of the YES Campaign, and he was speaking in a personal capacity, not on behalf of the YES Campaign as such. Nevertheless, he wasn’t speaking AGAINST the policy of the YES Campaign either! The fact is, the YES Campaign is a very broadly based campaign, and includes people with different views. Some of these people might favour the currency union proposal, while others, such as the Chairman of the YES Campaign, and myself, do not.

    So, Daniel Wyllie, that being so, where is your evidence for your outlandish claim that the YES Campaign, in particular, has been seeking to provide “certainty”, not just for the immediate future, but for the longer term, with a “vehement” defence of the currency union proposal?

  2. Daniel Wylie says:

    Perhaps it would have been clearer if I had said “Scottish Government”. Indeed, Dennis Canavan has argued in favour of an independent currency, but the alternatives to the currency union have not been advocated in the same depth, or as at high a political level, as the currency union proposal has been by the Scottish Government. I’m pleased that we have a range of different opinions on the Yes side, but the currency union proposal has the preponderance of political force behind it, in my opinion.

  3. Dave Coull says:

    It’s not just a case of “perhaps it would have been clearer if I had…….” What you said was just plain WRONG. The YES Campaign has no policy on this.

  4. Daniel Wylie says:

    Looking at the Yes Scotland page “Answering Your Questions on Currency” (http://www.yesscotland.net/questions_on_currency) it’s clear that the preferred option is a currency union. Although they make very brief reference to other options proposed by “some supporters”, the entire thurst of the argument is to support and highlight the conclusions of the Fiscal Commission i.e. a currency union. e.g. “Retaining the pound as part of a formal monetary union will best promote continued trade…” And this is on the official “We answer your questions on Scottish independence” part of the website. It may not be an “official position” but it’s evident which position they’re pointing to.

  5. ‘The World is Mad’ in my opinion when governments fawn and bend over backwards to satisfy the money men who oversee a piece of coloured paper with pretty pictures on as if they are Gods.

    The Monarchs of Money

    Paper money has no value other than what people have been conditioned into believe in with that false ‘Promise to the bearer’ of its value.

    THE HISTORY OF MONEY PART 1

    To win this referendum we have to keep Sterling as being in our and the rest of the UK interest after that then it all depends on how intact the rest of the world is in what we use as a currency.

  6. cynicalHighlander says:

    Has moderation policy changed?

    1. cynicalHighlander says:

      Try again with a post where I was told ‘You have posted that’.

      ‘The World is Mad’ in my opinion when governments fawn and bend over backwards to satisfy the money men who oversee a piece of coloured paper with pretty pictures on as if they are Gods.

      The Monarchs of Money

      Paper money has no value other than what people have been conditioned into believe in with that false ‘Promise to the bearer’ of its value.

      THE HISTORY OF MONEY PART 1

      To win this referendum we have to keep Sterling as being in our and the rest of the UK interest after that then it all depends on how intact the rest of the world is in what we use as a currency.

    2. YES seems to the answer as my response has been rejected, sad day for democracy and trust no matter which side one is on.

      1. bellacaledonia says:

        Easy Tiger. Humans operate this website.

    3. bellacaledonia says:

      No

  7. Donald Adamson says:

    Daniel,

    Excellent piece, providing a lot of thoughtful and well argued points. An article like this isn’t easy to put together with the clarity of argument that you’ve presented here and the range of issues that you’ve addressed. It’s a helpful and useful intervention in this debate.

    It is dispiriting that the Scottish government’s plans for a currency union are seen by many on the Yes side as the orthodox and ‘authoritative’ position but, given the membership of the Fiscal Commission and the innate conservatism of the SNP, it’s hardly surprising (the term ‘mainstream economics’ covers a multitude of sins). The worrying thing here is that, although the present Scottish government needs to be clearly distinguished from the first and subsequent post-independent governments, it will be this government that negotiates the terms of independence after 2014 and it will use its resources to attempt to create a consensus around the idea of a currency union.

    It is symptomatic of the ‘back-door’ independence being promoted by the SNP, a kind of conservative revolution if you like. At the very least, the Scottish government ought to have set out the case for establishing a Scottish currency after a period of transition in a currency union, a road-map for building Scottish reserves, a regulatory framework, and the relationship between a central bank and the commercial banks in an independent Scotland. Instead, a currency union is presented as a fait accompli and once that has been embedded after independence, it will be difficult to undo.

    That leads to your point about uncertainty, the reduction of which provides much of the justification of the argument of the advocates of a currency union:

    “One can also question the dogged fanaticism of their opponents in seeking to expose any tiny flaw in the design, as if this would supposedly invalidate the whole argument. And by the way, where will UK interest rates be in five years? Tax rates?”.

    The answer, of course, is that no-one knows. Even if we’d learned nothing else from Keynes (and Marx), not to mention our own experience, we’ve learned that uncertainty in a capitalist economy is the norm not the exception, and the British experience is an exemplar here. For example, whether your vantage point was 1970, 1980, 1990, or 2000, no one could have foreseen the events that transpired or the awful consequences of British government and UK Treasury policies in each of these four decades.

    Indeed, you would have thought that the experiences and practices of the British over the last forty years would be enough to discourage any sensibly ambitious country from entering into a currency union with the UK. At present, the British are pursuing a policy of competitive devaluation in an attempt to stimulate exports. But, as John Eatwell recently stated in the House of Lords, the problem for British exporters isn’t lack of price competitiveness. In any case, this policy is, at best, a short-term palliative for, given Britain’s high propensity to import, it’s often forgotten that the flip-side of devaluation is that it increases the price of imports with inevitable consequences in an open capitalist economy. In other words, it’s neither a sustainable policy for an economy like the UK’s, nor will it redress the historical and consistent imbalance in visible trade that forced the British to make the financial turn in the 1980s.

    Similarly, you’re right to question the omnipotence of central bankers, though it’s not so much the historical politicisation of monetary policy that is concerning but the current orthodoxy, under the initial impetus of first, the Washington Consensus, and later the influence of new classical macroeconomics, of the depoliticisation of fiscal and monetary policy that is so worrying. That, after all, is one of the underlying problems that has created the present crisis. The shift from discretionary fiscal and monetary policy to a more inflexible ‘rules-based’ approach, where countries are effectively held to ransom by markets and corporations, has limited the manoeuvrability of governments and imposed policy constraints as governments have engaged in their largely fruitless efforts to satisfy the imperatives of neo-liberal ‘globalisation’.

    The problem of the last three decades hasn’t been central bank money creation but the boom in private credit creation and commercial banks’ money creation. In the British case, private credit creation, house price inflation and financialisation have been the engine of growth in the UK economy since the 1980s. Far from addressing these causes of crisis today, the British, in their policies, show every sign of creating the conditions for the next crisis. This is not an auspicious environment for a ‘currency union’.

    The policy instrument of quantitative easing that you refer to is symptomatic of the British problem. In spite of the scale of British operations, it has had little effect on the real economy and there are no sanctions available to the authorities here to induce the commercial banks to comply. Indeed, in February of this year, Paul Tucker, the Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, raised the threat of negative interest rates. But this was not a sign of the strength of the Bank of England, rather, it only underlined its weakness as well as the weakness of the British banking reforms. The case for nationalisation of the banks has never been stronger than it is today.

    We could start by establishing a national investment bank that could be capitalised from a range of sources after independence. This could form the basis of a long-term investment strategy of economic renewal in an independent Scotland. For example, it could provide tax breaks and other incentives to establish workers co-operatives, or induce existing small firms to convert to co-operatives, to begin the lengthy process of stimulating local economies in Scotland and transferring the ownership of productive resources to those who actually produce the wealth. It could also be used to invest in affordable social housing, with numerous benefits for both local economies and Scotland’s national economy, not least of which would be a re-balancing of housing tenure, to steer an independent Scotland away from the damaging effects of house price inflation, rising consumer indebtedness, and all their consequences for the real economy. This would be a much more productive and socially useful means of allocating resources rather than providing increasing sweeteners to large corporations from overseas.

    The British are paying a high price today for their development into a rentier economy over the last three decades, effectively a parasite on the world economy, living off the productive efforts of other countries. Decades of investment in unproductive ‘fictitious’ capital and lack of investment in the productive economy have left the British ill-equipped to navigate their way out of this crisis. Austerity, quantitative easing and competitive devaluation are poor substitutes for a long-term industrial strategy and economic renewal. And as the present British government intensifies its austerity programme, in a desperate attempt to kick-start the profitability of capital as much as anything else, it is little surprise that the Tories are looking to disengage from Europe, politically and economically, and pursuing the fantasy that Britain should orientate its trade to emerging economies. Again, this is not an auspicious environment for a ‘currency union’.

    Finally, at some point, sooner rather than later, we need to break away from the neo-liberal orthodoxy that ‘low’ taxation is, prima facie, a ‘good’ thing. What we have lost over the last three decades is the notion of the common good, that investment in public goods benefits all of us as well as benefitting future generations. It is disingenuous to argue that an independent Scotland can, in any meaningful sense, achieve the objectives of social justice, greater equality and economic renewal on the basis of a failed neo-liberal model of low taxation, low pay, deregulation, financialisation, and a self-defeating growth agenda.

  8. Simon Barrow says:

    Very good article, and interesting points by Donald Adamson, too.

    Re. “The point, under independence, is that we will have the freedom to choose. And that is the positive side of uncertainty.” I wholly agree. The problem is that a a good number of people who need to be persuaded, and for whom this depth of policy debate is either alien or offputting, simply don’t. They want to know “what the plan is”, or else the view they’ll take is “better the devil you know”. Equally, they want (as one woman put it to me recently) “proof that we really will be better off outside the UK”. This is a *really* tough one to crack, as the naysayers know all too well (which is why they are pressing that button so hard) because the arguments for a different way of looking at things require a high level of political engagement.

    I’m not meaning to be negative here. Gramsci’s “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will” (with the concomitant belief that good will can win) is needed. But its helpful to acknowledge that the necessary debates over issues like currency within the Yes camp – healthy in themselves – don’t translate easily to doorstep and media advocacy, which is where the referendum will be won or lost.

    We need to develop some serious wisdom about bridging the different ‘levels’ of debate in those terms. There’s a parallel here with the austerity debate. The idea that the national economy is like a household budget, Margaret Thatcher’s rhetorical device, is in fact deeply misleading in economic terms. But it sounds like “common sense” to most people. Ditto the “independence means more insecurity because we don’t know what will happen” argument. Yes, I know the standard answers, and agree with them. But do they work with enough “reluctant No” and “undecided” voters?

    Apologies for the tangent from the currency debate – but it’s this debate where a significant section of the political strategy can be examined, and upon which it may ultimately stand or fall. Winning the argument is one thing; winning the vote may be something rather different (to risk stating the obvious-that-eludes-us).

    1. Dave Coull says:

      Having done a bit of knocking on doors for the YES campaign, and having encountered questions about the currency from folk who were not sure how they would vote, I say the future is uncertain, but the greater risk is in continuing to be ruled from London. In the case of the USA, it was a long time before Americans accepted them new-fangled dollars. And of course Ireland kept the pound for a very long time. In fact, every country in the history of the world which has ever became independent has continued to use the existing currency to begin with. Uncertainty? I call it taking control of our own future. Which is something we will never get from London.

  9. Daniel Wylie says:

    Thanks for the comments, and for the Gramsci quote – which I think aptly summarises what being on the left in the era of Thatcher and Blair is like.

    I agree that it is to a large extent a no-win situation (also for the Scottish Government). Leave the options open and you’re accused of not having a plan. Provide the plan and you’re denounced for shutting down the debate. Alternatively, leave it vague about what an independent Scotland might do and you’re condemned for not havving a vision. Provide that vision, and you risk scaring away potential supporters who don’t like your particular vision (aka the current debate about the Scottish Government alienating the left through attempts to attract the business community – and possibly alienating the right by advocating a universal welfare state?) Throw in an utterly unscrupulous opposition, who will quite happily make completely contradictory arguments in the knowledge that parts of the electorate have a short attention span, and the task becomes monumental. I also appreciate the point about needing to keep things uncomplicated and clear for the purposes of mass campaigning – although debates do take place at different levels of detail and we have to be prepared to tackle all of them.

    Where this ties into the specific economic debate, as Donald has pointed to, is the need to take the fight to the opposition. We are at a massive disadvantage if the debate is purely about “Scottish independence: a realistic prospect?” because it is we who have to provide all the answers and they who get to ask all of the questions. We need to copy what Barack Obama did in his successful election campaign: he successfully turned the question from being a referendum on his own performance into a direct comparison between two equal alternatives, forcing people to weight up his opponent, and realise that he was the stronger choice. So, the independence campaign need to put the Union’s record – economic, foreign policy, social, political – under far greater scrutiny than we have been doing so far. Try to force people to realise that the Union is as much a choice as independence, and a choice which needs to justify itself – and, most definitely, a choice which can never justify itself because of its dismal record and its non-existent prospects.

    This goes well beyond criticising the record of the current government, the Bedroom Tax, the cuts to welfare, the Workfare Programme etc etc. This requires a long term exposition of the long term policies and attitudes which have guided the UK, and which fundamentally clash with Scotland’s needs. In the context of this article, Donald talked about the economic failures, such as the dependence on finance, the poor record in exports, the failure to create functioning institutions ensuring a steady supply of capital to the real economy, the reliance on private credit bubbles in finance and housing, the failure to build enough affordable homes etc. Along these lines, the LSE Growth Commission (http://www2.lse.ac.uk/researchAndExpertise/units/growthCommission/home.aspx) point to a number of institutional failures, such as a poor education system, poor quality of infrastructure, lack of diversity in financial institutions and hence lending, and myopic ignorance of vital issues like inequality. I think there’s a potential gold mine here, although I admit that finding the right way to reach people with these arguments is not easy.

    And as someone who works in Brussels I’m sadly all too familiar with the reality of a) the supposed depoliticisation of policy, and b) the reality that policy continues to be ideological, just from a less accountable standpoint – as I think a more recent article on this website makes this point. This ranges from the Commission’s Transport DG putting forward supposedly technocrstic railway proposals that would actually force the whole of Europe to follow the UK model (though it’s not all undemocratic as the Parliament and council can veto/amend), to officials in DG Agriculture trying to influence CAP negotiations by saying “We can’t do that, it’s against WTO rules” as a catch all excuse for their lack of ambition. Ideological power still exists, it’s just shifted positions.

  10. Daniel is right – “The point, under independence, is that we will have the freedom to choose. And that is the positive side of uncertainty.” There is a big BUT though. If Scotland is not ready with its own currency on Day One the bank of England and all its commercial acolytes will be installed in Edinburgh and it will be virtually impossible to dislodge them. There can be no independence without financial independence.

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