Scotland Has no Feasible Currency Options on Independence

Originally written in response to an article by Monbiot here:

One immediate problem is that Monbiot begs the question, in that he assumes the conclusion he is trying to prove as a premise in his argument. This can be seen throughout the first four paragraphs. He aims to conclude that Scotland should be an independent country starting from a set of rhetorical questions premised on Scotland being a country. True but irrelevant, since the question at issue is exactly whether Scotland should be an independent country. To see this more clearly, note that his argument, if valid, goes through for anything you call a country: Wales, London, Pimlico, the local pub. Should Pimlico accept the hegemony of Westminster…?

A more serious problem is that whether or not Monbiot is right that there is a much better possibility in the offing depends on whether there is a feasible path to get there. Otherwise he is arguing that we would all be better off living on the moon in gold houses. True, but irrelevant, because we can’t do it. Here the currency problem comes to the fore. Monbiot concedes that Scotland might have no control over its currency post-independence, and seeks to minimise that difficulty by arguing that this represents no change against the status quo. Maybe, but the problem is much worse than that. Scotland in fact has no viable currency options post-independence.

The possibilities are a) keep the pound or b) join the Euro.

a). in fact splits into two possibilities. a1). is to obtain agreement from Westminster to retain the use of the pound on the same basis as the remaining-UK (RUK). a2), also known as Sterlingisation or the Panama option, is to use the pound without agreement from Westminster.

It is possibility a1). that all Westminster parties have ruled out. The pro-independence camp here argues that the Westminster parties are bluffing here. They are not. RUK cannot afford to bluff here. The pro-independence camp says they will not take on their share of UK debt (£100bn) if Westminster does not let them use the pound. Westminster is in fact going to bite that bullet if need be. RUK is already on the hook for the entire current amount of UK debt. This is because RUK has already been required by international bond markets to state that it will be standing behind all current UK debt because the international bond markets were not prepared to accept the risk that they might end up holding Scottish debt. (There is an interest rate at which they would be prepared to do so, but it is much higher than either the UK or RUK rates, because an independent Scotland would not have a Aaa rating.) So this option will not be available.

Possibility a2) is where the pound is just used to make retail purchases in Scotland. It is true that Westminster cannot stop this and nor need it. It is simply not a problem for RUK, just as it is not a problem for the US that Panama uses the dollar. However, Westminster can and must prevent Scotland from issuing pound-denominated debt. It cannot be allowed since Scotland would be issuing debt for which RUK would be responsible. (This is fact is the other way around. No authority could be given to Scotland to issue debt.) Similarly, the Bank of England will not guarantee Scottish banks because it would not be in a position to regulate them. Since Scotland will continue to be in a financial deficit position after independence, like the UK and RUK, it will need to issue debt. So this option will not be available.

Possibility b). is the Euro. This again splits into two possibilities like the above, but no one has proposed b2) (`Euroisation’) which has the same fatal problems as a2). So b) means EU membership.

The first problem here is that Spain would have to veto membership or risk fission, starting with Catalonia.

The second problem here is that you don’t join on UK conditions. You join on currently available conditions. That means no opt outs and no rebate. The latter in particular is going to be particularly expensive.

Thirdly, today’s letter from the former European Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs:

is germane here. Key points:

– you can’t join the Euro if you just reneged on your debt as postulated above;

– you can’t join the Euro without a stable central bank (I imagine that means at least three to four years)

– you can’t join the Euro if you have been `sterlingised’ for the candidacy period.

So this option is also impossible.

There are no more options.