Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Notes on Brexit and the Pound by Paul Krugman

The much-hyped severe Brexit recession does not, so far, seem to be materializing – which really shouldn’t be that much of a surprise, because as I warned, the actual economic case for such a recession was surprisingly weak. (Ouch! I just pulled a muscle while patting myself on the back!) But we are seeing a large drop in the pound, which has steepened as it becomes likely that this will indeed be a very hard Brexit. How should we think about this?

Originally, stories about a pound plunge were tied to that recession prediction: domestic investment demand would collapse, leading to sustained very low interest rates, hence capital flight. But the demand collapse doesn’t seem to be happening. So what is the story?

For now, at least, I’m coming at it from the trade side – especially trade in financial services. It seems to me that one way to think about this is in terms of the “home market effect,” an old story in trade but one that only got formalized in 1980.

Here’s an informal version: imagine a good or service subject to large economies of scale in production, sufficient that if it’s consumed in two countries, you want to produce it in only one, and export to the other, even if there are costs of shipping it. Where will this production be located? Other things equal, you would choose the larger market, so as to minimize total shipping costs. Other things may not, of course, be equal, but this market-size effect will always be a factor, depending on how high those shipping costs are.

In one of the models I laid out in that old paper, the way this worked out was not that all production left the smaller economy, but rather that the smaller economy paid lower wages and therefore made up in competitiveness what it lacked in market access. In effect, it used a weaker currency to make up for its smaller market.

In Britain’s case, I’d suggest that we think of financial services as the industry in question. Such services are subject to both internal and external economies of scale, which tends to concentrate them in a handful of huge financial centers around the world, one of which is, of course, the City of London. But now we face the prospect of seriously increased transaction costs between Britain and the rest of Europe, which creates an incentive to move those services away from the smaller economy (Britain) and into the larger (Europe). Britain therefore needs a weaker currency to offset this adverse impact.

Does this make Britain poorer? Yes. It’s not just the efficiency effect of barriers to trade, there’s also a terms-of-trade effect as the real exchange rate depreciates.

But it’s important to be aware that not everyone in Britain is equally affected. Pre-Brexit, Britain was obviously experiencing a version of the so-called Dutch disease. In its traditional form, this referred to the way natural resource exports crowd out manufacturing by keeping the currency strong. In the UK case, the City’s financial exports play the same role. So their weakening helps British manufacturing – and, maybe, the incomes of people who live far from the City and still depend directly or indirectly on manufacturing for their incomes. It’s not completely incidental that these were the parts of England (not Scotland!) that voted for Brexit.

Is there a policy moral here? Basically it is that a weaker pound shouldn’t be viewed as an additional cost from Brexit, it’s just part of the adjustment. And it would be a big mistake to prop up the pound: old notions of an equilibrium exchange rate no longer apply.


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