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Mitchell’s Musings 6-20-16: If it ain’t broke, don’t Brexit (but it’s not a big deal for the U.S.)

18 Jun 2016 12:25 PM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

Mitchell’s Musings 6-20-16: If it ain’t broke, don’t Brexit (but it’s not a big deal for the U.S.)


Daniel J.B. Mitchell


Obviously, the possibility of Britain leaving the European Union (“Brexit”) is a Big Deal – over there. But let’s put things in perspective from the vantage point of someone on the U.S. side of the Atlantic. It is perfectly possible for a country to be in close geographic proximity with the EU (as is the UK), to have substantial trading and investment relations with it, and yet not to be a member state. Switzerland does it. Norway does it. Both are prosperous countries and would be prosperous countries, whether in or out of the EU. Switzerland in fact considered becoming an EU member but recently withdrew its application to join. Both countries, it might be noted, have independent currencies.


This logic has not limited the hyperbole in the campaign leading up to the Brexit vote. Here’s an example from a recent British headline:


Britain will become an isolated trading post “with the significance of GUERNSEY” if we vote for Brexit says French minister[1]


Britain has long been an EU member.[2] But, like Switzerland and Norway, it has an independent currency and long ago dropped plans to abandon its pound for the euro.[3] So it’s important to distinguish EU membership from being in a monetary union. The latter is a far more significant policy decision – as Greece found out in the last few years. Membership (or not) in a trade group with an umbrella of social and other regulatory arrangements – which is what the EU is – is a lesser decision, particularly since nonmembers can negotiate trade deals with the EU (as Switzerland and Norway have).


Giving up your currency, in contrast, means giving up setting your own monetary policy. It’s a substantial loss of economic sovereignty that also compromises domestic fiscal policy. But, as noted, staying in the EU for the UK doesn’t mean a full-blown monetary union. Indeed, as we pointed out in the case of Greece in prior musings, once you give up your currency, there is no simple way to get it back. Despite the endless talk during the Greek debt crisis that Greece would somehow leave the euro and go back to the drachma (“Grexit”), no one ever specified exactly how that could be done.[4] Indeed, if Britain had joined the euro and given up the pound, there would be no realistic way for it now to consider a Brexit. A dropping of membership in the EU would imply dropping the euro for any euro-zone countries that might consider such a move.[5]


Now it’s true that there is a difference between being in the EU and then pulling out and never having joined it in the first place - as is the case for Norway and Switzerland. Exactly what kind of new relationship might be negotiated with the EU by Britain is unclear. There might be some turmoil in financial markets due to uncertainty. The transitional costs might be appreciable – hence the title of this musing. But what about the implications for the U.S.?


For the U.S., there has been a tendency to attribute domestic monetary policy decisions to a possible Brexit that really have no logical connection to it. Indeed, just about any event can be linked to a possible Brexit if you don’t worry about causality or if you want to invent a story. Drops in the American stock market have been attributed to a possible Brexit in the business news media on the grounds that uncertainty makes investors nervous. But with only a little cleverness, you could easily come up with a hypothetical scenario in which Brexit could boost financial asset prices in the U.S. Example: Turmoil in financial markets abroad leads to a rush by international investors to dollar assets as a “safe haven.” The rush of international liquidity into the U.S. lowers bond yields and boosts the stock market.


The Fed recently decided not to raise interest rates and the Brexit possibility was mentioned in the news media as one factor in the decision. But in fact, the Fed itself did not mention Brexit in its official explanation and referred only vaguely to “financial and international developments.”[6] Fed Chair Janet Yellen, when asked, did say Brexit was a factor in the decision.[7] But as a practical matter, U.S. interest rates are still pretty close to zero as they have been since the Great Recession. What practical difference would it have made – even assuming some financial turmoil due to a Brexit – if the Fed had slightly raised interest rates at its last meeting? It could simply have reversed the increase if that were subsequently deemed appropriate.


Fact is, there was no particular domestic reason to raise interest rates at the last meeting. Inflation is still not apparent. True believers in the quantity theory of money have long ago gone into hiding after years of incorrect inflation-is-just-around-the-corner predictions. The Brexit possibility was more of an excuse than a cause for leaving U.S. monetary policy unchanged. A recent UCLA forecast suggests that the labor market still has some room to expand before full employment constraints become an issue.


In short, we wish our British friends good luck with their upcoming Brexit election on June 23.[8] The case for getting out of the EU is not especially strong since Britain will retain its independent currency, in or out. In the short term, a Brexit might have some negative effects in the UK as folks try to figure out what’s next. There would likely be political fallout since the British prime minister favors continued membership in the EU and has campaigned for it.


In the longer run, a Brexit vote might simply mean some new trading arrangements with the EU. Perhaps a new arrangement might be negotiated for the UK to remain within the EU and a new vote could be held. Or perhaps Britain might stay outside and have a Swiss/Norwegian-type relationship with the EU. Either way, the effect on the U.S. economy - once the dust settles - should be slight and not a driver of macro policy.

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[1] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3648044/Britain-isolated-trading-post-significance-GUERNSEY-vote-Brexit-says-French-minister.html.  

[2] British membership in the predecessor European Economic Community was initially blocked by French President Charles de Gaulle. The headline above suggests French attitudes have changed.  

[3] In 1992, Britain dropped out of a prior European monetary arrangement that was a predecessor to the creation of the euro. Essentially, when it became difficult to maintain the value of the pound relative to the value of a basket of other key EU currencies, Britain abandoned the effort.

[4] Would you print up a bunch of new drachmas and throw them in the street, hoping everyone would pick them up and throw away their euros? If that sounds ridiculous, then what alternative would be the process? During the Greek crisis, did you ever hear anyone propose an actual, workable mechanism for Greece to exit the euro?

[5] Technically, several mini-states such as Monaco use the euro without being official members of the EU. If a major euro-zone country dropped out of the EU but wanted to continue with the euro, some arrangement such as a currency board would be required. A country with a sophisticated financial sector (as the UK possesses), would essentially need an agreement with the EU. But, of course, the UK is not part of the euro-zone.

[6] https://www.federalreserve.gov/newsevents/press/monetary/20160615a.htm

[7] http://www.cnbc.com/2016/06/15/federal-reserve-june-meeting-latest-news-on-the-decision-and-news-conference.html

[8] British opinion polls at this writing are indicating a close vote. The murder of a Labour Party MP who favored membership may have some effect.


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