Mitchell’s Musings 7-11-16: Brexit keeps on giving

08 Jul 2016 5:33 PM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

Mitchell’s Musings 7-11-16: Brexit keeps on giving


Daniel J.B. Mitchell


The Brexit event keeps on giving, at least to this blog, since I have been writing about it in the past few weeks. But let’s put aside the political ramifications of Brexit, which are big in Britain and – some think – within the larger EU. Let’s put aside analysis of why a (slim) majority of British voters favored Brexit. And let’s put aside the question of whether, in the long run, Britain would be better off inside or outside the EU. Apart from those important issues, there are lessons about exchange rates embedded in the aftermath of Brexit.


Let’s start with the observation, as the three charts below illustrate, that immediately after the Brexit shock, the pound fell in value relative to the US dollar, the euro, and the yen, all of them major world currencies.




In effect, there was an immediate shock to financial markets at the time of the election. You can argue about the market reaction. Was it “justified” in depreciating the pound as much as it did? Was it an overreaction? Whatever it was, it led to a flight from the pound towards other currencies once the result of the election was known. So the pound fell in value in response.


Now consider two scenarios. First, suppose the British had attempted to hold the exchange rate to the level that it was before the shock. The British authorities would have had to buy up the unwanted pounds – as investors shed them – using Britain’s foreign currency reserves to do it. Since they could not create US dollars, euros, or yen, they would have had to run down their reserves and possibly work out deals with foreign central banks to borrow needed currency. Those central banks might have demanded sharp increases in British interest rates to attract demand back to the pound. Even if they didn’t, Britain might have raised interest rates to make the pound more attractive and reduce the shift away from the pound.


Such interest rate hikes might have caused a recession or slowed the economy. Recessions or slowdowns, by cutting imports, do tend to add to net demand for a currency. But they are painful. In short, under this scenario, Britain, given a Brexit-type crisis, would have had the kind of “balance of payments crisis” that was common when the world was on fixed exchange rates until the early 1970s.


Second, suppose the British had in the past become part of the euro-zone and then experienced a negative shock of the Brexit magnitude. For reasons dealt with in prior musings, we say “Brexit magnitude” rather than Brexit because pulling out of the EU for a country that was also part of the euro-zone would mean pulling out of that zone, which really is not feasible.[1]


To stimulate their economy, the British authorities might have wanted to provide a domestic demand boost to offset the shock. But they could not have used monetary policy since – under this hypothetical scenario - they had previously given up their national currency. They might have tried a fiscal stimulus. But that would likely have entailed running a budget deficit. And as any state or local government official within the “US dollar zone” could point out, borrowing in a currency you can’t create leads to budget crises and rising interest rates on government debt.


So the first lesson is that having a floating exchange rate, as Britain does, acts as a kind of macro cushion. The exchange rate absorbs some of the shock. And it also allows more freedom in domestic macroeconomic policy. While Brexit brought out all the clichés about living in a global economy, the presence of a flexible exchange rate in fact acted as a partial insulation against globalism for Britain. If you like, Britain was already less global than those countries within the euro-zone.


There is another lesson. The ultimate in a fixed exchange rate is not having a national currency at all, as characterizes countries within the euro-zone. They have the least latitude in dealing with negative shocks. Countries with separate currencies, but some kind of target exchange rate, have more latitude. They can always, as a last resort, abandon their target. Countries with floating rates have the most flexibility – but represent the least global of the three options:  1) having no national currency, 2) having a separate currency but fixed exchange rate, and 3) having a floating exchange rate.


In its history within the EU and its predecessor agreements, Britain has moved from having a separate currency and a floating rate, to trying to maintain a target exchange rate relative to its partners, then back to having a floating rate in 1992 and after, and now to Brexit.[2] Viewed that way, Brexit was a further step toward autonomy within a British history of trying to balance autonomy and connection, rather than something totally new. There seems to be a need in the news media to see the eve of destruction in the Brexit vote. The latest such overheated prognostication is that the world is about to have a currency war due to Brexit.[3] In reality, there is a long history of Britain varying its economic linkage to continental Europe. So keep calm.

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[1] Yes, during the Greek crisis, there were many discussions of a “Grexit” involving giving up the euro and creating a new drachma. But no one ever laid out how that could be done.

[2] Britain joined the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973 as the post-World War II regime of fixed exchange rates was collapsing. At around that time, there was an attempt by various member countries – but not the UK - to maintain target exchange rates between them, an effort known as the “snake in the tunnel.” When that failed, other target rate systems were tried. Britain for a time was part of those efforts but pulled out in 1992.

[3] http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-brexit-currency-fallout-20160706-snap-story.html.  


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