What are the economics of Scottish independence?

Yesterday saw the First Minster of Scotland fire the starting gun for a second vote on independence from the UK for Scotland as the pace of possible change ratchets up yet another notch. With it came am intriguing view of how long a lifetime is these days! Although I am also reminded of the saying that “a week is a long time in politics”. However as ever I look to steer clear of the political melee and look at the economics. So how is the Scottish economy doing?

Economic growth

The Scottish government has published this data.

When rounded to one decimal place, at 2016 Q2 annual GDP growth in Scotland was 0.9 percentage points lower than in the UK. At 2016 Q3, annual GDP growth in Scotland was 1.2 percentage points lower than in the UK. Between 2016 Q2 and 2016 Q3, the gap between annual Scottish and UK GDP growth increased by 0.3 percentage points in favour of the UK (when rounded to one decimal place).

As you can see the recent performance has been around 1% per annum slower than the UK and may well be accelerating. With the UK economy overall having grown by 0.7% in the last quarter of 2016 that seems likely to have continued but of course there are always dangers in any extrapolation. If we look back we see that in the pre credit crunch period GDP growth was similar then Scotland did worse and then better as presumably the oil price boom benefited it ( although the oil sector itself is excluded). Then until the recent phase Scotland did mildly worse than the rest of the UK.

Looking ahead

The Scottish government plans to improve this and with an eye on future policy has set a European Union based objective.

To match the GDP growth rate of the small independent EU countries by 2017.

How is that going so far?

The latest data show that over the year to 2016 Q3 GDP in Scotland grew by 0.7% whilst GDP growth in the Small EU was 3.5% (measured on a rolling four quarter on four quarter basis). When rounded to one decimal place, this resulted in a gap of 2.8 percentage points in favour of Small EU. This compares to an annual increase in GDP to 2016 Q2 of 1.0% in Scotland, and an increase of 4.2% in the Small EU – resulting in a 3.3 percentage point gap in favour of Small EU (when rounded to one decimal place).

As you can see the gap here is much wider and leaves Scotland with a lot of ground to recoup. If you look at the list that may well get harder.

The small independent EU countries are defined as: Austria, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Portugal and Sweden. Luxembourg has been re-included in the newest update due to a change in availability of data.

Ireland is proving a hard act to follow.

Preliminary estimates indicate that GDP in volume terms increased by 5.2 per cent for the year 2016. GNP showed an increase of 9.0 per cent in 2016 over 2015.

It is an awkward fact that the 21% economic growth registered by Ireland in the first quarter of 2015 lifted the target away from Scotland and it continues to offer something hard to catch. Of course such large moves also challenge the credibility of the Irish data series.

What about employment?

Good but not as good as England currently.

Scotland’s employment rate of 73.6 per cent for Q4 2016, is the second highest across all UK countries, 1.3 percentage points below England. This indicates a worsening position compared with a year ago when Scotland had the highest employment rate across all UK countries, 0.2 percentage points above England (the second highest).

Natutral Resources

Crude Oil and Gas

Plainly Scot;and has considerable resources here although unless there are new discoveries these seem set to decline over time. There have also been big changes in the crude oil price as FullFact reported last October.

It is correct that crude oil prices are currently at around $50 a barrel. Back at the time of the first Scottish independence referendum in September 2014 oil was selling for just over US $90 a barrel.

Energy policy, and how oil revenue would be invested, was part of  the Scottish government’s vision for an independent Scotland……….”With independence we can ensure that taxation revenues from oil and gas support Scottish public services, and that Scotland sets up an Energy Fund to ensure that future generations also benefit from our oil and gas reserves. “

I think that FullFact were being very fair here as there were forecasts from Alex Salmond that the oil price would rise towards US $130 per barrel if my memory serves me right. Whereas it is now US $51 or so in terms of Brent crude oil. So the oil sector has seen something of a recession affecting areas like Aberdeen although there would have been gains for other Scottish businesses and consumers from lower prices.

The Fiscal Position

This has been affected both by the lower oil price and also by the recent trend to lower economic growth than the rest of the UK. The former was highlighted by this from the 2015-16 data.

Scotland’s illustrative share of North Sea revenue fell from £1.8 billion in 2014-15 to £60 million, reflecting a decline in total UK North Sea revenue.

This led to these numbers being reported.

Excluding North Sea revenue, was a deficit of £14.9 billion (10.1 per cent of GDP).

Including an illustrative geographic share of North Sea revenue, was a deficit of £14.8 billion (9.5 per cent of GDP).

For the UK, was a deficit of £75.3 billion (4.0 per cent of GDP).

This adds to an issue I reported on back in my Mindful Money days in November 2013.

So there is something of a shark in the water here. If we add in the fact that Scotland spends more per head than the rest of the UK then the IFS ( Institute for Fiscal Studies) considers that the fiscal position is more dangerous. Both the UK and Scotland spend more than they get in from tax but the Scottish position is more reliant on a fading source of tax revenue. This is what leads to the following conclusion.

As it turns out that source of revenue has ended at least for now and seems to be capped by the shale oil wildcatters for the next few years. All rather different to this.

But a current strength of the numbers is revenue from North Sea oil which was 18.6% of tax revenue in 2011-12 for Scotland.

Of course there would be quite a debate over the share of the UK national debt that would belong to Scotland but the fiscal position is presently poor.

What currency?

This poses a few questions so let me repeat the issues with using the UK Pound.

1. The Bank of England will presumably set interest-rates to suit England (and Wales and Northern Ireland). This may or may not suit Scotland.

2. The value of the pound will mostly be determined by the much larger English economy in some respects similar to the way that Germany dominates the Euro. That has not worked out well for many of the Euro nations.

3. This is to say the least awkward, if further bank bailouts are required. Will the Bank of England be the “lender of last resort” in Scotland? How does this work when it has an independent treasury? Just as a guide, individual nations in the Euro area had their own central banks which survive to this day partly because of this issue.

4. There is also the issue of currency reserves and intervention which presumably also stay with the Bank of England.

5. What about the money supply of Scotland which will again presumably be controlled by the Bank of England and set for the rest of the UK?

6. Has anybody bothered to ask the citizens of the rest of the UK if they are willing to take the risk of having Scotland in a currency but not a political or fiscal union? This would take place just as the Euro is demonstrating many of the risks of such an arrangement. But added to it for the rest of the UK would be new oil or gas discoveries pushing up the value of the pound and thereby making their businesses and industry less competitive.


Scotland plainly has economic strengths with its natural resources and financial services industry. However since the last vote there has been a deterioration in economic circumstances as we have seem growth fall below that of the rest of the UK. This has led to a problem with the fiscal deficit and it is hard not to think of the criteria for joining the European Union.

New Member States are also committed to complying with the criteria laid down in the Treaty in order to be able to adopt the euro in due course after accession.

We do not know what the national debt would be but the fiscal deficit is around treble the 3% of GDP target per annum in the Euro accession rules. Of course Euro members have often ignored it but they have been much stricter on prospective entrants. Quite a Euro area style austerity squeeze would seem likely and that has been associated with recessions and quite severe ones at that.

Charlotte Hogg’s Resignation

Back on the 1st of March I pointed out the lack of competence on monetary policy she displayed in front of the UK Treasury Select Committee. Today it was announced that she offered to resign last week but Mark Carney would not take it. Now he has.







What is the economic impact of a higher crude oil price?

One piece of economic news dominated all other yesterday and it was at least a change for the Trump and Brexit circuses to take something of a break. Instead we had the OPEC circus which finally came up with something. Of course we know that announcements are one thing and implementation another but there was an immediate impact on the crude oil price. From Reuters.

The price for Brent crude futures (LCOc1), the international benchmark for oil prices, jumped as much as 13 percent from below $50 on Wednesday and was at $52.10 per barrel at 0806 GMT, although traders pointed out that part of the jump was down to contract roll-over from January to February for Brent’s front-month futures.

U.S. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude futures rose back above $50 briefly before easing to $49.63 a barrel at 0806 GMT, though still up 20 cents from its last settlement.

Volumes were very high too which makes a past futures traders heart lighter although of course we need to note that this is a result of yet more central planning.

The second front-month Brent crude futures contract, currently March 2017, traded a record 783,000 lots of 1,000 barrels each on Wednesday, worth around $39 billion and easily beating a previous record of just over 600,000 reached in September. That’s more than eight times actual daily global crude oil consumption.

Also as we note the influence at times of banks on commodity markets ( I believed their trading desks helped drive the last commodity price boom) maybe such high volumes are a warning signal too. But if this lasts we have the potential for a type of oil price shock as we have become used to relatively low oil prices. Also central banks may have to make yet another U-Turn as of course they may find that they push inflation above target as a higher oil price adds to all their interest-rate cuts and QE style bond buying.

Let us have a little light relief before we come to the analysis and look at this from February of this year. From Bloomberg.

Oil could drop below $20 a barrel as the search for a level that brings supply and demand back into balance makes prices even more volatile, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. predicted.

Oh well…

A higher oil price is good for us?

I made a note of this when I first saw it as it is the opposite of my view. I also note that it is Goldman Sachs again. From Bloomberg.

Higher oil prices would be a boon for the global economy, according to Goldman Sachs Group Inc.

Really! How so?

Pricey crude means economies such as Saudi Arabia take in more money than they can spend, which financial markets help distribute through the rest of the world, boosting asset values and consumer confidence, the bank’s analysts Jeff Currie and Mikhail Sprogis wrote in a Nov. 22 research note.

Apparently we can ignore the elephant in the room.

Forget the stagflation of the 1970s.

Here is the explanation.

“The difference between today and the 1970s is that oil creates global liquidity through a far more sophisticated financial system,” Currie and Sprogis wrote. “More sophisticated financial markets in the 2000s were able to transform this excess savings into greater global liquidity that increased asset values, lowered interest rates, and improved credit conditions that spanned the globe.”

Convinced? Me neither and it is hard to know where to start. One view is that the world economic expansion drove the oil price higher. Another is that greater global liquidity is an illusion as we see so many markets these days which seem to lack it. For example we are seeing more “flash crashes” like the one which happened to the UK Pound overnight a few weeks or so ago. This is of course in spite of the fact that central banks have been doing their best to create global liquidity and indeed cutting interest-rates.. Still if it created “increased asset values” the 0.01% who no doubt represent Goldman Sachs best clients will be pleased. As a final rebuttal this ignores the impact of lower oil prices on inflation and the key economic metric which is real wage growth.

Did the credit crunch never happen?

From 2001 to 2014, excess savings outside the U.S. grew to $7 trillion from $1 trillion as oil climbed, according to Currie and Sprogis. The savings helped drive up values of things like homes and financial assets and loosened credit markets for consumers.

I guess this is the economics version of all those strings of alternative universes in physics where Goldman Sachs is in another one to the rest of us, or simply taking us for well, Muppets.

They are not the only ones as the IMF got itself into quite a mess on this front back in February.

Persistently low oil prices complicate the conduct of monetary policy, risking further inroads by unanchored inflation expectations. What is more, the current episode of historically low oil prices could ignite a variety of dislocations including corporate and sovereign defaults, dislocations that can feed back into already jittery financial markets.

Are these “jittery financial markets” the same ones that Goldmans think are full of liquidity? Also you may note the obsession with central banks and monetary policy and yes asset values are in there as well.

Returning to Reality

There is an income and indeed wealth exchange between energy importers and exporters. For example Oxford Economics did some work which suggested that a US $30 fall in the oil price would boost GDP in Hong Kong by 1.5% but cut it in Norway by 1.3%. So we get an idea albeit with issues in the detail as I doubt the UK (0.8%) would get double the GDP benefit of Japan (0.4%) which of course is the largest energy importer in relative terms of the major economies. Oh and there are bigger negative effects with Russia at -5% of GDP and Saudi Arabia at -4%.

However the conclusion was this.

Lower oil prices should give a sizeable boost to world GDP in 2015 and 2016

There was a time (July 2015) when the IMF thought this as well.

Although oil price gains and losses across producers and consumers sum to zero, the net effect on global activity is positive. The reasons are twofold: simply put, the increase in spending by oil importers is likely to exceed the decline in spending by exporters, and lower production costs will stimulate supply in other sectors for which oil is an input…… the fall in oil prices should boost global growth by about ½ percentage point in 2015–16,

It would also produce a fall in inflation which will be welcome to those who are not central bankers.


Should the oil price remain higher it will reduce global economic growth and raise inflation. If we compare it with a year ago it is around 10 US Dollars higher but we also need to note that in December 2015 the oil price fell to the Mid US $30s so we need to do the same to prevent an inflationary effect. As I have been writing for some months now unless we see large oil price falls inflation is on it way back. We are of course nowhere near the US $108 that a Star Trek style tractor beam seemed to hold us at a while back. But as I note the rise in some metals prices ( Zinc and Lead in particular) commodity price rises are back in vogue. So there will be plenty of work for those economists who want higher inflation explaining how they are right be being wrong.

There will also be relative shifts as consumers will be poorer as real wages fall but say shops in Knightsbridge and the like seem set to see more Arab customers. Japan will be especially unhappy at a higher oil price. But US shale oil wildcatters might be the happiest of all right now and may even boost US manufacturing as well. In the UK there will be a likely boost for the Aberdeen area.

Me on TipTV Finance

“Outlook for RBS is dreadful”, says Shaun Richards – Not A Yes Man Economics