Is the Brexit induced decline in Sterling a blessing in disguise? So argues Ashoka Mody, and to a lesser extent Paul Krugman. Their basic argument is that Brexit will hit the City, and it is the City that has created an unbalanced economy and an overvalued currency. Reducing the size of the financial sector is a necessary condition to rebalancing the economy, and Brexit can achieve this.
Ashoka Mody’s disdain for the City is absolutely clear. He writes: “The banking-property complex has been a parasite on the British economy, creating pathologies of financial vulnerability and exchange rate overvaluation.” We can see the overvaluation in the large UK current account deficit. Paul Krugman is less pejorative. The City is just an important UK exporter that Brexit will cut down to size, so we will need to make other UK exporters more competitive to fill the gap.
Neither author disagrees that, because the depreciation of Sterling will raise import prices (in economic speak it will lead to a deterioration in the terms of trade), people in the UK will be poorer. But there is also a difference in mechanisms between the two authors, which has implications for how you view this effect. For Mody the City has caused Sterling to be temporarily overvalued as a result of a “finance-property bubble”. As this is a temporary effect (bubble), sterling was bound to fall at some point anyway. As a result, Brexit has only brought forward the day that UK citizens became poorer.
Krugman on the other hand does not argue that sterling was overvalued in this sense: the City is just an important export industry that will particularly suffer from Brexit. As a result, Brexit does make the average citizen poorer permanently. But he notes that, to the extent that this depreciation also results in a redistribution from the City to more dispersed manufacturing, it might benefit some of the parts of the UK that heavily voted for Brexit.
There is nothing wrong with the logic of both arguments, as you would expect given the authors. The key question is whether they are empirically appropriate in this case. I have argued, prior to Brexit, that Sterling was overvalued, and it also seems that the IMF agrees as well. The key issue is why it was overvalued. If the reason for the overvaluation was something Brexit has ‘cured’, then Brexit has indeed ended that overvaluation. If Brexit has not taken away the reason for overvaluation, then the correction to that overvaluation has still to come.
Paul Krugman’s logic is closer to the one I have also used in arguing that the Brexit depreciation is a result of Brexit making it more difficult for UK industry to export. The twist Paul applies is a distributional one: rather than Brexit making it more difficult to export across the board, it hits one particular industry, allowing other industries to grow. Once again the key issue is whether Brexit does have this distributional effect, hitting the City harder than UK manufacturing.
Suppose there is something in what both authors suggest. I would make a very basic point. If we wanted to cut the City down to size, we didn’t have to achieve this using Brexit. We could instead have imposed much stronger regulations on the UK financial sector (basically higher capital requirements), and watch some of the industry leave in disgust. That way we would have avoided all the additional costs that Brexit will impose (recently restated by the Treasury, but only now considered ‘news’ by the Times), and with the additional benefit of having a financial sector that was not too big to fail. My fear is that after Brexit the opposite will happen: policymakers will go even easier on City regulation in an effort to make up for the damage Brexit will do. So I’m still finding it hard to see any silver lining in the Brexit decision.