'In the long-term it could really pay off, but there are so many variables': A Catalan economist's take on independence

Catalonia could declare independence in a matter of days

Catalonia could declare independence in a matter of days

Friday, October 6, 2017

Given all the sound and fury that has accompanied Catalonia's battle for independence, the economic reality of this momentous step has been rather underplayed.

By focusing on the political aspects of this struggle - Catalonia's sense of its own uniqueness, and the blundering tactics adopted by the national government in Madrid - journalists and commentators have ended to ignore the more prosaic questions: how will Catalonia's economy weather the storm of secession, and what steps can economists take to ensure the region fulfils its region as an indepdendent state?

To get answers to these questions we sat down to talk with Jon Sindreu, an economist and writer with The Wall Street Journal. Born in Barcelona, Jon has a forensic insight into Catalonia's economic prospects and is currently in the region covering its push for autonomy.

Here's what he told us about Catalonia's economic outlook.

Banco de Sabadell has already moved its headquarters from Barcelona to Alicante. Are we likely to see the banking industry take flight, as critics of Brexit have suggested will happen in the UK?

It’s a pre-emptive move by Sabadell to be legally based in Madrid and access the European Central Bank’s liquidity in normal fashion. It seems to be more of a legal technicality rather than anything economics-based. Their stock has been down so it’s about reassuring investors.

Analysts explain that if there was a run on the bank, for example, shareholders could sue for negligence unless all steps had been taken to soften the blow. And this is a very cheap step to take.

If you have a bank in Madrid or somewhere else, they’d still be technically a Spanish bank. The Catalan office would become a subsidiary.

You’ve got to remember that, in Barcelona, there isn't a big financial industry. The banks there are are basically retail banks. Analysts say that if these banks don’t do business there, someone else will, it's not like the global finance industry that London has, which can leave a city to go to another.

How likely is Catalonia to be left outside the EU, and how big a risk does that create?

Officials in Brussels have said it’ll automatically be outside the EU. It’s not something that EU law is prepared for, so nobody's sure. No region has seceded from an EU member-state since the organisation was founded. If Catalonia were to be left outside the EU, it’s unclear whether that would be in perpetuity or not. There was a lot of talk of Scotland being allowed back into the EU after a few months.

Catalan officials claim that, off the record, many EU countries are less aggressive to the idea of Catalonia being readmitted than they are publicly. Spain could hold a grudge and want to punish Catalonia for leaving, however, so might block their entry for a long period.

But even if Catalonia is prevented from entering there are other models to follow, as we’ve seen in the Brexit debate. Norway, for example, or Switzerland, or Canada. You don’t need to be in the EU to have a free trade agreement with it. When it comes to Brexit, the position of the EU is that the UK needs to choose whether it becomes Norway and Canada but can't have it both ways, and this is stalling the negotiations.

Catalonia would likely just take any of the models the EU offered, the more integrated the better.

If Catalonia were left outside the EU, how difficult would it be to adopt the Euro?

To adopt a currency, the only thing you need is to have sufficient liquidity for people to use it on demand. If you ever want to take out money, or pay someone else, you need to be able to do it in that currency without  liquidity issues. That’s the test.

A lot of countries use currencies from elsewhere. Equador, for example, uses dollars.

Would Catalonia face a Brexit-style 'divorce bill' from Spain?

It could do, and the Catalan government says it's very willing to pay it, and to take up its share of the Spanish debt. It’s unclear what that means, whether that share is calculated by GDP, or by population - which would be better for them as the debt would be lower.

The figures being touted are not unmanageable, but it’s a sizeable sum of money. Analysts are saying that Catalonia’s debt would be around 115% of its GDP, which is more than Spain but less than Italy and much less than Greece. It's a large burden, but not unheard of.

Do economists foresee Spain trying to punish Catalonia in other ways – for example, by turning coastal cities like Valencia or Alicante into tourism hubs to undermine Barcelona?

Official data shows that Spain is a very centralised country and the nucleus of the Catalan argument is that Madrid wants it this way. A boycott of products is considered more likely by economists, and they say that could be genuinely damaging. A third of Catalan products are sold to the rest of Spain, the same as the amount sold externally. That said, however, the dependency on Spanish consumers has gone down. Also, trade affects both sides, so Spanish importers would suffer the boycott as well.

When you take all the potential economic downsides into account, how quickly can Catalonia recover and stabilise?

It’s hard to put a timeframe on it. We don’t know whether Catalonia will remain in the EU, how much debt it will face – there are so many variables.

And then, once it has stabilised, just how much richer and more powerful could Catalonia be? Once it is free of its current burdensome fiscal pact with Madrid, what sort of economy can it grow into?

Economists and investors say in the long term Catalonia could be a wealthy country, but as we discussed there are also huge transitional costs, which leads many to believe secession is unlikely.

If you imagined Catalonia was an independent country right now, indicators look good for them. Its GDP per head is above France's, official data shows. The amount of fiscal transfers from Catalonia that go through Spain is between 5-8% of GDP – a huge amount of money, far more than the amount of transfers that go from Britain through the EU. But you can’t say that, by leaving Spain, Catalonia would be 8% richer.

Many economists make the sensible point that, if Catalonia goes at it alone, its fortune will depend on the policy decisions it makes.

You can find out more about Jon by following him on Twitter @jonsindreu.