A Budget with looming shadows

There were no rabbits in his hat. Hanging over Darling's speech was the spectre of global economic u

First it was going to be the green Budget. Then it was the anti-booze Budget, next the steady-as-she-goes Budget and, just at the last moment, the child poverty Budget. Budgets these days have to be all things to all people, or at least most things to as many people as possible. With a growing political consensus over the priorities of government, this would have been true even if it had been George Osborne standing up in parliament on 12 March. Budgets must be business-friendly and yet tackle inequality; they must give generously to public services while cutting the tax burden; and they must address the immediate issues of the day - this year it is the turn of first-time housebuyers, supermarket plastic bags and polluting cars.

In the end, Alistair Darling's first Budget has been the "hard truths" Budget. Under the pressure of an ever-slowing economy, the Chancellor was forced to outline the bleakest financial situation since Labour came to power in 1997, although not quite as grim as some predicted. He should be congratulated for avoiding the temptation to pull last-minute rabbits out of hats. "Not really his style," according to one aide.

As expected, he downgraded his forecast for growth for 2008, outlined in his Pre-Budget Report as being between 2 and 3 per cent, to between 1.75 and 2.25 per cent. Scare stories from the weekend before the Budget suggested he would need to raise £240 per household in taxes to plug a £5bn black hole in the public finances. The sums may appear complex and confusing, but much of the Chancellor's work is simple arithmetic - as revenues to the Exchequer drop, he either has to tax more or borrow more to honour the government's spending plans. In the end he will do a bit of both, but either way, Darling is in a dark place.

As he prepared the Budget in the full knowledge that the Bank of England, the European Central Bank and the US Federal Reserve were all pouring billions of dollars of funds into the money markets to avoid a global recession, he must have felt like the unluckiest man alive. Alone at the Despatch Box with just a glass of tap water for company, Darling was on the spot and it was his job and his alone to inform Britain of the naked truth about the state of the economy. His contention that the present situation is not as serious as during the worst Tory years is basically sound. Britain is still a high-employment, low-inflation economy. Growth may be slowing down but it had, indeed, been sustained for 62 quarters, a better record than for any of our major competitors.

It is also true that Darling has been dealt a duff hand, and not just by the American "sub-prime" mortgage crisis (for which no one can hold him responsible) but also by decisions of his predecessor, who built an edifice of public spending commitments on the assumption of continued growth. But, to an extent, politicians create their own luck and much of Darling's speech was taken up with atoning for the political miscalculations of his Pre-Budget Report in October. He held his nerve on the £30,000 levy on "non-domiciles", who avoid paying tax in Britain by moving their financial affairs elsewhere, but was forced into concessions. It is thought a deal has also been reached with the US Treasury on payments from American citizens. The Chancellor's attempt to simplify capital gains tax by introducing a flat rate of 18p had to be revised after he came under pressure from the business community. In less difficult times, such changes would have been seen as tweaks. In the present atmosphere, however, everything Darling does is scrutinised by the City for signs of indecisiveness.

As the analysis of the Budget plays out, attention will inevitably turn to the reaction in the Square Mile, where the knives have been out for Darling almost from the moment he arrived at 11 Downing Street. But some of the wisest economic heads in the country are turning to another area of grave concern: the state of our public finances. It is of course true that everyone is affected by the mood of Britain's financial markets, but a far more immediate impact will be felt as the money for schools and hospitals starts to dry up.

One problem for Darling is the growing national debt. The Chancellor's best Budget soundbite - that Labour has "turned welfare into work and borrowing into wealth creation" - is at the very least arguable. The Chancellor made much of Labour's record on borrowing. But David Cameron was right to raise the issue of Northern Rock. The so-called "sustainable investment rule", which states that net public borrowing should remain at or below 40 per cent, has already been shaken by the nationalisation of the high street bank, whose liabilities in reality push the figure closer to 45 per cent. If estimates of the economic slowdown are correct, the borrowing necessary to plug the hole in the public finances will push this figure even higher. In fact, even Darling's estimates push it within a percentage point of the 40 per cent danger point.

The investors' verdict

Then there is the looming shadow of the government's Private Finance Initiative schemes, which were designed specifically to keep borrowing off the Treasury's balance sheet. These projects, which use private funding for large public projects such as schools and hospitals, will soon be included as part of the national debt to bring Britain in line with International Financial Reporting Standards. At the same time, liabilities from public sector pension schemes, which have been badly hit by the international credit crunch, will also contribute to the growing debt. Some estimates suggest that the combined liabilities of pension and PFI schemes would bring the proportion of debt to 100 per cent of GDP.

In one sense, the sustainable investment rule is just an arbitrary measure, set by the government to measure its own economic competence. What really matters is the attitude of global financial institutions to such profligacy, and investors' preparedness to put their money into new projects. In the new period of economic uncertainty, the British public would certainly begin to notice if plans for a shiny new hospital or school were put on ice. Already concerns have been raised about the slow progress of the government's PFI-funded Building Schools for the Future programme.

The real issue is that we don't know the full consequences of the slowdown for the public purse. New Labour has never been here before. A recent article by Paul Gosling in Public Finance magazine put it succinctly: "Underlying everything is a fog of uncertainty. The use of 'financial engineering' and the complex hedging of financial risk means there is very real confusion about exactly who has lost what from the sub-prime crisis - and that is affecting almost everything on the world's financial markets."

Darling's first Budget was just the sort of solid, unflashy affair demanded in the circumstances. Many of the details will be welcomed by people Labour should care about: children, the poor and the old. But it will all mean nothing if he fails to address that fog of uncertainty afflicting the public finances.

This article first appeared in the 17 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the war that changed us

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The 2017 Budget will force Philip Hammond to confront the Brexit effect

Rising prices and lost markets are hard to ignore. 

With the Brexit process, Donald Trump and parliamentary by-election aftermath dominating the headlines, you’d be forgiven for missing the speculation we’d normally expect ahead of a Budget next week. Philip Hammond’s demeanour suggests it will be a very low-key affair, living up to his billing as the government’s chief accounting officer. Yet we desperately need a thorough analysis of this government’s economic strategy – and some focused work from those whose job it is to supposedly keep track of government policy.

It seems to me there are four key dynamics the Budget must address:

1. British spending power

The spending power of British consumers is about to be squeezed further. Consumers have propped up the economy since 2015, but higher taxes, suppressed earnings and price inflation are all likely to weigh heavily on this driver for growth from now on. Relatively higher commodity prices and the sterling effect is starting to filter into the high street – which means that the pound in the pocket doesn’t go as far as it used to. The dwindling level of household savings is a casualty of this situation. Real incomes are softer, with poorer returns on assets, and households are substituting with loans and overdrafts. The switch away from consumer-driven growth feels well and truly underway. How will the Chancellor counteract to this?

2. Lagging productivity

Productivity remains a stubborn challenge that government policy is failing to address. Since the 2008 financial crisis, the UK’s productivity performance has lagged Germany, France and the USA, whose employees now produce in an average four days as much as British workers take to produce in five. Perhaps years of uncertainty have seen companies choose to sit on cash rather than invest in new production process technology. Perhaps the dominance of services in our economy, a sector notorious hard in which to drive new efficiencies, explains the productivity lag. But ministers have singularly failed to assess and prioritise investment in those aspects of public services which can boost productivity. These could include easing congestion and aiding commuters; boosting mobile connectivity; targeting high skills; blasting away administrative bureaucracy; helping workers back to work if they’re ill.

3. Lost markets

The Prime Minister’s decision to give up trying to salvage single market membership means we enter the "Great Unknown" trade era unsure how long (if any) our transition will be. We must also remain uncertain whether new Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) are going to go anyway to make up for those lost markets.

New FTAs may get rid of tariffs. But historically they’ve never been much good at knocking down the other barriers for services exports – which explains why the analysis by the National Institute for Economic and Social Research recently projected a 61 per cent fall in services trade with the EU. Brexit will radically transform the likely composition of economic growth in the medium term. It’s true that in the near term, sterling depreciation is likely to bring trade back into balance as exports enjoy an adrenal currency competitive stimulus. But over the medium term, "balance" is likely to come not from new export market volume, but from a withering away of consumer spending power to buy imported goods. Beyond that, the structural imbalance will probably set in again.

4. Empty public wallets

There is a looming disaster facing Britain’s public finances. It’s bad enough that the financial crisis is now pushing the level of public sector debt beyond 90 per cent of our gross domestic product (GDP).  But a quick glance at the Office for Budget Responsibility’s January Fiscal Sustainability Report is enough to make your jaw drop. The debt mountain is projected to grow for the next 50 years. All else being equal, we could end up with an incredible 234 per cent of debt/GDP by 2066 – chiefly because of the ageing population and rising healthcare costs. This isn’t a viable or serviceable level of debt and we shouldn’t take any comfort from the fact that many other economies (Japan, USA) are facing a similar fate. The interest payable on that debt mountain would severely crowd out resources for vital public services. So while some many dream of splashing public spending around on nationalising this or that, of a "universal basic income" or social security giveaways, the cold truth is that we are going to be forced to make more hard decisions on spending now, find new revenues if we want to maintain service standards, and prioritise growth-inducing policies wherever possible.

We do need to foster a new economic model that promotes social mobility, environmental and fiscal sustainability, with long-termism at its heart. But we should be wary of those on the fringes of politics pretending they have either a magic money tree, or a have-cake-and-eat-it trading model once we leap into the tariff-infested waters of WTO rules.

We shouldn’t have to smash up a common sense, balanced approach in order for our country to succeed. A credible, centre-left economic model should combine sound stewardship of taxpayer resources with a fairness agenda that ensures the wealthiest contribute most and the polluter pays. A realistic stimulus should be prioritised in productivity-oriented infrastructure investment. And Britain should reach out and gather new trading alliances in Europe and beyond as a matter of urgency.

In short, the March Budget ought to provide an economic strategy for the long-term. Instead it feels like it will be a staging-post Budget from a distracted Government, going through the motions with an accountancy exercise to get through the 12 months ahead.

Chris Leslie MP was Shadow Chancellor in 2015 and chairs Labour’s PLP Treasury Committee

 

 

 

Chris Leslie is chair of Labour’s backbench Treasury Committee and was shadow Chancellor in 2015.