QE, austerity, trade… has the UK anything left to prop it up?

"No action" is not an option.

You would have to travel a long way to find anyone more safety-conscious than a coal miner. So you might have found it strange that when steel pit props were introduced miners objected with a ferocity that shocked management. Their reasoning was simple; before a wooden pit prop broke it gave out a characteristic creak. Steel props shattered without any warning signal. Your chances of getting away before the cave-in became vanishingly small.

So where’s the creaking pit prop in the UK economy? You wouldn’t have to look much further than the behaviour of the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) of the Bank of England. The committee seems to have been intent on stealing the thunder of the "Greatest Central Banker of His Generation", otherwise known as Mark Carney, even before he has had time to warm the seat of the out-going Mervyn King. The MPC has been implementing Carney’s favoured ideas (promoting bank lending) whilst laying the ground to stop him increasing the Quantitative Easing (QE) programme by voting Sir Mervyn down on the issue four meetings in a row. At the same time Charles Bean, a voting member of the MPC, has, once again, been waving the spectre of negative interest rates in the face of the markets. As the old leader faded others have jumped into the vacuum before the new one arrived.

But the reality is that the lending policies won’t deliver the impact that some expect. The Funding for Lending Scheme is tiny compared to the size of the overall economy whilst some of the Help To Buy schemes meant to promote the housing market look positively dangerous if interest rates start to rise. Besides, consumers, who are seeing their real incomes decline, are still historically geared-up to their eyeballs and are highly sensitive to even small interest rate movements. They aren’t likely to throw a credit party whilst government expenditure is continually cut in real terms during the next five years, a policy to which both the UK coalition and the opposition parties are committed. In short, as in the past four years, housing approvals are going nowhere – that prop has been taken away.

The spending freeze has reinforced the sense of economic hibernation to the point that there is no obvious domestic engine for growth in the UK. To compound the situation our nearest and arguably most important trading partner, Europe, is still in the grips of a decline. Either Mr Carney will get round the MPC nay-sayers and extend QE to a level unthinkable even to the Japanese or politicians are going to have to start spending again; such a volte face would provide the Labour Party with a purpose and relevance that it has now lost.

"No action" is not an option. The electorate won’t have it, especially when they can organize themselves through social media on a level and with ferocity never seen before. Either way, by design or by accident, the pound would take the strain if more and more stimulus is poured into the economy just to prop it up. The defining moment for Mark Carney may yet be how he handles a sterling crisis that will feel like a mineshaft collapsing in on him. The creak is there if he wants to hear it.

Bank of England Governor, Mark Carney. Photograph: Getty Images

Head of Fixed Income and Macro, Old Mutual Global Investors

Photo: Getty
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George Osborne's mistakes are coming back to haunt him

George Osborne's next budget may be a zombie one, warns Chris Leslie.

Spending Reviews are supposed to set a strategic, stable course for at least a three year period. But just three months since the Chancellor claimed he no longer needed to cut as far or as fast this Parliament, his over-optimistic reliance on bullish forecasts looks misplaced.

There is a real risk that the Budget on March 16 will be a ‘zombie’ Budget, with the spectre of cuts everyone thought had been avoided rearing their ugly head again, unwelcome for both the public and for the Chancellor’s own ambitions.

In November George Osborne relied heavily on a surprise £27billion windfall from statistical reclassifications and forecasting optimism to bury expected police cuts and politically disastrous cuts to tax credits. We were assured these issues had been laid to rest.

But the Chancellor’s swagger may have been premature. Those higher income tax receipts he was banking on? It turns out wage growth may not be so buoyant, according to last week’s Bank of England Inflation Report. The Institute for Fiscal Studies suggest the outlook for earnings growth will be revised down taking £5billion from revenues.

Improved capital gains tax receipts? Falling equity markets and sluggish housing sales may depress CGT and stamp duties. And the oil price shock could hit revenues from North Sea production.

Back in November, the OBR revised up revenues by an astonishing £50billion+ over this Parliament. This now looks a little over-optimistic.

But never let it be said that George Osborne misses an opportunity to scramble out of political danger. He immediately cashed in those higher projected receipts, but in doing so he’s landed himself with very little wriggle room for the forthcoming Budget.

Borrowing is just not falling as fast as forecast. The £78billion deficit should have been cut by £20billion by now but it’s down by just £11billion. So what? Well this is a Chancellor who has given a cast iron guarantee to deliver a surplus by 2019-20. So he cannot afford to turn a blind eye.

All this points towards a Chancellor forced to revisit cuts he thought he wouldn’t need to make. A zombie Budget where unpopular reductions to public services are still very much alive, even though they were supposed to be history. More aggressive cuts, stealthy tax rises, pension changes designed to benefit the Treasury more than the public – all of these are on the cards. 

Is this the Chancellor’s misfortune or was he chancing his luck? As the IFS pointed out at the time, there was only really a 50/50 chance these revenue windfalls were built on solid ground. With growth and productivity still lagging, gloomier market expectations, exports sluggish and both construction and manufacturing barely contributing to additional expansion, it looks as though the Chancellor was just too optimistic, or perhaps too desperate for a short-term political solution. It wouldn’t be the first time that George Osborne has prioritised his own political interests.

There’s no short cut here. Productivity-enhancing public services and infrastructure could and should have been front and centre in that Spending Review. Rebalancing the economy should also have been a feature of new policy in that Autumn Statement, but instead the Chancellor banked on forecast revisions and growth too reliant on the service sector alone. Infrastructure decisions are delayed for short-term politicking. Uncertainty about our EU membership holds back business investment. And while we ought to have a consensus about eradicating the deficit, the excessive rigidity of the Chancellor’s fiscal charter bears down on much-needed capital investment.

So for those who thought that extreme cuts to services, a harsh approach to in-work benefits or punitive tax rises might be a thing of the past, beware the Chancellor whose hubris may force him to revive them after all. 

Chris Leslie is chair of Labour's backbench Treasury committee.