The budget: déjà vu all over again

Prepare for a rush to the calculators, writes Tullett Prebon's Tim Morgan.

How do you start a budget speech? Well, “stop me if you’ve heard this one before” would be appropriate, because, to quote Yogi Berra, this budget is likely to be a case of “déjà vu all over again”. The economy will, yet again, have confounded the serial optimists at the OBR. The deficit reduction plan will…er, yet again…have gone further adrift of the government’s plan. The debt target will – well, “yet again” – have slipped by another year.

This time, though, observers will need to keep their calculators handy if they are to figure out what is really happening. Whilst Mr Osborne is likely to disappoint sensation-seekers, lovers of the obscure will have a field-day.

One of the less scrupulous initiatives of the Nixon administration was the concept of “core inflation”. This, it was claimed, showed the real state of affairs if distorting variables were left out. The snag, of course, was that the things that Tricky Dickey wanted to omit were those very items – energy and food – whose prices were rising most rapidly at the time. Small wonder that one critic dubbed it “inflation ex-inflation”. It’s a bit like saying that “Britain had wonderful weather in 2012, if we exclude the days on which it rained”.

The Treasury, it seems, is lining up a similar exercise in smoke-and-mirrors for the budget, arguing that the British economy looks fine and dandy if the weak bits (principally, finance and the North Sea) are left out. They could take this even further, of course, showing how the economy looks really terrific if we also leave out construction, real estate, retailing and the state-funded sectors…

If this is indeed a line that the Treasury pushes, it will join another piece of legerdemain which will portray a deficit of about 7.8% of GDP as something closer to 5.1% by including within the fiscal numbers, amongst other things, the £28bn assets (but not the £37bn liabilities) of the Royal Mail pension fund, taken over by the state in April.

Behind the statistical smoke, the reality is that Britain combines one of the developed world’s most troubled economies with one of its worst deficits. The biggest source of frustration for objective observers, however, will doubtless be yet another repetition of the sterile debate between plans A and B, with the government claiming that Britain’s policies would be working were it not for global economic conditions (‘it’s those foreigners again’), whilst Labour, ignoring the £1.1 trillion that has already been pumped into the economy, calls upon ministers to borrow Britain’s way out of a debt problem.

Considering the economy on a basis which excludes financial services would, of course, be ludicrous, because assessing Britain ex-banking is about as rational as evaluating Saudi ex-oil. Politicians who spent decades wooing the City seem now to have forgotten that it’s the financial sector which alone earns the foreign currency to pay for essential imports such as food (a deficit of -£18.7bn last year) and energy (-£21.3bn).

Let’s be clear that there is one initiative, above all, that could get the economy moving, and that is house-building. Unfortunately, the only way in which this could work – a state-financed programme of building council houses – contradicts the mantra of government ideology. Ministers would prefer to encourage private sector developers, but this idea is a non-starter. With the over-valued property market already critically exposed to interest rate risk, developers are not going to commit to building over-priced properties any more than mortgage lenders are going to rush to finance them.

Just this once, the government should sacrifice ideology to the public interest, and start building council houses, funding this from savings in current expenditure.

This post originally appeared on the Tullet Prebon Research blog, and is reposted here with permission.

Photograph: Getty Images/Edited: Alex Hern

Tim Morgan is the Global Head of Research for Tullett Prebon, an international broker.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.