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.

Photo: Getty
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What is the New Hampshire primary, and why does it matter?

Although the contest has proved less influential in recent years, the New Hampshire primary is still a crucial event.

While the Iowa caucuses are the first electoral event in the US’s presidential process, the New Hampshire primary is the candidates' most important early test before the action explodes across the rest of the country.

The stakes are high. If the nominations aren’t decided soon, the campaigns will be damned to a marathon of costly state primaries and caucuses; New Hampshire is their first best chance to avoid that fate. But it didn’t always work this way.

Primaries only became the key element of the nomination process relatively recently. Until the postwar era, presidential candidates were chosen at the national conventions in the summer: in the run-up to the 1960 election, future president John F Kennedy famously entered only one primary (West Virginia’s) to prove that a Roman Catholic could win a Protestant state.

It was only after the turmoil of the 1968 nomination, widely perceived as an establishment fix, that the McGovern-Fraser Commission changed the Democratic party’s rules to end the power of the “smoke-filled room” over the nominating process, prompting many states to adopt meaningful primaries for both parties' nominations.

First in the nation

Unlike caucuses, which generally are used in smaller states that would rather not pay for full-scale ballots, primaries are secret-ballot elections that allow voters to choose who will be their preferred nominee. But not all primaries are the same.

The parties sometimes hold their votes on the same day, as they do in New Hampshire, or on different ones. A primary may be open (allowing any voter to register a preference) or closed (allowing only pre-registered party supporters to vote). New Hampshire has a mixed system which allows voters to register in a primary on the day before voting without declaring a party affiliation.

That means that while all voters registered with a party must vote in that party’s ballot, the New Hampshire result often hinges on these unaffiliated voters. Because they can vote in whichever ballot they like and can register so close to primary day, the state is notoriously difficult to poll.

New Hampshire has cemented its first-in-the-nation status by passing a law that requires its lawmakers to move the state’s primary to pre-empt any other state’s, no matter how early. That means it’s traditionally been not just an important indicator of how candidates are faring, but a way of winnowing the field and generating or killing funding. Candidates who perform poorly generally find their access to money suddenly dries up.

The arguments against New Hampshire’s outsize role are many. Like Iowa, it’s hardly representative of the US as a whole, being a small state with an overwhelmingly white population. And while (unlike Iowa) it has no powerful evangelical Christian element, it retains a very distinctive tradition of small-town New England politics that demand a particular kind of face-to-face, low-to-the-ground campaigning.

But this time around, other factors have cut into New Hampshire’s significance.

On the Republican side, the primary’s winnowing role was in large part pre-empted when the TV networks holding debates allowed only the higher-polling candidates on stage, effectively creating a two-tier system that tarred lower-polling candidates as also-rans long before voting began. Meanwhile, the financial calculations have been transformed by campaign finance reforms that allow for almost unlimited outside fundraising – allowing candidates to build up the reserves they need to withstand a humiliating defeat.

Nonetheless, a truly surprising New Hampshire result could still change everything.

Shuffling the deck

New Hampshire hasn’t always chosen the winner in either the nomination contests or the general election. But it has provided more than its share of political upsets and key turning points, from persuading Lyndon Johnson not to stand again in 1968 to resurrecting the candidacies of Hillary Clinton and John McCain in 2008.

The incremental campaigns for the nominations are all about the perception of momentum, and a notional front-runner can be dislodged or destabilised by a poor performance early on. That’s especially true in this year’s cycle, in which both major parties are grappling with huge surges of support for outsider, anti-establishment candidates.

Mainstream Republicans have spent months trying to end Donald Trump’s noisy domination of their crowded field. Trump was indeed defeated in Iowa, but not by a moderating force: instead, it was radical conservative Ted Cruz who overturned him.

Cruz is loathed by the party establishment, and he stands little chance of appealing to mainstream voters. Marco Rubio’s strong showing in Iowa briefly made him something of a standard-bearer for the party’s moderates, but a disastrous turn at the last debate before New Hampshire has thrown the future of his candidacy into doubt.

The primary will also reveal who, if any, of the more moderate Republican candidates – among them Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Chris Christie – will survive. While Bush has a massive funding advantage (albeit with precious little to show for it), Kasich and Christie both need a strong showing in New Hampshire to reinvigorate their financial reserves.

On the Democratic side, the key question is whether Bernie Sanders can make good on the surprising energy of his populist, grassroots challenge to Hillary Clinton. He is currently the heavy favourite in New Hampshire: even if Clinton somehow pulls off a miracle win there as she did in 2008, the closeness of the race is already stimulating both campaigns' national organisation and spending. And with what could be a long race between them heating up, the two’s growing mutual acrimony may yet start to undermine the Democrats' national appeal.

Gillian Peele Associate Professor in Politics and Tutorial Fellow at the University of Oxford.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.