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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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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