Osborne sets a welfare trap for Labour and a test for the coalition

The Chancellor's plan to increase benefits by just 1 per cent creates an awkward dilemma for Labour and Lib Dem MPs.

Everything George Osborne does is notoriously drenched in political calculation. The Autumn Statement was no exception. The Chancellor did not have much room for manoeuvre, given the enduring parlous state of the public finances, which remains (or should remain) the biggest story of the day. Inevitably, he fell back on familiar devices.

Much of the hard work of deficit reduction will be done, as was widely advertised in advance, by cuts to the benefits bill. The main new development, also much anticipated, is the decision to limit the up-rating of benefits to 1 per cent. Since that is lower than inflation, it will feel like a cut. The Chancellor rather sneakily announced the move in a passage that compared the burden faced by hard-working folk with the leisurely life of people on benefits. He repeated his favourite homily of the dogged commuter heading off to work, eyeing the feckless neighbour, blinds drawn, sleeping away a life on the dole. It is a popular theme with the Conservative press and in focus groups.

The problem is that, bundled up with Osborne’s supposed idle scroungers, are people who have jobs, work hard, struggle to make ends meet on low wages and currently depend on some combination of tax credits, child benefit, housing benefit, council tax benefit. The freeze affects them as much as it does those who are out of work (who, in any case, might reasonably be thought of as unfortunate jobseekers instead of pilfering dossers). Once all the number-crunching is done it will be interesting to see if the raising of the personal allowance adequately compensates people on low incomes for the hit they are taking in frozen, cut or withdrawn benefits*.

But politically the most significant element of the freeze is surely the announcement that it will be contained in a separate “Welfare Uprating Bill.” That is plainly an attempt by the Chancellor to put the opposition in an awkward dilemma. Either Miliband appals his party and signs up to the government’s position, which is highly unlikely, or he opposes the freeze/cut – a move that the Tories and most of the press would present as a profligate defence of scrounging. It is the same manoeuvre that was deployed with some effect in votes on Osborne’s benefits cap earlier this year. As I’ve noted before, this ploy has diminishing returns for the Tories. It presumes that the public will stay boundlessly enthusiastic about welfare cuts, regardless of who the recipients are and regardless of the social consequences. That is a risky calculation given the vulnerability of the Conservative brand to charges of heartlessness.

It is worth noting also that the Liberal Democrats were hardly more relaxed about the benefit cap than Labour. Nick Clegg’s party demanded changes to the measure in the Lords and some rebelled against it. As the squeeze on low-earning households is likely to deepen over the next few months and as the Lib Dems feel the need to assert their credentials as the in-house conscience of the coalition, their position on the latest benefits freeze will become very interesting to watch.

There are bound to be Lib Dem MPs with an impulse to reject Osborne’s latest assault on benefit-claimants. Labour will be more than usually glad of their company in a Commons vote on an issue that probes one of the party’s great electoral vulnerabilities – the charge of excess welfare spending. Osborne has set a trap for the opposition with his Uprating Bill. He has also set a potential test for coalition unity.

*Update: The Resolution Foundation has crunched the numbers and the answer is "no, it doesn't."

 

Labour leader Ed Miliband and shadow chancellor Ed Balls. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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The global shipping slowdown hints at a recession around the corner

Instability in China and tumbling commodity prices have devastated the world’s freight providers – a strong indicator of trouble to come.

This is beginning to have the feel of 2008 all over again. Policy makers around the world are in denial once again as global stock markets dive. In 2008, the slowing of the world's biggest economy – the US – sent the global economy into a tailspin. The concern now is that the slowing of the second-largest economy, China, may well have similar global effects. Chinese growth, which averaged 10 per cent for three decades through to 2010, has decelerated for five straight years and in 2015 slowed to 6.9 per cent, its lowest rate in a quarter of a century. The IMF is forecasting that Chinese growth will slow further to 6.3 per cent in 2016 and 6 per cent in 2017, which may well be overly optimistic. There is already speculation that China’s banking system may see losses even larger than those suffered by US banks during the last crisis.

The bad news from China appears to have already spread to the US, which has seen GDP growth slowing sharply in the last quarter of 2015. US industrial production and core retail sales are both falling, and there have been marked contractions in core capital goods shipments and private non-residential construction. Business fixed investment declined nearly 2 per cent last quarter. Despite the bad news, last week Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen astonishingly claimed that “the US economy is in many ways close to normal”. By contrast, Ruslan Bikbov from Bank of America Merrill Lynch calculates that there is a 64 per cent probability the US is already in recession. My expectation is the next move by the Fed will be to cut rates.

Company profits are tumbling as commodity and oil prices decline. BP reported a $3.3bn fourth-quarter loss last year while Exxon Mobil reported a 58 per cent fall in its quarterly profit. It isn’t just oil companies. Last week, Rio Tinto – the world's second biggest mining company – reported profits down 51 per cent after commodity prices collapsed amid slowing growth from China. Company profits are also suffering due to a big decline in the amount of freight being moved, especially to and from China. Moeller-Maersk, the Danish conglomerate and the world’s biggest container-ship operator by capacity, last week reported a fourth-quarter net loss of $2.51bn.  

DP World, one of the world’s biggest port operators, also says that global volume has slowed sharply. It reported that volumes at its ports rose by 2.4 per cent last year, compared with 8 per cent growth in 2014. Data provider Container Trades Statistics said this week that Asia-to-Europe trade fell nearly 4 per cent last year. Freight rates in 2015 averaged $620 per container on the Asia-to-Europe trade route. Typically, ship operators need more than $1,000 to break even. In February, the cost of moving a container from Shanghai to Rotterdam fell to $431, barely covering fuel costs. Figures released by the Shanghai Shipping Exchange show that the country’s 20 largest container ports grew by 3.7 per cent over 2014, compared to 5.5 per cent the previous year. The Hong Kong Port Development Council reported that throughput at the port of Hong Kong fell by 9.5 per cent in 2015.  

The Baltic Dry Index (BDIY) – an index of the price for shipping dry goods such as iron ore and coal (oil is wet) as shown in the chart below – is at a record low of 290. It is down 75 per cent since its recent peak in 2015 and down 98 per cent from its peak of 11,793 points in May 2008. The collapse to 772 by 5 September 2008 (a week before Lehman Brothers failed) presaged the global recession and it is falling again. Capesize vessels, which are too big to get through the Suez or Panama canals, had an average daily hire last week of $1,484, compared with a peak of $233,988 in June 2008. Even though there is an oversupply of ships, global demand is collapsing.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) released figures for global air freight, showing cargo volumes expanded 2.2 per cent in 2015 compared to 2014. This was a slower pace of growth than the 5 per cent recorded in 2014. This weakness apparently reflects sluggish trade growth in Europe and Asia-Pacific. “2015 was another very difficult year for air cargo,” said Tony Tyler, IATA’s Director General and CEO. “Growth has slowed and revenue is falling. In 2011 air cargo revenue peaked at $67bn. In 2016 we are not expecting revenue to exceed $51bn.”

The current contraction in rail freight is apparently reminiscent of the drop that started at the end of 2008 and carried on into 2009. China's rail freight volumes fell by a significant amount last year. According to the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), volumes fell by 11.9 per cent, a further increase on the 2014 slowdown, when traffic declined by 3.9 per cent.

In the western US farm belt, grain trains are so abundant you can’t give one away. Since the middle of last March, carloads of agricultural products, chemicals, coal, metals, autos and other goods have declined every week. Shipments of US coal, the biggest commodity moved by rail, declined 12 per cent in 2015, according to the Association of American Railroads. The cost of carrying spring wheat from North Dakota to the Pacific coast has dropped by a third in the past two years. In early 2014, grain companies with a train to spare could command $6,000 per car above the official railway tariff, traders say. Today, to avoid hefty contract cancellation fees, they are paying others to use their unwanted trains.

Manufacturing output in the UK fell for each of the last three months and is down 1.7 per cent over the year. The overly optimistic Monetary Policy Committee is forecasting GDP growth of 2.2 per cent (2.4 per cent) in 2016; 2.4 per cent (2.5 per cent) in 2017 and 2.5 per cent (2.4 per cent) in 2018 (the latest, broadly similar, OBR forecasts in parentheses).

So all is well then? Probably not. Mark Carney has run out of ammunition with the Bank Rate at 0.5 per cent, compared with 5.5 per cent in 2008, and has little room to manoeuvre. Negative rates and more quantitative easing, here we come. George Osborne has never explained what he would have done differently in 2008 – his plans for a budget surplus are already in disarray as the economy slows. I am not saying a recession is going to happen any time soon, but it well might.

David Blanchflower is economics editor of the New Statesman and professor of economics at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire