Minimum alcohol pricing fails the coalition's "cost of living test"

Policy irony of the day: the Tories reject minimum alcohol pricing because it "hits the poorest hardest".

The most notable thing about the government's apparent U-turn on minimum alcohol pricing is the basis on which the policy has been rejected. Theresa May, Michael Gove and Andrew Lansley have led a cabinet revolt against the proposal on the grounds that it would hit the poorest hardest and punish responsible drinkers as well as irresponsible ones. 

On a point of fact, they are correct. Minimum pricing would have a disproportionate effect on the poorest since they spend a greater proportion of their disposable income on alcohol. An IFS report found that a price of 45p per unit (the level proposed by ministers) would cost the poorest households 2 per cent of their total food budget, compared to 1.3 per cent for the richest. Lansley, a long-standing opponent of minimum pricing, told the Spectator last year: "it's regressive, so there are perfectly normal families who just don't happen to have much money who like to buy cheap beer or cheap wine. Should they be prevented? No, I don't think so". 

The policy, it appears, has failed the coalition's new "cost of living test". After the great pasty tax revolt, ministers are wary of anything that increases the price of people's pleasures, particularly at a time when the government is about to hand 8,000 millionaires an average tax cut of £107,500 by scrapping the 50p rate. 

But if the new measure of a proposal is to be whether it hits the poorest hardest (as Lansley's stance suggests) it's worth noting how many of the government's existing policies fail this test. The decision to raise VAT, for instance, a regressive tax that takes no account of income, inevitably had a disproportionate effect on low earners. A study published in 2011 by the Office for National Statistics showed that the poorest fifth spend nearly 10 per cent of their disposable income in VAT compared with 5 per cent for the richest households.

Alongside this, the government has capped benefit increases at 1 per cent (a policy that will force even more to choose between heating and eating), reduced the fund for council tax benefit by 10 per cent (a measure that will force thousands to pay the tax for the first time) and elected to charge social housing tenants for their "spare" rooms (the notorious "bedroom tax"), all at the same as cutting income tax for the highest earners. Confronted by a government that has so often chosen to hit the poor, while sparing the rich, it's hard to take their new emphasis on the "cost of living" entirely seriously. 

A 'Cheap Booze' sign displayed outside a Hoxton off licence on November 28, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Europe: as the politics subside

How long can a resurgence of investor interest in Europe last?

Might Europe be the place to be?

I think European equities tick a lot of the right boxes right now. Economies are recovering – indeed the first quarter of 2017 saw Europe once more grow faster than the US, having outpaced the world’s largest economy in 2016. Valuations are not excessive, either relative to the region’s history or the US equity market. Like almost anything, I believe European equities also look compelling relative to bonds. The final part of the jigsaw puzzle might have been earnings growth, but here too Europe is, at last, getting close to achieving a gold star.

Most of this has been known for quite a few months now and is part of the explanation for the better performance of Europe year to date. Even the euro has strengthened against the US dollar, from about $1.05 at the start of 2017 to $1.12 at the time of writing. Politics looks more settled, after the surprises of the Brexit vote last year in the UK and the election of Donald Trump in the US Presidential election. Perhaps a comment I made at the beginning of 2017, that “by the end of 2017 the UK and the US might look to have been the exceptions” when it comes to successful populist votes, seems more prescient.

Now that the political backdrop is perhaps more settled, with the UK’s potentially tragic Brexit decision an exception, how long can a resurgence of interest in Europe last? One threat is the gradual move towards ‘tapering’ by the European Central Bank (ECB) of its unprecedented quantitative easing program, and the support this provides economies by injecting cash to drive down the cost of borrowing and increase consumer and business spending. But it is already clear that this will be a very slow process. The economic recovery in Europe remains quite slow and inflation, outside the UK, is well below the ECB’s target of ‘below or close to’ 2%. At the same time, the damaging effect of negative interest rates needs to be avoided.

 

What could derail this market?

The one exception to what looks to be a relatively rosy scenario, in my view, remains the UK. The Brexit ball is rolling onwards, following the invocation of the now infamous Article 50, but the calling of a General Election was another distraction. The UK is still no closer to knowing what sort of Brexit is desirable, or more likely, economically feasible. Once the reality of debt, demographics and a weak currency become clear, I suspect that the UK market will continue to struggle against other European peers.

Elsewhere in Europe, economies look well set, and I suspect that more capital spending and investment are likely to be incentivised with tax cuts in Europe, again outside the UK. In this scenario, those capital investment-related names such as Siemens, Legrand and Atlas Copco should continue to do well. Luxury names, and auto makers, many of which have rallied hard so far in 2017, are likely to struggle due to subdued consumer demand. Financials have also seen mixed performance so far, with insurance underperforming banks. This seems an anomaly given the paramount importance of long-term savings to cater for retirement.

It would be entirely healthy for European markets to drift through what will hopefully be a quiet summer, without shocks such as Brexit to contend with. I think all seems well set though for European markets to trade higher than current levels by the end of 2017.

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