George Osborne's Autumn Statement: 10 things to look out for

Including, when will living standards start to rise, will there be new money for the NHS and how much more austerity is Osborne planning?

George Osborne will deliver his Autumn Statement at 11:15am today but, as so often with these events, it feels as if much of it has already been announced. The imposition of capital gains tax on foreign property owners, the freeze in business rates, the scheduled rise in the state pension age to 70 (in the 2060s) and the scrapping of employers' National Insurance for workers under 21 have all been pre-briefed to the media. 

One reason for this is that Osborne wants as much attention as possible to be focused on the OBR's improved forecasts for growth, employment and borrowing. Having responded to Labour's cost-of-living offensive by reducing green levies on energy customers, his other main aim is to shift the debate back towards the deficit and austerity, issues on which the Tories continue to out-poll Miliband's party. This being Osborne, he'll also have held at least one headline announcement back to triumphantly flourish at the end of the speech. And there's much more to look out for too

1. When will living standards start to rise? And by how much?

At present, while the economy is growing at its fastest rate for six years (and faster than any other G7 country), real wages, as Labour relentlessly points out, are still in decline, with earnings growth of just 0.8% in the most recent quarter compared to inflation of 2.2%. The Treasury's hope and expectation is that this will begin to change next year. How strong the OBR expects earnings growth to be will do much to determine the extent of any pre-election feelgood factor. 

2. More money for the NHS?

With ministers suffering sleepless nights at the prospect of a winter A&E crisis, one persistent rumour in Wesminster is that Osborne will announce additional money for the NHS. As well as helping to prevent the health service from collapse, this would offer the Chancellor a chance to reaffirm his party's commitment to the NHS and to (falsely) allege that Labour would be cutting it. 

3. How big is the output gap? (How much more austerity is needed?) 

One wonkish measure worth keeping an eye on is the output gap: the difference between actual and potential growth. The size of this will determine how much more austerity will be required to eliminate the structural deficit (the part of the deficit that exists regardless of the level of economic output) in the next parliament. 

4. Benefit cuts for under-25s

At every Budget and Autumn Statement he delivers, Osborne always finds a way to put welfare centre stage and today is likely to be no exception. One issue on which the Chancellor is expected to give more details is the coalition's plan to remove benefits from under-25s who are not "earning or learning". 

5. What's happening to income tax threshold?

Having already announced that the coalition's pledge to raise the personal allowance to £10,000 will be met by next April, there's room for Osborne to go further. Nick Clegg has urged him to raise it to at least £10,500, while David Cameron is said to be eyeing a £10,750 threshold. Osborne may well choose to keep his powder dry until the Budget but look out for a hint of further action today. 

6. When will a budget surplus be achieved?

The most significant announcement in Osborne's Conservative conference speech was his pledge to run a budget surplus by the end of the next parliament. With the OBR's updated forecasts, we'll find out when this might be achieved (today's FT suggests 2018-19). Expect Osborne to use this as his essential test of whether Labour is prepared to be fiscally responsible and as a signal of when greater tax cuts may become possible. 

7. Will Osborne halve the deficit by the election? 

Despite borrowing billions more than expected, Osborne is fond of reminding us that the deficit has still fallen by a third since the general election (from £159bn in 2009-10 to £115bn in 2012-13). If the numbers fall right today, he may well boast that he'll have halved it by the time of the general election (the Darling plan, in other words). 

8. Another cut in corporation tax?

Osborne has used almost every one of his Budgets and Autumn Statements to announce that he'll be cutting corporation tax by even more than expected (it is currently due to fall to 20% in 2015-16 from its 2010 level of 28%, giving the UK the joint-lowest rate in the G20). Today he'll publish new Treasury research showing that, in the next 20 years, the cuts are forecast to add around 0.7% to GDP (merely suggesting, as Richard Murphy puts it, that Osborne has finally discovered the multiplier), so it would be unsurprising if he chose to combine this with an annoucement that the rate will fall even further - to 19%. 

9. More public sector job losses?

As well as publishing new forecasts for growth, inflation and borrowing, the OBR will release its new estimate of how many public sector jobs will be lost over the course of the austerity programme. In the most recent Budget, this figure was put at 1.2 million but with Osborne planning further spending cuts to pay for tax cuts and benefit increases (free school meals), it could rise today. 

10. A cut in fuel duty?

The Chancellor has already vowed to freeze fuel duty for the remainder of this parliament but with the improvement in the public finances will he go further and deliver an outright cut? If Osborne is looking for a headline announcement designed to show that the government is not indifferent to the "cost-of-living crisis" this is the most likely candidate. 

George Osborne inspects material during a visit to AW Hainsworth and Sons on October 25, 2013 in Leeds. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?