George Osborne stands behind the bar during a visit to officially re-open The Red Lion pub following a major refurbishment in Westminster on February 25, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images
Show Hide image

How big is Osborne's black hole? The problem is we don't know

The level of austerity required varies hugely depending on how much growth is thought possible.

Today's FT story on George Osborne's "£20bn black hole" might appear puzzling at first. With the British economy growing faster than that of any other major western country (albeit after three years of stagnation), shouldn't the public finances be getting better, not worse? On one level they are: borrowing for 2013-14  is currently £4bn lower than last year. But the problem for the Chancellor is that the models used by the Office for Budget Responsibility (the budgetary watchdog he founded in 2010), which the FT has replicated, deem this improvement to be almost entirely cyclical (temporary), rather than structural (permanent). While the body's short-term forecasts have improved, its long-term forecasts have worsened. Osborne's cuts have permanently dented the economy's growth potential. The result is that the structural deficit (the part of the deficit that exists regardless of the level of growth) is now estimated to be even bigger than first thought, and that means even more austerity will be needed to balance the books. 

The problem with all of these forecasts is that they hinge on one highly uncertain judgement: the size of the output gap. The output gap (or the level of "spare capacity") is the difference between current and potential growth. If the gap is thought to be large, then a significant chunk of the deficit can be eliminated over time through growth, rather than spending cuts and tax rises. But if it is thought to be small (the OBR puts it at 1.8 per cent), then even greater austerity is needed. At present, the OBR estimates that the structural deficit will be £85bn this year, while the total deficit will be £111bn (meaning £26bn of austerity is avoided). But the FT''s updated forecasts suggest that the difference between the two might be smaller than thought, hence the warning of a "£20bn black hole". 

The complication for Osborne (and Ed Balls, who has pledged to eliminate the current deficit by the end of the next parliament) is that economists are hugely divided over the potential for higher growth (the Independent's Ben Chu has a useful graph of their differing forecasts here). The Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee is even more pessimistic than the OBR; it estimates that the output gap is just 1-1.5 per cent, meaning that austerity of £91-97bn will be needed to Osborne to meet his target of running a budget surplus by 2018-19. But the market, on average, is more optimistic than both; it assumes an output gap of 2.7 per cent, meaning the level of austerity required falls to £77bn. Others are even more optimistic. The National Institute for Economic and Social Research (NIESR) puts the output gap at 4.3 per cent, with £60bn of austerity required, at least £30bn less than assumed by the Bank of England. 

The danger highlighted by some economists is that an overly pessimistic estimate could lead to austerity being applied more severely than necessary. As Andrew Goodwin, senior economist at Oxford Economics, has said: "Oxford Economics analysis suggests that the economy has a significantly larger amount of spare capacity than the OBR estimates which, in turn, suggests that the medicine of austerity could end up being applied in a dose higher than the patient actually needs."  This calculation matters as much for Labour as it does for the Tories. The level of growth thought possible will determine the amount the party can spend on its priorities - housing, childcare, employment, skills, health and social care - while meeting its tough deficit reduction targets. If it follows Osborne and uses the OBR's pessimistic forecasts, it could end up with a minimalist manifesto it later regrets. 

Wonkish it might be, but the output gap is probably the most important number in British politics. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Show Hide image

Stability is essential to solve the pension problem

The new chancellor must ensure we have a period of stability for pension policymaking in order for everyone to acclimatise to a new era of personal responsibility in retirement, says 

There was a time when retirement seemed to take care of itself. It was normal to work, retire and then receive the state pension plus a company final salary pension, often a fairly generous figure, which also paid out to a spouse or partner on death.

That normality simply doesn’t exist for most people in 2016. There is much less certainty on what retirement looks like. The genesis of these experiences also starts much earlier. As final salary schemes fall out of favour, the UK is reaching a tipping point where savings in ‘defined contribution’ pension schemes become the most prevalent form of traditional retirement saving.

Saving for a ‘pension’ can mean a multitude of different things and the way your savings are organised can make a big difference to whether or not you are able to do what you planned in your later life – and also how your money is treated once you die.

George Osborne established a place for himself in the canon of personal savings policy through the introduction of ‘freedom and choice’ in pensions in 2015. This changed the rules dramatically, and gave pension income a level of public interest it had never seen before. Effectively the policymakers changed the rules, left the ring and took the ropes with them as we entered a new era of personal responsibility in retirement.

But what difference has that made? Have people changed their plans as a result, and what does 'normal' for retirement income look like now?

Old Mutual Wealth has just released. with YouGov, its third detailed survey of how people in the UK are planning their income needs in retirement. What is becoming clear is that 'normal' looks nothing like it did before. People have adjusted and are operating according to a new normal.

In the new normal, people are reliant on multiple sources of income in retirement, including actively using their home, as more people anticipate downsizing to provide some income. 24 per cent of future retirees have said they would consider releasing value from their home in one way or another.

In the new normal, working beyond your state pension age is no longer seen as drudgery. With increasing longevity, the appeal of keeping busy with work has grown. Almost one-third of future retirees are expecting work to provide some of their income in retirement, with just under half suggesting one of the reasons for doing so would be to maintain social interaction.

The new normal means less binary decision-making. Each choice an individual makes along the way becomes critical, and the answers themselves are less obvious. How do you best invest your savings? Where is the best place for a rainy day fund? How do you want to take income in the future and what happens to your assets when you die?

 An abundance of choices to provide answers to the above questions is good, but too much choice can paralyse decision-making. The new normal requires a plan earlier in life.

All the while, policymakers have continued to give people plenty of things to think about. In the past 12 months alone, the previous chancellor deliberated over whether – and how – to cut pension tax relief for higher earners. The ‘pensions-ISA’ system was mooted as the culmination of a project to hand savers complete control over their retirement savings, while also providing a welcome boost to Treasury coffers in the short term.

During her time as pensions minister, Baroness Altmann voiced her support for the current system of taxing pension income, rather than contributions, indicating a split between the DWP and HM Treasury on the matter. Baroness Altmann’s replacement at the DWP is Richard Harrington. It remains to be seen how much influence he will have and on what side of the camp he sits regarding taxing pensions.

Meanwhile, Philip Hammond has entered the Treasury while our new Prime Minister calls for greater unity. Following a tumultuous time for pensions, a change in tone towards greater unity and cross-department collaboration would be very welcome.

In order for everyone to acclimatise properly to the new normal, the new chancellor should commit to a return to a longer-term, strategic approach to pensions policymaking, enabling all parties, from regulators and providers to customers, to make decisions with confidence that the landscape will not continue to shift as fundamentally as it has in recent times.

Steven Levin is CEO of investment platforms at Old Mutual Wealth.

To view all of Old Mutual Wealth’s retirement reports, visit: products-and-investments/ pensions/pensions2015/