Budget Preview: Chancellor Philip Hammond’s Impossible Task To “Square The UK’s Circle”
At lunchtime today, Philip Hammond will give the weakened Conservative government’s first budget in the new parliament.
Against a likely backdrop of downgrades for the economy from the OBR, the Chancellor will be under immense pressure to provide a sound plan going forward on many issues. As Statista’s Martin Armstrong notes, the NHS has already had its call for an emergency boost of £4 billion rejected, but there will need to be at least some answers to the problems surrounding health and public services funding.
As a new survey by ComRes shows, this topic is one of particular importance to the public, with 67 percent saying that there should be more investment in these services, with a slight majority even saying they would personally be prepared to pay more taxes to enable it.
Clearly, this is a highly significant budget and we would be greatly surprised if it’s considered a success. As we noted yesterday, Reuters columnist and former European economics editor of The Economist, Paul Wallace, believes:
Few British budgets have mattered as much as the one that Philip Hammond will deliver to the House of Commons on Nov. 22. The chancellor of the exchequer must shore up Theresa May’s perilously shaky government ahead of a vital Brexit summit of European leaders in mid-December. At the same time Hammond has to keep a grip on the public finances.
However, it’s worse than that, as the Chancellor is also under pressure from senior members of the Conservative party, never mind UK citizens, to increase spending amid widespread fatigue with austerity. Here is the Financial Times on the stiff challenge Hammond is facing.
UK Chancellor Philip Hammond is under pressure from all sides as he prepares to deliver his second Budget on Wednesday. The first Budget of a new parliament is traditionally the time for chancellors to take bold decisions about taxes and spending. But the economic forecasts are likely to be difficult, public services are under strain, and pro-Brexit MPs are increasingly turning on the chancellor over his support for a “soft Brexit”. If Mr Hammond produces a safety-first Budget, he squanders his opportunity to decisively shape Britain’s future. But boldness risks backfiring, and steering a middle course threatens to satisfy nobody.
The FT notes that the Chancellor’s statement will “serve a cold dish of downgrades for the UK economy” from the independent “Office for Budget Responsibility” (OBR). This year’s growth forecast is expected to be cut from 2.0% to 1.6% and for 2018 from 1.6% to 1.4%. The medium-term forecasts depend on the OBR’s assumptions on productivity growth, which it has already flagged will be cut “significantly”. The FT expects that.
That means growth figures for 2020 and beyond will be closer to 1.5 per cent a year, compared with the 2 per cent that the fiscal watchdog had previously forecast.
Paul Wallace highlighted productivity as Hammond’s biggest problem.
But the gravest challenge he faces is economic: Britain’s persistent productivity blight…
Other advanced economies have also experienced setbacks to productivity growth following the financial crisis. Where Britain stands out is in the severity of its reverse. The shortfall in productivity is the main reason real wages are now 4 percent lower than 10 years ago, a potent reason why the leave campaign prevailed in the Brexit referendum.
While public finances look slightly more robust in the near-term, the outlook is deteriorating 3-4 years out, as the FT explains”
Tax revenues have been stronger than expected this year, alongside lower-than-expected public spending. As a result, this year’s expected public borrowing will fall by about £8bn. The debt burden will begin to fall next year, giving Mr Hammond the opportunity to boast that he has turned the corner on public finances. But good news in the short term disappears towards the end of the forecast horizon, as weaker economic forecasts bear down on projected tax revenues. Before any accounting or tax changes, the deficit forecast in 2020-21 is likely to rise by more than £10bn compared with the March forecast. The government has already said it wants to reduce borrowing to under 2 per cent of national income by 2020-21, but Mr Hammond’s headroom is likely to roughly halve, from £26bn to about £13bn, in that year.
However, he does have one thing up his sleeve…an off-balance sheet accounting gimmick.
The chancellor wants to signal that after a difficult year, things are looking up, with debt falling and Brexit-related uncertainties lifting. To offset bad news in the medium-term public finances, he will use a £5bn-a-year accounting change — by taking housing associations’ borrowing off the government’s books — to free up more money for housing, wages and healthcare.
Affordable housing is a major problem for Hammond and Prime Minister Theresa May. According to the FT:
Fixing the “broken housing market” is the government’s biggest domestic priority. The chancellor wants to make rents more affordable and ease the path to home ownership for younger adults who have deserted the Conservative party in recent elections. Mr Hammond has already set a target of 300,000 new homes per year, but has also insisted there is no “single magic bullet” to solving housing problems.
He will announce a housing package on Wednesday that is likely to include commissioning of new building on public land and funding for local authorities to construct homes. He will also reaffirm the Tories’ promise from last month’s party conference to commit £10bn more of Help to Buy equity loans, and set out plans to lower stamp duty for some first-time buyers. There will be no big reform of planning laws for the “greenbelt” of protected area outside of London, but local authorities could be given more powers for compulsory purchase of land.
In its budget preview, the left-leaning Guardian newspaper highlights the deteriorating outlook for public finances due to the productivity problem.
Lower expectations for the output per worker will have an impact on the gross domestic product, cutting the amount of economic output available for taxation. The Institute for Fiscal Studies reckons the downgrade will contribute to a £20bn black hole in the public finances, limiting Hammond’s spending power if he wants to stick to his pledge to remove the deficit by the mid-2020s. John McDonnell, the Labour shadow chancellor, seized on the October data to argue that seven years of spending cuts had “caused pain and misery for millions with little to show for it”.
As if “Fiscal Phil” Hammond didn’t have enough on his plate, he’s also been lambasted for his gaffe that “there are no unemployed people” in Britain, in a television interview at the weekend. Disliked by the pro-Brexit side of his party, Hammond’s budget speech is being viewed by some as the “make or break” moment of his career. We concur.
Meanwhile, Bloomberg has been doing some sleuthing on budget preparations by government departments and think tanks. It identifies six things to look out for when Philip Hammond stand up in parliament to deliver his speech.
The U.K. budget is usually a mixture of measures that have been heavily trailed in the run-up by various government ministers, with a liberal sprinkling of surprises. In the past six months there have been myriad consultations and papers on everything from the offshore oil to air pollution that hint at possible measures in the works. Bloomberg trawled through that documentation, as well as recent announcements, to identify six areas that are likely to get a mention when Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond lays out his economic blueprint.
1. Stamp Duty and the Housing Crisis
Prime Minister Theresa May last week pledged that it’s her personal mission to “build more homes, more quickly.” To that end, the budget is likely to include a number of measures to encourage construction and enable younger people to get on the housing ladder. Asked on the BBC on Sunday about whether the home-buying tax known as stamp duty would be cut for younger buyers, Hammond declined to discuss tax matters, but didn’t deny he was looking at the measure.
“We recognize the challenge for young first-time buyers, that in many parts of the country deposits are now very large,” Hammond said. “Nobody is saying we’ve done enough. We must do more. We recognize there’s a challenge there and on Wednesday I shall set out how we intend to address it.”
2. North Sea Oil and Gas
Whilst remaining committed to its climate-change goals, the U.K. is also trying to extract as much value from its waning oil and gas fields in the North Sea. The industry is crucial to the economy in Scotland, which would be grateful for any assistance to a financial lifeline even as it remains angry at the Conservatives for taking it out of the European Union.
At the last budget in March, the government published a “discussion paper” that examined allowing transfers of tax history between buyers and sellers of oil and gas assets — a measure designed to make it easier to buy and sell the fields, and keep them producing for longer. It would allow buyers to get a tax refund as a result of any costs incurred decommissioning the field at the end of its life.
Hammond told the Sunday Times he’s “looking at” a possible change in the tax rules, which is “the No. 1 ask of my Scottish colleagues.” Even so, he did issue a note of caution, adding that the Treasury needs to ensure the reform “is robust and that we don’t inadvertently create scope for gaming on a grand scale in the tax system.”
3. Boosting Research & Development
May on Monday said the government aims to increase public and private research and development spending to 2.4 percent of economic output by 2027, and beyond that to 3 percent. “This could mean about 80 billion pounds ($106 billion) of additional investment in the next decade,” she said.
As part of an announcement the same day linked to her government’s Industrial Strategy — due to be published next week — she said that would begin with a commitment for an extra 2.3 billion pounds of investment in the 2021-2022 tax year, taking total public investment to 12.5 billion pounds that year. The government also signaled plans for a 1.7 billion-pound fund focused on improving regional transport links.
4. Shale Wealth Fund
In another measure aimed at boosting the fossil-fuel industry — in this case by making it more palatable to local communities — the government promised at the last election to overhaul a pledged fund worth as much as 1 billion pounds to distribute some of the profits from hydraulic fracturing.
The aim is to ensure “a greater percentage of the tax revenues from shale gas directly benefit the communities that host extraction sites.” The government last week responded to a consultation on the issue pledging the fund will initially consist of as much as 10 percent of tax revenues from shale-gas extraction, with proceeds to be spent on projects ranging from play parks for children to improved transport links and restoring historical sites.
5. Air Pollution Tax
Diesel vehicles have become a political football of late. For years, governments ignored evidence that diesel is worse for air quality and encouraged its use because the fuel is less damaging to the climate than gasoline. With air pollution now under the microscope in London in particular, the government published an air-quality plan over the summer and is likely to include measures in the budget designed to help clean up the air in Britain’s cities by encouraging cleaner vehicles.
Possible measures include raising the sales tax on diesel cars, known as vehicle excise duty, or raising taxation on diesel fuel itself, which is currently taxed at the same level as gasoline, at about 58 pence per liter. The government has also said it will consider programs to encourage motorists to trade in their older, more polluting cars, for newer, cleaner ones. Ministers also stepping up efforts to encourage the use of more electric vehicles by supporting the development of batteries and the deployment of charging points.
6. Fund for Start-Ups
In August, the government proposed a new National Investment Fund that would help start-ups access the “patient capital” funding they need to develop into so-called “unicorns” — innovative companies valued at over $1 billion. A consultation on the proposal closed in September, and Hammond is likely to propose a confirmed plan of action in the budget.
The consultation suggested funding should come from the British Business Bank, replacing the backing currently received from the European Investment Fund. One of the reasons this could get a mention is that the the government is keen to demonstrate that London can attract Big Tech even when it’s no longer in the European Union.
Although the view is hardly unique to this government, a mere 22 percent said that they feel taxpayers’ money is currently being spent wisely.
Whether this percentage will go up or down after the Chancellor’s statement today, remains to be seen.