Officials to investigate economic outlook as unions argue austerity policies are causing UK to lag behind in global recovery
International Monetary Fund officials arrive in London today for their annual health check of Britain’s economy as the government faces a fresh warning its austerity drive is causing a “lost decade of growth”.
Echoing the IMF’s recent warning that George Osborne, the chancellor, needed to ease up on austerity cuts in the face of a stagnant economy, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) has argued that the UK is being left behind in the global recovery.
It said the UK is experiencing a slower economic recovery than 23 of the 33 advanced economies monitored by the IMF. The TUC report, issued to coincide with the arrival of the IMF mission, also claims the vast majority of eurozone countries are performing better.
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “We truly are experiencing a lost decade for growth. While other countries are already seeing a rise in economic output, the UK won’t return to its pre-crash level for another four years.
“The chancellor’s commitment to self-defeating austerity has prolonged people’s suffering and put the brakes on our economic recovery – so much so that escaping a triple-recession is considered by some to be a cause for celebration. Even George Osborne’s favourite economic institution, the IMF, is calling on him to change course.”
Looking at income per head, the TUC warned the UK would not return to its pre-crash level until 2017. By contrast, income per head in Germany and the US would be more than 10% higher a decade on from the financial crisis.
The TUC said the figures, based on the IMF’s latest GDP forecasts, also revealed how the UK is emerging from recession at a slower rate than at any time in recent history. The report says: “In 1985, UK income per head was 6% higher than it was before the 1980 crash. In 1995, UK income per head was 7% higher than it was before the 1990 recession. UK income per head is today still 6% below its 2008 level.”
Over the next two weeks IMF officials will be gathering information on the UK’s economic prospects from the Treasury, Bank of England, private sector economists, trade union officials and the government’s independent forecaster, the Office for Budget Responsibility. The IMF deputy managing director, David Lipton, is then expected to hold a news conference on or around 22 May at the end of the discussions.
IMF officials caused embarrassment for Osborne last month when, alarmed at the flatlining of the British economy in 2011 and 2012, they urged him to do more to boost growth and to rethink plans to cut the structural budget deficit by 1% of national income in 2013-14.
The Washington-based organisation was initially a strong supporter of the coalition’s approach to tackling the UK’s record peacetime budget deficit. But its chief economist, Olivier Blanchard, singled out the UK as a country that had the scope to ease fiscal policy to boost growth. Osborne was particularly irritated by Blanchard’s comment that the UK was “playing with fire” by refusing to change tack.
Osborne, however, will stand firm at meetings with the IMF delegation. Treasury officials intend to show that any change to the strategy they have followed for the last three years would damage the government’s credibility in the financial markets and the subsequent increase in long-term interest rates would outweigh any benefits from cutting taxes or increasing spending.
The Treasury will say that the economy is gradually on the mend and that the IMF’s anxiety about the weakness of growth has already been addressed in recent policy initiatives. They will also say that the sluggishness of the economy in 2012 was a result of the drop in exports to the crisis-hit eurozone, rather than weak consumer spending.
The TUC argues that many eurozone economies, including France, Germany, Ireland and the Netherlands, are recovering faster in GDP per head terms and so Osborne “cannot blame Europe for the UK’s economic woes”. It wants the chancellor to ease off on austerity and focus more on jobs and spurs to growth and confidence such as an extensive house building programme.
“He should start learning from countries like the US whose ambitious programme of investment in jobs is helping to turn its economy around,” said O’Grady.
A Treasury spokesperson said: “This is an own goal by Labour’s paymasters. This analysis starts in 2008 and so includes the biggest recession in modern history – which happened under Labour. Clearing up the mess we inherited won’t happen overnight.”
Chris Leslie, shadow financial secretary to the Treasury, said: “George Osborne should not arrogantly dismiss the advice of hte IMF team flying into London this week. It is time the chancellor listened to their warnings that his failing economic poilicies are plahing with fire and that Britian now needs a plan ‘B for jobs and growth.”
The IMF cut its forecast for UK growth in both 2013 and 2014 last month. Its publication – the half-yearly World Economic Outlook – said GDP would rise by 0 .7% this year and by 1.5% in 2014 – in both cases a cut of 0.3 points from its last set of predictions in January.
Business secretary speaks out against rush to sell bailed-out bank, saying it could be used to make sector more competitive
The business secretary, Vince Cable, is urging the chancellor to consider breaking up Royal Bank of Scotland to boost competition in the financial sector instead of dashing to privatise the bailed-out lender.
He waded into the debate about the future of RBS after reports that George Osborne was hoping for a quick selloff. Cable said: “I don’t see the need for any haste.”
Sir Philip Hampton, the bank’s chairman, said on Friday that the clean-up of the battered lender would be “substantially complete” by 2014, allowing the Treasury to start selling shares before the general election. But Cable is keen to ensure that all options remain on the table, including breaking the bank up. “There’s a lot to be said for the idea of using RBS to create a more competitive banking sector,” he said. Insiders have argued that splitting up RBS would create insurmountable legal and practical problems, but Cable said: “You probably could create separate entities and I’m sure that would be healthy.”
Encouraging competition in banking is a key aim of the coalition and ministers were disappointed by the collapse last month of a deal under which the Co-operative Bank sought to buy more than 600 branches from Lloyds Banking Group, creating a powerful mutually owned “challenger bank”.
Cable said consumers and businesses had been left with even less choice than before the financial crisis. “It’s become very, very narrow, and it almost entirely consists of shareholder banks,” he said. RBS was bailed out by Alistair Darling, the then Labour chancellor, in the financial crisis in late 2008. It required two fresh recapitalisations the following year as the shaky state of its finances became clearer, receiving a total of £45bn.
With lending to small businesses in Britain’s recession-scarred economy still falling, despite a series of government initiatives, the future of RBS has become a fraught political issue. Senior figures, including the archbishop of Canterbury and former Tory chancellor Lord Lawson, have called for it to be broken up into a “bad bank”, with legacy loans from the boom years, and a “good bank” that would then be free to make new loans. Some campaigners have argued that it should be split into a series of regional lenders that could focus on small businesses.
Tony Greenham, of the New Economics Foundation thinktank, said: “It absolutely should not be flogged off: why would you turn the clock back to a banking system that was so manifestly dysfunctional before 2008 by just selling it back?” The share price of both RBS and Lloyds Banking Group remain well below the average paid by the government when it part-nationalised them.
Samuel Tombs, of Capital Economics, said: “The bottom line is that a selloff of the government’s stakes in the banks would be no quick fix for either the public finances or the problems in the lending market.”
But some Tory strategists believe that selling at a loss would be better than hanging on to RBS beyond the election. A Treasury spokesman insisted the chancellor was willing to examine alternatives to a full privatisation and denied any rush to offload the bank. “It’s a company that’s gradually returning to health, but it is gradual: it’s still quite a long slog,” he said.
George Osborne says Thursday’s growth figures are ‘an encouraging sign the economy is healing’
Levy has raised around £1.6tn but has become a headache for business with hopes for a cheap and simple EU tax in the past
Pink Floyd had just released The Dark Side of the Moon and the doors of the London Stock Exchange were finally open to female members when Conservative chancellor Anthony Barber introduced the nation to value added tax.
Imposed as a condition of Britain’s joining the common market, VAT is 40 years old on Monday and it has so far raised £1.6tn for the public purse, according to a study by the accountancy company Deloitte.
Designed by French tax expert Maurice Lauré in the postwar years and first levied in the UK on April Fools’ Day 1973, VAT is now the government’s third largest source of revenue after income tax and national insurance.
But what started out as a simple, easy to collect tax – a low, flat rate imposed on most goods and services – has become increasingly complex, with exemptions for everything from children’s clothes to Jaffa Cakes.
“The initial idealistic hope that it would be a simple tax, easy to apply, has constantly been eroded because there are always special lobbies,” said Deloitte tax expert Daniel Lyons. “Politics and economics got in the way of simplicity.”
Today, many of life’s essentials are not liable for VAT, including water, eggs, fish, milk, butter, cheese, newspapers, books, nuts, prescription medicines, cold sandwiches, tea, coffee, cooking oil and cereals. Other goods and services including zoos, burials, antiques and TV licences are simply exempt.
VAT was a European replacement for the purchase tax, which was charged at different rates according to the luxuriousness of an item. The new levy, a flat 10% on most goods and services, was in theory simpler to administer.
Paid by the buyer but collected by the seller, it is still one of the cheapest taxes for HM Revenue & Customs to administer because it requires businesses to act as tax collector.
It even had its own, user-friendly tribunal, where business owners could represent themselves when pleading their case.
But just one year in, Labour chancellor Denis Healey began to muddy the waters. He reduced the standard rate to 8%, but introduced a higher rate of 12.5% for petrol and some luxury goods, doubling the upper rate later that year to 25% before lowering it in 1976.
In 1979, the higher rate was abolished and the standard rate increased to 15%, where it remained until Conservative chancellor Norman Lamont increased it to 17.5% in 1991. Lamont also imposed an 8% rate on domestic fuel and power, which had previously been zero-rated.
The 1997 general election swept Labour to power and with it came a new series of tweaks and exemptions. Gordon Brown brought domestic fuel and power down to 5%, and knocked money off the rate for home insulation materials. He applied his own moral stamp, with VAT reductions on nicotine gum and other stop-smoking products, along
Office for Budget Responsibility members say mortgage subsidy will push up prices and have little impact on demand
George Osborne has strongly defended his budget policy aimed at boosting Britain’s struggling housing market after his own economic watchdog warned that subsidies for mortgages would drive up property prices.
The chancellor insisted the Treasury’s Help to Buy scheme would encourage housebuilding by countering fears that a lack of affordable finance would leave new homes unsold.
Giving evidence to backbench MPs, Osborne said potential buyers were being asked for deposits they couldn’t afford and that there was no risk of a housing bubble.
He used last week’s budget to announce a twin-track scheme for the mortgage market. People buying new homes up to a value of £600,000 can borrow 20% of the value of their property interest-free for five years, in return for the government taking a stake in the equity. He also introduced a new “mortgage guarantee” to help more people get a home loan without the need for a prohibitively large deposit.
But the chancellor’s plan was given a frosty reception by the Office for Budget Responsibility, which provides independent economic and financial forecasts for the Treasury and gave evidence to the committee hours before Osborne’s appearance.
Two of its three members – the chairman, Robert Chote, and the former Bank of England policymaker Steve Nickell – said Help to Buy would push up prices and have little impact on demand.
Nickell said: “The key is: is it just going to drive up house prices? By and large, in the short run the answer to that is yes. But in the medium term will the increased house prices stimulate more housebuilding, and our general answer to that would probably be: a bit. But the historical evidence suggests not very much.”
Chote said strict planning laws limited housebuilders’ ability to build more homes, so the Help to Buy scheme was more likely to push up prices than increase the supply of new housing.
“If you were to note the fact that the planning system remains an important reason why the supply of new housing is relatively inelastic [and] the need of housebuilders for working capital, I suspect that more of it would have shown up in prices than in quantities,” he said.
The OBR chairman said his organisation had been unable to make a detailed assessment of the impact of the scheme because ministers had not provided enough information on how it would work.
At his appearance, Osborne was asked by the committee chairman, Andrew Tyrie, whether he was not concerned that “we are just ploughing money back into the boom-bust property cycle?”
The chancellor replied: “I don’t detect that we are in the middle of a housing boom. I think we are in a very unusual situation after the financial crisis. Families are being priced out of the housing market and that is neither economically right nor socially fair.”
Dismissing the idea that the UK could enter another housing bubble, the chancellor added: “If you look at the UK housing market at the moment, the number of first-time buyers has halved, the amount required for a deposit has trebled, the deposit required from first-time buyers has doubled as a percentage of their income.”
The chancellor also refused to rule out breaking up Royal Bank of Scotland – 83% owned by the taxpayer – into a good and bad bank in an attempt to increase lending.
The idea of splitting off all the toxic assets of RBS into a separate institution so that the rest of the bank would have a clean balance sheet has been looked at repeatedly by the Treasury in recent years. Osborne said the good bank/bad bank option could not be delivered overnight but the leading civil servant at the Treasury, Sir Nicholas Macpherson, told the committee there might be a time when officials recommended a breakup.
Cyprus risks deepening the eurozone crisis as austerity is failing across the continent. This is a tide that has to be turned
Europe’s flesheaters are back. The claim that the worst of the eurozone crisis is behind us now looks foolish. The deal forced on Cyprus by the German-led Troika at the weekend isn’t a bailout: it will effectively destroy the island’s economy. Instead of getting a grip on its grossly inflated banks, it will impose a brutal credit contraction, combined with sweeping cuts and privatisations, wiping out perhaps a quarter of Cyprus’s national income. Ordinary Cypriots, not Russian oligarchs, will pay the price.
Of course Cypriot politicians are to blame for having allowed the country to be turned into an adjunct of a bloated financial sector and a refuge for hot Russian money. But what tipped the divided island over wasn’t foreign investors’ sharp practices, but the impact of Europe’s wider crisis on its banks: in particular, their exposure to devastated Greece, currently also in the Troika’s tender care.
Some have hailed the fact the raid was carried out on Cypriot bank deposits over €100,000, rather than the public purse. At last the rich and those responsible for private banking failures are being made to cough up, it’s been said. Which would have been a good thing. But it’s savers, not bankers or shareholders, who are taking the 40% hit. And many of the targeted depositors, such as pensioners, are scarcely rich – or are small businesses which will now go bust.
The Cypriot government should instead have learned from Iceland: taken over the banks, isolated the bad loans, protected deposits, imposed losses on the wealthy, and used a publicly owned banking sector to rebuild the domestic economy. That would have offered its citizens a better future, almost certainly outside the eurozone. But it would have also encroached on private capital’s privileges and clearly couldn’t be tolerated. Instead, in classic EU style, Cypriots have been given no say, while German MPs vote on the deal. Meanwhile, Cyprus’s banks are still closed and capital controls will start to erode the euro as a genuine single currency. As the Greek economist Costas Lapavitsas argues, Cyprus has “reactivated” the European banking crisis.
Not that it had been resolved. Only last month the Dutch government was forced to nationalise the Netherlands’ fourth biggest bank, SNS Reaal, partly because of its over-exposure to losses in Spain. But since the European Central Bank president Mario Draghi pledged last year to do “what it takes” to save the euro, market fever had subsided.
Now the Troika’s decision to help itself to Cypriot savings has paved the way for a new contagion. In the short term that may be contained because of the island’s minuscule proportion of eurozone output. But the move has demolished confidence in bank deposits – a point rammed home by the Dutch finance minister’s blundering signal that the deal had set a precedent. That could easily turn into bank runs in states likely to need new bailouts, as investors move cash to safer locations. Given the spectacular failure of austerity across the continent to overcome the crisis, rather than deepen it as output shrinks and debts mount, more such breakdowns are clearly on the cards.
The eurozone has now become a zombie zone. And any further deterioration can only deepen Britain’s own crisis. Whatever the focus of the meltdown in each country – banking in Cyprus, property in Spain – all flow from the same crisis that erupted in 2007-8 out of a deregulated profit-hunting credit boom across the western world and has delivered a prolonged depression. In the eurozone, the impact of that systemic failure is made worse by a lop-sided one-size-fits-all currency straitjacket that was always going to come apart under pressure. In Britain, the power and weight of the City of London are a particular block on sustainable recovery.
But across Europe, people are being held to ransom by banks, bondholders and corporations determined to ensure that it’s not they who bear the costs of the crisis they created – and politicians who regard it as their job to oblige them. So even though Britain is facing the threat of a triple-dip recession, George Osborne last week ploughed on with a regressive austerity programme that is manifestly failing in its own terms but offers lucrative corporate opportunities in the spaces opened up by the rolling back of the state.
Next week some of the Cameron coalition’s most brutal cuts will kick in – including the deeply unpopular bedroom tax – just as anyone earning over a million pounds a year gets an annual tax cut of at least £42,295, and local councils face the loss of a third of their budgets by 2015. Resistance to death-spiral economics is hardening across Europe, but so is political polarisation. Alexis Tsipras, leader of Greece’s radical left party, currently leading in the polls, compares the situation to prewar Weimar Germany. Cameron is not the only leader using anxieties over migration to deflect anger at the impact of his own policies.
In Britain, public opinion has long balked at the government’s cuts programme and is now increasingly opposed to attacks on welfare. That mood was reflected in last week’s rebellion by 44 Labour MPs against their leaders’ decision not to oppose retrospective legislation imposing benefit sanctions on unemployed people refusing private “workfare” schemes. Today unions and community groups launched a national “people’s assembly” to mobilise against austerity. One way or another, resistance has to get stronger – or they’ll devour us all.
This is a dangerous time to push the property market. The
Ministers fail to clarify whether scheme to help first-time buyers could be exploited by those wanting more properties
Continue reading here: Steve Bell on the Help to Buy scheme – cartoon
Juliette Garside (Report, 16 March) suggests George Osborne could have got £3bn more than he did selling the 4G spectrum. Whatever the benefit to the public purse it was always a myth that the public would benefit from this sale since whatever was paid for 4G by the operators would be passed on to their customers in the form of higher bills. Using this revenue to keep petrol increases down would simply shift a Treasury revenue-raising impact from car drivers to smartphone users.
• The 4G auction was never designed to maximise income. Ofcom’s auction was structured to ensure strong competition and efficient use of mobile spectrum, and that is exactly what it has achieved. Five companies acquired spectrum for 4G services, which will deliver greater value to consumers, businesses and the economy than any short-term revenues.
Director of spectrum markets, Ofcom