Thursday, 13 November 2008

As ye sow...

It is always difficult to write in advance of the Pre-Budget Report, though we understand that it will be happening shortly. In some past years the PBR has been in October, but the Government would say it has had other things on its mind; in other words the “credit crunch” and the apparent impending recession. Of course, it depends on what business you are in as to whether you think there is a recession now, and the effects will bite on different people and businesses at different times. However, clearly the collective spending power of the nation will be affected.

The delay in the PBR is we assume because the Government is thinking about what measures it can take to address an immediate problem. Normally the twice yearly Budgets we have got used to take a longer term view. In the meantime we have been left with the spectacle of the Bank of England desperately cutting lending rates in an attempt to kick start the economy or at least relieve beleaguered mortgage holders (most of us) and ironically stimulate the housing market. Of course this points to a good part of the problem. Anyway, the Bank says it is cutting rates as it has most recently with a 1.5% reduction because it has calculated that inflation will fall below 2% anyway, whilst we understand that the economy may shrink by half a per cent a least in the next year; maybe more depending who you believe.

It is nice that the Bank has remembered that it was supposed to be using the interest rate tool as a way of controlling general inflation. In recent years it has wound the rate up in order, it said, to control house price inflation specifically, whereas before about four or five years ago it seemed to look at the general inflation rate, which is what we understood was important. Indeed it was important, and therein lies part of the damage that has been done. The general lending rates for business are what has caused a good deal of damage to the economy underneath whilst the Bank has been looking at house prices, and now, surprise, surprise, businesses are struggling. Apart from the construction industry and retail sales fueled by easy credit, those of us out in the real world know that the business environment has been slow for about three years because of the lack of genuine spending money in the economy..

The Bank of England, in increasing interest rates over the last couple of years has of course been treating the symptoms of the disease, house price inflation and consumer spending, rather than curing the disease, which has been the ridiculously easy credit available. Of course mortgage lending regulation had been hived off to the Financial Services Authority, an impotent and useless quango as we know form their failure to regulate properly the pensions industry, but even so one would have thought there might have been some dialogue. Of course it would not have saved the US sub-prime market from coming to grief, but we might have been much less badly off in the UK if people had not been defaulting on mortgages they could not afford and never should have been given in the first place.

So where does this take us on the tax front? Business does not react well to jam tomorrow, so any new stimulus to spend money such as a hoist in capital allowances will not help in the short term, any more than a cut in corporation tax for small businesses (or delaying the current locked-in increase to 22 %) would help us now. The Government has already painted itself into a corner even with the current level of borrowing. Remember also the fiasco requiring the Chancellor to increase the individual personal allowance for 2008-09 to compensate basic rate taxpayers for the loss of the 10% rate band? Will this have to be locked in for future years at further cost to the Treasury and us when the chickens come home to roost and the borrowings have to be repaid?

A quick stimulus to the economy has to put money in people's pockets now. Anything of this ilk will be very costly indeed. What would be most effective would be a cut in Employer's National Insurance because this would help business now. Schemes such as the Conservatives' idea of cash to business to employ the longer-term unemployed might to a degree be self-funding but even this will have a delayed effect.

Anyway, the Government and Gordon Brown are now reaping what they and the Bank of England have sown. In the end, we shall all have to pay. What really worries me is that MPs and the financial press will take their eyes off the ball when it comes to the Pre-Budget Report and the Chancellor will sneak in something nasty, such as a revised attack on family businesses with the income-shifting proposals we saw this time last year as a reaction to the Revenue defeat in the Arctic Systems case. Such a thing would hardly lift the mood and sentiment in small businesses, but the Treasury hitherto has not understood the reality on the ground, and is unlikely to now in the light of a “painting over the cracks” Mini-Budget.

© Jon Stow 2008

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