UK economy

Kiran Stacey

North Sea oil - how much of a loss will this be?Amid all the debate about the economic viability of an independent Scotland, one element of the debate has been left behind, namely what Scottish independence would mean for the rest of the UK.

Martin Beck of Capital Economics has sought to remedy that today, putting out a 12-page briefing note on whether the rest of the UK would suffer if Scotland went it alone. Many of the conclusions are speculative: an awful lot depends on what the independence settlement looks like and what happens to the economy after 2014. But there are some interesting points definitely worth pulling out: Read more

Jim Pickard

Drivers on the M6The coalition’s mid-term “mid-term” parliamentary programme – which is hogging the headlines today – may seem rather thin compared with the original coalition agreement of 2010, which ran into hundreds of pledges.

What’s striking is today’s PR stunt (sorry, renewal of political vows) also includes one or two areas where an agreement is by no means pinned down between the Tories and Lib Dems.

One of these is the attempt by George Osborne and others to inject billions of pounds into the road network, preferably by a privatisation of the motorways and trunk roadsRead more

Tom Burgis

George Osborne

Welcome to our rolling coverage of the Autumn Statement.

George Osborne has missed his fiscal targets and cut corporation tax.

We’ll bring you all the day’s developments live. By Tom Burgis and Ben Fenton.

15.45: We’re winding up the blog now, but you can follow events as they unfold through constantly updating stories on the front page of FT.com

15.31: A representation of the “flamethrower of uncertainty” can be found in the documentation of the OBR. It is also known as a “fan chart”. I doubt George Osborne is a fan of it, though.

15.24: Chote speaks of the “flamethrower of uncertainty”- a favourite phrase, unsettlingly enough, of the OBR, which is a chart showing forecasts in a wide range that makes the chart lines look like a firebreathing dragon.

15.18: Chote says that the variation in the possible range in the forecast of net debt figures for the UK is a large number, but is “dwarfed by the scale of uncertainties” on the issuance of debt. I think that’s the second time he has said that in his address.

15.12: The Spectator is running a rather scary chart showing the lost output of the current “seven-year slump” in the UK.

15.07: Robert Chote, director of the Office for Budget Responsibility, is live now, going through his department’s figures that underpinned the bad news Mr Osborne has just had to deliver.

15.05: Gavyn Davies has blogged for the FT with his view on the autumn statement while the FT’s Lucy Warwick-Ching has collated some very interesting instant reaction from personal finance experts.

14.49: Hannah Kuchler on the FT’s UK desk has been keeping an eye on business reaction to the autumn statement.

She says:

The CBI, the employer’s organisation, urged the government to stick to its guns on deficit reduction to retain international credibility, saying it was no surprise that austerity would last longer than expected.

John Cridland, director-general, welcomed investment in infrastructure and support for exports, but said the proof was in the delivery. He said:

“Businesses need to see the Chancellor’s words translated into building sites on the ground.”

But the British Chambers of Commerce was less positive, declaring the statement not good enough for a country meant to be in a state of “economic war”.
The government is just “tinkering around the edges”, John Longworth, the BCC’s director general said, adding: “The Budget next March must make truly radical and large-scale choices that support long-term growth and wealth creation. That means reconsidering the ‘sacred cows’ of the political class, including overseas aid and the gargantuan scale of the welfare state. Only a wholesale re-prioritisation of resources, to unlock private sector finance, investment and jobs, will be enough to win the ‘economic war’ we are facing. The danger is that our political class is sleepwalking with its eyes open.”

14.40: Lionel Barber, the FT’s editor, just passed by the live news desk so we asked him what he thought of the autumn statement.

The Chancellor is in a hole, but the good news is that he’s stopped digging. The FT supports the government’s fiscal stance, but is there more to be done on monetary policy to boost growth? That’s the question.

14.26 Who says the British don’t like doing things the French way? Might we surmise from this tweet from the BBC’s Robert Peston’s interview with Danny Alexander, Osborne’s Lib Dem No2, that the UK’s crediworthiness might be going to way of its Gallic cousins’?

[blackbirdpie url="https://twitter.com/Peston/statuses/276330461142327296"]

Others are more chipper:

[blackbirdpie url="https://twitter.com/MJJHunter/statuses/276330252601524225"]

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Being prepared for big economic statements, such as tomorrow’s Autumn Statement, is a must, given the quantity of information released in such a short time. Even though this will be the 41st Budget, Autumn Statement or pre-Budget report I have covered, I try not to be complacent.

Here’s what I think is important (sorry about the length), what type of analysis is relevant to understanding Britain’s economy and public finances, and at the bottom is a moan about the way in which George Osborne has decided to follow Gordon Brown down the road of playing games with numbers.

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Kiran Stacey

George Osborne and Nick CleggBack in September, Nick Clegg said he would block any attempt by George Osborne to freeze benefits in this week’s autumn statement. This put the chancellor in something of a quandary. He had been hoping to save several billions with the move, as well as winning the support of a public that is increasingly hostile to people who are claimants.

Another option remains on the table, however, is to allow benefits to rise, but not by as much as they would normally do if the link with inflation is kept. New analysis from the Institute of Public Policy Research suggests there could still be a fair amount of savings to be gained, for example, by increasing them by just 1 per cent.

The IPPR has produced a table of savings from possible options open to the chancellor: Read more

Kiran Stacey

Mark Hoban, the employment minister, has just suffered a bit of a torrid press conference with the assorted ranks of the British press after the Department for Work and Pensions admitted its £5bn back-to-work scheme has fallen well short of its own targets.

The government’s figures show the scheme had found sustained employment (six months for most, three months for those most difficult to help) for just 2.3 per cent of people. The department had set a minimum performance level for itself of 5.5 per cent.

Why is it failing? There are many reasons, but here are the main ones:

1) The economy is worse than expected. The original assumptions built into the scheme were that the UK economy would be growing at 2 per cent. Of course, it is not, which means there are fewer jobs around to be had.

2) The targets were too high. As a way of getting the Treasury to cough up the cash needed for the scheme, the department for work and pensions set very aggressive targets for providers. This has been a concern right from the start of the scheme, as the FT’s former public policy editor, wrote last yearRead more

Jim Pickard

Ministers have been urged to consider imposing severe restrictions on new out-of-town retail developments to save town centres against a backdrop of mass closures of high street shops.

David Cameron and Mary Portas

The radical suggestion was first put forward nearly a year ago by Mary Portas, the government’s retail tsar, in a review into how to stem the decline of Britain’s small shops.

The government has accepted many of the report’s 28 recommendations, including setting up a Distressed Retail Property Taskforce that will be unveiled on Monday to combat growing numbers of boarded-up shops.

Yet ministers shied away from her idea that all out-of-town applications should automatically be called in by ministers.

Chris Wade, chief executive of the charity Action for Market Towns, urged ministers to revisit the idea. “That was quite a bold recommendation, but it was never accepted,” he said. “We would want to see that happen.”

For now, the government has reaffirmed its previous “town centre first” policy in its recently condensed national planning policy framework – namely that retailers should only be able to consider edge-of-town or out-of-town locations if town centre options are not possible. Read more

Kiran Stacey

This morning’s research from the IPPR lays out in thorough detail just how difficult George Osborne will find it to meet his fiscal rules when announcing his spending review for the period 2015-2017 next year.

The think tank has analysed the forecasts from the OBR and the Treasury and calculated the cuts needed to make sure the current structural deficit is cleared by the end of the five-year period and debt is falling as a ratio of GDP by 2015.

Firstly, let’s assume no cuts are made to welfare. If that is the case, the chancellor needs to make average savings of 3.8 per cent from departmental budgets. If spread equally among the departments, that would mean hugely controversial measures such as cutting the NHS budget by nearly £8bn a year and education by nearly £4bn.

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Kiran Stacey

The Lib Dem conference, which starts on Saturday, could be an awkward affair for the party leadership. It is the first conference when Nick Clegg has been faced with members of his own parliamentary party calling for his resignation, and the second successive one where the party has been languishing in the polls.

The agenda for the conference shows the party leadership willing to give the faithful some red meat in the form of Tory-bashing motions. There is a motion insisting on national pay bargaining, one recommitting the party to Lords reform and one resisting any attempts to expand Heathrow.

But the biggest problem could come during the debate on the economy, when an amendment will be discussed calling for the government to rip up its fiscal mandate and take immediate measures to stimulate the economy. Read more

Helen Warrell

As I reported today, the Treasury is looking seriously into the idea of adopting German-style “mini jobs”, a scheme long championed by free market Conservative MPs. The model is that workers can earn up to €400, or £314, tax free each month, while their employers benefit from flexible labour with minimal bureaucracy: they pay a flat rate of wage taxes, insurance and pension contributions.

It is easy to see why companies and jobseekers might be clamouring for the government to pick this up, but there is actually a serious political case as well. Tories who were frustrated by the Liberal Democrats’ opposition to radical labour market reforms put forward by Adrian Beecroft have been calling for ministers to come forward with some new deregulation measures for some time.

The Lib Dems themselves are keen not to be seen as too obstructionist on this issue given the drive for growth, and party officials have assured me that they are not pushing back against the mini jobs idea. Could this be the middle way? Read more

Kiran Stacey

David Cameron and George OsbornePrime ministers aren’t supposed to engage in reshuffle speculation. Once they answer one question about a reshuffle, not only have they admitted it is going to happen, they invite a whole load of others.

But David Cameron seems to have been sufficiently spooked by recent speculation surrounding his chancellor that he felt moved to say the following to Sky’s Kay Burley:

KB: The economy will pick up, and George Osborne, his job will be safe?

DC: George Osborne is doing an excellent job in very difficult circumstances and he has my full support in going on and doing that job.

KB: And he’ll still be the chancellor at the next election?

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Kiran Stacey

 

Stephen Hester, RBS CEO

Stephen Hester, chief executive of RBS

We reported this morning on high-level discussions in the government about the possibility of buying out the remaining 18 per cent of RBS that taxpayers do not already own.

The argument for doing so runs like this: we are already exposed to the vast majority of the bank’s hugely damaged balance sheet, and the losses only look like getting worse as we find out more about its distressed debt.

Given that, would it not be better to take advantage of our holding and actually use the bank to pump some credit into our stagnating economy?

At the moment, the problem with doing this is that it means making loans the bank does not currently consider commercially viable. That would be a dereliction of duty to the remaining private shareholders, who would have every reason to sue. The answer therefore is simply to buy them out, and actually use the government’s stake to achieve what it is trying to do. Read more