Sorting out the balance of payments

The UK has been running a substantial deficit on its balance of payments with overseas countries for some time. The Office of Budget Responsibility has good news for us on this deficit. It forecasts that it will fall from over 5% of our National Income in 2014, to around 4% this year, 3% next year and then to around 2.5% thereafter. It points out the deterioration up to 2014 was caused by a weaker income balance, and suggests that going forward returns on UK investment abroad will pick up again.

If the deficit falls as estimated, then the UK will need to sell fewer assets overseas and raise fewer borrowings, which would be good news.

What we need to remember is the big role in all this of the rest of the EU. The net contribution we pay into the EU and do not get back in any form is over £10 billion a year. That is all a loss on our balance of payments account. If we vote to come out there will immediately be a £10 billion plus improvement in our balance of payments as a result. That is almost one fifth of next year’s forecast balance of payments deficit. The balance of trade is an account split into two parts, EU and non EU. The EU part remains in persistent heavy deficit, whilst we have a surplus with the rest of the world. EU trade has always been arranged in ways which favour Germany and some other continental countries and do not favour the UK. The UK accepted early and substantial liberalisation of trade in manufactured goods where Germany was strong, but has struggled to get a freer market in defence, business and financial services where the UK is stronger.

The UK has also chosen to be generous with its overseas aid. This too is a substantial and growing item entailing the movement of cash abroad, weakening the UK balance of payments. Germany with her huge surplus on her balance of payments does not make such a large contribution to other countries as the UK. The OBR has lowered its 2012 forecast for exports by 23%, reflecting slower world growth especially in the Eurozone and consequent slower trade growth.

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Spending £4 trillion

Listening to some people about the Autumn Statement, it appears you don’t get much for £4 trillion these days. That’s the amount the government plans to spend in the five years of this current Parliament. They aim to increase total spending by 8.7%, comparing 2019-20 with 2015-16. That’s why we hear endless arguments about cuts and the drive to a smaller state! We heard all the same arguments  between 2010 and 2015. At the end of the last Parliament public spending was higher in cash terms and in real terms than in 2010.


We need to remember that the government’s strategy has always been to sustain public spending, and to get the deficit down with a huge increase in tax revenue. The aim this Parliament is to get the tax revenue increase from growth in the economy. This will also have the effect of lowering state spending as a total of the economy as a whole, and leads to all those siren cries that this means the state sector is being cut, when instead it is just growing more slowly than the rest. there were also tax rises, with a new tax on buying Buy to let homes and the apprenticeship levy on business.

The Chancellor was right to abate the severity of his proposed cuts to tax credits. I agree with the strategy of boosting pay through working smarter and paying more for more output. I agree with the policy of cutting income tax on working earnings. As real incomes rise so it is possible to withdraw benefit  support to incomes. It makes little sense to tax people on modest incomes, only to recycle the money to them through a tax credit. The Chancellor was right to remove his severe cuts to tax credits before people have the benefit of the wage rise and the tax cut.

The boost to home ownership for sale is just what the economy needs. We are short of homes, and especially short of affordable homes for sale. This policy should help boost housebuilding and construction materials output. Brick kilns are coming out of mothballs, and new ones are being put in. There will be investment opportunities for  a wide range of building related manufactured items.


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Big surge in tax revenue forecast – £105.2 billion this Parliament

The Autumn Statement forecasts higher tax revenues in every year of this Parliament compared with the March 2015 budget. In total the new estimates show us paying an extra £105 billion in tax over the five years, with increases of 4% in tax revenue compared to March forecast in both 2017-18 and 2018-19, with smaller increases in the other years.

The forecasts also show an increase in other receipts, mainly the gross operating surplus on public sector trading, which more than offsets the increase in the UK’s own resources contribution to the EU which rises by 29% for the five years compared to the March figure.

Capital Gains tax receipts are now forecast to be 6.4% lower over the five years than the March forecast, reflecting the Treasury’s inability to model the impact of higher rates on revenue. They have had to progressively lower these forecasts in the light of experience and have done so again.

There are strong gains in VAT, in National Insurance  and in Income Tax, though self assessment income tax is now forecast to bring in less this year than the March estimate.

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Big increase in spending – £155 bn more this Parliament than March 2015 budget

The big surprise in the Statement is a large further increase in spending on top of the substantial increases announced in the June budget.

In June the Chancellor raised the total spending planned for this Parliament  by £70 billion. In this Autumn Statement he has raised it by another £86 billion.

Current year spending goes up by £13  billion or 1.8% compared to the March and  June forecasts.

2016-17 spending goes up by £33 billion compared to March, or 4.4%.

2017-18 spending goes up by £43.6 billion compared to March, or 5.9%.

2018-19 spending goes up by £42 billion, or 5.5%.

2019-20 spending rises by £23.7bn or 3%.

Borrowing stays lower owing to the assumption that low interest rates will stay with us for longer, saving money on the national debt, and on the assumption that tax revenue will improve more than expected before.

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Who are the West’s enemies in the Middle East?

I have read enough to know how little I understand about the complex theological and political struggles within Islam, and about the large number of differing terrorist groups operating in the wider Middle East. I do not speak or read Arabic and have not read enough  of the literature or history of these  very different countries. I have read enough to be suspicious of simple solutions seeking to elevate just one group into a position of being the only or main problem. I wish in this blog to pose some questions to those who do know more, and to those who seek to frame our strategy towards the region.

Time was when the enemy of the West was the Taliban. Today they have been brought into Afghan society and  form part of the democratic dialogue. Then the enemy was Al Qaeda. They have not gone away and still exercise considerable influence in a range of countries. Now the evil one is ISIS.

Recently news came that 7 people were brutally beheaded in Afghanistan by Uzbek fighters. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has taken territory in Yemen and has a presence in Aden. Do these  present a threat to us? What should be our response?

Meanwhile Jabhat al Nusra seek to extend their influence  in Syria and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb increase their activities and smuggling profits in Libya. Does this concern us, or do we wish to co-operate with them because they are against ISIS?

Are we on the side of the Sunni or the Shia factions fighting the Syrian civil war? Or do we believe it is possible to form a Syrian democracy that can hold the peace between these two and offer decent civil rights to all?

The UK government accepts that it will need a political strategy for Syria to run alongside any bombing attacks. It seems to be seeking a new government of the whole of Syria, based on the military elimination of ISIS and the voluntary surrender of power by Assad. Does it wish to help a coalition remove Assad after the removal of ISIS? Does it believe Assad will go voluntarily? Who are the moderates and where are their forces who will fight for a vision of a united Syria under democratic rule? Who in Syria has the belief in toleration towards Christians, Sunnis and Shias and has the force to establish such a society? Will the West end up accepting the Russian view that Assad is the least bad option in an all too violent society?

By encouraging the Kurds to take action in the north of Syria we are encouraging them to gain and hold territory that they think should be part of a Kurdish state. What do we say and do if they want to extend that into Turkey against our wishes and against our Turkish ally in NATO? Who could establish a government for all of Syria who would have the Kurds confidence and persuade them to give up territorial gains they have made?

Is the West clear that it can help establish a united Syria at peace, or does the West think now there has to be partition between a Kurdish Syria, and a Sunni and a Shia one? Or does the West now accept that the days have gone when great Western powers could draw lines on a map of the Middle East to conjure states out of the rival tribes and the desert?

Either way, knowing who  our enemies are is crucial, and knowing who we might inadvertently help if we intervene on one side or another is important.


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Defending the UK

The Defence Review answers some of the criticisms  bloggers on this site have made in recent years. The order for new fast stealth fighter jets has been increased, meaning the new aircraft carriers will have planes to fly from them. The maritime reconnaissance role will be served by  new planes, after a gap in UK capability. 8 new frigates will be ordered. The new carriers are well advanced in build. When they come into operation they will have frigate, destroyer and submarine protection.

The army will receive more new armoured vehicles, with a larger mobile force available to intervene, or support allies. Up to 10,000 troops will also be trained and available to reinforce the police at home should there be dangerous terrorist attacks requiring a forceful response.

I raised with the Prime Minister the issue of control of our borders. I welcome the  additional cash and personnel to strengthen our intelligence gathering. We can only keep safe if the authorities stay ahead of the threats to our way of life, and use the intelligence they have gained to good effect. I suggested that our borders be strengthened with specific links from the Intelligence services to the  border management, so that if for example terrorists are displaced from the Middle East by military action there they cannot gain entry to the UK, whatever their legal status, if their aim is harm or they are trained in terrorist ways. He accepted that more should be done to tighten border controls.

I also raised with Defence Ministers after the statement the need to continue to press for better value for money within the defence budget. In particular more can be done to release MOD land in places where it has substantial development value, and to provide new and better facilities elsewhere for our service personnel. I also relaunched my proposal for better assistance to service personnel in buying their own home. Everyone in the military should have a home base. They should be helped to buy a home of their own near the base in the normal way. Alternatively if they are using married quarters or other  service housing on a base they should be able to buy an interest in  it from the MOD for the duration of their time in the services, only to sell it back at a profit based on an agreed index of comparable freehold property prices when leaving the service. They would then have a deposit for a home of their own.





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Brexit would be such sweet change

The EU is something which happens to us daily. It means laws we do not want, bills we do not want to pay.

Those who urge us to stay in are usually the rich few older men who gave done well out of the EU themselves. A narrow elite of believers has been given the well paid jobs in government and multinational business. They push out the mindless and threatening propoganda to try to keep us in thrall to their bureaucracies, and to retain us paying their bills.

Those of us who want fewer laws and lower taxes have no part in the EU world. We are not wanted. Socialists are similarly ignored, as their views do not fit in with the austerity the EU wishes to visit on member states so it can carry on spending on itself and demanding tax revenues for its own purposes. The elite always knows best. It bullies the rest of us into submission or cold shoulders those of us who will not be bullied. It is not our EU, it is their EU. We are just made to pay for it. They offer us votes in European Parliament elections, but ignore the results in any country which votes against their views. Most people don’t bother to vote, showing they don’t feel part of it.

When the Germans ask me what do I want from the negotiations I say I just want one thing- the restoration of UK democracy. The easiest way of doing that is just to leave.

Every time the EU adopts a disastrous policy, it seeks more power and control for getting it wrong. When they made so many poor with the Exchange Rate Mechanism, instead of learning from it they decided to make even more people poor for longer by adopting the Euro.

Today they destroy industry and close plants in the UK from their energy and climate change policies. Their answer to the problems is to do more of the same to make us even more dependent on EU wide scarce and dear energy.

They make the EU vulnerable through their open borders policy. Now the damage that does us clear they seek more EU wide powers over security and intelligence.

Every EU created crisis leads them to demand more EU. It is high time the UK declined and regained its freedom.





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Does Syria need more bombs?

I am no pacifist. If a terrorist is about to  fire on us or about to blow us up, I am all in favour of our uniformed services shooting him. If a foreign power is about to invade us I support us having formidable fire power by air and sea to prevent or deter  the invasion. I accept that  the knowledge that we will retaliate is important to deterrence, so we need to keep open the likelihood of  retaliation against violence. The nuclear deterrent of course rests on understanding that in extreme circumstances a UK PM would retaliate. It works for us every day it is not used.

I also believe that violence can beget violence. I believe that politics and diplomacy is a better way forward in most cases than fighting. If you choose to  fight a war you also need to plan ahead for the peace. You need not only to see how you can win the war militarily, but also see ahead to how victory can lead to a better political settlement afterwards. Why enter a war you cannot win, or force a peace which is no better or worse than what it replaces? If you are retaliating you need to know who is causing you the trouble in the first place, so that the retaliation goes to the right place. Only a war of national self defence should alter observance of  these simple rules.

Some seem to be arguing that we have to respond to the terrorist attacks on France. They argue these attacks were outrageous – I agree – and that therefore we must do something. I also agree we need to respond to the current terrorist threat, and could do more to improve our resilience and reaction to it.

They then move to saying the thing we have to do is to bomb ISIS in Syria. This is a curious response to the French attacks. The terrorists in Paris came from France and Belgium. Those keen to bomb presumably wish to do so both to kill potential future bombers, and to retaliate for Paris. Fortunately they do not recommend bombing the suburbs of Brussels and Paris from whence the bombers came –  I would regard that as inhumane and counterproductive as I assume they do. But why then do they want to bomb the suburbs of Raqqa, when the terrorists did not come from there in this recent case? Are lives there of different value to lives in Europe? How can bombing ISIS embedded in a community help without ground troops to deal with them house by house, flat by flat?

The UK authorities also need to answer the question what magic could UK bombs do that US and French bombs have not already done? Why has bombing ISIS for months on both sides of the Iraq/Syria border not killed enough of them yet? It does not seem to me that Syria is short of bombs and bombers. It is very short of decent political leadership and good government.It is also still well short of a reliable army on the ground that could regain control over all of Syria with a  view to creating better government for the whole country.

I have no problems with  killing known terrorist organisers in the Middle East who have been responsible for organising mass murders there and abroad. Co-operation with the governing powers where they have authority is important when doing this. I do have worries about more generalised bombing campaigns seeking to kill imperfectly understood groups of terrorists embedded in civilian communities in Syria without the permission of the Syrian authorities and without clear intelligence on the ground from having enough people there observing targets. I do not wish my country to be involved in seeking change in Syria by force without having sufficient control or knowledge of local conditions. I dislike ISIS as much as the next person, but I do not think ISIS is the only or uniquely unpleasant extremist organisation we face.  If we intervene we need to back forces on the ground strong enough to take over in  Syria.Then they with our assistance  need to be able to put in place a government for the whole of Syria or for constituent parts of Syria that could command the support of the people it is governing and could govern peacefully.

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Carry on spending! How will the Chancellor spend the extra £69bn a year by the end of this Parliament?

Next week’s Autumn Statement is about how to divide up the planned overall increases in public spending. Just to remind readers, the Chancellor plans to lift total public spending from £735 bn last year to £804 bn by the end of this Parliament.  That’s a total rise of £69 bn in cash terms. Inflation is currently zero. To ensure this increase gives us a good real increase in spending it is of course important to keep public sector costs down, just as the private sector is having to do in very competitive world markets.

Public spending rose again in cash and real terms last month, and for the year as a whole. When will all the austerity mongers accept that total public spending is rising, and has been rising modestly since 2010?

This time the increase is led by capital spending, but also includes rises in pensions, health, schools, overseas aid and European contributions. Over the Parliament as a whole a number of high spending priority areas will be given extra cash, so the Chancellor needs to find savings elsewhere to stay within the agreed increased totals.

As a result borrowing rose compared with the same month last year, and is leaving the government with a difficult task to keep borrowing down to the limits set in the last budget. As always, the strategy of cutting the deficit rests largely on rising tax revenues. This time corporation tax was not as buoyant as hoped. This is not surprising, given the collapse of revenues in the commodity and energy  areas, the continuing reductions in types of banking activity as the regulators squeeze banks more, and the very competitive conditions in areas like retail.

All this provides the  backdrop for the Spending Review to be announced next week. I am looking for some abatement of the proposed reductions in tax credits, as the cuts in these benefits for the lower paid need to follow wage growth and tax cuts, so people are not worse off as the changes come in. There is considerable comment about how the elderly are better protected with the reforms to the State retirement pension offering a better deal with rising real pensions and all the universal benefits guaranteed by Manifesto promises, compared to younger people in work. Maybe the Chancellor should carry his reform of public sector pensions further, to limit future rights to accrue more entitlements under favourable past provisions. Maybe he needs to look again at the state  retirement age, as on average people are living longer and staying healthier for longer, meaning an unexpected increase in total pension payments as well as great news for us all that on average we will live longer.

There are parts of the public sector which I have highlighted here which could do more for less. The two that spring most readily to mind are Housing Associations, and Network Rail. I trust there will be new proposals on their financing, to provide better  value for taxpayers money.

The reporting of the Spending Review will doubtless follow the usual Labour line of highlighting apparently large cuts in the unprotected programmes, taking a five year percentage decline in real terms or against previous budget. Few commentators will point out the modest  cash and real increase for the period as a whole for total spending , or remember the rises in some of the protected programmes. Most years I have been in Parliament the stories about public spending have been about the “cuts” yet every year total spending has gone up. Industry cuts its costs every year, doing more or the same with less. The possible gains in the public sector from applying modern technology could be substantial.

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Would you lend to Portugal and pay them for the privilege?

This week Portugal managed to borrow one year money at a negative interest rate. Yes, that’s right. The lender has to pay a small sum for the privilege of lending to Portugal. You have had to pay Germany for the privilege of lending to her more often in recent months and over longer term loans,  but for this to happen for Portugal as well is surely a matter to examine.

Portugal currently does not have a Prime Minister. The recent General election did not deliver a majority for any party. The outgoing PM and government was allowed to stay in office by the President, so the left wing parties who thought they had “won” the election voted it down. The President is thinking about what to do next. The outgoing government accepts austerity and the full Euro package of policies. The left wing opposition is anti austerity, though much of it is pro Euro. As we have seen in Greece that is a difficult combination of views to hold. Could the left wing parties come together to form a governing coalition? What would their approach then be to the policies required by the Eurozone?

Portugal is another piece of evidence in the case of the diminishing importance of national democratic choice in the Eurozone. When so many decisions about budgets, taxes, spending and borrowing are made for a country, much of the substance of normal elections is removed from decision by the electors.

Portugal has more than 11% unemployment, with more than 31% youth unemployment. It has only managed a growth rate of 0.4% a year since 1988, and suffered a nasty recession in recent years. Yet despite this, it can now borrow at  no cost.

As the US and UK attempt to distance themselves from Quantitative easing and in the case of the US contemplate an interest rate rise, monetary action and conditions remain anything but normal in the Eurozone. As the zone still finds growth hard to achieve and sustain, and as the scars of the crash and Eurozone crisis are still all too visible in unemployment and poor economic performance, the European monetary authorities experiment further with unorthodox interest rate and borrowing policies. Who would have thought the Germans would do that? Does risk lie ahead as debts are built up with no interest cost.? Why should people save and be prudent in such a world?

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  • About John Redwood

    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, He graduated from Magdalen College Oxford, has a DPhil and is a fellow of All Souls College. A businessman by background, he has been a director of NM Rothschild merchant bank and chairman of a quoted industrial PLC.

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