The Parliamentary debate about the Autumn Statement is likely to be about the small numbers that have little impact on the scale of the problem. Labour will probably call again for a £2 billion a year bankers’ bonus tax, and think of ways of spending it a few times over on well intentioned schemes. The truth is spending an extra £2 billion or even an extra £10 billion does not make much difference in a £1500 billion economy.
The Coalition government will rightly say that they need to have a credible path to cut the deficit, or else they could lose market confidence just as Euroland has lost market confidence. A country which has to face soaring interest costs can get into a vicious spiral like Greece and Portugal, where the extra cost of borrowing forces them to cut other more worthwhile expenditures. This in turn can cut output more, and reduce tax revenues further. They then need to borrow yet more, but the interest cost is always against them.
Labour do not deny this worry. They say their modest spending ideas can be paid for from extra tax on unpopular people. They now complain that the deficit under the Coalition is coming out at higher levels than planned. We are all deficit cutters now. Labour, after all, enacted law to require a halving of the deficit.
So the issue is how do you cut the deficit? Coalition plans to “limit” extra borrowing to £451 billion this Parliament were revised up to £485 billion in March. Few in the mainstream media noticed this. On Tuesday the OBR/government is likely to increase this extra borrowing to well above £500 billion for the 5 years. People will notice this. The mood has changed and the markets are circling other countries with debt problems.
In order to preserve the confidence of lenders to the UK it is vital the government shows a credible path from here to cut the deficit, assuming lower growth than past plans. We have to live with a weak Euroland economy for the forseeable future. Privately financed infrastructure, and sensible measures to lend more to well based private sector business plans will help.
Best of all would be a determined effort to shift most of the £1.2 trillion gross liability of the state owned banks into private sector hands. RBS must be broken up, and three new banks that are strong enough to lend and trade without taxpayers support are needed. If they could inject say £30-50 billion of well based new lending into the economy from their private sector sources, that could generate some growth. They could help pay for the reservoirs,broadband links, toll roads, airport capacity and other things we need. They need to lend to good profitable schemes, not bubble lending like 2007.
On the government’s own figures the UK state has outstanding liabilities of £3.5 tn. Shedding most of the banking risk would greatly improve the UK’s true credit standing. The government also needs to show it has new ideas to curb the growth of public spending, and has a will to achieve an affordable public sector pensions settlement. Then it can truly say it is tackling all three main areas of debt and worry. It needs to show strikers on Wednesday that there is a serious problem of pension affordability, and show it intends to grapple with it sensibly and fairly.