The bonanza, in the end, failed to materialise. There had been a fair amount of talk before the Spring Statement that Philip Hammond would be in a position to unveil a new dawn for our beleaguered public finances. City analysts had been chattering like South London parakeets about a potential £10bn permanent improvement in the public finances.
And the excitement had jumped the species barrier from the Square Mile to Westminster. The ardent Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg had squawked about the imperative of ratcheting up spending on the struggling health service. Other Tory MPs had similarly chirruped in favour of a loosening of the Government’s austerity corset. The Chancellor himself had allowed himself to refer to “light at the end of the tunnel” in conversation with Robert Peston at the weekend.
Well the light of the tunnel may not quite have been the headlights of an oncoming train, but, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility, it was certainly an optical illusion.
The OBR did revise down its estimate of public borrowing in 2017-18 by around £5bn on the back of fuller than expected tax revenues so far this fiscal year. Yet Robert Chote and his team concluded that this was not likely to be a permanent improvement, mainly because they now estimate that the economy is overheated relative to their estimates in November. In other words, when things naturally cool down, the tax revenues will start undershooting.
Similarly, the overall GDP growth forecast for the UK is a smidgen better this year. But next year – when Big Ben (may) ring out for Brexit– it is unchanged at a paltry 1.3 per cent. This, we should bear in mind, at a time when the rest of the world is growing at its strongest rate in years. And the expected UK growth rate is actually shaved down in the final years of the OBR’s forecast in 2021 and 2022. What the Spring Statement giveth, it also taketh away.
The Chancellor might have rebranded himself as Tigger, rather than Eeyore, but the OBR was channelling the lugubrious blue donkey when it concluded: “There seems little reason to change our view of [the UK’s] medium-term growth potential.
City scribblers earn their bread speculating about the short-term ups and downs of the economy and the public finances. But what really matters for our long-term living standards is the UK’s productivity growth potential, the amount of output we can collectively squeeze out of each hour worked and each worker. And the big picture is that productivity has been as flat as a pancake ever since the Great Recession a decade ago. Or at least that was true until the second half of last year, when we, surprisingly, witnessed the best two consecutive quarters of productivity growth since the financial crisis.
Yet the OBR doesn’t think the UK’s productivity growth engine has started roaring again, since the improvement in 2017 was driven by fewer hours being worked, rather than higher output. A similar surge happened in 2011 before petering out. Another broken promisein other words. Let’s hope they are wrong, but there’s not much reason to believe it, particularly given ongoing public spending cuts and Brexit continue to dampen the animal spirits of households and companies.
And what of that pachyderm in the living room? What about Brexit? The consensus of serious economists is, of course, that Brexit will harm our growth potential by throwing up trade obstacles between us and ourbiggest commercial partners and, probably, reducing useful immigration to boot. And the OBR is not demurring from that. Its view, articulated way back in 2016, that Brexit would damage the UK’s public finances, wiping out any “dividend” from not making annual contributions to the EU Budget, still stands. And that’s based on the assumption the Brexit process is nice and smooth.
In the short-term, the OBR, conceded the economy had held up better than it expected immediately after the plebiscite. But this was partly due to the unexpected global growth spurt, partly because households seem to have dipped into their savings to support their spending. Moreover, as the OBR stressed today, it simply doesn’t regard the Office for National Statistics’ estimates of how the economy performed since the vote as reliable.
In short: as you were. The new Brexit dawn for the British economy looks remarkably like the old one.