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History > 2009 > UK > Economy (II)



Gerald Scarfe

Sunday Times

May 10 2009















Pre-budget report:

Labour and Tories

compete in the politics of pain

The fallout from the pre-budget report
has made the dividing lines in British politics clear
– how deep, where, and how fast
should cuts be made to reduce Britain's deficit


Sunday 13 December 2009
Toby Helm
The Observer
This article appeared on p24 of the Focus section of the Observer on Sunday 13 December 2009.
It was published on guardian.co.uk at 00.20 GMT on Sunday 13 December 2009.


The lights were still glowing and the arguments raging at 2am inside the Treasury. Tempers were frayed and exhaustion was setting in. In less than 11 hours, Alistair Darling, the chancellor, would rise to his feet in the Commons to deliver his crucial pre-budget report (PBR). But the government remained at war.

Rows about who should take the pain, and who the gain, divided not only No 10 from No 11, but cabinet minister from cabinet minister. Even members of the same family fought over the limited spoils on offer.

Ed Balls had emerged from negotiations delighted at having won a 0.7% increase in his budget for schools. But his wife, Yvette Cooper, the work and pensions secretary, was seething following a disagreement with the Treasury over personal tax allowances. According to one account, she went "ballistic" with Darling and at one point threatened to resign. Lord Mandelson, the business secretary, is said to have had differences with Gordon Brown and Balls until the last moment, when the final package was agreed.

"It is the kind of thing that happens. There are disagreements, even arguments, right up to the end. People care. But you get there in the end," said one source close to the discussions.

The atmosphere was highly charged because everyone in government knew it was a crucial moment – economically and politically. With borrowing soaring towards a staggering £178bn this financial year and debt on course to double as a percentage of GDP compared with a few years ago, tough decisions had to be taken. On the financial markets, traders were nervous. They wanted to hear a hard-headed plan from Darling for bringing the deficit down. Without it, international markets would lose faith in UK plc's ability to pay its debts, with devastating consequences.

Yet with a general election just a few months away, economic honesty had to be balanced against political necessity. Labour was recovering in the polls, eyeing the possibility of a hung parliament: some were even dreaming of going one better. "Too much honesty and austerity and people will take fright; too little and people will smell lack of leadership and opportunism. It will be a very difficult balancing act," said one Labour MP, shortly before Darling addressed the House.

The opposing views inside government about how to approach the PBR – how to play the politics of pain – had been clear for weeks. In fact, the seeds of many of those disagreements had been sown long ago. Early in his time as chancellor, in late 2007, Darling had been astonished and angered at Brown's attempt to prevent him reducing economic growth forecasts. Brown feared gloomy predictions would hurt Labour. The two men argued in private and on those occasions, ahead of the March 2008 budget, Darling won.

The chancellor has always taken the view that he, and the Labour government, must earn medium-term and long-term credibility by telling it as it is, rather than massaging or hiding the truth for political gain.

In the run-up to last Wednesday, that same tension with Brown resurfaced. Darling wanted to be far more explicit about where spending would have to be reined in over the next four years. "Alistair takes the view that you can't sweep all the bad news under the carpet, whereas Brown thinks, 'How will people think this reflects on me?'," said one adviser.

Darling's officials were even asked to examine the merits of a deferred rise in VAT that would hit everyone in the land and raise many billions. But Brown and Balls, while aware of the need to have a credible deficit-reduction plan, were keener to use the PBR to sharpen the political "dividing lines" with the Tories.

They knew the Conservatives had dipped in the polls since David Cameron and George Osborne announced their austerity plans for the economy, including a pay freeze for many public sector workers, in early October. It was a question of emphasis and tactics. Brown and Balls looked at the PBR more as a political opportunity and less as an economic danger. Whatever could be done on tax and spending to discomfit the Tories, should be done. If the Tories were to complain afterwards that Labour had been too timid about cutting the deficit, this could play into their hands, because it would imply the Tories would tighten the screw even more.

There were two key ways, they believed, to make the dividing lines clearer. First, they needed tax announcements that would help sharpen the contrast in the public mind between Labour as the party of the many, those on low and middle incomes, and the Tories as that of the wealthy, privileged few. Second, Balls and Brown wanted spending plans that would allow Labour to go into an election claiming that, despite everything, it would remain the party that would defend core public services of education, health and the police, while the Tories would impose across-the-board cuts. "Ever since Gordon was first involved in devising New Labour, for him it has always been about Labour investment versus Tory cuts," said one party adviser who has known him for more than 20 years. "Nothing will ever change that mindset."

When Darling sat down at 1.15pm on Wednesday, Brown, sitting to the left of the chancellor, and Balls, two places farther along, were both beaming. Their fingerprints were all over the statement Darling had just delivered. The PBR was highly political and would hit the rich. The dividing lines were on every page. Bankers (the kind of people Mandelson once said he did not mind getting "filthy rich") would be stung by a new tax on their bonuses. Inheritance tax thresholds would be frozen, meaning more people inheriting sizeable estates would be dragged into paying death duties. (The Tories have promised to exempt all but millionaires).

But core service would be protected for two years. Spending on schools would rise and the budgets for health and the police would be protected. Today Brown says on his podcast: "We will always protect those services – the services of the mainstream majority." Yes, there was pain for the many announced by Darling, in the form of a further 0.5% rise in national insurance contributions, except for those earning £20,000 or less, who would be exempted. It would, however, be pain delayed until April 2011. There would also be a cap of 1% in public sector wage rises for two years. But there was no plan to raise VAT down the line. And there was also little in the way of a detailed plan on how spending would be cut by other departments over the next two years. Ministers are committed to halving the deficit in four years, so the promise to defend core budgets on frontline service would inevitably mean savage cuts elsewhere. But Darling's statement was devoid of comment on where the axe would fall. How would the markets, the press, opposition parties and, above all, voters react? Was it too harsh to be popular and credible, or not harsh enough? How would the politics play out?

The markets barely flinched on the day of the PBR itself. In fact, the price of gilts – the debt the government issues to raise money – rose very slightly, indicating that investors calculated that the UK was a less risky borrower than before. This was because Darling's borrowing forecast for this year was a fraction lower than expected. But as so often with financial statements, it takes time for opinion to settle. Thursday morning's headlines helped shape the mood. They made appalling reading for the chancellor. While the Sun's headline, "Darling just screwed more people than Tiger Woods", did not help, it was the one in the former New Labour supporting Times – "The axeman dithereth" – that most annoyed Darling. The Tories weighed in with charges that the government had acted irresponsibly, and for shameful political reasons. Cameron, who has said his party would cut spending much faster than Labour, likened the prime minister and chancellor to "a couple of joyriders in a car, smashing up the neighbourhood, not caring what is going to happen".

By Thursday, the markets were also buying the pessimism. Yields, or the return enjoyed by investors holding government debt – which rise when the price of gilts falls, indicating a higher borrowing risk – rocketed for 10-year gilts by 0.14% to 3.8%, the steepest one-day climb for months. On Friday, gilt yields continued to increase. Moyeen Islam, from Barclays Capital, explained: "Our view is that the PBR did very little to allay the fears of the market over whether there is a path being outlined towards medium-term fiscal sustainability."

Inside No 10 and the Treasury, people feel sore and bruised this weekend. But as one official put it, "no one is killing himself". They knew they had a virtually impossible hand to play in trying to sell tax rises and a halving of the deficit to the public just before a general election campaign.

No 10 answers its critics by insisting that sound economic thinking, rather than political manoeuvring, determined its message in the PBR. Officials say that four themes lay behind its approach. First was the need to protect fragile growth in the economy by maintaining overall spending increases for another year. A vital difference between Labour and the Tories is that the former believe economic recovery would be choked off if spending was to be cut too quickly. Second was the need to show its commitment to halving the deficit over four years, an aim now backed by legislation. Third was the need to ensure "fairness in the tax system", by getting the well-off to pay most, while protecting low earners. And fourth was the need to "protect frontline services", meaning schools and the health service. To those who claim he has not done enough, Brown's allies also point out that he is pushing hard for international agreement on a so-called Tobin tax on bank transactions that would raise billions.

But the government's problem is that it was not just the press and the opposition parties that laid into the PBR. Independent experts also tore into it with increasing ferocity as the week went on. The respected Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) said the unspoken result of the package was that public spending would have to be cut by a fifth by 2013-14 in areas such as defence, higher education, housing and transport as a result of the government's commitment to halve the deficit but maintain spending on core services.

IFS's director, Robert Chote, was scathing about Darling's obfuscation. "The chancellor spelt out neither how much he wanted to spend in total on public services, nor exactly how much of this spending he was planning to protect. Even if these numbers are not yet written in stone, it is hard to see why the requirements of good policy-making should demand such wilful obscurity."


Such criticism is music to the ears of the Tories. Yesterday Osborne accused Brown of "a serious dereliction of duty" in failing to address the deficit problem. Tory frontbenchers have been told to find substantial extra savings across the board as they prepare for government. Yet the Conservatives are also treading a tightrope. Since their party conference in Manchester in October, when they decided to "go for austerity" and promote themselves as the heirs to prudence, their lead over Labour has narrowed in most opinion polls. Ken Clarke, the shadow business secretary, has told Osborne to be careful about overdoing talk of cuts.

Labour may be getting it in the neck for ducking hard questions and failing to be more honest in the PBR, but the Tories will hardly be singing the most popular campaign theme tune if it is one about the need to administer more pain than Labour. As one leading Tory put it: "We have got to watch it a bit. It is all very well saying we would cut faster, but there is not much point in saying it if it scares away the voters. As George [Osborne] says, we really are all in this same mess together."

    Pre-budget report: Labour and Tories compete in the politics of pain, O, 13.12.2009, http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2009/dec/13/budget-report-labour-tories-pain






Footsie pushes above 5,000


Published: September 9 2009 20:39 | Last updated: September 9 2009 20:39
The Financial Times
By Jennifer Hughes, Senior Markets Correspondent

Hopes for a flurry of company takeovers and growing belief in the strength of economic recovery on Wednesday propelled the FTSE 100 index through the 5,000 level for the first time in almost a year.

An impressive rebound in stock markets around the world, which began in March, has drawn fresh momentum from a potential £10.2bn bid for Cadbury, the UK confectionery group, by US food giant Kraft.

Investors on both sides of the Atlantic are betting that the takeover move, a sign of growing corporate confidence, could herald a pick-up in M&A across the globe. In New York, the S&P 500 index was heading for an 11-month high, while Europe’s leading shares rose for a fifth day in succession.

The gains took London’s blue-chip index to a close of 5,004.3, a gain of 1.15 per cent on the day, and 42.5 per cent above its low of six months ago. The last time the FTSE 100 closed above 5,000 was September 2008, when financial markets were in the grip of a steep sell-off following the collapse of US investment bank Lehman Brothers.

Graham Secker, equity strategist at Morgan Stanley, said that equities, helped by the improving economic outlook and continued support from the world’s central banks, were enjoying a “sweet spot” that would sustain the rally for now.

“Growth is picking up and the stimulus taps are still full on. That is a pretty good environment for stocks,” he said.

A strong performance from the heavyweight oil sector, as crude prices rose by more than a dollar a barrel, underpinned the rise in share prices. British Airways surged 5 per cent on hopes deals with Iberia and American Airlines were imminent.

There were signs that “short” investors betting on price falls had been caught out by the gains. Shares in debt-laden Yell, the directories group, have leapt more than 150 per cent in a month after initial rallies squeezed investors who had sold the stock short, forcing them to buy back the shares.

The Bank of England has pumped almost £150bn of cash into the financial system and has indicated it will continue its “quantitative easing” programme at least until the end of October. The yield on two-year gilts was 0.934 per cent, near its lowest since the recession of the early 1990s.

But some analysts were wary of forecasting further gains. Philip Isherwood at Evo Securities said 5,000 “is a nice big round number but we’ve had a good run now and it is getting harder to pick value”.

Much of the equities rally has been based on the sharp improvement in market expectations for a recovery. This has been led by so-called momentum indicators, which have registered sharp upturns in business sentiment. “These indicators don’t just follow a V-shape, they will falter. The question is to what extent we’ve now double-counted any good news,” said Mr Isherwood.

    Footsie pushes above 5,000, FT, 9.9.2009, http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/9d2ddfc4-9d77-11de-9f4a-00144feabdc0.html






The Big Question:

Why has Britain become more unequal, and can it be changed?

Wednesday, 22 July 2009
The Independent
By Nigel Morris, Deputy Political Editor


Why are we asking this now?

Because a damning picture of an increasing dominance of top jobs by children from the wealthiest families emerged yesterday in a strongly worded report.

It is difficult for ministers to dismiss its findings, as the detailed analysis of the "closed shop" operating in the most prestigious professions was commissioned by Gordon Brown and was written by a panel of experts led by the former Health Secretary Alan Milburn.

Tony Blair committed the party to boosting social mobility a decade ago when he told the Labour conference that the "old elites [and] establishments" had "run our professions and our country too long".

Critics protested yesterday that the former prime minister's voter-friendly rhetoric had not been matched by action and that landing a top job depends as much as ever on who – rather than what – you know.

What did the study discover?

Only seven per cent of youngsters are privately educated. But 75 per cent of judges, 70 per cent of finance directors, 55 per cent of solicitors, more than 50 per cent of top journalists and 45 per cent of senior civil servants are public-school products.

Well-paid professional jobs continue to be passed down between the generations: doctors, lawyers, accountants and bankers typically grow up in families with incomes two-thirds higher than average.

Hasn't that always been the case?

Of course. But the Milburn study, Fair Access to the Professions, presents research that the trend has accelerated in recent decades. It says: "Access to the professions is becoming the preserve of those from a smaller and smaller part of the social spectrum."

More stockbrokers, scientists, engineers, bankers, accountants, journalists, doctors and lawyers in their thirties came from well-off backgrounds than their 50-year-old counterparts. The study forecasts that if action is not taken to reverse the historical trend then the typical professional of the future will come from the wealthiest 30 per cent of homes. In other words, the professional elite will become even more elitist.

There are signs that some professions – including business executives, solicitors and politicians – are becoming less public school dominated, but the trend is only slight. Journalism, however, is more exclusive while medicine is unchanged.

What is the reason?

Researchers believe selection procedures in some professions have been tightened to recruit more people similar to those already in the job.

Some professions have also become virtually graduate-only. In recent decades senior accountants could have started as bookkeepers or national journalists as local newspaper messengers. Such career ladders, offering a chance of social mobility, have diminished. Vocational apprenticeships rarely translate into professional jobs.

The Milburn panel also noted a trend of upper middle-class families helping their children get a foot in the door of their chosen career by getting them an internship or work experience.

Wasn't opening up universities meant to change that?

The Government has moved steadily towards its long-term target of getting 50 per cent of children in higher education. The proportion is currently 42 per cent and British universities this year received record numbers of applicants. But suspicions remain over how substantially this has benefited lower-income families – particularly with the financial burden of tuition fees.

The Milburn report says: "Access to university is extremely inequitable and the correlation between the chances of going to university and parental income has strengthened in recent years. Far too many young people who have the ability to go university are unable to do so because of their background."

Why does this matter to the economy?

Seven million white-collar posts need to be filled over the next decade – the vast majority of new jobs in the economy. Struggling to achieve that could put Britain at a competitive disadvantage with nations such as China and India heavily investing in skills.

Mr Milburn and his team argued that it was in the interests of all the professions to cast their net as widely as possible. The former minister, who grew up on a council estate, called for "a second great wave of social mobility" similar to that experienced by Britain half a century ago to help fill the vacancies.

How does the Government respond?

Downing Street conceded that opening up the professions is an area "where we need to do more". But it insisted that it had made widespread progress in tackling social inequality over the last decade. It said record numbers of students were in higher education, the highest-ever proportion of 16- to 18-year-olds were in education and training and 600,000 youngsters had been lifted out of poverty.

How can the exclusivity be changed?

Mr Milburn believes it has to be challenged from the bottom up by encouraging youngsters aspire to a wider range of professions. Among 88 recommendations, his team calls for careers advice to begin in primary school and for state schools to teach "soft skills", such as public speaking. Teamwork could be encouraged by establishing armed services cadet forces, currently largely the preserve of independent schools.

It backs a mentoring scheme for children from disadvantaged backgrounds and an Obama-style "yes you can" campaign to help them raise their sights. Universities could be opened to a wider range of people by offering "degrees without fees" to students living at home and for universities to compile information about undergraduates' social backgrounds. The professions should be obliged, it says, to give more details of recruitment and internship policies.

Is there other evidence of widening inequality?

While more families have been lifted out of poverty under Labour, the gap between the worst-off and most affluent has not closed. It has, if anything, widened slightly. The best-off 1 per cent of the population owned 21 per cent of the national wealth in 2003; the proportion in 1996 was 20 per cent. If housing is excluded, the proportion of Britain's wealth concentrated in the hands if the richest one-hundredth of citizens has jumped from 26 per cent to 34 per cent over the period.

Will anything actually change?

Government sources say Mr Brown is sensitive to the issues raised in the report, pointing out that he would not have commissioned it if he did not think there was not a problem. Ministers could even begin setting out ways of tackling the inequality as early as next week – possibly with a view to putting their ideas to voters in the election expected next spring.

Their problem is the natural scepticism of electors who might reasonably ask: what is the point of Labour if it has failed to boost social mobility after 12 years in power?

Has inequality widened over the last decade?


* Top jobs increasingly go to children already in the best-off families.

* Degrees are more important than ever for landing well-paid posts.

* The gap between the wealthiest and worst-off has grown.


* More youngsters from working-class homes are going to university than ever before.

* Numbers of youngsters growing up in poverty have fallen.

* The proportion of public school-educated recruits is falling in some professions.

    The Big Question: Why has Britain become more unequal, and can it be changed?, I, 22.7.2009, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/the-big-question-why-has-britain-become-more-unequal-and-can-it-be-changed-1755796.html






Pubs closing at rate of 52 a week as hard-up drinkers shun their local


July 22, 2009
From The Times
Rebecca O’Connor


The rate of pub closures is accelerating, with 52 going out of business every week at a cost of 24,000 jobs over the past year, figures show.

Almost 2,400 pubs and bars have vanished from villages and towns in the past 12 months, according to research for the British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA). Local pubs serving small communities have been the worst hit, the association said.

The number of closures represents the steepest rate of decline since records began in 1990 and has risen by a third compared with the same period last year, when 36 pubs were closing every week.

A preference for drinking more cheaply at home, rather than going out, is thought to have contributed to closures. A BBPA spokesman said: “The biggest impact is the recession. There are fewer people out and fewer people spending money in pubs and bars. Pubs are diversifying but, unfortunately, if you are a community pub you can’t transform yourself into a trendy town centre bar.”

The BBPA said that the total number of pubs and bars has fallen from a steady 60,000 “for years” to the 53,466 still trading. It added that of the 52 premises closing each week, 40 are local pubs and nine are high street bars. The recession is claiming about 461 bar jobs a week, according to the figures, compiled by CGA Strategy, the market information group.

The BBPA said that establishments that serve foods, such as gastropubs, were more resilient, closing at a rate of only one a week. By contrast, branded pubs and café-style bars are faring relatively well and are opening at a rate of two every seven days.

The fall in spending in pubs and bars is the latest in a string of setbacks for publicans in recent years. Inflationary pressures cut drinkers’ spending power in 2007, resulting in a drop in revenue. The smoking ban in 2007 and changes to the licensing laws have dealt further blows.

The BBPA said that higher taxes on beer imposed in the past two Budgets had contributed to the industry’s woes, adding about £600 million to the pub industry’s tax bill.

In addition, some of the larger pub companies, such as Punch Taverns and Enterprise Inns, have come under scrutiny this year, with an investigation by the Commons Business and Enterprise Committee into their tied-trade business models. The committee said in May that it had found evidence that the behaviour of such companies was contributing to the sharp rise in pub closures.

The BBPA said that the closure of pubs had cost the Government an estimated £254 million in tax revenue in the past 12 months — a figure rising by £5.5 million every week. It added that job losses in the sector were costing the Government £1.53 million a week in jobseeker’s allowance.

David Long, the chief executive of the BBPA, said: “Closing pubs are not only a loss to communities, but a loss to the Treasury. The Government should look at valuing and rewarding pubs as community assets. Not only would this have social policy benefits by supporting a hub of community cohesion, but financial policy benefits in terms of tax revenues, particularly at a time when the public purse is stretched.”

The BBPA said that, in the past, closed pubs had often been bought by property developers and turned into flats, but that since the decline of the property market, pubs that had shut had less appeal to prospective buyers and had been left boarded up. A spokesman for the association said: “While some have been bought by other people — usually property developers rather than new landlords — since the downturn, pubs have become a lot less attractive to developers.”

Estate agents said that pubs in villages, where local housing is in short supply, still made a compelling case for developers. Chris Coleman-Smith, head of auctions for Savills, said: “If it is in the back of beyond, where a pub might struggle for trade, it is probably better off as a residential development, either a house or a few units, for prospective homebuyers.”

    Pubs closing at rate of 52 a week as hard-up drinkers shun their local, Ts, 22.7.2009, http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/industry_sectors/leisure/article6722488.ece






Unemployment jumps by record 281,000

The number of people claiming jobseeker's allowance
increased by a relatively small 23,800 in June to 1.56 million


Wednesday 15 July 2009
12.01 BST
Ashley Seager, economics correspondent
This article was first published on guardian.co.uk at 12.01 BST on Wednesday 15 July 2009.
It was last updated at 12.01 BST on Wednesday 15 July 2009.


Unemployment shot up by a record 281,000 in the three months to May, official data showed today.

The rise took the jobless total to 2.38 million, the highest level since 1995, on the broadest measure of unemployment, the ILO (International Labour Organisation).

Youth unemployment jumped to a 16-year high of 726,000 after a quarterly rise of 95,000, while the number of people out of work for longer than a year rose by 46,000 to 528,000, the highest for 11 years.

Brendan Barber, general secretary of the TUC, said today's figures were "truly horrendous".

"It's particularly worrying that over half a million unemployed people have been out of work for at least a year, including 133,000 young unemployed people. With a new generation of school and college leavers soon starting to look for work, our unemployment crisis will get even bigger," Barber warned.

Alan Tomlinson, a partner at UK insolvency practitioners Tomlinsons, said: "This disturbing rise in the number of unemployed reflects the rise in the number of companies going under or struggling to survive."

There was one bright spot as the number of people claiming jobseeker's allowance increased by a relatively small 23,800 in June to 1.56 million, although that was the worst total since Labour came to power in 1997.

Howard Archer, economist at IHS Global Insight, said this suggested the rise in unemployment might be tailing off.

"Overall, it is hard at the moment to be anything else than pessimistic about the labour market," he said.

The so-called claimant count has now increased for 16 months in a row and is more than 700,000 higher than a year ago.

Shortly after the figures were released, Jaguar LandRover delivered another blow to the economy, announcing it would stop producing its X-Type car at its Halewood plant on Merseyside with the loss of up to 300 jobs.

Job losses to continue

City economists generally saw little cheer in today's data, with Ross Walker of Royal Bank of Scotland predicting the bad news would continue for many months.

"Maybe the pace of layoffs could begin to moderate towards the end of this year but I think we're still going to be seeing job losses well into next year," he said.

David Kern, the chief economist at the British Chambers of Commerce, predicted unemployment would peak at about 3.2 million next year.

The number of people in work fell by 269,000 in the latest quarter to 29 million, after a record fall of 0.9% in the employment rate to 72.9%.

More than 300,000 people were made redundant in the three months to May, the second highest figure on record, and a rise of 31,000 on the previous quarter.

Other data from the Office for National Statistics showed that vacancies fell to a record low of 429,000 in the three months to June, down by 35,000 from the previous quarter.

Manufacturing jobs continued to fall, down by 201,000 over the past year to a record low of 2.6 million.

Average earnings increased by 2.3% in the year to May, up by 1.4% on the previous month, as the effect of bonuses paid earlier in the year fell out of the latest figures.

The number of people classed as economically inactive, including those on long-term sick leave or who have given up looking for a job, increased by 64,000 in the latest quarter to 7.92 million, 20% of the workforce.

    Unemployment jumps by record 281,000, G, 15.7.2009, http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2009/jul/15/unemployment-figures-britain-jobless






Ratings agency downgrades outlook for UK economy

• Government debt burden may approach 100% of GDP
• FTSE 100 tumbles more than 2%
• Sterling falls to $1.55 from $1.58


Thursday 21 May 2009
10.30 BST
Ashley Seager


Ratings agency Standard & Poor's today downgraded its outlook for the British economy, saying it had grown increasingly worried about the country's ballooning budget deficit.

The news pushed shares in London down sharply and caused gilt yields to soar on renewed fears about the recession-hit UK economy. The FTSE 100 tumbled more than 2%, or 100 points, to 4352. Sterling, which had reached a six-month high of $1.58 earlier, tumbled three cents to $1.5530.

"The outlook revision is based on our view that, even factoring in further fiscal tightening, the UK's net general government debt burden may approach 100% of GDP and remain near that level in the medium term," S&P credit analyst David Beers said in a statement.

However, S&P said it was retaining the 'AAA' long-term and 'A-1+' short-term ratings for Britain's sovereign debt, the vast bulk of which is in gilts.

"We base our opinion on our updated projections of general government deficits in 2009-2013," Beers said, referring to the huge upward revisions to government borrowing projections chancellor Alistair Darling unveiled in his budget on 22 April.

"These projections reflect our more cautious view of how quickly the erosion in the government's revenue base may be repaired, the extent to which the growth in government spending can be curtailed and, consequently, the pace at which historically high fiscal deficits are likely to narrow," he added.

But, he said, the agency believed the overall ratings on the UK continued to be supported by its wealthy, diversified economy, a high degree of fiscal and monetary policy flexibility, and its relatively flexible product and labour markets.

"However, last month's budget announcements underscored that UK public finances are deteriorating rapidly - at a faster rate than S&P had previously assumed."

The news came as figures showed that public sector net borrowing hit a record for April of almost £8.5bn.

But other news added to growing evidence that the economic slump may be past its worst. Figures showed retail sales in April grew 0.9% from March, much faster than expected, leaving them 2.6% up on a year earlier. That reinforced survey evidence from the British Retail Consortium and the CBI that sales grew strongly last month, boosted by Easter trading.

Other figures, though, showed mortgage lending dropped sharply in April while business investment slumped in the first quarter of the year.

    Ratings agency downgrades outlook for UK economy, G, 21.5.2009, http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2009/may/21/standard-poors-uk-economic-outlook






BP profits slump 62% on plunging oil price


April 28, 2009
From Times Online
Dan Sabbagh


BP's profit plunged by 62 per cent in the first quarter of 2009 after oil prices fell from July's record highs and demand for crude and gas declined in weakening economics.

Net profits in the first three months of its financial year fell from $7.1 billion (£4.8 billion) in 2008 to $2.56 billion which BP blamed on what it called "lower realizations", or lower oil prices. Despite the decline, today's result was ahead of analysts' forecasts for profit of $2.28 billion and shares in BP rose 1.1 per cent to 489p in early trading.

BP said that during the first quarter, the price it achieved for each barrel of oil was $41.26, compared to $90.92 in 2008. During last year, oil prices reached a record high of $147 a barrel in July.

Gas was sold for $3.63 per thousand cubic foot, against $5.88 this time last year.

Even compared with the fourth quarter of last year, underlying profits were down, again reflecting the softening oil price. Profits were off $200 million, or 8 per cent, compared with the fourth quarter of last year.

The decline in production revenues was tempered by an 11 per cent decrease in production costs, although this was not enough to contend with such a sharp swing in the oil price. Income at the production and exploration division was down 57 per cent to $4.3 billion.

Despite the trading pressures, BP increased production by 4 per cent during the quarter, as its Thunder Horse fields in the Gulf of Mexico began to ramp up production. The company repeated its statement that it expects production volumes to increase during the whole year, but said the exact amount would depend on the oil price and quota restrictions decided by OPEC, the oil producers' cartel.

Profits at BP’s other main trading division, its refining and marketing operation, were also down 13 per cent to $1.1 billion. Refining volumes were "significantly worse" than a year ago, and margins were lower. BP expected the "overall weak environment for marketing and petrochemicals to continue" into this year.

BP was also hit by an increased pension charge, paying $368 million in retirement costs in the three months, compared with $246 million a year ago. It blamed a reduced "expected return on pension plan assets", reflecting the collapse in equity markets around the world.

Despite the economic pressures, BP increased its quarterly dividend payout by 4 per cent to 14 cents a share. Aided by the weakness of the pound, in sterling terms the dividend is 9.584p, up 40 per cent. It ended the quarter with net debts of $26.7 billion.

    BP profits slump 62% on plunging oil price, NYT, 28.4.2009, http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/industry_sectors/natural_resources/article6183541.ece






UK slowdown sharper than feared


The Financial Times
Published: April 24 2009 10:02
Last updated: April 24 2009 10:31
By Norma Cohen


The UK economy contracted much more sharply in the first quarter of this year than economists expected, with output reduced in both services and manufacturing.

It is the fastest quarterly decline in national income since the third quarter of 1979, according to Richard McGuire, fixed income strategist at RBC Capital Markets.

Martin Wolf: Why Britain’s predicament is so bad - Apr-23UK business confidence stabilises - Apr-23GDP in the first three months of 2009 contracted by 1.9 per cent from the level seen in the fourth quarter of 2008, according to the Office for National Statistics. Economists polled by Reuters had expected an average decline of 1.5 per cent.

“The provisional UK GDP figures for Q1 suggest that the recession has so far been even deeper than previously thought.,” said Vicki Redwood, economist at Capital Economics.

“It also deals an instant blow to the chancellor’s forecast of a 3.5 per cent drop in GDP this year. For that to be achieved, GDP would have to be broadly flat from the second quarter onwards – yet the surveys are already pointing to another fall of 1 per cent or so in the second quarter,” she added.

Alistair Darling, the chancellor, predicted the biggest fall in output since the Second World War in this week’s budget but maintained the UK would return to growth of 1.5 per cent next year. His forecast was more optimistic than the consensus of private sector forecasts.

Overall, the sharpest decline was seen in the manufacturing sector, where output fell by 6.2 per cent from the previous quarter.

Separately, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders underlined the depth of the downturn in the car industry. It said that UK car production more than halved in March to bring first-quarter volumes down 56.6 per cent from the year before. Commercial vehicle production fell by 63 per cent in the quarter, after a further steep fall in March.

Capital Economics noted that the biggest surprise in the GDP data was the 1.2 per cent contraction seen in the output of the services sector. In particular, the decline was sharp in business and financial services.

Mr McGuire noted that quarterly contraction in business and financial services was the sharpest since the series began in 1983.

Colin Ellis, economist at Daiwa Securities, said: “Today’s data were a sharp reminder that the UK is still a long way away from any recovery.” He noted that the weakness that shows in up the initial estimate of GDP explains the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee’s decision to pump £75bn into the economy through the banking system.

“The resulting gap between demand and potential supply is only likely to widen further over the rest of this year – which is why the MPC has opted to pump £75bn into the economy to boost demand. But we are increasingly nervous that the new money may have only a limited impact on real output,” Mr Ellis said..

However, he said there may be a silver lining in the latest data because, having contracted by 3.5 per cent in the last six months alone, there may be less of a reduction in output in the months ahead.

    UK slowdown sharper than feared, FT, 24.4.2009, http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/b97c5ca0-30ad-11de-bc38-00144feabdc0.html






British Economy Shrinks 1.9 Percent in Q1


April 24, 2009
Filed at 5:06 a.m. ET
The New York Times


LONDON (AP) -- The British economy shrank in the first quarter at its sharpest rate since the early days of Margaret Thatcher's government thirty years ago as the financial crisis continued to wreak havoc on banks, retailing and manufacturing.

In its first estimate for the January-March period, the Office for National Statistics said Friday that gross domestic product, or GDP, contracted by a massive 1.9 percent from the previous three month period -- the biggest drop since 2.4 percent posted in the third quarter of 1979.

That was far more than the 1.6 percent decline posted in the fourth quarter of 2008 and above analysts' expectations for a more modest 1.4 percent drop.

The latest decline means that Britain's economy has shrunk for three consecutive quarters and there are very few indications that things will improve in the near future.

Compared with a year ago, Britain's GDP was 6.2 percent lower in the first quarter, compared to the 4.9 percent year-on-year decline seen in the fourth quarter of 2008.

Earlier this week, the British government laid out the hope the economy will start to grow towards the end of this year but still forecast that output this year will shrink by a post-World War II record of 3.5 percent.

The average postwar recession in Britain has lasted for around 15 months, which would, if replicated during this current downturn, mean that the economy will continue contracting until the autumn of this year. However, most economists think that this recession will last longer, and possibly last well into 2010.

''It's early days yet, but the drop opens up the possibility of GDP in 2009 as a whole falling by even more than the 4 percent we currently expect,'' said Vicky Redwood, economist at Capital Economics.

According to the International Monetary Fund's latest forecasts, Britain would likely be one of the worst hit economies because of its dependence on the housing and financial sectors. The IMF is projecting that Britain's output will contract by 4.1 percent this year, much more than its previous forecast of a 2.8 percent decline.

A more detailed look at the figures shows that the weakness in the economy was broad-based, with both services and manufacturing output sharply down in the wake of the banking crisis, the seizing up of lending and already-confirmed recessions around the world, from the U.S. to Germany and Japan.

In a separate release, the statistics office did post some moderately good news. It said that retail sales during March rose by a monthly 0.3 percent, primarily because of higher food sales. The rise offered some cheer for the retail sector after grim figures for February revealed a worse-than-expected 1.9 plunge plunge in sales.

    British Economy Shrinks 1.9 Percent in Q1, NYT, 24.4.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2009/04/24/business/AP-EU-Britain-Economy.html






Budget 2009: at a glance

Key details from Alistair Darling's 2009 budget


Wednesday 22 April 2009
15.34 BST
James Sturcke


• British economy forecast to shrink in 2009 by 3.5%. Growth forecast for 2010: 1.25%; and 2011 onwards: 3.5% a year.

• Inflation (CPI) expected to reach 1% by end of 2009. RPI will fall to -3.5% by end of year.

• No income tax increases this year.

• Income tax rate on those earning more than £150,000 to increase from 45% to 50% from April next year, a year earlier than planned.

• Personal tax allowance of those earning over £100,000 to be withdrawn from next April.

• Pension tax relief restricted for those on incomes over £150,000 from April 2011. It will be gradually tapered to the same 20% rate received by most people.

• Fuel duty to rise by 2% from September and 1% above indexation every April for next four years.

• Tobacco duty to rise by 2% from 6pm today.

• Alcohol duties to rise by 2% from midnight.






• Public sector net borrowing of £175bn in 2009, some 12.4% of GDP; £173bn next year, then £140bn, £118bn and £97bn each following year.

• UK net debt, including the cost of stabilising the banking system, at 59% this year, 68% next year, and rising to 79% by 2013-14.

• Inflation target remains at 2%.

• Tax avoidance and evasion loopholes to be closed, resulting in £1bn of extra revenue over the next three years.






• The child element of the Child Tax Credit to increase by £20 from April next year.

• £100 extra for child trust fund vouchers for new babies with disabilities, extra £200 for those with severe disabilities.

• State redundancy pay to rise from £350 to £380 a week.

• Grandparent care for young relatives to count towards basic state pension.

• Last year's increase in winter fuel allowance to be extended for another year – worth £250 for over-60s and £400 for over-80s.






• Stamp duty holiday on homes under £175,000 extended until end of 2009.

• £80m extension to HomeBuy Direct – the government shared equity mortgage scheme, which has already received interest from over 32,000 people since September.

• £500m extra support for housing industry; £100m of this for local authorities to build energy-efficient housing.

• £50m to accelerate modernisation of housing for military families.





• Annual ISA limit to be increased from £7,200 to £10,200, half of which can be invested in cash. From this year for over-50s, from next year for others.

Business and employment
• Loss-making companies can reclaim tax paid on profits made in past three years. Average repayments of £4,000 expected for each year.

• Extension of scheme allowing businesses to defer tax bills.

• Support for companies' cash flow, with a top-up trade credit insurance scheme to match private sector trade credit insurance provision.

• Additional £1.7bn funding for jobseekers.

• From January 2010 everyone aged under 25 who has been unemployed for a year to get an offer of a job or a training place.

• £260m new money for training and subsidies, targeted to get the skills and/or experience needed in sectors with strong future demand.

• £250m extra this year to enable 16- to 17-year-olds to stay in education. £400m in next two years.

• Main capital allowance rate doubled to 40% to encourage firms to bring forward investment.

• £750m investment fund to provide financial support to emerging technologies and regionally important sectors.

• Enhanced tax relief to support investment of £50bn this year, including £10bn to support the communications sector and extend the broadband network.

• Incentives to encourage smaller North Sea oil fields to be brought into production.






• Car scrapping scheme offers £2,000 discount on new cars when vehicles over 10 years old are traded in.

• Carbon budget commits UK to reduce emissions by 35% by 2020.

• £435m extra support for energy efficiency measures for homes, businesses and public places.

• £525m new support for offshore wind power projects, intended to provide enough electricity for 3.5m households.

• £405m new funding for low-carbon technology projects.

• Most energy-efficient new power stations using combined heat and power (CHP) technology to be exempt from climate change levy.

    Budget 2009: at a glance, G, 22.4.2009, http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2009/apr/22/budget-2009-darling-glance






Budget 2009: Alistair Darling's great financial squeeze on the rich

• Rich targeted by budget with 50% tax rate for those on over £150,000
• Restrictions on spending to be tighter than Thatcher era
• Debt to reach 80% of GDP – highest level in peacetime


Wednesday 22 April 2009
23.12 BST
Larry Elliott, Patrick Wintour and Heather Stewart in Washington


Alistair Darling attempted to lay down battle lines for next year's general election with a £7bn squeeze on the rich followed by a brutal freeze on public spending in the next parliament.

Admitting that the worst year for ­economic growth since 1945 would create a £175bn hole in the public finances this year, the chancellor broke Labour's 2005 manifesto pledge not to raise income tax by lifting the top rate for those earning more than £150,000 to 50% from next April. The "soak the rich" theme also included the abolition of personal allowances for those earning more than £100,000 a year and the phasing out of higher-rate pension relief for earners of more than £150,000.

Tax experts said the 50% rate, together with the loss of the personal allowance, would cost someone earning £150,000 a year £200 a month.

But while Darling brought forward spending as part of a £5bn boost to the economy this year, saying it was ­impossible for governments to cut their way out of recession, he laid out future plans for ­public spending more severe than under Margaret Thatcher's ­governments in the 1980s.

Current spending on the running costs of the state would grow by just 0.7% a year from 2011-12 but deep cuts in investment in infrastructure projects will mean zero growth in total spending from 2013. With the national debt doubling, to 80% of GDP by 2013, the government will be paying £43bn a year in interest payments – more than the current schools budget.

Darling said extra spending on ­tackling youth unemployment, boosting housebuilding, investing in key sectors of the economy and providing help for ­pensioner savers reflected the difference between Labour and the Conservatives.

"Everything we have done - whether ­supporting families now, ­maintaining investment in our public services and putting the nation's finances on a ­sustainable path - is based on our values of fairness and opportunity," he said. "Even in this time of global economic difficulty, we are determined to continue building a fairer society."

Measures aimed at easing the pain of the recession and reviving the economy included £2.5bn to keep young unemployed people off the dole, help for pensioners, a scheme to encorage people to buy new cars and £1bn of investment in combating climate change.

But on a day that saw unemployment rise to its highest level since Labour came to power in 1997, David Cameron said the ­government had lost any claim to ­economic competence."Everyone can see what an utter mess this Labour ­government and this Labour prime ­minister have made of the British economy. The fastest rise in unemployment in our history. The worst recession since the second world war. And the worst peacetime public finances ever known," he said, adding that the government was planning to borrow more in the next two years - £348bn - than every administration in the past 300 years.

George Osborne, the shadow ­chancellor, signalled that if any tax rises would be reversed by a future Tory government it would be the 0.5% increase in national insurance. The opposition is also intent on slowing the government's planned rate in growth of current public spending in 2010 of 1.7% but Osborne gave no details of what the Conservatives would cut department by department, or what would happen after 2010.

The Tories acknowledged that Labour has announced a combined freeze on public spending by the middle of the next parliament, saying: "It is another little-noticed political trap they have laid for us." If the Conservatives propose tighter current spending, there will be cuts in real terms.

A Tory source said: "Brown, throughout the 1980s, said that cutting capital spending when the public finances are a mess is ­precisely what shouldn't happen. Now he's doing it."

Darling said low interest rates, the budget stimulus, a weaker pound and lower inflation would kickstart the ­economy late this year, and extra ­spending on hi-tech industries would provide a ­platform for long-term recovery.

But Treasury forecasts showing that the economy will snap back from a 3.5% drop in growth this year to expand by 1.25% in 2010 and 3%-plus in each of the three following years was greeted with scepticism by the City.

Sterling fell by 1.5% and the gilts market was jittery at the prospect of high levels of government debt for years to come.

Roger Bootle, economic adviser to Deloitte, said it could be 30 or 40 years before the level of state debt returned to its pre-recession level of 40% of GDP.

Darling's optimism was also questioned by the International Monetary Fund which predicted the UK would remain trapped in recession well into next year. The IMF believes that with crashing house prices and plunging shares knocking up to £1trn off the wealth of Britain's families, they will still be tightening their belts long after the banking crisis is over.

It forecast a 4.1% decline in GDP this year, followed by another fall, of 0.4%, in 2010.

Budget 2009: Alistair Darling's great financial squeeze on the rich, G, 22.4.2009, http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2009/apr/22/budget-2009-tax-rich-alistair-darling