Jeremy Warner's Outlook: Special pleading from business has fallen on deaf ears. The Chancellor wasn't listening

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The Independent Online

Gordon Brown's last pre-Budget report as Chancellor - next year the task will presumably fall to someone else - was a disappointment more notable for what wasn't said than what was. Instead of easing the tax burden on business, the Government has further increased it, and instead of addressing the multiple concerns of industry about Britain's growing lack of competitiveness, the Chancellor has ignored them.

We can only assume that Mr Brown is keeping his powder dry for when he gets the top job, but that would perhaps be too charitable an explanation of yesterday's underwhelming mix of already leaked initiatives and re-announced old ones.

There was the usual grandstanding over the longest period of sustained economic growth in British history, the customary machine-gun delivery of facts and figures, and the now- familiar hotchpotch of new taxes and anti-avoidance measures, further adding to the burden of a tax system whose already mind-boggling complexity is matched only by that of India.

Then there were the wearingly familiar warnings about the dire consequences of failure to meet the challenge of rapid economic development in China and India. You know the sort of stuff - we produce a quarter of a million graduates a year, India and China do four million and if we don't watch out, they'll be eating our breakfast, lunch, and tea.

It rarely seems to occur to those who trumpet these apparently alarming statistics that there are a lot more Chinese and Indians on the planet than Britons. For that reason if no other, it would be amiss of them if they weren't producing graduates in such numbers. Proportionately, they are if anything not producing enough.

The Chinese and Indians are not, in any case, self-consciously out to eat our lunch. Yet what they do want to do is eat at the same table as us. There is no reason to believe these aspirations can only be achieved at our expense. To the contrary, experience of Asian development is that it has been powerfully beneficial to economies in the developed West as well.

Yet even if Mr Brown is right to warn of the threat to our prosperity posed by Asia, there was little in this report that would seem to address it. The Government has said it is sympathetic to the chorus of complaint from business about the growing burden of tax and red tape. The damage this is doing to British competitiveness is only too apparent. Yet if the Chancellor has been listening, there was no evidence of it in yesterday's statement.

Rather the reverse. Instead, there was a cumulative total of £2bn a year more in new taxes and anti-avoidance measures, the great bulk of which will hit business first. Nor was there any sign of the hoped-for road map for reducing now plainly uncompetitive levels of corporation and other business taxes.

The only apparent giveaway - tucked away in the footnotes - had to be forced out of the Government by the European courts, and, even here, the Government expects to counter the £250m eventual gain to business through other measures. Nothing has been willingly given. The CBI and other business organisations might as well have been talking to a brick wall these past six months.

Nobody would quarrel with the new focus on education and infrastructure that the Chancellor promises in the pre-Budget report. Properly executed, this is plainly the right response to the challenge of globalisation. Yet the waste of public money involved in Labour's attempts to revive the National Health Service raises the greatest possible concern over its competence to manage required investment in education, training and transport.

It is all very well having a well- educated workforce, but beyond the basic skills of reading, writing, maths and language, the relevance of much of what is taught in schools and universities to the world of work is questionable. There was virtually nothing in this statement for business, which is where the best hope for future competitiveness lies.

Instead, there was the familiar gobbledygook about the Chancellor's achievement in meeting the golden and sustainable investment rules. Even the financial markets are beginning to have difficulty in following the constantly shifting sands of these supposed guidelines for keeping the public finances on the straight and narrow.

What they might mean to everyone else is anyone's guess. In any case, you'll be pleased to know that the golden rule will be met not just in this economic cycle but the next one too. Only God and the Chancellor could pretend to such powers of prediction.

Yet if like the Chancellor you control the rules, then it may indeed always be possible to stay within them. Just in case you didn't notice, the goal posts were again shifted yesterday, with the end of the present cycle being brought forward from 2008 to early next year. The effect of this manoeuvre is to ensure the Chancellor meets the golden rule this cycle come what may against any possibility of mishap next year.

As it is, the Chancellor is having to add yet more to his Budget forecasts of public sector borrowing, even though he's raising more tax and giving himself more headroom by assuming a higher rate of growth. In any case, it will be tough finding the money for the intended educational spending spree. Rather, the forecasts of public spending point to a hurried and sustained turning off of the taps.

The bottom line is that the Government is taxing and borrowing a lot more than is healthy for the future of the British economy, and even so it is struggling to meet its spending commitments. You don't need a PhD in economic forecasting to see that.

RBS has earned right to pursue growth

Might yesterday's upbeat trading statement from Royal Bank of Scotland Group succeed in finally vanquishing Sir Fred Goodwin's critics? Its buoyant tone was in marked contrast to that of Barclays and HSBC, both of whom have warned about growing bad debt experience in their consumer and mortgage lending.

At RBS, by contrast, bad debt write-offs are easing, while non-interest income generated from the bank's success in syndicated loans is growing like topsy amid the present mania for private equity buyouts. Yet despite a 4 per cent surge in the share price yesterday, RBS continues to trade at a significant discount to peers.

This is widely blamed on the "Fred factor", the fact that the RBS chief executive is still not trusted not to go out and splurge all the surplus capital he's generating on renewed expansion in America and Asia.

He's still not been forgiven for his acquisition of Charter One in the US, which, though not a disaster, has failed to live up to initial expectations. Despite saying that this would be the last big deal for some time, Sir Fred has since spent more on buying into China. The fear is that, given the chance, he would go further still. That might be good for his ego, but would it be good for shareholder value?

Mr own view is that the Fred discount has been hugely overdone. On execution, it is virtually impossible to fault any of his actions at RBS, from the NatWest integration onwards. He can be a difficult and aloof character, but, as is often the case, the arrogance that sometimes comes across is a guise for a certain social awkwardness that belies a banker of extraordinary ability and attention to detail.

Nor is RBS's success just about Sir Fred. Of equal importance is John Cameron who, in one of the great unsung banking achievements of the past five years, has managed to place RBS at the centre of a secular change in European syndicated lending. RBS is now reaping the benefits.

This latest trading update demonstrates a continued ability to buck the trend. Deregulation of fast growing Asian markets means that RBS must inevitably soon again start devoting a considerable proportion of its surplus capital to expansion. Investors must make up their minds: is it growth or contraction they want? Sir Fred has more than earned his right to pursue the former.

j.warner@independent.co.uk

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