Politics and taxation are objects of undue speculation; ECONOMIC VIEW

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The Independent Online
The improved packaging and labelling of economics for mass consumption is welcomed but it is an unfortunate side effect that the upcoming Budget and general election will lead to an unusual amount of shallow economic commentary in the months ahead.

Comments are too often couched in a way that might unnecessarily worry individuals with investments to make. This is a shame as the outlook for the UK economy and the background for investment in UK assets is favourable.

This point is illustrated by considering the two main topics of conversation in the next few months - politics and taxation.

First, politics. Real or supposed political turmoil is good copy, prompts healthy debate and is an excuse for inaction in financial markets. But is politics really a problem for the UK's financial markets? Analysis of both domestic and international factors leads one to think not.

Internationally, a strong case can be made that economic policy in all other major countries is being more influenced by political factors than is so in the UK. The awkwardness of the stances of the respective governments can be seen almost daily.

There are examples from the US and Japan, but it is on the Continent that the problems are greatest. The economic prosperity of France and Germany is being subordinated to the political aim of monetary union. Inaction in the face of record levels of unemployment is pursued in the name of an European vision.

In France, the future of the Bank of France's independence (granted only in 1993) is being questioned in a way that was unimaginable a few months ago.

The future of its governor is also in the balance. Not only has he to contend with the rumour mill of the petites phrases, but there is a storm cloud gathering from the inquiry into the Credit Lyonnais episode. All this could be too much for a man from the "wrong" political faction.

A new bank governor with a different political agenda would clearly have the opportunity to follow new economic policies, whatever they are.

In Germany, recent weeks have seen confusing messages from the various government members over the prospects for tax "reform". Reform is simultaneously meant to mean tax cuts to voters (who have a general election vote to cast in 1998) and tax increases to financial markets which want to see fiscal prudence ahead of monetary union.

It is also strongly suspected that there are disagreements with the Bundesbank council about the course of interest rates. They are not one happy family and, despite all the talk of independence, they are largely political appointees.

Disputes of this scale leave anything from the UK's monthly Ken and Eddie interest rates show miles behind. A quarter per cent on or off interest rates is irrelevant in comparison with the uncertainties elsewhere.

The UK's new policy framework that has been put in place since sterling was bundled out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992 is fundamentally different from what went before.

There is a greater degree of openness and accountability in the UK than in any other country. So much so that no other country can have its own equivalent of the Ken and Eddie show because the information - most notably clear targets and published minutes from meetings - is not available.

It is odd that the Chancellor does not make more of the new policy structure. He has never clearly and fully set it out. It is a shame, as fuller knowledge about it would give businesses, consumers and investors added confidence. The chance of a reckless boom-bust policy in the UK is less now than it has been in living memory.

This brings me to the second of the topics, the Budget. Fiscal policy and taxation are the object of far more speculation than is merited, when most changes involve just tinkering around the edges. It is only in very rare circumstances, such as in 1993 when there was need for corrective action following the recession, that budgets really matter.

The impact of any Budget tax and spending changes this year will be modest compared with the underlying pressures in the economy of, for example, learning to live with low inflation and job insecurity.

Budget changes will also be small compared to the hand-outs resulting from the building society conversions, some pounds 20bn plus, in a two-year period. Will consumers even notice pounds 2-3bn of tax cuts? These would represent less than half-a-per cent of total consumer spending and barely one- quarter of the handout due next year from the Halifax conversion alone.

The budget is usually now little more than an exercise in public relations. It is almost certain that this year's Budget will be described as "a typical pre-election budget". The same budget a year later would in all probability be described as "a typical post-election budget".

In reality, a change of government will not have the impact on tax and spending policy that it has in the past. This is in part because the Labour Party has changed, but mainly because the new policy structure will act as a constraint. Although not within its remit the Bank of England has in practice a veto on fiscal policy.

Bank disapproval of a lax fiscal stance which threatens higher inflation, will lead to calls for higher interest rates to compensate. Markets would take note and a new Labour government with a novice chancellor would find it hard to resist the call for higher rates. He would have to want the tax cuts or spending increases desperately if the price is higher interest rates.

The budget rhetoric will, of course, be different with Labour, no doubt describing their budget as "a positive first step", "all that can be afforded", and offering jam tomorrow.

Budgets will be increasingly incremental in the years ahead, becoming ever more just a peg on which to hang criticisms of or praise for the government. They will very rarely contain any measures that alter the big picture.

The coming November Budget will be hailed as a budget for consumers, but it will make little difference to anyone's life. There will, presumably, be a headline grabbing tax break, but probably worth next to nothing.

My own tip for the meaningless centrepiece is a tax break on pressure cookers! (This measure did feature in an Indian budget in the 1980s.) It would help the less well-off, save energy and encourage the consumption of fresh food while maintaining its nutritional content.

Who could complain? Manufacturers of non-pressure cooking pots and microwaves, of course. And as companies and industries are well-represented in the lobbying process, but consumers are not, they will probably get their way.

As the chart shows, however, the burden of taxation that consumers have had to bear has not fallen in recent years in the way that the corporate burden has. Some redress and relief for the consumer - and more than you get from a tax break on pressure cookers - would be in order, despite the timing of the election.

The Budget will not be irresponsible or shocking. There is no need to do anything and the Government will do nothing. We should not look for more and we should be happy with a boring budget. It is a luxury in a difficult world.

Political worries are modest with so little between the main parties on the big economic issues. Meanwhile, growth is stable and steady and inflation is low. There is little for the investor to fear.

Simon Briscoe is UK economist at Nikko Europe

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