19 Mar 2014

Budget 2014: Carney butts in on a day of surprises

This is George Osborne’s big chance. It is the first time he will hold up the budget box at a time of a robustly growing economy. It has been a four-year wait for this pleasure.

Not just growth of around 3 per cent annually, but falling unemployment, rising employment and falling inflation. And yes, a pronouncement that the UK will shortly have reversed all the economic crisis contraction.


Yet still, as the opposition clings to, that growth is yet to feed in to living standards and a feel good factor. The treasury pre-released an heroic analysis this week saying that living standards were in fact going up – when you excluded everyone who had lost out.

In political terms the polls remain in Labour’s favour, just 14 months before the election. I have no doubt that the chancellor will deliver an eye-catching tax cut designed to change the political weather.

Unusually, none of this budget has been leaked. The chancellor is acutely aware of the impact of leaks and surprise, particularly so since his disastrous budget two years ago.

‘Signs of excess’

But euphoria would be very premature. The government has failed to deliver its long promised rebalancing of the economy. In fact, the chancellor is now trying to make a virtue of this, saying he is the man to get Britain exporting, having presided over a further imbalancing of the economy.

Enter Mark Carney last night, warning of “signs of excess” returning, and that “it doesn’t take a genius” to see the same risks as existed in the low rate environment a decade ago.

So why extend phase one of Help to Buy, as the chancellor will confirm today? The governor did not answer my question, but its clear there are some reservations about aspects of the wider Help to Buy policy.

More generally, there is a body of opinion in financial markets that the UK could yet become the slippery sixth member of the ‘Fragile Five’ emerging economies. The record current account deficit is the main risk or “contagion filter” as central bankers call it.

If doubts about the flavour, balance and sustainability of the UK recovery increase, then economic overconfidence today could end up looking rather silly – though right now that is a minority opinion. The treasury would marshal such fears as yet another rationale to maintain austerity.

There’ll be good news today. There’ll be a lot of politics. But we are not out of the woods yet.

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