Budget for votes riskily delays UK debt pain

March 25, 2010

BRITAIN-BUDGET/— The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own —

Alistair Darling promised no election “giveaways” and in one sense he delivered. The UK finance minister’s budget is about not giving away the election. It might have been worse — if Darling had acceded to his boss Gordon Brown’s even more populist instincts. But there are vote-seeking swipes at high earners and banks, as well as a crowd-pleasing but misguided tax cut to first-time house-buyers. The UK’s budget-balancing pain is being postponed and concealed. And that’s risky.

The headline measure is a tax cut. First time buyers of properties costing up to 250,000 pounds won’t have to pay anything to the government. Many voters will like that. They will like it, too, that people buying million pound properties foot the bill. A further bout of bank-bashing was part of the electioneering approach. Given the scandal of City rewards, few will blame Darling.

The economic impact, however, will be limited. The wobbly housing market may be helped slightly. But the UK economy needs to be buoyed by production and exports, not house price inflation.

Even so, Darling was able to present slightly better borrowing figures. VAT revenues have picked up strongly so far this year. Unemployment has not risen as much as feared. The budget projects a 167 billion pound deficit for this year, an 11 billion pound reduction on the previous forecast. And over the next several years a similar improvement is retained. But in 2010-11 the projected government deficit remains a colossal 163 billion pounds, 11 percent of GDP.

Thereafter, the deficit shrinks more rapidly as spending cuts start to take effect. But financial markets may not give much credit to these medium-term forecasts, because Darling has neglected to say where the cuts will fall — presumably because he thinks it will be too distasteful for voters to see. What’s more, he only reduces the red ink by projecting fairly rapid GDP growth of 3.25 percent next year and an average of 3.5 percent in 2012 and beyond. As the UK restructures, growth is unlikely to be high.

It is probably only a matter of time before financial markets signal, through interest rates, that their patience has run out. That moment could come soon if Greece or other troubled euro zone economies cause a new wave of risk aversion. But Labour’s hope that the budget will get it through to the election will probably be fulfilled. Then it will be up to either an incoming Conservative government to tighten its belt or re-elected Labour to spell out where the spending axe will fall.

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