For some in Westminster, a week in politics will never have seemed longer. Financial markets are still reeling from the announcement of the £40bn of deficit-financed income tax cuts announced last week. The ramifications through the financial system are myriad but stem from the decisions of UKG heaping more uncertainty onto markets that were already bracing themselves for a difficult few months.
Our budget response last week referred to the decisions made by UKG as being a gamble. Tax cuts do not necessarily lead to growth, and the additional tax revenues and lower debt/deficit:GDP ratios that would come with that growth. The absence of an OBR forecast, which may have helped reassure the markets that the plans were credible, did not help (and of course, the OBR could have been less supportive of the plans than the Chancellor would have hoped for). The upshot is that the risk that the UKG will have permanently higher borrowing has increased, leading to a fall in the value of government bonds. Inflation has become even harder to predict and with that the future path for interest rates. All this has real implications for markets that we all come into contact with, including most notably pensions and mortgages.
The tax cuts announced last week were part of a plan for growth that the Chancellor and the PM are holding firm on. The hope is that it will boost the labour supply by incentivising people to work more. By abolishing the additional rate, it is hoped more high earners people will want to work in the UK. Whether or not it works depends on whether people change their behaviour in light of the tax cuts, or whether other factors override the increased financial incentive. For example, for basic rate tax payers, there may be structural barriers that constrain their ability to work – the availability of childcare being an obvious example. Additional rate tax payers may not see the tax cut as being substantial enough to make them relocate, or they may not be able to due to visa restrictions. There are promises of further supply side reforms in the coming months, including on childcare and visas, that may increase confidence that the plan is credible, but at the moment, only a notable few appear to believe it is guaranteed to succeed.
Some of the trailed reforms will apply UK wide, and changes to rules around immigration will be keenly anticipated by many businesses in Scotland. Others, such as reform in childcare, may not apply in Scotland as provision of publicly funded childcare falls under devolved competence. Increased spending on childcare by Westminster could lead to additional consequentials to Scotland. However, in terms of the Scottish budget, there is always the risk that additional consequentials from one area are offset by decisions to cut spending in other departments.
That appears increasingly likely. This week, UKG departments have been asked to look for savings in departmental spending, which looks like an attempt to sure up fiscal credibility from the other side of the ledger. This leaves the Scottish Government, along with everyone else, dealing with more uncertainty than they expected just over a week ago. The Emergency Budget Response from John Swinney has been pushed back to late October, but it will be difficult for the Scottish Government to act decisively until more is known about what the UKG will do next. For that we may have to wait until late November, when we also expect to see OBR’s assessment of the UKG’s plans.
Next week, we will be publishing our quarterly Economic Commentary which will provide insight and analysis on the pressures that were already facing the Scottish Economy. The events of the last week are having ramifications on the real economy, but there were of course multiple issues that businesses and households were already trying to deal with. Look out for our report on Tuesday 4th October.
Mairi is the Director of the Fraser of Allander Institute. Previously, she was the Deputy Chief Executive of the Scottish Fiscal Commission and the Head of National Accounts at the Scottish Government and has over a decade of experience working in different areas of statistics and analysis.