Reform roundtable seminar introduced by Nadhim Zahawi MP, Member of Parliament, Stratford-on-Avon, and Co-Founder and former CEO, YouGov, on Wednesday 22 February.
By Lauren Thorpe
Business must drive the economic recovery of the UK. Exactly how to “make Britain the best place in the world to start and grow a business” was the subject of a roundtable breakfast Reform held with Nadhim Zahawi MP, Member of Parliament for Stratford-on-Avon, earlier this week. This event was held under the Chatham House Rule.
The key message that emerged from the discussion was that growth is a long term game. There is no silver bullet and a stable economic recovery cannot be achieved in one Parliament. The Government’s approach should include increasing access to finance, improving education and skills, supporting infrastructure and creating a flexible labour market.
Rather than always looking for the next new thing the Government must focus on delivering on policies already announced. Businesses need more certainty. Uncertainty means many businesses are reluctant to hire or make investment decisions. Others are struggling to find sources of finance or fail to appreciate the role that debt and equity can play in growing their business.
The anti-capitalism rhetoric that is damaging business sentiment must end. The debate over rewards for failure and poorly matched incentives is dominating the public debate, yet it is necessary to recognise that at times rewards for success perform a significant function in our economy. Meanwhile, banks are stuck between a rock and a hard place: they are criticised for not lending enough to small and medium sized business, while at the same time new banking legislation over capital requirements constricts the amount that they can lend.
The Government has recognised that the burden of employment regulation needs to be reduced. Yet progress needs to be made more quickly. Businesses are reluctant to hire due to employment laws which burden them with a workforce which they may not be able to scale back if trading conditions worsen. Ideas from the “Beecroft Review” should be looked at again, and lessons can also be learned from abroad. The flexibility of the labour market in the United States is one factor contributing to the turnaround in that economy’s performance. Another issue for businesses is the struggle to find the talent that they need given restrictions over visas and skills shortages, particularly in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects.
Domestic businesses need to think beyond UK markets, and it needs to be easier for businesses and individuals to make inward investment to the UK. We must encourage businesses to increase their export potential across the world. UKTI has an important role to play in this and, while there are positive signs about how they are approaching their role, too many small businesses do not know how to access the support they can provide.
Businesses face many challenges and need to think creatively in order to survive in these tough times. But the same is true of Government. Policy makers need to approach the challenges of lifting the long run growth rate in a flexible way and to listen to and work more closely with business.
Reform roundtable seminar introduced by Dr Adam Posen, member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee, on Thursday 29 March.
By Lauren Thorpe
Long-time students of central banks are often surprised at the degree of interest, and strength of feeling, that this topic currently generates. But this should be no surprise. Since the Bank of England started its Quantitative Easing (QE) programme in March 2009, it has pumped £325 billion into the UK economy. Any intervention on this scale will have major economic effects.
To provide an insight into thinking on QE and its likely economic effects, Reform held a round table seminar on Thursday 30 March with Dr Adam Posen, member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee. This event was held under the Chatham House Rule. Some of the key points raised included:
- 1. Impact on pensions of QE. The National Association of Pension Funds (NAPF) recently published an estimate that the latest £50 billion asset purchase added £45 billion to the deficit of UK companies’ final salary pension schemes. The challenge is to assess whether any gain to the economy from QE exceeds these losses to pensions (there are no easy answers to this). To understand the full implications of QE it is also important to consider the counter-factual. What would the UK economy (and thus pensions) look like if QE had not have taken place?
- 2. Regulatory impact on pensions. There was concern that the effects of QE on pensions may have been increased by a lack of response from the regulator. Pension schemes report receiving inconsistent messages from the authorities, with pressure to transfer their investments into riskier assets while at the same time being encouraged to de-risk. Finding the right approach to regulation will become more important when the Bank of England needs to unwind its position and return gilts to the market.
- 3. Role of bank lending. An asset purchase programme should increase the amount of money in the economy and encourage bank lending. Yet there is a concern that banks have used much of the money to shore up their own balance sheets, rather than injecting cash into the real economy. This highlights two issues. First, is credit allocation by UK banks good enough? One view is that institutions in the US do a better job of this than our capital markets, given the larger reliance on bank lending in the UK and lower levels of competition in the sector. Second, QE should cause an increase in asset prices by allowing corporates to raise debt more cheaply, in turn generating wealth creation as consumption increases. While this has happened, evidence suggests that the impact is much smaller in the UK than in the US.
- 4. Circumventing the banking system. It has been suggested that the Bank of England could issue money closer to the market, by-passing the banks. In the US this can happen more readily given the existence of government backed organisations such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Yet there are two challenges to going in this direction. The first is scale – to match the tranches of QE already completed the Bank of England would need to buy a significant majority of the UK corporate bond market. The second is political. It would require “picking winners” which has well-known challenges.
These discussions aside, there is also a wider concern over the potential impact of QE on expectations. Will it increase moral hazard in markets? If QE is successful, are we likely to behave differently in the knowledge that the Bank of England can prop up the economy in this way? It is perhaps these dimensions of QE that will have the longest long-term effect.
Reform roundtable seminar on tackling tax avoidance through a General Anti-Abuse Rule on Thursday 21 June 2012. Introduced by Graham Aaronson QC, lead author of GAAR study into tax avoidance and responsible tax planning for HM Treasury.
By Lauren Thorpe
“It’s a game of cat and mouse. The Revenue closes one scheme, we find another way round it”. This is how an accountant this week described the tax planning practices adopted by his firm. A General Anti-Abuse Rule, currently under consultation by HM Treasury, would seek to target tax avoidance schemes that are found to be abusive, while at the same time protecting normal tax planning. Yesterday Reform held a roundtable discussion on “tackling tax avoidance through a General Anti-Avoidance Rule (GAAR)” with Graham Aaronson QC, lead author of the GAAR study into tax avoidance and responsible tax planning for HM Treasury last year.
This lunch could not have been more timely. Newspaper headlines have this week been dominated by cases of high profile tax avoidance. No tax law has been broken, but the use of complex and novel investment vehicles has been described as an error of judgement and immoral. This can be disputed, yet a tax rule focusing on “abuse” rather than “avoidance”, is being widely touted as a mechanism to prevent the ‘fancy footwork’ that some use to limit their tax liability.
There was a general consensus that a GAAR now seems inevitable, but we should not expect too much. Though a GAAR would represent a stronger approach to tackling tax abuse than currently in place, the lunch raised a number of concerns over the unintended consequences of any legislation.
There was concern that a GAAR could increase the complexity of our tax system further, contradicting the current UK tax policy objective of tax simplification. One strength of the UK tax system, though complex, is its rule-based and consistent application. Frequent changes to the tax system are a major concern to businesses and investors in the UK, and a GAAR would introduce an element of uncertainty into the tax system. Rulings on tax affairs would be determined by advisory panel on the basis of what is “just and reasonable”.
Those who believe that reducing tax abuse will improve the UK’s fiscal position will be disappointed. The last published figure for the tax gap (the difference between the tax collected and the theoretical amount that should be collected) is £35 billion. This includes £10 billion of tax avoidance and ‘legal interpretation’ and £4 billion of evasion (i.e. deliberate under declaration of tax liability) – in total just 2 per cent of annual Government spending. In addition to focusing on increasing tax revenue, the Government should continue to target Government spending reductions.
In spite of these arguments there was support around the room for a GAAR. The UK is one of few countries that doesn’t already have some form of anti-abuse rule in place, and many hoped it could pave the way for a change in culture and attitude towards tax planning. With a rule in place, individuals and tax planners could be less likely to participate in tax schemes that put them at the margin of what is considered acceptable. This would no doubt benefit society by rebuilding trust between business and the public, and reducing the opportunities to attack wealth creators – there was consensus that this harms the UK PLC and is contrary to the pro-business message that the Government seeks to deliver.
Reform roundtable seminar on "why is UK growth so slow?" on Monday 2 July2012. Introduced by Richard Jeffrey, Chief Investment Officer, Cazenove Capital Management.
By Lauren Thorpe
Earlier this week Richard Jeffrey, Chief Investment Officer at Cazenove Capital Management, introduced the first of three austerity debates hosted by Reform. This debate was on the topic of “why is UK growth so slow” and was held under the Chatham House Rule.
The answer to the question was straightforward but politically tough – over recent “boom years” the economy had accumulated debt at a rate faster than could be matched by income growth. The wealth that was being consumed had not yet been earned, and after the party the UK found itself burdened with onerous amounts of public and private debt. This increase in debt reflects failures in fiscal and monetary policy. Interest rates were too low for too long and spending increased too quickly.
Looking forward as well as back the messages are just as hard. The UK needs to reduce its historically high levels of debt. Domestic demand needs to grow at a lower rate than GDP and fiscal policy must rebalance. Importantly, expectations for growth will need to be more realistic. The economy will be doing well to have a real rate of growth of two per cent, prolonging a recessionary feel. In short, austerity will be the new normal.
So what does this imply for government policy? A key implication is that the task of delivering growth is not just for the Government. Indeed, the best thing the Government could do for growth is to create the conditions for the private sector to expand. This should come from supply side reform. Efforts to prop up demand would either be too small to have a material impact or would need to be so large as to damage overall fiscal credibility. Curbing the overreach of the Government will also help reduce the degree to which it crowds out private activity (evidence of this crowding out can be seen through lower capital investment).
There are a number of supply side reforms that the Government could look to. The four main pillars that affect investment and growth in the private sector are: access to skills, the tax environment, regulatory burdens, and the quality of infrastructure. On skills, standards in schools must be raised so that employers do not have their productivity stifled. On tax the emphasis must be on creating an environment that is stable and consistent. Rather than increasing regulatory burdens, the Government should try to reduce them, particularly for small businesses. And finally, it is necessary to find a way to encourage private sector investment in infrastructure projects in the UK.
The picture for growth in the UK has changed. The UK is likely to experience shorter economic cycles where inflation plays an important role in shaping the real rate of growth. The next few years will require a prolonged and severe period of deleveraging. In simple terms, people need to spend less than they are earning. This may sound straightforward but following a decade of overspending, it will feel tough.
Reform roundtable seminar on "The landscape for infrastructure finance", with Lord Deighton of Carshalton, Commercial Secretary to the Treasury.
Blog following a Reform roundtable seminar on "Contributing to econominc growth" on 18 June, led by Regina Finn, Chief Executive of Ofwat.
A blog by Dr Patrick Nolan, Chief Economist at Reform, following an event on the theme "The future of workplace pensions", led by Dr Gregg...
Blog by Rosie Olliver on fire and rescue service reform
Blog by Cathy Corrie on Policing and technology.
Blog by Dr Patrick Nolan on New thinking on the welfare state