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Britain: a case study in low-growth economic mediocrity



BRITAIN is stuck in a rut. No wonder that investors and credit rating agencies are losing patience: the coalition doesn’t have the guts or decisiveness needed to jolt the UK out of its present mediocrity, while the opposition is busy dreaming up new taxes, thinks that a slightly looser fiscal policy would transform our prospects and has no real understanding of the extent of our fiscal crisis.

Britain’s tax receipts confirm that the economy continues to do poorly, albeit not disastrously. So far this fiscal year, receipts from Vat are up 2.2 per cent, less than the rate of inflation. Income and capital gains tax receipts are down 0.2 per cent and corporation taxes are down 8.4 per cent: while in both cases there have been tax cuts (a higher personal allowance and lower corporation tax rates) these don’t explain such shockingly bad numbers. Very limited pay rises, a drop in reported income from the highest earners and weak profits are among the answers. National insurance contributions are up a healthier 3.4 per cent, though this not anything worth shouting about.

What all of this suggests is an economy that is either stagnating or growing a little, but by no more than a few tenths of a per cent. At best, the situation looks only marginally rosier than the official GDP figures; at worst, there is no difference. Mediocrity undoubtedly rules OK.

While revenues are poor, any progress the government is making in trimming overall expenditure on wages, benefits and other current spending is being more than cancelled out by increased interest on the growing national debt. During April 2012-January 2013, central government current expenditure hit ?525.7bn, 2.7 per cent higher than in the same period of 2011-12.

Depending on which measure of inflation one uses, real current spending was therefore either up or down slightly. The real cuts are happening in capex, the one area where state spending can be useful for long-term growth (though the private sector, if it were allowed to, could take over many projects). So far this year, central government net investment was minus ?6.4bn – with depreciation overwhelming gross investment – a massive ?27.7bn lower than in the same period of the previous year. So we are still seeing the wrong kinds of cuts, stagnant growth and weak tax receipts. Unless something drastic changes soon, it is not just credit rating agencies that will be running out of patience with the government.

One of this column’s themes is that we are now facing a world of low real returns across financial assets, with high inflation gobbling up nominal gains, and that the bond markets, after years of astonishing returns, are set for a crash. There is lots of evidence to back up this thesis in Barclays’ latest annual equity-gilt study. The conclusions are stark. Over the next five years, Barclays expects cash to provide negative inflation-adjusted returns of about -1.5 per cent per year (with compounding effects, that means a very sharp drop in value), “safe haven” government bonds -2 per cent – in other words, even worse than cash – and equities annual growth of 3-4 per cent. The authors believe that the bull market in government bonds – which peaked last year – will end in a whimper, rather than in a 1994-style crash. I suspect the authors may be too optimistic, but their case is that a shortage of “safe” assets, combined with a decision by the authorities to keep the monetary floodgates open, will do the trick. One thing is clear: savers are going to suffer.

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German GDP slumps 0.6 per cent in Q4



The German economy shrank in the last three months of 2012, with a plunge in exports driving the contraction.

Seasonally adjusted data from the Federal Statistics Office confirmed an earlier flash estimate showing that German GDP fell by a more-than-expected 0.6 per cent in the last quarter of the year.

It marks the biggest fall since the economy contracted by 4.1 per cent at the start of 2009.

Foreign trade deducted 0.8 per cent from GDP while domestic demand added 0.2 per cent.

The data showed that exports dropped by two per cent in the fourth quarter while imports fell by 0.6 per cent, boding ill for struggling Eurozone states that had hoped to offload more of their goods on Germany, where rising wages, high employment and moderate inflation have boosted domestic demand.

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Rothschild hit by epic defeat



BUMI co-founder Nat Rothschild yesterday suffered an embarrassing defeat at the coal miner’s EGM, with 19 out of 22 proposals for a board overhaul flattened by shareholders in a public City showdown after months of increasingly bitter exchanges.

Rothschild, who arrived at the extraordinary meeting with his mother Lady Serena Rothschild, proposed last month ousting 12 out of the 14 current Bumi directors and bringing in a team of his own.

Investors yesterday chose to back the current Bumi board, with more than 61 per cent of stakeholders supporting incumbent chief executive Nick von Schirnding and the deputy chairman director Sir Julian Horn-Smith.

Rothschild’s proposed appointment as an executive director was rejected by 63 per cent of investors, which marked the weightiest defeat of all the resolutions.

The outcome of the EGM, held at the Honourable Artillery Company on City Road yesterday morning, will see two current Bumi board members – former chief executive Nalin Rathod and independent non-executive director Jean-Marc Mirzhai – step down.

In a narrow victory, one of Rothschild’s proposed new team, former British ambassador to Indonesia Sir Richard Gozney, has been voted onto the Bumi board.

In a statement following the results of the meeting, the FTSE 250 coal miner welcomed Sir Richard’s appointment and the “decision of shareholders to support the board on substantially all resolutions”.

The board will now speed up the divorce of Bumi Resources from the London-listed Bumi PLC, as well as a restructuring of the board, which will be “pursued with a sense of urgency”.

“The board will be re-structured and will be significantly smaller while retaining a majority of independent directors,” the firm said last night.

Speaking at the EGM, von Schirnding said that the agreement signed last week with the Bakries, which saw them put $50m (?33m) in a ringfenced account for the buyback of Bumi Resources, was a “tangible step forward” for shareholders.

The powerful Indonesian investors last night welcomed the outcome of the meeting.

Hedge fund veteran Rothschild, also speaking last night, labelled the result a “pyrrhic victory” for the Bumi board, adding that a “substantial majority” of non-aligned shareholders voted for his proposals.

Calling again for the full release of the probe by law firm Macfarlanes, the financier added that he will continue to remain a shareholder of Bumi, and he will “continue to fight for the rights of the minority independent shareholders”.

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