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Osborne faces ?10bn hole in the UK public finances

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BEN SOUTHWOOD

CHANCELLOR?George Osborne is set to run a budget deficit ?10bn or more larger than the ?119.9bn predicted by the budget watchdog during the 2012-13 fiscal year, economists said yesterday.

January’s public borrowing figures, released yesterday by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), looked positive on the surface, analysts said, with a larger-than-expected surplus of ?11.4bn, ?5bn better than last year.

But analysts said this figure was flattered by seasonal strength in tax revenues and one-off transfers from the bank fund, known as the Asset Purchase Facility (APF), that carries out quantitative easing (QE)?by buying gilts.

“Excluding all the one-off transfers that muddy the waters, borrowing was ?7.5bn higher in the first 10 months of the current fiscal year than in the previous fiscal year,”?said chief Berenberg Bank economist Robert Wood.

Since the 4G auction brought in ?1.2bn less than built into the budget numbers, the budget could be ?10bn worse than predicted by the OBR?in the Autumn Statement, Wood forecast, echoing other economists’ numbers.

“Osborne is very unlikely to be able to say the deficit is falling in his 20 March budget unless he can find some other ways of massaging the figures,” Wood warned.

But the Treasury tried to shift focus onto spending, which was down ?2bn compared to the same month a year earlier, and receipts, which were up, even excluding one-off moves, it said.

Economists also criticised the Treasury for the level of “unnecessary complexity” in the finances.

“All of the messing around with numbers makes it very difficult to see the direction we’re going in,” Item’s Andrew Goodwin said.

Goodwin said all the different ways official bodies state the deficit and borrowing numbers can confuse even economic experts.

And the ONS decision yesterday morning to allow only ?9.1bn of intra-government transfers into the official borrowing numbers over the tax year confused matters further. Since ?2.7bn of this was already taken up by previous transfers, even on the government’s figures, which include one-off QE transfers, it will only be able to include ?6.4bn out of an expected ?11.5bn in its borrowing numbers.

BUDGET DEFICIT: WHAT IS GOING ON?

Q and A

Q Is borrowing going down – as George Osborne said he thought it would in the Autumn Statement – or is it rising?

A So far, 10 months into the 2012-13 fiscal year, borrowing was ?65.8bn – ?26.5bn lower than during the same period in 2011-12. But this includes some one-off windfalls. Excluding the transfer of the Royal Mail pension plan, and the Treasury’s raid on quantitative easing (QE) income, borrowing was ?97.6bn, and therefore ?5.3bn up on 2011-12. Further excluding the ?2.3bn money gained from winding down the Special Liquidity Scheme, it was ?7.5bn higher.

Q So will Osborne officially miss the Office for Budget Responsibility’s (OBR) target?

A The OBR forecast borrowing would be ?119.9bn over the year. Economists are now forecasting Osborne will overshoot the target by ?10bn-?15bn. That is due to higher borrowing and also because the OBR assumed ?11.5bn gained from raiding the Bank of England’s QE?income. Actually this can only bring in a maximum of ?6.4bn, as the target is for public sector net borrowing, which was yesterday defined to not include all the QE income. The OBR also assumed a ?3.5bn gain from this week’s 4G auction (it brought in ?2.3bn).

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Chiltern Miniatures

Rothschild hit by epic defeat

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CATHY ADAMS

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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German GDP slumps 0.6 per cent in Q4

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CITY A.M. REPORTER

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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