‘Last chance saloon’: UK finance minister expected to pledge pre-election tax cuts

British Finance Minister Jeremy Hunt said earlier this month the U.K. would not enter a recession this year.

Hannah Mckay | Reuters

LONDON — Economists expect U.K. Finance Minister Jeremy Hunt to use a small fiscal windfall to deliver a modest package of tax cuts at his Spring Budget on Wednesday.

Heading into what will likely be the Conservative government’s last fiscal event before the country’s upcoming General Election, Hunt is under pressure to offer a sweetener to voters as his party trails the main opposition Labour Party by more than 20 points across all national polls.

But he must also navigate the constraints of fragile public finances and a stagnant economy that recently entered a modest technical recession.

On the upside, inflation has fallen faster than anticipated and market expectations for interest rates are well below where they were going into Hunt’s Autumn Statement in November.

The Treasury pre-announced plans over the weekend to deliver up to £1.8 billion ($2.3 billion) worth of benefits by boosting public sector productivity, including releasing police time for more frontline work.

The Independent Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that returning to levels of pre-pandemic productivity could save the Treasury up to £20 billion per year.

Hunt will also announce £360 million in funding to boost research and development (R&D) and manufacturing projects across the life sciences, automotive and aerospace sectors, the Treasury said Monday.

However, the big questions over tax cuts remain heading into Wednesday’s statement.

Increased fiscal headroom

“On balance, we think Chancellor Hunt’s fiscal headroom will have likely increased – but only marginally, and nowhere close to what he had in the Autumn Statement (owing largely to the fall in expected debt costs),” Deutsche Bank Senior Economist Sanjay Raja said in a research note Thursday.

The German lender estimates that the government’s fiscal headroom will have grown from around £13 billion to around £18.5 billion, and that tax cuts are “very likely” the first port of call. Raja suggested the finance minister will err on the side of caution in loosening fiscal policy, favoring supply side support over boosting demand.

“Supply side measures are more likely in our view, particularly with the Bank of England more amenable to loosening monetary policy,” Raja said.

“Therefore, tax cuts to national insurance contributions (NICs) and changes to child benefits are more likely to come in the Spring Budget (in contrast to earlier expectations of income tax cuts).”

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A substantial cut to National Insurance was the highlight of Hunt’s Autumn Statement, though economists were quick to point out that its benefit to payers would be more than erased by the effect of existing freezes on personal income tax thresholds — known as the “fiscal drag.”

The U.K. National Insurance is a tax on workers’ income and employers’ profits to pay for state social security benefits, including the state pension.

Raja also suggested an extension of the government’s existing freeze on fuel duty remains a possibility, and that some spending cuts will likely be used to partially offset a loosening of fiscal policy.

In total, Deutsche Bank expects Hunt to deliver net loosening of £15 billion over the coming fiscal year, dropping to around £12.5 billion in the medium-term.

“The outlook for the public finances remains precarious. Slight changes to the macroeconomic outlook could result in big shifts to the public finances. The Chancellor continues to walk a fine line between managing his fiscal rules now and rising austerity later,” Raja said.

“To be sure, big questions on the public finances remain – including whether spending cuts, or limited rises in some areas, remain realistic to tackle the rising strain in public services, and the Government’s own ambitions around net-zero, defence, and overseas development spending.”

BNP Paribas economists expect a more modest package of tax cuts worth around £10 billion across the 2024/25 fiscal year, and projected that the government will start the year with a fiscal windfall of around £11 billion.

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The French bank agreed that the reductions will be aimed at stimulating labor supply, with “little impact on inflation and thus the Bank of England.”

“Our base case is that the government will spend GBP10bn of the near-term fiscal windfall and use the additional medium-term fiscal space to cut personal taxes,” economists Matthew Swannell and Dani Stoilova said in a research note entitled “last-chance saloon.”

They also expect the Treasury to postpone the March 2024 rise in fuel duty for another 12 months, at a cost of £3.7 billion a year, and to introduce a permanent 1 pence reduction in the basic rate of income tax at a cost of between £6 billion and £7.35 billion per year.

“The overall effect of this policy package would be to leave medium-term fiscal headroom roughly back where it started at GBP12.7bn,” they added.

“With the Conservative party trailing in the opinion polls and the Budget possibly the last opportunity to loosen fiscal policy before a general election, we expect Chancellor Hunt to once again, at least, spend any additional fiscal space available to him.”