George Osborne: fiddling figures, raiding pensions and printing money

This afternoon, George Osborne will deliver his autumn mini-Budget. Matthew Partridge looks at what to expect, and how it might affect you.

This afternoon, George Osborne stands up to deliver the Autumn Statement.

It's a mini-Budget effectively. Its importance expanded over the years under Gordon Brown to the point where British chancellors now feel free to take the opportunity to pick our pockets and mess up our financial planning in the autumn as well as the spring.

So as well as talking about tax and spending, Osborne will outline plans in other policy areas, such as energy and maybe housebuilding. At the same time his latest growth (or lack of growth) forecasts will be revealed.

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So what are the main things you should be looking out for and how might it all affect your finances?

Forget austerity the figures are being fiddled

Osborne had been hoping to cut our national debt-to-GDP ratio by 2016. Please note that it's the ratio we're talking about here. The absolute level of debt will still be growing. It's just that he'd hoped the economy would be growing faster.

It's now clear that that's not going to happen. Overall, Capital Economics thinks that net debt to GDP will rise to over 86% by 2016-17 (and that's not including all the off-balance sheet stuff and the cost of bailing out the banks).

But that doesn't mean he won't try to fudge the figures to make things look better than they really are.

He has already tried two big gimmicks this year. In March the government took over the Royal Mail pension fund. This enabled it to use the £28bn of cash that it held to cut the deficit, even though it will end up paying even more back in pensions.

Even more controversially it was decided last month that the proceeds from the Bank of England's Asset Purchase Scheme will go direct to the Treasury. We've discussed the technical details beforebut in effect it means Osborne pinched around £35bn or so in printed money.

And for all the talk of austerity, the chancellor is coming up with a crafty wheeze to keep spending, but in a way that stays off the government's books. He wants to hugely expand the Private Finance Initiative (PFI).

Under PFI, private firms build schools and hospitals, then rent them back to the government. Two years ago, the number of deals being done was cut back, because PFI was often scandalously poor value for money.

However, under PFI mark 2, payments are set to be spread out over a longer period. This will allow the government to claim that it is still keeping spending low, regardless of what the long-term costs are. So as an accounting fiddle, it's almost certainly too tempting for the government to pass up.

Pensions will become even less attractive

One key area that investors should watch out for is the tax treatment of pensions. Osborne wants to be seen to be taxing the rich. And pensions are the classic target of cash-strapped governments looking for an easy place to find some spare cash.

The most likely move is for Osborne to cut the limit on the amount you can put into a pension tax-free. This had already been cut to £50,000 a year. Expect it to fall to £40,000, or even £30,000.

However, today's cuts to the allowance are unlikely to be the final word. A more drastic step would be to abolish top-rate tax relief on pensions (so even if you were a 40% taxpayer, you'd only get 20% tax relief).

Now, that would remove much of the incentive to bother using a pension after all, the tax relief is meant to encourage us all to be responsible savers and look after ourselves in our old age. But political expediency means that idea has been thrown to the winds.

You could consider front-loading your pension while the breaks are still out there, and then cutting back when they are reduced. But the fact that governments of all stripes see pensions as such easy targets should give you pause for thought.

This is fundamentally why all things being equal - we prefer to use Individual Savings Accounts (Isas) to pensions. They are more transparent, and you can get at your money instantly if you really need to. There's far less chance of your money being held hostage by a desperate cash-strapped government.

You can read more on how pensions and Isas compare in this piece my colleague Phil Oakley wrote last year -Pensions vs Isas: what's the best way to save for retirement?

Fingers crossed there might be good news on energy

The statement may provide at least some good news for consumers, however. Over the past few years electricity and gas bills have gone up rapidly. The reasons for this are complex, but one major factor is the drive to get more of our energy from renewable sources, such as wind power. Indeed, the government wants 15.4% of energy to come from these sources.

This might change. Osborne looks set to suggest that up to 30 more gas-powered stations be built. The minister in charge of renewable energy is also a noted opponent of wind farms. This suggests that the government may be about to relax the target in the near future.

The chancellor might also try to push for fracking' (the extraction of oil and gas) to resume. He may change direction completely and grant tax breaks and subsidies.

We wouldn't get carried away. Britain's shale reserves, while significant, are small compared to those in the US. The UK lacks the combination of wide-open spaces and cheap land that makes Texas and the Dakotas ideal places for shale gas. However, it is still excellent news for the sector. You can find out more on how to profit from it from my colleague David Stevenson, in The Fleet Street Letter.

The bottom line there's going to be more money printing

But from PFI to shale gas, these are ultimately all gimmicks. The problem of how to cut the deficit while boosting growth remains this is all tinkering around the edges.

Unless the chancellor makes some attempt to radically simplify Britain's tax system, the UK will end up relying more and more on money printing to attempt to boost growth. That will be bad news for the pound, and bad news for the economy in general. You can find out more about why we're worried about Britain's future in our recently released report it's proved controversial, so if you haven't seen it yet, decide for yourself here.

This article is taken from the free investment email Money Morning. Sign up to Money Morning here .

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Dr Matthew Partridge

Matthew graduated from the University of Durham in 2004; he then gained an MSc, followed by a PhD at the London School of Economics.

He has previously written for a wide range of publications, including the Guardian and the Economist, and also helped to run a newsletter on terrorism. He has spent time at Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and the consultancy Lombard Street Research.

Matthew is the author of Superinvestors: Lessons from the greatest investors in history, published by Harriman House, which has been translated into several languages. His second book, Investing Explained: The Accessible Guide to Building an Investment Portfolio, is published by Kogan Page.

As senior writer, he writes the shares and politics & economics pages, as well as weekly Blowing It and Great Frauds in History columns He also writes a fortnightly reviews page and trading tips, as well as regular cover stories and multi-page investment focus features.

Follow Matthew on Twitter: @DrMatthewPartri