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At 3:30pm today, the chancellor, Philip Hammond, stands up to deliver his third budget.
The timing is unusual. It’s on a Monday, because whoever does Hammond’s PR is smart enough to know that “Hammond’s Halloween Horror” is too much of an obvious headline for a Wednesday budget this year.
And because it’s on a Monday, it’s later than usual, because parliament starts late in order to allow MPs to get back to London from their constituencies.
So while you’re waiting with bated breath for the big event, here’s a quick rundown of what to look out for.
The big picture: cautious optimism despite Brexit
I have a (very limited) soft spot for Philip Hammond. He’s the first chancellor we’ve had in a long time who doesn’t regard the role as an extended audition for the prime ministership.
As a result, he has ended the Gordon Brown-era innovation of effectively having two Budgets a year (a gimmick which was equally enthusiastically embraced by George Osborne), and gone back to one.
So businesses and taxpayers now only have to sweat profusely about how their finances might be turned upside down once a year, instead of twice.
However, while Hammond has embraced simplicity on this front, he hasn’t really simplified things much on other fronts, which is unfortunate. He’s not one for grand political gestures, which is a good thing. But nor is he one for making our already ridiculously convoluted tax system any more straightforward.
So what can we expect today? From the opening, expect a lot of banging on about how much better the public finances have become. The Office for Budget Responsibility has acknowledged that its forecasts have been generally too pessimistic, and that tax receipts have been pretty good so far this year.
As a result, it looks like the government’s overspend (the deficit) this year will come in at £24bn, not £37bn. This gives Hammond enough cover to back the various spending pledges that Theresa May has already committed him to. So we’ll hear about more money for the NHS and a potential “end to austerity” (whatever that really means).
We’ll still hear an emphasis on the idea that we need tax rises in the future to fix the public finances over the long run. And the chancellor will make sure that he hammers home the point that it all depends on a decent Brexit deal being done.
But overall, we’re probably looking at a moderately “feel-good” tone from the chancellor – some (very) cautious optimism, and a lot of talk about how the hard work is paying off.
Anyway, that’s all the big-picture stuff. And the reality is that, from an investment perspective, very little of that matters right now. In the longer run, it’s good news that the public finances look a little more healthy than they have done. But for now, the outlook for the pound depends much more on Brexit for the time being.
So what might have more of an effect on your personal finances?
How the chancellor might affect your pocket today
As usual, pension tax relief will be in the spotlight. The constant threat of the withdrawal of said relief has to be one of the most effective savings mechanisms the UK has ever come up with.
Every year (or six months), the private pensions industry in this country gets a massive boost as financial advisers around the nation tell their clients to top up their pensions before the chancellor takes the reliefs away.
To be fair, the amount that you can put into your pension has been cut dramatically in the last ten years. So far, though, the relief mechanism (whereby pension contributions attract tax relief at your marginal income tax rate – so a 40% taxpayer pays 60p to get one pound’s worth of pension) has not been touched.
Will that change this time around? Maybe. But it’s a big job. I suspect Hammond would like to ditch it but the question is what to replace it with so that you don’t have to revisit the whole thing all over again in the next Budget. Also, it’s a bit of a poke in the eye to core Conservative voters, which seems unwise after the 2017 election disaster.
One point to remember on that front is that Hammond will struggle to push through any big, contentious tax changes because of the government’s weak position in the House of Commons. But that also means you should be on the lookout for stealth taxes – the sneaky ones that might not raise a lot, but can wreak havoc on certain industries or investments.
There’s also the old chestnut of tax avoidance. If you occupy any sort of grey area when it comes to your tax arrangements (be that the nature of your employment or the way your investments are organised) then you should be prepared for changes that could have a big effect on your finances. Self-employed contractors in particular need to watch out.
From an investor’s point of view, you probably want to keep an eye on measures to ensure that big tech companies pay more tax. We’ve been saying for a long while that multinationals, and those with primarily digital assets in particular, are in the sights of politicians worldwide.
Britain imposing stiffer taxes alone would not necessarily be a big deal, but this is part of a global shift. If the UK feels emboldened to impose a revenue tax, for example, then it’s quite possible that this will be duplicated elsewhere in the world. And of course, we’ve already seen that tech company shares are starting to struggle.
The other area to monitor from an investment perspective is Hammond’s plans for the high street. The idea of some sort of tax on gains made from the granting of planning permission (moving towards the idea of a land value tax, which is gaining increasing traction these days) is one to watch.
Also, at our most recent property roundtable, all of the participants were convinced that it’s only a matter of time before some sort of property wealth tax is introduced here. That does seem a stretch for this Budget, but watch out for further moves to crack down on overseas investors and foreign owners – they can be viewed as a testing ground for measures that might be extended in the future to domestic owners. They’re already facing a stamp-duty surcharge, for example.
In short, this might not be a huge tax-raising Budget, simply because the government feels that it is in limbo before Brexit, and it simply doesn’t have the ability to drive through such changes. But it’s not going to be a giveaway Budget either. Indeed, it might be a very long time before we see anything that could be remotely described as a “giveaway” Budget again.