Sunday 24 January 2016

When is a bonus not a bonus?

Let's begin with where I stand. I have long been in support of Scotland moving towards something close to full fiscal autonomy. I think Holyrood should be almost entirely responsible for raising what it spends. I've said repeatedly that I don't think the UK parties have been ambitious enough in their promises of further powers. Though the Smith Commission comes fairly close. I think there's room to devolve corporation tax, and I would probably devolve national insurance.

I hate the Barnett formula. It is crude, has backed the debate about Scottish finance into a corner, and does nothing to incentivise accountable spending either at Westminster or Holyrood. The biggest error the UK Government made was to lay-out the "no detriment" principle, which basically stops them from replacing Barnett with a better method of resource distribution because it will always be the case that at least one nation is worse off in the short-term while a new system beds-in. I would scrap the Barnett fomula, in favour of a needs-based approach, like several of the Welsh reports on devolution have recommended. This would probably leave Scotland, in the short-term, slightly worse off, but it would be fairer, more accountable, and leave devolved administrations less at the whims of the macroeconomic policies of UK Chancellors.

The Partial Truth

One of the biggest myths perpetuated in the referendum, in which, remember, I voted Yes, was the notion that revenues from oil and gas would be a "bonus", not the "basis" for an independent Scotland's economy. When making this claim, the SNP would typically concern themselves with the GDP of Scotland: the overall economic output. It is true that, by a number of measures, Scotland's GDP per capita is a bit higher than the UK's as a whole. The Scottish Government released figures in March 2013 suggesting that, if you included North Sea oil in the statistics for 2011, the Scottish GDP per capita was higher by just under $4000 US at purchasing power parity than the UK as a whole. There was similarly much fanfare from the SNP that the level of Scottish GDP would be about the same as the UK as a whole if you did not include offshore activities.

GDP per capita is, however, only an indicative measure of the size of an economy. It does not reflect how much taxation can effectively be collected from that economy, and it does not in and of itself, give an indication what levels of public spending can be sustained in that country as a consequence. It may give a rough indication, but it does not answer the question. It does not even give a particularly good indication of the standards of living in a country, as it says nothing about the distribution of the economic output. It is blind, for instance, to income inequality and to the distribution of profits to those living in other countries, or to companies from other countries which may operate or own generators of economic activity based in Scotland.

The Myth

This broader macroeconomic situation was combined with a particular set of statistics that are collected annually by the Scottish Government and published in March 2013 for the year 2011-12. Some of you will remember the stats that gave rise to the famous #indyref meme about Scotland raising 9.9% of UK taxes, but only accounting for 9.3% of UK spending. The effect of this was that Scotland ran a net fiscal deficit that year of only 5% of GDP, compared to 7.9% of GDP for the UK as a whole. The current account deficits (which excludes the impact of capital investment) were 2.3%  of GDP compared to 6% of GDP respectively.

"Hurrah!" They shouted. "Scotland can do better on its own without the UK holding us back!"

If you were only to look at the year 2011-12, this might be a perfectly understandable conclusion to reach. There's a problem though. That year was hugely atypical. It is the only year of the last 5 when Scotland's position has been better than the UK's as a whole. In only 3 of the 15 years of GERS data since devolution has Scotland run a "relative surplus" to the rest of the UK. Those three years, 2005-06, 2008-09 and 2011-12, were the years in which north sea oil revenue was at its highest.

If you were to exclude the oil revenue from Scotland's contribution, the "relative deficit" (i.e. the extent to which Scotland was a net recipient rather than a net contributor from the UK Exchequer) has varied between £1400 per head and £2000 per head since the beginning of devolution. Oil and gas revenues would have to raise between £6 billion and £10 billion every year to keep Scotland broadly in-line with the rest of the UK.

That the on-shore deficit has remained fairly static suggests that Scotland's on-shore tax-base has not been growing in a way that would make us less dependent on oil revenues to pay our way. Indeed, in that year that the SNP were delighted to quote, Scotland's 5% net fiscal deficit would have been 14.6%, and its 2.3% current account deficit would have been 11.2%. This was the second worst the on-shore predicament has looked in the last 6 years.

Oil was quite literally the difference between us being ahead of the curve and miles behind it. This was a time, of course, when Brent Crude would trade at an average above $110 per barrel. This is the peak price, save a spike in 2008, in the commodity's history.

The Projections

The Scottish Government's White Paper predicted that Scotland would continue to see £6.8 billion to £7.9 billion of offshore revenues, premised on the price of oil staying around the $110 mark. We know with hindsight that this was hopelessly optimistic but in fairness, they weren't alone. The Department for Energy and Climate Change did predict shortly before the White Paper an oil price in excess of $110 in some of their own policy development assumptions.

We also know that even the more conservative projections of the OBR have proved to be wildly optimistic. In March and December of 2013, before and shortly after the publication of the White Paper, they were anticipating an oil price of around $97 a barrel for Brent Crude.

It's all very well for the SNP to throw up their arms and say "we got it wrong. But everyone got it wrong." Nicola Sturgeon tried to do as much on Andrew Marr's show this morning. But the implications of an independent Scotland getting the oil price catastrophically wrong are much more severe than they are for the United Kingdom. When oil and gas revenues collapse completely it increases the UK deficit by about 0.2-0.3% of GDP. The effect on Scotland is 6-10% of GDP added to the deficit. One is a bummer. The other is a catastrophe for economic planning.

The Facts

Which brings us to the most recent data we have from GERS, which remember is a set of figures produced by and for the Scottish Government. In March 2015, the figures for the year 2013-14 were included. They showed that Scotland accounted for 8.6% of public sector revenue and 9.2% of public expenditure, running a relative deficit of about £850 per head. We ran a deficit of 6.4% of GDP, compared to the UK's 4.1% and had a net fiscal deficit of 8.1% of GDP compared to the UK's 5.6%.

Our deficit in cash terms was £9.8 billion (£12.4 billion including capital expenditure balances). Without oil revenues, which were £4 billion (down from £5.5 billion in 2012-13 and from £10.6 billion in 2011-12), we would have run a current account deficit of 10.3% of GDP and a net fiscal deficit of 12.2%.

In simple terms, our deficit has increased substantially in the last couple of years while the UK one has come down. Meanwhile, public spending in Scotland has stayed broadly the same (£66.4 billion, up from £64.5 billion).

The price of Brent crude oil in 2013-14 varied between $90 to $115 per barrel. So even when the Scottish Government's projection still held true, Scotland's public finances swung into an abrupt reverse. This was partly down to levels of production in the North Sea, which had not expanded in the way many had anticipated. This is not a trend in respect of which we can expect a substantial improvement in the near future, even if oil prices recover.

The price of a barrel of Brent crude oil today is $27.36. The OBR forecast for oil and gas revenue has been revised down to £100 million as of November 2015.

The Implications

When I have pointed out these facts elsewhere about this fiscal gap that Scotland has, over and above the rest of the UK, there are typically three common responses:

1. We will raise more tax revenue than the UK does
2. GERS don't accurately reflect how much tax revenue Scotland raises on, among other things, corporation tax
3. We would spend less on things we don't need, like Trident

To which I have the following responses.

Increasing Tax Revenue

Okay. The gap you need to fill, just to reach the UK's economic position, is over £4 billion, assuming, of course, that in March we don't find that oil and gas revenues have fallen from about £4 billion. If the OBR are right, and revenues are going to fall to £100 million, you essentially have an £8 billion hole to fill. In 2013-14, Scotland's on-shore tax revenue was estimated at £50 billion by GERS. How do you propose to increase the tax base by between 8 and 16%?

Let's be generous and assume the oil revenue won't fall. As an illustration, you would save less than £4 billion if you were to cut the personal allowance to £6500, or the level it was in 2010 before the Coalition took office. That would obviously be a terrible policy from the perspective of ordinary families.

You might want to shift some of that burden towards higher rate taxpayers. So let's say you introduce a 50p rate of income tax to replace the 45p rate. Treasury estimates suggest this raised between nothing and £3 billion a year for the UK as a whole in the short time it was last used. Most of that revenue, it is reasonable to assume, was raised in London, where the highest proportion of high earners live. Even if you managed to get our population share of that money, that still plugs less than 1/10th of the gap.

Maybe you want to raise the basic and higher rates of income tax. Let's say you do that by a penny. HMRC estimates say that would raise about £500 million. Not great. Maybe if we raised them by 5 percentage points, we would get close to half-way there.

So best case scenario we are talking a pretty substantial rise in income taxation, which will almost certainly hit "middle Scotland" and probably the poorest too. Just to stand still. Not to be better off than the rest of the UK, not for more and better public services. Just to stand still.

This also assumes that this higher tax regime has no negative effects on growth in Scotland, which it almost certainly would. Of course, the SNP have their Jokers up their sleeves now. "Cut corporation tax!" "Cut Air Passenger Duty!" they cry. Well okay, that might stimulate the Scottish economy, but it also empties your wallet.

There is no guarantee that, say, a 1-3% cut in corporation tax would stimulate more revenue to a Scottish Exchequer. In any case, the current GERS figures say that corporation tax accounts for less than £3 billion of Scottish revenue. A cut in these kinds of business tax are not going to more than double the revenues attributable to them. That requires a particular type of magic no country in the world has ever achieved. This is a question of scale.

GERS doesn't assess taxes properly

There are a number of arguments made that the assumptions made in GERS are too pessimistic and that they don't accurately reflect the true revenue raised by Scotland on the question of corporation tax, among others.

There are indeed discrepancies between GERS and HMRC figures when it comes to attributing tax to Scotland. The Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICe) address the reasons for these discrepancies. GERS tends to churn out slightly lower income tax receipts, slightly higher VAT receipts and slightly higher corporation tax receipts. The reasons for this are mostly related to the purpose for which these bodies attribute tax to different parts of the UK, but the estimates are fairly close.

The HMRC estimates if anything suggest a smaller tax base in Scotland than GERS, but even if on-shore corporation tax receipts were under-estimated by 50%, you would be plugging only 1/3 of the fiscal gap. In a good off-shore year!

Any prospective quibble with the GERS methodology would have to show errors so substantial and systematic that it would be tantamount to bringing in two to four times as much corporation tax as it assumes we do in order radically to change the central conclusions anyone would draw from them. This is not realistic.

We don't need to spend money on Trident!

According to FullFact, the operating budget for Trident, for the whole of the UK, from 2008-2012 varied between £2 and £2.4 billion a year. This is also the expected level of expenditure over the lifetime of its operation, excluding the costs of renewal. At the moment, the Ministry of Defence is spending about £500-600 million a year towards the renewal of Trident's Vanguard submarines, with the renewal cost's upper-estimate being about £25-30 billion. This has the potential, at the very most, to double the year-on-year cost of Trident until 2028 when the new fleet of Vanguards are expected to come into operation.

Even if it were the case that all Trident expenditure was attributable to Scotland (it isn't, not even close, the total defence spend in GERS is £3 billion) abolishing it would not clear the relative deficit Scotland has, even in an oil revenues year like 2013-14. You could cut the entire notional defence budget of Scotland attributed in GERS (2% of GDP) and it still would not clear our relative deficit. Just think of it that way: Scotland could literally have zero armed forces and still be in a worse fiscal position than the rest of the UK. We would have no money to spend on Bairns or Bombs.

Other ways of looking at this relative gap, is that we could abolish the schools budget and still not be in the same position as the rest of the UK. In a bad year, we could abolish the schools budget, the armed forces, and cut the NHS Scotland budget by 10%, and we'd still only just be in the same fiscal position as the rest of the UK.


If something sounds too good to be true, then it probably is. The answers the SNP have offered to plug Scotland's fiscal gap are woefully inadequate. Offering to scrap Trident to make the books balance is like walking into the Apple Store and offering to buy a Macbook Pro for 4 Pokémon cards. We can't have a reasonable debate about the state of our finances if the Scottish Government is going to keep obfuscating about unimportant things like who else didn't predict that the price of oil would crash.

The reality is simple: if Scotland were to be responsible for raising all of the revenue in Scotland and spending all of the government money, it would have to grow faster than India or China for a decade, or substantially raise taxes on ordinary folk, or introduce swingeing cuts across the board. Not, and I repeat, to balance their budget. Simply to run the same deficit that the UK runs just now. The unspoken reason that oil is neither "a bonus" nor "the basis" for Scotland's finances for the foreseeable future, there is no bonus to be had.

Self-sufficiency is absolutely something Scotland needs to achieve. We desperately need to grow our on-shore industry and tax-base to make us more competitive. But there is no quick fix, and were it not for a, yes, very flawed, set of funding arrangements that were set-up by Westminster, it would be one hell of a bumpy ride.

When the next set of GERS figures are released in March, they will start to take into account the fall in global oil prices. In ordinary political times, I wouldn't want to be in the shoes of a pro-independence government, in an election year,  trying to explain away a £4-8 billion hole in their prospectus. But then, these aren't ordinary times.

As we celebrate the Scottish Bard on his birthday tomorrow, perhaps we'd do well to remember:

Facts are chiels that winna ding
An' downa be disputed!

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