The start of one of our busiest weeks of the year. Alistair Darling’s first budget will take place on Wednesday, but before then there’s plenty of corporate news to think about. March is traditionally company-reporting season, when hundreds of listed companies release their annual results to the stock market. These results are always closely watched and, with the economy faltering, investors are looking for any signs that the housing slowdown is spreading to other sectors. So far, many companies have been remarkably cheery but it’s clear that some sectors are starting to feel the pinch. In a normal week, Investors Chronicle reports on about 20-25 companies’ results. This week we’re reporting on more than 100, so a huge effort is required.
The build up to the budget starts in earnest. Tim Harford, writing on the FT‘s website, describes the budget as a ‘bizarre British phenomenon”, and in many ways he’s right. Huge attention is devoted to it, but it is far-less significant now than it used to be. The UK’s economic success (or otherwise) is largely dictated by the ebbs and flows of the global economy, rather than by what happens at 11 Downing Street.
Nevertheless, a variety of wish lists from special interest groups find their way into my inbox. As ever, there are calls for changes to stamp duty, but that’s likely to be the last thing on the Chancellor’s mind. Instead, most predictions focus on the state of the public finances, especially the question of how much Mr Darling will have to borrow to fulfil his spending promises, and whether this borrowing will force him to break his golden rule on borrowing as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP). Following a big shake-up of income tax last year and an equally big shake-up of capital gains tax in December, we’re not expecting any major tax changes.
On the lighter side, City bookie Cantor Index expects the Chancellor to speak for 56-58 minutes, mention Northern Rock five to seven times, and put 1.5p-2.5p on a pint of beer.
Budget day arrives, and it’s also press day for us. The morning is taken up with proofreading pages, finalising the cover, and taking in some more of the predictions.
The budget starts at 12.30pm. Traditionally, we’d all crowd around one of the few television sets to watch the speech. However, thanks to the wonders of the internet, I can watch it all online.
The Chancellor speaks for 50 minutes, delivering the budget in a style described by David Cameron as that of ‘somebody reading from a telephone directory”. Sitting behind the Chancellor, Gordon Brown looked like a father who has coached his son to say the right things.
And say the right things he certainly did. There was plenty of crowing about Labour’s record, a few barbs about what the Conservatives had done when they were in office and lots of re-announcements of existing policy. Such re-announcements are increasingly common. There was also plenty of tinkering with taxes – a delay on a rise in fuel duty here, an increase in taxes on alcohol there. Unfortunately, there was little in the way of bold new initiatives.
With the speech out of the way, it’s straight on to the Treasury’s website. The meat of the budget is always in the 450-plus pages of accompanying documents and notes. We used to have hard copies biked over from the Treasury, but now it’s all available online as soon as the speech finishes. Thankfully, there’s no repeat of last year’s fiasco when the Treasury’s website crashed because it couldn’t cope with the traffic.
Our team of journalists pours through the documents to find the salient points for our readers, who are mostly UK-based private investors. There are some changes to the taxation of funds and to the amount that can be invested in tax-efficient vehicles, called Enterprise Investment Schemes. And changes to the carbon-trading regime will affect some of the companies in which our readers have invested. The share prices of electricity generators, for example, are down because the regime is now likely to cost them more.
Because of tight press deadlines, we have to get our coverage tied up by 8pm. However, most of our coverage is up on our website well before then. We run a comment piece from Howard Wheeldon, an analyst at BGC Capital Brokers. He describes the budget as ‘one of the most boring for years”, but suggests that the Chancellor’s borrowing and growth predictions look optimistic. We also analyse the impact of income tax changes and the changes to the carbon-trading regime.
Following a shaky start to the Chancellor’s tenure, in which he’s had to cope with Northern Rock and a weakening economy, this was a solid if uninspiring budget. The next 12 months will be key in determining whether he can step out from Gordon Brown’s shadow.