A grade 3 back and sides and a trim on top

That’s what I ask for when I go to get my haircut – next one is due on Friday as it happens. Lee, who cuts my hair, understands what I mean by a “trim”. I don’t walk out looking like I’ve just been scalped – I have little enough hair as it is :)

With all the excitement yesterday over Lehman Brothers, the announcement that China was reducing interest rates got a little lost in the mix. The announcement was significant though as it represents China’s first cut in interest rates in 6 years. The cut was 0.27% from 7.47% to 7.20%; however two pieces of media coverage described this change in very different ways. The BBC described the change as a “trim“; however The Times view was that China had “slashed” rates. Now I don’t know about you, but if my bank told me that my mortgage interest payment had fallen by 3.6% (0.27%/7.47%) I wouldn’t really consider it had been slashed.

The serious point here is that in my experience the language that is used in reporting economic and financial matters can sometimes suffer from a lack of consistency. Share prices “plummet“ when the fall is a little over 1%, house prices “crash“ when they fall 2%, but oil prices only “fall“ when they reduce by 5%.

The lesson this has taught me though is if I ever need to get a haircut anywhere else I need to check first if the person about to cut my hair ever reads The Times!

A £600m stamp and it’s still second class

Today’s announcement that the stamp duty threshold has been increased to £175,000 for the next year raises some interesting questions. Was it a coincidence that this announcement came on the same day as the OECD announced the UK would go into recession in the second half of the year? Let’s be generous and say that it was. However the wonders of the stamp duty system leads to this creating some interesting numerical anomalies. The stamp duty bands will now be as follows if I understand correctly:

0% – up to £175,000
1% – £175,001 – £250,000
3% – £250,001 – £500,000
4% – £500,001+

This means that if I buy a property for £175,000 I pay no stamp duty. But if I buy a property for £250,001 I pay£7,500 in stamp duty. This means I have to pay £7,500 more to buy a property that is £75,000 more expensive i.e. 10% of the extra cost of this property. Pressure had already existed on sellers just above the £250,000 level to reduced their price with the previous increases of the exemption in the last three years to £120,000 and then £125,000, but this change just made that pressure even greater.

The change may benefit housebuilders of properties between £125,000 and £175,000 as effectively the taxpayer has just subsidised the sale of those houses in that price bracket by 1% of their value, but it probably won’t help chains greatly due to the presence of the same substantial level of stamp duty on properties greater than £250,000.

The estimate of £600m also only represents less than 10% of the tax receipts from residential sales – a relative drop in the ocean. Delving further highlights the Treasury’s reliance on the tax generated from the higher bands. In 2006-7 (the last year I can find this analysis for) the stamp duty generated on sales of properties above £250,000 was £5.07bn of a total of £6.45bn, nearly 80% of the receipts. This compares with only £1.64bn of a total of £2.69bn in 2001-2, approx 60% of receipts.

This means that of the £3.7bn of additional receipts in 2006-7, £3.4bn came from the higher bands.

Conclusion – today’s announcement is all about trying to create a perception of action, when in reality the Government has become so reliant on this income stream that it can’t afford to reduce the amount it receives by very much so it looks for the way that will create the biggest headline for the smallest cost.