A leak in the growth pipeline

Generic oil platform Image copyright AFP
Image caption Decommissioning North Sea platforms is expected to cost £30bn over the next 40 years

The double dip into recession is now confirmed for the United Kingdom, but Scotland has to wait nearly three months to find out if it shared that unhappy experience this past winter.

Those who crunch the Scottish numbers chew over them rather slowly.

The UK figure shouldn't come as much of a surprise. The dip wasn't deep, but it reflected a dismal winter of lousy news from the eurozone, and consumer and business confidence consequently hitting new lows.

Compared with the first recession of this downturn, this winter felt far worse for many people, because this one wasn't accompanied by a sharp cut in interest rates or tax stimuli. Instead, the main feature has been falling real income, exacerbated by inflation well above target and at risk of staying that way this year.

The sharp increase in company insolvencies, shown in this week's official figures from the Accountant in Bankruptcy, are a sign of prolonged financial distress leading to collapse. Firms have struggled to spin out resources, they've cut costs and stretched what they've got, but with the upturn in demand stretching into the future - now taking much longer to appear than the 1930s Depression - companies are increasingly running out of options.

Anaemic Scotland

Of course, two quarters of negative growth, or contraction, make for an arbitrary threshold of measuring a downturn in the economic cycle. The bigger picture can tell different stories.

And one such story is told by a new analysis of the growth figures for the whole of 2011, published today by the Centre for Public Policy for Regions at Glasgow University.

Its economists have reflected on the contraction in the Scottish economy in the fourth quarter of last year, which was slightly less bad than the UK one. But at the same time that was announced, Scottish government statisticians also downgraded their estimates of what happened in the previous two quarters.

As a result, the Scottish economy is reckoned to have grown by an anaemic 0.5% last year. And the official figures show that's only just behind the UK's growth for 2011, of 0.6%.

It was manufacturing that performed relatively well for Scotland, with drink (for which, read whisky) up nearly 9% in a year. That's along with hospitality, while construction contracted at just over half the pace of the UK.

Those sectors lagging the UK growth rates were in transport, communications and the huge business and financial services category.

And then there's oil and gas. What the Glasgow economists have now done is to look at one of distinguishing characteristics of 2011, and the result makes the UK growth figure look healthier - indeed, it looks twice as healthy as that of Scotland.

Mature and declining

Contentious arguments around oil and gas production usually revolve around nationalist assertion that it ought to accrue to Scotland. There is also much debate about who gets the tax revenues from it. But this is a different take. It looks at what happens to the figures from production (not tax) when you strip the sector out of the UK statistics.

The distinguishing characteristic is that oil and gas production slumped last year, far more than expected. That's partly down to maturing fields producing less, as part of long-term and inevitable decline. Although there is a lot of oil and gas left, and more being found, the decline in production far outweighs the uplift from new fields coming on stream. There were also special elements last year of production companies holding back on flows during maintenance, and there may have been an impact from the £2bn Treasury tax raid in the 2011 budget.

But when oil and gas production falls that fast, the impact on growth figures for the whole economy is significant. The Glasgow analysis is that oil and gas production added 0.4% of contraction to the UK economy last year. So without it, the UK economy grew by 1%. And as the Scottish figure already excludes that figure (though it does include the economic activity from the sector's onshore activities), the 'like-for-like' comparison with Scotland shows that its 0.5% growth rate looks half as strong as the UK one.

The calculations go on to suggest that, had Scotland included oil and gas within its national accounting in 2010 and 2011, gross domestic product would have contracted by a full 3% last year. That's a big squeeze, and while the sector is doing well in the north-east, much of that on its exporting strength, it remains a volatile commodity, which would - in an independent Scotland - account for around a fifth of the economy.

Then again, GDP may not be the best measure for the impact on the economy, as much of the benefit from offshore production accrues to energy companies who take their profits outside Scotland. The impact on gross national product or GNP - a measure that includes flows of investment income in and out of the country - would be far less.

Tax breakers' yards

Talk of the maturing of the North Sea brings to mind that question of decommissioning all those platforms, topsides and pipelines. As I've noted before, the bill is reckoned to come to around £30bn over the next four decades or so - both a daunting cost of the industry, and a big opportunity for those in the breakers yards.

That much will have to be paid by the companies that own the kit, which makes the valuation of liabilities for decommissioning a particularly complex issue when assets are sold on - particularly when they're sold on to smaller companies of limited resources.

Uncertainty in the UK tax regime on tax allowances for decommissioning has been a thorny issue. In his bid to re-build bridges with the sector in this year's Budget, George Osborne indicated he wants to move to a contractual arrangement. That may not give the producers all they want, but it ought to give them predictability in their tax planning and asset valuation.

That's raised the question of how this might be handled in an independent Scotland. That constitutional transition has the potential to re-introduce a whole lot of uncertainty, just when the industry thought it was getting the figures nailed down.

So it seemed, with one report of what economy minister Fergus Ewing told MPs in a recent Commons hearing. But it turns out the report fell some way short of the full picture.

Howls of protest

I've checked, and what the Scottish government is saying is that financing those tax breaks should be a shared burden for a post-independence Scottish government and the Treasury in Whitehall - that share being proportional to how much value is extracted from each field either side of independence day.

The message is clearly made to the industry that they can assume the tax breaks on decommissioning will go unchanged. A government headed by an oil economist has heard the howls of protest about unpredictable taxation of producers in the so-called UK Continental Shelf, and Mr Salmond is understandably keen to ensure the howls are not directed at him as well.

That approach to burden sharing seems fair enough. But the practicalities of estimating how tax benefits can be shared are less straightforward. There's room for dispute on each field's calculations. And this is another of those negotiations that would be required after a 'yes' result in the referendum.

It's another area where we don't yet know how the UK Treasury would respond.