5 Government policies set to damage your investments

China investmentsWhat's one of the biggest long-term threats that your portfolio faces? China? A euro-implosion? Upstart developing nations?

I reckon it's closer to home. Much closer to home. Our own government, to be precise.

Not necessarily this particular Tory and Lib-Dem government, I hasten to add. The last one was worse.

No, I mean most governments of recent years, with their focus on the wrong things, their refusal to help support industrial national champions, and their policies of seeing wealth and business as something to be taxed, rather than encouraged.

So here, with no further ado, are five examples of what I'm talking about.

Fuel's gold
Let's kick off with something that's presently very topical: the government's policy towards petrol and diesel. With pump prices at all-time highs, road fuel duty is set to rise another 3p a litre in August. And again, next year.

Businesses most dependent on fuel -- businesses such as hauliers Dart, with its Fowler-Welch transport operation, and Stobart -- rightly protest through industry bodies that this hits them hard.
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But virtually all British businesses are affected in one form or another by this insidious tax: remember, over 80% of the pump price of fuel is represented by VAT and road fuel duty. And their international competitors, meanwhile, face far more benign taxation regimes.

It is, in short, a tax on doing business in Britain -- and one that is set, by law, to rise at more than the rate of inflation. Madness? I think so.

Tax attack
With its small reduction in Corporation Tax, the Budget was trumpeted as being 'business-friendly'. But the facts are rather different.

Business in Britain is still taxed very highly on its profits, leaving less available to be re-invested or returned to shareholders as dividends. To be sure, a 2% cut from April, and a further 1% in each of the following three years, is welcome.

But it still leaves Corporation Tax set too high. And businesses are voting with their feet. Marketing and communications giant WPP, serviced office space group Regus and FTSE 100 pharmaceutical firm Shire have already switched their headquarters from the UK -- WPP to Dublin, for instance, and Regus to Jersey.

The result? A smaller tax base, and a heavier burden falling on those businesses that remain.

Exit door

And it's not just Corporation Tax that is forcing businesses overseas, and potentially into the arms of shareholder governance regimes less robust than our own.

Banker-bashing is very popular, and most financial firms are seen as rapacious evil-doers. Bank Levy -- which went up again in the Budget -- is regarded by government as a price that financial firms must pay for the implicit government support contained in the assumption that such businesses are 'too big to fail'.

But Standard Chartered is a well-managed business that arguably needs no such support. So why should it pay for it? HSBC likewise. Not surprisingly, both banks now have their headquarters location under review, and may jump ship. Even the man from the Prudential is talking about upping sticks.

Can invest, won't invest

This week came the remarkable news that British businesses are sitting on a whopping £754 billion cash pile -- roughly equivalent, it seems, to around half of UK GDP.

In short, companies would rather save the money than invest it, with capital spending remaining some 17.5% below its pre‑crisis 2007 peak.

What might get British businesses investing in British jobs, factories and innovation? Faster depreciation allowances. But while the government held out the prospect of an above‑the‑line R&D tax credit in the Budget, capital allowances weren't changed.

100% capital allowances aren't a 'tax giveaway'; they mainly affect the timing of tax relief, not the amount. So why haven't successive governments seen sense?

Planning and policy

Yet again, industrial policy is in the news. This time, it seems that Lord Heseltine has been asked to conduct a review. It is -- again -- too little, too late.

In the absence of an industrial policy, great businesses have been left to wither on the vine or go overseas, while new ones in areas such as biotechnology struggle to gain a foothold.

Lord Mandelson's approach to advanced manufacturing was a start, but the companies which benefited most -- such as Rolls-Royce -- were arguably those that didn't need the help anyway.

Granted, we've seen some progress. The recent 'Patent Box' legislation, which sees fewer taxes on UK-based intellectual property, lay behind the decision by GlaxoSmithKline to invest £500 million in creating 1,000 new British jobs, including a big plant expansion at Ulverston in Cumbria.

But in the meantime, significant chunks of British industry have been bought by foreign firms from countries where there is an industrial policy. Look at the amount of the UK energy market in the hands of the French and Germans, for instance, or the extent to which the French and Germans control the civil aerospace business in Britain.

GKN and BAE Systems are national assets -- but you wouldn't think so from the government's lackadaisical approach to industrial policy.

Foolish bottom line

In short, having studied some of these issues at university nearly 40 years ago -- and some of them, such as industrial policy, were hoary with age even then -- I'm saddened to see the extent to which successive governments have collectively fumbled the ball.

But that's enough of my views. What do you think?

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