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The UK’s public finances

As the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, delivers his first Autumn statement, both the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) and the National Institute for Economic and Social Research (NIESR) have published updated forecasts for government borrowing and government debt.

They show a rise in government borrowing compared with previous forecasts. The main reason for this is a likely slowdown in the rate of economic growth and hence in tax revenues, especially in 2017. Last March, the OBR forecast GDP growth of 2.2% for 2017; it has now revised this down to 1.4%.

This forecast slowdown is because of a likely decline in the growth of aggregate demand caused by a decline in investment as businesses become more cautious given the uncertainty about the UK’s relationships with the rest of the world post Brexit. There is also likely to be a slowdown in real consumer expenditure as inflation rises following the fall in the pound of around 15%.

But what might be more surprising is that the public finances are not forecast to deteriorate even further. The OBR forecasts that the deficit will increase by a total of £122bn to £216bn over the period from 2016/17 to 2020/21. The NIESR predicts that it will rise by only £50bn to £187bn – but this is before the additional infrastructure spending and other measures announced in the Autumn Statement.

One reason is looser monetary policy. Following the Brexit vote, the Bank of England cut Bank Rate from 0.5% to 0.25% and introduced further quantitative easing. This makes it cheaper to finance government borrowing. What is more, the additional holdings of bonds by the Bank mean that the Bank returns to the government much of the interest (coupon payments) that would otherwise have been paid to the private sector.

Then, depending on the nature of the UK’s post-Brexit relationships with the EU, there could be savings in contributions to the EU budget – but just how much, no-one knows at this stage.

Finally, it depends on just what effects the measures announced in the Autumn Statement will have on tax revenues and government spending. We will examine this in a separate blog.

But even though public-sector borrowing is likely to fall more slowly than before the Brexit vote, the trajectory is still downward. Indeed, the previous Chancellor, George Osborne, had set a target of achieving a public-sector surplus by 2019/20.

But, would eventually bringing the public finances into surplus be desirable? Apart from the dampening effect on aggregate demand, such a policy could lead to underinvestment in infrastructure and other public-sector capital. There is thus a strong argument for continuing to run a deficit on the public-sector capital account to fund public-sector investment – such investment will increase incomes and social wellbeing in the future. It makes sense for the government to borrow for investment, just as it makes sense for the private sector to do so.

Articles
Autumn Statement: Why the damage to the public finances from Brexit might not be as bad as some think Independent, Simon Kirby (22/11/16)
Three Facts about Debt and Deficits NIESR blogs, R Farmer (21/11/16)
Autumn Statement: Big increase in borrowing predicted BBC News, Anthony Reuben (23/11/16)

Data
Economic and fiscal outlook – November 2016 Office for Budget Responsibility (23/11/16)

Questions

  1. Why have the public finances deteriorated?
  2. How much have they deteriorated?
  3. What is likely to happen to economic growth over the next couple of years? Explain why.
  4. How has the cut in Bank Rate and additional quantitative easing introduced after the Brexit vote affected government borrowing?
  5. What is likely to happen to (a) public-sector borrowing; (b) public-sector debt as a proportion of GDP over the next few years?
  6. Why is a running a Budget surplus neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for reducing the government debt to GDP ratio.
  7. What are the arguments for (a) having a positive public-sector debt; (b) increasing public-sector debt as a result of increased spending on infrastructure and other forms of public-sector capital?
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