National debt has increased rapidly over the past few years. In 2006/7 general government debt was £577.8bn or 42.9% of GDP. In 2009/10 it was £1000.4bn or 71.3% of GDP. It is set to go higher, with government debt forecast to be around 87% of GDP in 2011. This compares with forecasts of 82% for Germany, 87% for France, 103% for the USA, 134% for Greece and 195% for Japan.
Getting the deficit and debt down has, not surprisingly, become an issue in many countries. In the UK it has become the major current pre-occupation of the Coalition government and on 20 October it is set to announce major public spending cuts as a means of achieving this.
To get a flavour of the government’s thinking and the message that ministers are putting out to the electorate, the following are quotes from the Prime Minister’s and then the Chancellor’s speeches to the Conservative Party Conference:
This year, we’re going to spend £43 billion pounds on debt interest payments alone. £43 billion – not to pay off the debt – just to stand still. Do you know what we could do with that sort of money? We could take eleven million people out of paying income tax altogether. We could take every business in the country out of corporation tax. That’s why we have acted decisively – to stop pouring so much of your hard-earned money down the drain. We are already paying £120m of interest every single day thanks to the last Labour government. (David Cameron)
It’s the borrowing that doesn’t go away as the economy grows, and we have £109bn of it. It’s like with a credit card. The longer you leave it, the worse it gets. You pay more interest. You pay interest on the interest. You pay interest on the interest on the interest. We are already paying £120m of interest every single day thanks to the last Labour government. Millions of pounds every day that goes to the foreign governments we owe so they can build the schools and hospitals for their own citizens that we aren’t able to afford for ours. How dare Labour call that protecting the poor? (George Osborne)
Let’s unpick this a bit. Who earns the interest? The answer is that it is paid to holders of government debt in the form of government bonds (gilts), national savings certificates, premium bonds, etc. In other words it is paid to savers, whether individuals or pension funds or companies.
Does it all go abroad? In fact 29% of gilts are held abroad. The rest are held by British residents. Thus some 70% of the interest rate paid on government debt goes to British residents and supports pensions and savers. It can thus be seen as a transfer from taxpayers to savers.
Because of the record low interest rates many pensioners who rely on savings interest have seen their incomes fall dramatically. Others draw income from a ‘self-invested personal pension’. The amount that can be drawn each year is based on tables according to a person’s age and the current 15-year Treasury gilt yield (currently 3.45%). Thus the lower the rate of interest, and the less the yield, the less that can be drawn.
So who are the gainers and losers from high general government debt and attempts to get it down? Read the following articles and look at the data and then try answering the questions.
Britons have donated £7m to help pay off the national debt (but that’s a drop in the ocean) Mail Online, Daniel Martin (9/10/10)
A trillion and rising: Britain’s £1,000,000,000,000 debt means it is now paying as much in interest as it does for defence Mail Online, Hugo Duncan (1/10/10)
Spending cuts “not enough”, say small firms Telegraph, James Hurley (8/10/10)
UK public finances post record August deficit Guardian, Julia Kollewe (21/9/10)
Another paradox of thrift The Economist, Buttonwood (16/9/10)
The gilt market UK Debt Management Office
Gilt market data UK Debt Management Office
Overseas gilt holdings UK Debt Management Office
Public sector: current position ONS (30/9/10)
Public sector finances ONS Statistical Bulletin (21/9/10)
Government deficit and debt under the Maastricht Treaty ONS Statistical Bulletin (30/9/10)
Contributions to the government deficit and debt ONS Statistical Bulletin (31/3/10)
- Explain the difference between central government, general government and public-sector deficits and debt.
- Who loses from a rising public-sector debt? Who gains?
- Conduct an international comparison of (a) the level of the government deficit and debt and (b) their rate of growth over the past few years.
- What is meant by the ‘yield’ on a particular gilt?
- If gilt yields fall, does this mean that the government pays less on existing gilts? Is it likely to pay less on new gilt issues? Explain.
- How do cuts affect the distribution between savers and borrowers?