The COVID-19 pandemic had a stark effect on countries’ public finances. Governments had to make difficult fiscal choices around spending and taxation to safeguard public health, and the protection of jobs and incomes both in the present and in the future. The fiscal choices were to have historically large effects on the size of public spending and on the size of public borrowing.
Here we briefly summarise the magnitude of these effects on public spending, receipts and borrowing in the UK.
The public sector comprises both national government and local or regional government. In financial year 2019/20 public spending in the UK was £886 billion. This would rise to £1.045 trillion in 2020/21. To understand better the magnitude of these figures we can express them as a share of national income (Gross Domestic Product). In 2019/20 public spending was 39.8 per cent of national income. This rose to 52.1 per cent in 2020/21. Meanwhile, public-sector receipts, largely taxation, fell from £829.1 billion in 2019/20 to £796.5 billion in 2020/21, though, because of the fall in national income, the share of receipts in national income rose very slightly from 37.3 to 37.9 per cent of national income.
The chart shows both public spending and public receipts as a share of national income since 1900. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.) What this chart shows is the extraordinary impact of the two World Wars on the relative size of public spending. We can also see an uptick in public spending following the global financial crisis and, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic. The chart also shows that spending is typically larger than receipts meaning that the public sector typically runs a budget deficit. .
If we focus on public spending as a share of national income and its level following the two world wars, we can see that it did not fall back to pre-war levels. This is what Peacock and Wiseman (1961) famously referred to as a displacement effect. They attributed this to, among other things, an increase in the public’s tolerance to pay higher taxation because of the higher taxes levied during the war as well as to a desire for greater public intervention. The latter arose from an inspection effect. This can be thought of as a public consciousness effect, with the war helping to shine a light on a range of economic and social issues, such as health, housing and social security. These two effects, it is argued, reinforced each other, allowing the burden of taxation to rise and, hence, public spending to increase relative to national income.
If we forward to the global financial crisis, we can again see public spending rise as a share of national income. However, this time the ratio did not remain above pre-crisis levels. Rather, the UK government was fearful of unsustainable borrowing levels and the crowding out of private-sector activity by the public sector, with higher interest rates making public debt an attractive proposition for investors. It thus sought to reduce the public-sector deficit by engaging in what became known as ‘austerity’ measures.
If we move forward further to the COVID-19 pandemic, we see an even more significant spike in public spending as a share of national income. It is of course rather early to make predictions about whether the pandemic will have enduring effects on public spending and taxation. Nonetheless the pandemic, in a similar way to the two world wars, has sparked public debates on many economic and social issues. Whilst debates around the funding of health and social care are longstanding, it could be argued that the pandemic has provided the government with the opportunity to introduce the 1.25 percentage point levy from April 2022 on the earned incomes of workers (both employees and the self-employed) and on employers. (See John’s blog Fair care? for a fuller discussion on the tax changes to pay for increased health and social care expenditure).
The extent to which there may be a pandemic displacement effect will depend on the fiscal choices made in the months and years ahead. The key question is how powerful will be the effect of social issues like income and wealth inequality, regional and inter-generational disparities, discrimination, poor infrastructure and educational opportunities in shaping these fiscal choices? Will these considerations carry more weight than the push to consolidate the public finances and tighten the public purse? These fiscal choices will determine the extent of any displacement effect in public spending and taxation.
Alan Peacock and Jack Wiseman, The Growth in Public Expenditure in the United Kingdom, Princeton University Press (1961).
- What do you understand by the term ‘public finances’?
- Why might you wish to express the size of public spending relative to national income rather than simply as an absolute amount?
- Undertake research to identify key pieces of social policy in the UK that were enacted at or around the times of the two World Wars.
- What do you understand by the terms ‘tolerable tax burden’ and ‘inspection effect’?
- Identify those social issues that you think have come into the spotlight as a result of the pandemic. Undertake research on any one of these and write a briefing note exploring the issue and the possible policy choices available to government.
- What is the concept of crowding out? How might it affect fiscal choices?
- How would you explain the distinction between public-sector borrowing and public-sector debt? Why could the former fall and the latter rise at the same time?
The OECD has recently published its six-monthly Economic Outlook. This assesses the global economic situation and the prospects for the 38 members of the OECD.
It forecasts that the UK economy will bounce back strongly from the deep recession of 2020, when the economy contracted by 9.8 per cent. This contraction was deeper than in most countries, with the USA contracting by 3.5 per cent, Germany by 5.1 per cent, France by 8.2 per cent, Japan by 4.7 per cent and the OECD as a whole by 4.8 per cent. But, with the success of the vaccine roll-out, UK growth in 2021 is forecast by the OECD to be 7.2 per cent, which is higher than in most other countries. The USA is forecast to grow by 6.8 per cent, Germany by 3.3 per cent, France by 5.8 per cent, Japan by 2.6 per cent and the OECD as a whole by 5.3 per cent. Table 1 in the Statistical Annex gives the figures.
This good news for the UK, however, is tempered by some worrying features.
The OECD forecasts that potential economic growth will be negative in 2021, with capacity declining by 0.4 per cent. Only two other OECD countries, Italy and Greece, are forecast to have negative potential economic growth (see Table 24 in the Statistical Annex). A rapid increase in aggregate demand, accompanied by a decline in aggregate supply, could result in inflationary pressures, even if initially there is considerable slack in some parts of the economy.
Part of the reason for the supply constraints are the additional barriers to trade with the EU resulting from Brexit. The extra paperwork for exporters has added to export costs, and rules-of-origin regulations add tariffs to many exports to the EU (see the blog A free-trade deal? Not really). Another supply constraint linked to Brexit is the shortage of labour in certain sectors, such as hospitality, construction and transport. With many EU citizens having left the UK and not being replaced by equivalent numbers of new immigrants, the problem is likely to persist.
The scarring effects of the pandemic present another problem. There has been a decline in investment. Even if this is only temporary, it will have a long-term impact on capacity, unless there is a compensating rise in investment in the future. Many businesses have closed and will not re-open, including many High Street stores. Moves to working from home, even if partially reversed as the economy unlocks, will have effects on the public transport industry. Also, people may have found new patterns of consumption, such as making more things for themselves rather than buying them, which could affect many industries. It is too early to predict the extent of these scarring effects and how permanent they will be, but they could have a dampening effect on certain sectors.
So will inflation take off, or will it remain subdued? At first sight it would seem that inflation is set to rise significantly. Annual CPI inflation rose from 0.7 per cent in March 2021 to 1.5 per cent in April, with the CPI rising by 0.6 per cent in April alone. What is more, the housing market has seen a large rise in demand, with annual house price inflation reaching 10.2 per cent in March.
But these rises have been driven by some one-off events. As the economy began unlocking, so spending rose dramatically. While this may continue for a few months, it may not persist, as an initial rise in household spending may reflect pent-up demand and as the furlough scheme comes to an end in September.
As far as as the housing market is concerned, the rise in demand has been fuelled by the stamp duty ‘holiday’ which exempts residential property purchase from Stamp Duty Land Tax for properties under £500 000 in England and Northern Ireland and £250 000 in Scotland and Wales (rather than the original £125 000 in England and Northern Ireland, £145 000 in Scotland and £180 000 in Wales). In England and Northern Ireland, this limit is due to reduce to £250 000 on 30 June and back to £125 000 on 30 September. In Scotland the holiday ended on 31 March and in Wales is due to end on 30 June. As these deadlines are passed, this should see a significant cooling of demand.
Finally, although the gap between potential and actual output is narrowing, there is still a gap. According to the OECD (Table 12) the output gap in 2021 is forecast to be −4.6 per cent. Although it was −11.4 per cent in 2020, a gap of −4.6 per cent still represents a significant degree of slack in the economy.
At the current point in time, therefore, the Bank of England does not expect to have to raise interest rates in the immediate future. But it stands ready to do so if inflation does show signs of taking off.
- United Kingdom Economic Snapshot
OECD Economic Outlook (May 2021)
- UK growth forecast upgraded but pandemic economic ‘scar’ will be worst of all G7 nations, says OECD
Sky News, Ed Conway (31/5/21)
- OECD Predicts UK Economic Growth Amid Vaccine Success And Lockdown Easing
Minutehack Emma Bowden (1/6/21)
- UK growth upgraded, but OECD warns of deepest economic scar in G7
The Guardian, Graeme Wearden (31/5/21)
- UK set for stronger post-Covid recovery, says OECD
BBC News (31/5/21)
- British exports worth billions have faced EU tariffs since Brexit
BBC News, Faisal Islam (28/5/21)
- Post-Brexit: Businesses hit by labour shortages call for Brexit rules to be relaxed
Channel 4 News, Paul McNamara (2/6/21)
- Bank of England monitors UK housing boom as it weighs inflation risk
The Guardian, Larry Elliott (1/6/21)
- House prices jump 10.9% as ‘race for space’ intensifies
BBC News (1/6/21)
- Global food prices post biggest jump in decade
Financial Times, Emiko Terazono and Judith Evans (3/6/21)
- Why house prices are rising so fast in a pandemic
BBC News, Kevin Peachey and Daniele Palumbo (2/6/21)
- Inflation: why it could surge after the pandemic
The Conversation, Ian Crowther (23/4/21)
- Inflation might well keep rising in 2021 – but what happens after that?
The Conversation, Brigitte Granville (31/5/21)
- Slack in the Economy, Not Inflation, Should Be Bigger Worry
Institute for New Economic Thinking, Claudia Fontanari, Antonella Palumbo, and Chiara Salvatori (19/5/21)
Data, Forecasts and Analysis
- What determines the rate of (a) actual economic growth; (b) potential economic growth?
- What is meant by an output gap? What would be the implications of a positive output gap?
- Why are scarring effects of the pandemic likely to be greater in the UK than in most other countries?
- If people believed that inflation was likely to continue rising, how would this affect their behaviour and how would it affect the economy?
- What are the arguments for and against having a stamp duty holiday when the economy is in recession?
On 10 March, the House of Representatives gave final approval to President Biden’s $1.9tr fiscal stimulus plan (the American Rescue Plan). Worth over 9% of GDP, this represents the third stage of an unparalleled boost to the US economy. In March 2020, President Trump secured congressional agreement for a $2.2tr package (the CARES Act). Then in December 2020, a bipartisan COVID relief bill, worth $902bn, was passed by Congress.
By comparison, the Obama package in 2009 in response to the impending recession following the financial crisis was $831bn (5.7% of GDP).
The American Rescue Plan
The Biden stimulus programme consists of a range of measures, the majority of which provide monetary support to individuals. These include a payment of $1400 per person for single people earning less than $75 000 and couples less than $150 000. These come on top of payments of $1200 in March 2020 and $600 in late December. In addition, the top-up to unemployment benefits of $300 per week agreed in December will now continue until September. Also, annual child tax credit will rise from $2000 annually to as much as $3600 and this benefit will be available in advance.
Other measures include $350bn in grants for local governments depending on their levels of unemployment and other needs; $50bn to improve COVID testing centres and $20bn to develop a national vaccination campaign; $170bn to schools and universities to help them reopen after lockdown; and grants to small businesses and specific grants to hard-hit sectors, such as hospitality, airlines, airports and rail companies.
Despite supporting the two earlier packages, no Republican representative or senator backed this latest package, arguing that it was not sufficiently focused. As a result, reaction to the package has been very much along partisan lines. Nevertheless, it is supported by some 90% of Democrat voters and 50% of Republican voters.
Is the stimulus the right amount?
Although the latest package is worth $1.9tr, aggregate demand will not expand by this amount, which will limit the size of the multiplier effect. The reason is that the benefits multiplier is less than the government expenditure multiplier as some of the extra money people receive will be saved or used to reduce debts.
With $3tr representing some 9% of GDP, this should easily fill the estimated negative output gap of between 2% and 3%, especially when multiplier effects are included. Also, with savings having increased during the recession to put them some 7% above normal, the additional amount saved may be quite small, and wealthier Americans may begin to reduce their savings and spend a larger proportion of their income.
So the problem might be one of excessive stimulus, which in normal times could result in crowding out by driving up interest rates and dampening investment. However, the Fed is still engaged in a programme of quantitative easing. Between mid-March 2020 and the end of March 2021, the Fed’s portfolio of securities held outright grew from $3.9tr to $7.2tr. What is more, many economists predict that inflation is unlikely to rise other than very slightly. If this is so, it should allow the package to be financed easily. Debt should not rise to unsustainable levels.
Other economists argue, however, that inflationary expectations are rising, reflected in bond yields, and this could drive actual inflation and force the Fed into the awkward dilemma of either raising interest rates, which could have a significant dampening effect, or further increasing money supply, potentially leading to greater inflationary problems in the future.
A lot will depend what happens to potential GDP. Will it rise over the medium term so that additional spending can be accommodated? If the rise in spending encourages an increase in investment, this should increase potential GDP. This will depend on business confidence, which may be boosted by the package or may be dampened by worries about inflation.
Additional packages to come
Potential GDP should also be boosted by two further packages that Biden plans to put to Congress.
The first is a $2.2tr infrastructure investment plan, known as the American Jobs Plan. This is a 10-year plan to invest public money in transport infrastructure (such as rebuilding 20 000 miles of road and repairing bridges), public transport, electric vehicles, green housing, schools, water supply, green power generation, modernising the power grid, broadband, R&D in fields such as AI, social care, job training and manufacturing. This will be largely funded through tax increases, such as gradually raising corporation tax from 21% to 28% (it had been cut from 35% to 21% by President Trump) and taxing global profits of US multinationals. However, the spending will generally precede the increased revenues and thus will raise aggregate demand in the initial years. Only after 15 years are revenues expected to exceed costs.
The second is a yet-to-be announced plan to increase spending on childcare, healthcare and education. This should be worth at least $1tr. This will probably be funded by tax increases on income, capital gains and property, aimed largely at wealthy individuals. Again, it is hoped that this will boost potential GDP, in this case by increasing labour productivity.
With earlier packages, the total increase in public spending will be over $8tr. This is discretionary fiscal policy writ large.
- Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 bill wins final approval in House
Reuters, Susan Cornwell and Makini Brice (10/3/21)
- Biden’s Covid stimulus plan: It costs $1.9tn but what’s in it?
BBC News, Natalie Sherman (6/3/21)
- Biden’s $1.9 Trillion Challenge: End the Coronavirus Crisis Faster
New York Times, Jim Tankersley and Sheryl Gay Stolberg (22/3/21)
- Joe Biden writes a cheque for America – and the rest of the world
The Observer, Phillip Inman (13/3/21)
- Spend or save: Will Biden’s stimulus cheques boost the economy?
Aljazeera, Cinnamon Janzer (9/3/21)
- After Biden stimulus, US economic growth could rival China’s for the first time in decades
CNN, Matt Egan (12/3/21)
- Larry Summers, who called out inflation fears with Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package, says the US is seeing ‘least responsible’ macroeconomic policy in 40 years
Business Insider, John L. Dorman (21/3/21)
- With $1.9 Trillion in New Spending, America Is Headed for Financial Fragility
Barron’s, Leslie Lipschitz and Josh Felman (30/3/21)
- Biden unveils ‘once-in-a generation’ $2tn infrastructure investment plan
The Guardian, Lauren Gambino (31/3/21)
- Biden unveils $2tn infrastructure plan and big corporate tax rise
Financial Times, James Politi (31/3/21)
- The Observer view on Joe Biden’s audacious spending plans
The Observer, editorial (11/4/21)
- Draw a Keynesian cross diagram to show the effect of an increase in benefits when the economy is operating below potential GDP.
- What determines the size of the benefits multiplier?
- Explain what is meant by the output gap. How might the pandemic and accompanying emergency health measures have affected the size of the output gap?
- How are expectations relevant to the effectiveness of the stimulus measures?
- What is likely to determine the proportion of the $1400 stimulus cheques that people spend?
- Distinguish between resource crowding out and financial crowding out. Is the fiscal stimulus package likely to result in either form of crowding out and, if so, what will determine by how much?
- What is the current monetary policy of the Fed? How is it likely to impact on the effectiveness of the fiscal stimulus?
Rishi Sunak delivered his 2021 UK Budget on 3 March. It illustrates the delicate balancing act that governments in many countries face as the effects of the coronavirus pandemic persist and public-sector debt soars. He announced that he would continue supporting the economy through various forms of government expenditure and tax relief, but also announced tax rises over the medium term to begin addressing the massively increased public-sector debt.
Key measures of support for people and businesses include:
- An extension of the furlough scheme until the end of September, with employees continuing to be paid 80% of their wages for hours they cannot work, but with employers having to contribute 10% in July and 20% in August and September.
- Support for the self-employed also extended until September, with the scheme being widened to make 600 000 more self-employed people eligible.
- The temporary £20 increase to Universal Credit, introduced in April last year and due to end on 31 March this year, to be extended to the end of September.
- Stamp duty holiday on house purchases in England and Northern Ireland, under which there is no tax liability on sales of less than £500 000, extended from the end of March to the end of June.
- An additional £1.65bn to support the UK’s vaccination rollout.
- VAT rate for hospitality firms to be maintained at the reduced 5% rate until the end of September and then raised to 12.5% (rather than 20%) for a further six months.
- A range of grants for the arts, sport, shops , other businesses and apprenticeships.
- Business rates holiday for hospitality firms in England extended from the end of March to the end of June and then with a discount of 66% until April 2022.
- 130% of investment costs can be offset against tax – a new tax ‘super-deduction’.
- No tax rises on alcohol, tobacco or fuel.
- New UK Infrastructure Bank to be set up in Leeds with £12bn in capital to support £40bn worth of public and private projects.
- Increased grants for devolved nations and grants for 45 English towns.
It has surprised many commentators that there was no announcement of greater investment in the NHS or more money for social care beyond the £3bn for the NHS and £1bn for social care announced in the November Spending Review. The NHS England budget will fall from £148bn in 2020/21 to £139bn in 2021/22.
Effects on borrowing and GDP
The net effect of these measures for the two financial years 2020 to 2022 is forecast by the Treasury to be an additional £37.5bn of government expenditure and a £27.3bn reduction in tax revenue (see Table 2.1 in Budget 2021). This takes the total support since the start of the pandemic to £352bn across the two years.
According to the OBR, this will result in public-sector borrowing being 16.9% of GDP in 2020/21 (the highest since the Second World War) and 10.3% of GDP in 2021/22. Public-sector debt will be 107.4% of GDP in 2021/22, rising to 109.7% in 2023/24 and then falling to 103.8% in 2025/26.
Faced with this big increase in borrowing, the Chancellor also announced some measures to raise tax revenue beginning in two years’ time when, hopefully, the economy will have grown. Indeed, the OBR forecasts that GDP will grow by 4.0% in 2021 and 7.3% in 2022, with the growth rate then settling at around 1.7% from 2023 onwards. He announced that:
- Corporation tax on company profits over £250 000 will rise from 19% to 25% in April 2023. Rates for profits under £50 000 will remain at the current rate of 19%, with the rate rising in stages as profits rise above £50 000.
- Personal income tax thresholds will be frozen from 2022/23 to 2025/26 at £12 570 for the basic 20% marginal rate and at £50 270 for the 40% marginal rate. This will increase the average tax rate as people’s nominal incomes rise.
The policy of a fiscal boost now and a fiscal tightening later might pose political difficulties for the government as this does not fit with the electoral cycle. Normally, politicians like to pursue tighter policies in the early years of the government only to loosen policy with various giveaways as the next election approaches. With Rishi Sunak’s policies, the opposite is the case, with fiscal policy being tightened as the 2024 election approaches.
Another issue is the high degree of uncertainty in the forecasts on which he is basing his policies. If there is another wave of the coronavirus with a new strain resistant to the vaccines or if the scarring effects of the lockdowns are greater, then growth could stall. Or if inflation begins to rise and the Bank of England feels it must raise interest rates, then this would suppress growth. With lower growth, the public-sector deficit would be higher and the government would be faced with the dilemma of whether it should raise taxes, cut government expenditure or accept higher borrowing.
What is more, there are likely to be huge pressures on the government to increase public spending, not cut it by £4bn per year in the medium term as he plans. As Paul Johnson of the IFS states:
In reality, there will be pressures from all sorts of directions. The NHS is perhaps the most obvious. Further top-ups seem near-inevitable. Catching up on lost learning in schools, dealing with the backlog in our courts system, supporting public transport providers, and fixing our system for social care funding would all require additional spending. The Chancellor’s medium-term spending plans simply look implausibly low.
Articles and Briefings
- Budget 2021: Key points at-a-glance
BBC News (3/3/21)
- Budget 2021: Full round-up of what Chancellor Rishi Sunak has announced
MoneySavingExpert, Callum Mason (3/3/21)
- Budget 2021 at a glance: The key points from Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s speech
This is Money, Alex Sebastian (3/3/21)
- Budget 2021
- Rishi Sunak delivers spend now, tax later Budget to kickstart UK economy
Financial Times, Jim Pickard, Chris Giles and George Parker (3/3/21)
- Swifter and more sustained? What did we learn about the UK’s economic outlook from Rishi Sunak’s Budget?
Independent. Ben Chu (3/3/21)
- Spending fast, taxing slow: Briefing Note
Resolution Foundation, Torsten Bell, Mike Brewer, Nye Cominetti, Karl Handscomb, Kathleen Henehan, Lindsay Judge, Jack Leslie, Charlie McCurdy, Cara Pacitti, Hannah Slaughter, James Smith, Gregory Thwaites & Daniel Tomlinson (4/3/21)
- JRF Spring Budget 2021 analysis and briefing
Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Dave Innes and Katie Schmuecker (4/3/21)
- NHS, social care and most vulnerable ‘betrayed’ by Sunak’s budget
The Guardian, Robert Booth ,Patrick Butler and Denis Campbell (3/3/21)
- Spend now, pay later: Sunak flags major tax rises as Covid bill tops £400bn
The Guardian, Heather Stewart and Larry Elliott (3/3/21)
- Rishi Sunak digs in for battle against financial cost of Covid
The Guardian, Larry Elliott (3/3/21)
- Tax and spending experts say Sunak’s budget doesn’t add up
The Guardian, Larry Elliott and Heather Stewart (4/3/21)
- Budget 2021: Prepare for a dramatic rollercoaster ride after chancellor’s give-then-take budget
Sky News, Ed Conway (3/3/21)
Official documents and data
- Assess the wisdom of the timing of the changes in tax and government expenditure announced in the Budget.
- Universal credit was increased by £20 per week in April 2020 and is now due to fall back to its previous level in October 2021. Have the needs of people on Universal Credit increased during the pandemic and, if so, are they likely to return to their previous level in October?
- In the past, the government argued that reductions in the rate of corporation tax would increase tax revenue. The Chancellor now argues that increasing it from 19% to 25% will increase tax revenue. Examine the justification for this increase and the significance of relative profit tax rates between countries.
- Investigate the effects on the public finances of the pandemic and government fiscal policy in two other countries. How do the effects compare with those in the UK?
- The Joseph Rowntree Foundation looks at poverty in the UK and policies to tackle it. It set five tests for the Budget. Examine its Budget Analysis and consider whether these tests have been met.
On 25 November, the UK government published its Spending Review 2020. This gives details of estimated government expenditure for the current financial year, 2020/21, and plans for government expenditure and the likely totals for 2021/22.
The focus of the Review is specifically on the effects of and responses to the coronavirus pandemic. It does not consider the effects of Brexit, with or without a trade deal, or plans for taxation. The Review is based on forecasts by the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR). Because of the high degree of uncertainty over the spread of the disease and the timing and efficacy of vaccines, the OBR gives three forecast values for most variables – pessimistic, central and optimistic.
According to the central forecast, real GDP is set to decline by 11.3% in 2020, the largest one-year fall since the Great Frost of 1709. The economy is then set to ‘bounce back’ (somewhat), with GDP rising by 5.2% in 2021.
Unemployment will rise from 3.9% in 2019 to a peak of 7.5% in mid-2021, after the furlough scheme and other support for employers is withdrawn.
This blog focuses at the impact on government borrowing and debt and the implications for the future – both the funding of the debt and ways of reducing it.
Soaring government deficits and debt
Government expenditure during the pandemic has risen sharply through measures such as the furlough scheme, the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme and various business loans. This, combined with falling tax revenue, as incomes and consumer expenditure have declined, has led to a rise in public-sector net borrowing (PSNB) from 2.5% of GDP in 2019/20 to a central forecast of 19% for 2020/21 – the largest since World War II. By 2025/26 it is still forecast to be 3.9% of GDP. The figure has also been pushed up by a fall in nominal GDP for 2020/21 (the denominator) by nearly 7%. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the above chart.)
The high levels of PSNB are pushing up public-sector net debt (PSNB). This is forecast to rise from 85.5% of GDP in 2019/20 to 105.2% in 2020/21, peaking at 109.4% in 2023/24.
The exceptionally high deficit and debt levels will mean that the government misses by a very large margin its three borrowing and debt targets set out in the latest (Autumn 2016) ‘Charter for Budget Responsibility‘. These are:
- to reduce cyclically-adjusted public-sector net borrowing to below 2% of GDP by 2020/21;
- for public-sector net debt as a percentage of GDP to be falling in 2020/21;
- for overall borrowing to be zero or in surplus by 2025/26.
But, as the Chancellor said in presenting the Review:
Our health emergency is not yet over. And our economic emergency has only just begun. So our immediate priority is to protect people’s lives and livelihoods.
Putting the public finances on a sustainable footing
Running a large budget deficit in an emergency is an essential policy for dealing with the massive decline in aggregate demand and for supporting those who have, or otherwise would have, lost their jobs. But what of the longer-term implications? What are the options for dealing with the high levels of debt?
1. Raising taxes. This tends to be the preferred approach of those on the left, who want to protect or improve public services. For them, the use of higher progressive taxes, such as income tax, or corporation tax or capital gains tax, are a means of funding such services and of providing support for those on lower incomes. There has been much discussion of the possibility of finding a way of taxing large tech companies, which are able to avoid taxes by declaring very low profits by diverting them to tax havens.
2. Cutting government expenditure. This is the traditional preference of those on the right, who prefer to cut the overall size of the state and thus allow for lower taxes. However, this is difficult to do without cutting vital services. Indeed, there is pressure to have higher government expenditure over the longer term to finance infrastructure investment – something supported by the Conservative government.
A downside of either of the above is that they squeeze aggregate demand and hence may slow the recovery. There was much discussion after the financial crisis over whether ‘austerity policies’ hindered the recovery and whether they created negative supply-side effects by dampening investment.
3. Accepting higher levels of debt into the longer term. This is a possible response as long as interest rates remain at record low levels. With depressed demand, loose monetary policy may be sustainable over a number of years. Quantitative easing depresses bond yields and makes it cheaper for governments to finance borrowing. Servicing high levels of debt may be quite affordable.
The problem is if inflation begins to rise. Even with lower aggregate demand, if aggregate supply has fallen faster because of bankruptcies and lack of investment, there may be upward pressure on prices. The Bank of England may have to raise interest rates, making it more expensive for the government to service its debts.
Another problem with not reducing the debt is that if another emergency occurs in the future, there will be less scope for further borrowing to support the economy.
4. Higher growth ‘deals’ with the deficit and reduces debt. In this scenario, austerity would be unnecessary. This is the ‘golden’ scenario – for the country to grow its way out of the problem. Higher output and incomes leads to higher tax revenues, and lower unemployment leads to lower expenditure on unemployment benefits. The crucial question is the relationship between aggregate demand and supply. For growth to be sustainable and shrink the debt/GDP ratio, aggregate demand must expand steadily in line with the growth in aggregate supply. The faster aggregate supply can grow, the faster can aggregate demand. In other words, the faster the growth in potential GDP, the faster can be the sustainable rate of growth of actual GDP and the faster can the debt/GDP ratio shrink.
One of the key issues is the degree of economic ‘scarring’ from the pandemic and the associated restrictions on economic activity. The bigger the decline in potential output from the closure of firms and the greater the deskilling of workers who have been laid off, the harder it will be for the economy to recover and the longer high deficits are likely to persist.
Another issue is the lack of labour productivity growth in the UK in recent years. If labour productivity does not increase, this will severely restrict the growth in potential output. Focusing on training and examining incentives, work practices and pay structures are necessary if productivity is to rise significantly. So too is finding ways to encourage firms to increase investment in new technologies.
Podcast and videos
- Initial reaction from IFS researchers on Spending Review 2020 and OBR forecasts
IFS Press Release, Paul Johnson, Carl Emmerson, Ben Zaranko, Tom Waters and Isabel Stockton (25/11/200
- Rishi Sunak is likely to increase spending – which means tax rises will follow
IFS, Newspaper Article, Paul Johnson (23/11/20)
- Economic and Fiscal Outlook Executive Summary
- UK’s Sunak says public finances are on ‘unsustainable’ path
Reuters, David Milliken (26/11/20)
- Rishi Sunak warns ‘economic emergency has only just begun’
BBC News, Szu Ping Chan (25/11/20)
- UK will need £27bn of spending cuts or tax rises, watchdog warns
The Guardian, Phillip Inman (25/11/20)
- What is tomorrow’s Spending Review all about?
The Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (24/11/20)
- Spending Review 2020: the experts react
The Conversation, Drew Woodhouse, Ernestine Gheyoh Ndzi, Jonquil Lowe, Anupam Nanda, Alex de Ruyter and Simon J. Smith (25/11/20)
- What is the significance of the relationship between the rate of economic growth and the rate of interest for financing public-sector debt over the longer term?
- What can the government do to encourage investment in the economy?
- Using OBR data, find out what has happened to the output gap over the past few years and what is forecast to happen to it over the next five years. Explain the significance of the figures.
- Distinguish between demand-side and supply-side policies. How would you characterise the policies to tackle public-sector net debt in terms of this distinction? Do the policies have a mixture of demand- and supply-side effects?
- Choose two other developed countries. Examine how their their public finances have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic and the policies they are adopting to tackle the economic effects of the pandemic.