Category: Essentials of Economics: 8e Ch 12

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.

Inflation

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.

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Questions

  1. What determines the rate of (a) actual economic growth; (b) potential economic growth?
  2. What is meant by an output gap? What would be the implications of a positive output gap?
  3. Why are scarring effects of the pandemic likely to be greater in the UK than in most other countries?
  4. If people believed that inflation was likely to continue rising, how would this affect their behaviour and how would it affect the economy?
  5. What are the arguments for and against having a stamp duty holiday when the economy is in recession?

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.

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Questions

  1. Assess the wisdom of the timing of the changes in tax and government expenditure announced in the Budget.
  2. 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?
  3. 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.
  4. 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?
  5. 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.

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Questions

  1. 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?
  2. What can the government do to encourage investment in the economy?
  3. 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.
  4. 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?
  5. 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.

In March 2020, the UK government introduced a Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. Businesses that had to close or cut back could put staff on furlough and the scheme would allow employers to claim 80% of workers’ wages up to £2500 per month. This would be passed on to workers.

There was large-scale uptake of the scheme. By the end of August, 9.6 million employees were on furlough (28% of the workforce) from around 1.2 million employers (61% of eligible employers). The scheme significantly stemmed the rise in unemployment. The claimant count rose 121% from March to August from 1.24 million to 2.74 million, far less than it would have done without the furlough scheme.

Since 1 August the level of support has been reduced in stages and is due to end on 31 October. It will then be replaced by a new ‘Job Support Scheme (JSS)‘ running from 1 November 2020 to 30 April 2021. Initially, employees must work at least 33% of their usual hours. For hours not worked, the government and the employer will pay a third each. There would be no pay for the final third. This means that an employee would receive at least 77.7% (33% + (2/3)67%) of their full pay – not far short of the 80% under the furlough scheme.

Effects on unemployment

Will the scheme see a substantial rise in unemployment, or will it be enough to support a gradual recovery in the economy as more businesses are able to reopen or take on more staff?

On first sight, it might seem that the scheme will give only slightly less job protection than the job furlough scheme with employees receiving only a little less than before. But, unlike the previous scheme, employers will have to pay not only for work done, but also an additional one-third for work not done. This is likely to encourage employers to lay off part of their staff and employ the remainder for more than one-third of their usual hours. Other firms may simply not engage with the scheme.

What is more, the furlough scheme paid wages for those previously employed by firms that were now closed. Under the new scheme, employees of firms that are forced to stay closed, such as many in the entertainments industry, will receive nothing. They will lose their jobs (at least until such firms are able to reopen) and will thus probably have to look for a new job. The scheme does not support them.

The government acknowledges that some people will lose their jobs but argues that it should not support jobs that are no longer viable. The question here is whether some jobs will eventually become viable again when the Covid restrictions are lifted.

With Covid cases on the rise again and more restrictions being imposed, especially at a local level, it seems inevitable that unemployment will continue to rise for some time with the ending of the furlough scheme and as the demand for labour remains subdued. The ending of the new scheme in April could compound the problem. Even when unemployment does begin to fall, it may take many months to return to pre-pandemic levels.

Update: expansion of the scheme

On 9 October, with Covid-19 cases rising rapidly in some parts of the country and tighter restrictions being imposed, the government announced that it was extending the scheme. From 1 November, employees of firms in certain parts of the country that would be required to close by the government, such as bars and restaurants, would be paid two-thirds of their previous wages by the government.

Critics of this extension to the scheme argue many firms will still be forced to shut because of lack of demand, even though they are not legally being required close. Employees of such firms will receive nothing from the scheme and will be forced onto Universal Credit. Also, the scheme will mean that many of the workers who do receive the money from the government will still face considerable hardship. Many will previously have been on minimum wages and thus will struggle to manage on only two-thirds of their previous wages.

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Questions

  1. If people on furlough were counted as unemployed, find out what would have happened to the unemployment rate between March and August 2020.
  2. If an employer were previously employing two people doing the same type of job and now has enough work for only one person, under the Job Support Scheme would it be in the employers’ financial interest to employ one worker full time and make the other redundant or employ both of the workers half time? Explain your arguments.
  3. What are the arguments for and against the government supporting jobs for more than a few months?
  4. What determines the mobility of labour? What policies could the government pursue to increase labour mobility?
  5. Find out what policies to support employment or wages have been pursued by two other countries since the start of the pandemic. Compare them with the policies of the UK government.

In a little over a decade economies around the world have experienced two ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ shocks. First, there was the global financial crisis of the late 2000s, which saw an unsustainable expansion of banks’ balance sheets that resulted in a global economic slowdown. Now in 2020, a global health emergency has meant unprecedented falls in economic activity. In both cases, the public sector has been the economy’s shock absorber but this has had dramatic effects on its financial wellbeing. We consider here the effect on the UK public finances and reflect on their sustainability in light of the recent Fiscal Sustainability Report published by the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR).

The COVID-19 pandemic saw the government initiate a range of fiscal interventions to support people and businesses. Interventions directly affecting public-sector spending included a series of employment support measures. These included the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, commonly referred to as the furlough scheme, the Self-employed Income Support scheme, a ‘Kickstart Scheme’ of work placements for universal credit recipients aged between 16 and 24 and a ‘Job Retention Bonus’ whereby employers can receive a one-off payment of £1,000 for every furloughed employee continuously employed from the cessation of the Job Retention Scheme on 31 October through to 31 January 2021.

Further spending interventions have included small business grant schemes, such as the Coronavirus Small Business Grant Fund, the coronavirus Retail, Hospitality and Leisure Grant Fund and the Coronavirus Local Authority Discretionary Grants Fund.

Meanwhile, taxation relief measures have included a business rates holiday for retail, hospitality and leisure businesses and a reduced rate of VAT of 5 per cent for hospitality, accommodation and attractions until 12 January 2021.

OBR’s central scenario

The OBR in its Fiscal Stability Report in July 2020 attempts to assess the wellbeing of the public finances not just in the short term but in the medium and longer term too. This longer-term perspective allows it to assess the sustainability of the public finances.

Its analysis is based on some key assumptions, including population growth and future demands on public services, but, understandably, the timing of this report has necessitated some key assumptions around path of the economy, including the extent to which the economy will experience scarring effects, also known as hysteresis effects. While the analysis does not incorporate the Chancellor’s measures announced in its summer statement on the 8 July, including the kickstart scheme, job retention bonus and the reduced rate of VAT, which would have a material effect on this year’s numbers, the OBR concludes that there would be less significant impact on its medium-term analysis.

In what it describes as its ‘central scenario’ the OBR forecasts that national output (real GDP) will fall by 12 per cent in 2020 before growing by 9 per cent in 2021 and 4 per cent in 2022. National output therefore reaches its pre-virus peak at the end of 2022. However, 20 quarters on from the pandemic shock in Q1 2020 output is estimated to be 3.2 per cent less than it would otherwise have been, while the cumulative loss of output is expected to be 6.4 per cent over the period. The cumulative loss of output in the 20 quarters following the financial crisis (Q2 2008) is estimated to have been 9.3 per cent of actual cumulative output.

While national output is expected to be permanently lower because of the pandemic, consistent with hysteresis, the forecast assumes that the longer-term growth rate is unaffected. In other words, there is not expected to be what some now refer to as ‘super hysteresis’, whereby the scarring effects have persistent effects on rates of capital accumulation, innovation and productivity, which therefore depress structural economic growth rates.

Meanwhile, the unemployment rate is expected to peak at 11.9 per cent in the final quarter of this year, before falling to 8.8 per cent in Q4 2021 and 6.3 per cent in Q4 2022. By Q4 2025 the unemployment rate is forecast to be 5.1 per cent, one percentage point higher than the OBR was forecasting at the time of the Budget in March.

Spending and receipts

Chart 1 shows shows the predicted paths of (nominal) public-sector receipts and expenditures as a percentage of (nominal) GDP. Receipts are expected come in at £740 billion this financial year (excluding the impact of the summer statement measures), some £133 billion lower than was forecast at the time of the March budget. This will amount to a 10 per cent fall in receipts in the financial year, driven by a much-shrunken economy. However, the fact that nominal GDP falls somewhat more means that the receipts-to-GDP ratio ticks up slightly. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)

Public-sector spending is expected to be higher in 2020/21 than was forecast in the March by £135 million (excluding the summer statement measures) reflecting the COVID-19 interventions. This would result in spending rising to £1.06 trillion, a 20 per cent rise in the financial year. It would also mean that public-sector spending as a share of GDP rises to 54 per cent – its highest since 1945/46.

Going forward, in cash terms receipts are permanently lower than forecast because GDP is lower, though as a share of GDP cash receipts increase very slightly, but remain below what was expected at the time of the March budget. Spending in cash terms is expected to fall back by close to 8 per cent next financial year before increasing by 3 per cent per year up to 2024/25. This means that the spending-to-GDP ratio falls back to around 43 per cent by 2024/25, a couple of percentage points higher than was forecast back in March.

Deficits and debt

The difference between spending and receipts is known as public-sector net borrowing. While the extent of borrowing can be inferred by inspection of Chart 1, it can be seen more readily in Chart 2 which plots the path of public-sector net borrowing as a share of GDP.

The OBR is now forecasting a budget deficit of £322 billion (excluding the summer statement measures) in 2020/21 compared to £55 billion at the time of the March Budget. This would be equivalent to over 16 per cent of GDP, the highest since the Second World War. In a follow-up presentation on the Fiscal Stability Report on the 14 July the OBR suggested that the inclusion of summer statement measures could mean the deficit being as high as £375 billion, implying a deficit-to-GDP ratio of just shy of 19 per cent. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)

Deficits represent borrowing and are therefore a flow concept. The accumulated deficits over the years (minus any surpluses) gives total debt, which is a stock concept. The public-sector’s net debt is its gross debt less its liquid assets, principally deposits held with financial institutions and holdings of international reserves. This is also affected by Bank of England interventions, such as the Term Funding Scheme which enables banks and building societies to borrow funds at close to Bank Rate for up to four years. Nonetheless, the key driver of net debt-to-GDP ratio going forward is the persistence of deficits.

Chart 3 shows the expected path of the net debt-to-GDP ratio. The OBR expects this to exceed 100 per cent in 2020/21 for the first time since 1960/61. This reflects an increase in cash terms of the stock of net debt to £2.2 trillion, up from £1.8 trillion at the end of 2019/20, as well as a fall in GDP. By 2024/25 the net debt stock is expected to have risen to £2.6 trillion, £600 billion more than expected at the time of the March budget, with the net debt-to-GDP ratio still above 100 per cent at 102.1 per cent. (Click herefor a PowerPoint of the chart.)

Sustainability

The higher debt-to-GDP ratio raises longer-term questions about the sustainability of the public finances. The government is currently reviewing its fiscal rules and is expected to report back in time for the autumn budget. A key question is what debt-stabilising level might be considered appropriate. Is it the 102 per cent that the OBR is predicting at the end of 2024/25 (the medium-term horizon)? Or is it the 75 per cent that was being forecast for this point back in the March budget? This has profound implications for the fiscal arithmetic and, specifically, for the primary balance (the difference between non-interest spending and receipts) that the public sector needs to run.

If the government accepts a higher debt-to-GDP ratio as a ‘new norm’ that eases the fiscal arithmetic somewhat. However, some economists would be concerned about the economic consequences of larger public-sector debts, most notably so-called potential crowding-out effects on private-sector investment if upward pressure on interest rates was to materialise (see the news item MMT – a Magic Money Tree or Modern Monetary Theory?).

Even if the higher stabilising debt level was deemed appropriate, the OBR’s report analysis suggests problems in the government meeting this because it could still be running a primary deficit of 3.7 per cent of GDP by 2024/25. Therefore, even with interest rates expected to be lower than economic growth rates in 2024/25 (a negative growth-corrected interest rate) that enable governments to run primary deficits and yet maintain debt-to-GDP ratios, the debt-stabilising primary deficit for 2024/25 is estimated at only 3.2 per cent. All in all, this points to difficult fiscal choices ahead.

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Questions

  1. What do you understand by the term financial wellbeing? What might this mean in respect of the government?
  2. What is meant by the fiscal arithmetic of government debt? Explain the factors that determine the fiscal arithmetic and the path of government debt?
  3. What is the difference between an increase in the size of a government deficit and an increase in the stock of government debt?
  4. Discuss the economic argument that, following the COVID-19 pandemic, government should avoid a return to an agenda of fiscal austerity ?
  5. What is the difference between the budget deficit, the primary deficit and the structural deficit?
  6. What are hysteresis effects? Discuss their relevancy in the design of the UK’s COVID-19 interventions.