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will rise from 3.9% in 2019 to a peak of 7.5% in mid-2021, after the furlough scheme and other support for employers is withdrawn.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.
In his 2016 Autumn Statement, the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, announced that he was abandoning his predecessor’s target of achieving a budget surplus in 2019/20 and beyond. This was partly in recognition that tax revenues were likely to be down as economic growth forecasts were downgraded by the Office for Budget Responsibility. But it was partly to give himself more room to boost the economy in response to lower economic growth. In other words, he was moving from a strictly rules-based fiscal policy to one that is more interventionist.
Although he still has the broad target of reducing government borrowing over the longer term, this new flexibility allowed him to announce increased government spending on infrastructure.
The new approach is outlined in the updated version of the Charter for Budget
Responsibility, published alongside the Autumn Statement. The government’s fiscal mandate would now include the following:
||a target to reduce cyclically-adjusted public-sector net borrowing to below 2% of GDP by 2020/21;
||a target for public-sector net debt as a percentage of GDP to be falling in 2020/21.
It also states that:
In the event of a significant negative shock to the UK economy, the Treasury will review the appropriateness of the fiscal mandate and supplementary targets as a means of returning the public finances to balance as early as possible in the next Parliament.
In the Autumn Statement, the new approach to fiscal policy is summarised as follows:
This new fiscal framework ensures the public finances continue on the path to sustainability, while providing the flexibility needed to support the economy in the near term.
With his new found freedom, the Chancellor was able to announce spending increases, despite deteriorating public finances, of £36bn by 2021/22 (see Table 1 in the Autumn Statement).
Most of the additional expenditure will be on infrastructure. To facilitate this, the government will set up a new National Productivity Investment Fund (NPIF) to channel government spending to various infrastructure projects in the fields of housing, transport, telecoms and research and development. The NPIF will provide £23bn to such projects between 2017/18 and 2021/22.
But much of the additional flexibility in the new Fiscal Mandate will be to allow automatic fiscal stabilisers to operate. The OBR forecasts an increase in borrowing of £122bn over the 2017/18 to 2021/22 period compared with its forecasts made in March this year. Apart from the additional £23bn spending on infrastructure, most of the rest will be as a result of lower tax receipts from lower economic growth. This, in turn, is forecast to be the result of lower investment caused by Brexit uncertainties and lower real consumer spending because of the fall in the pound and the consequent rise in prices.
But rather than having to tighten fiscal policy to meet the previous borrowing target, the new Fiscal Mandate will permit this rise in borrowing. The lower tax payments will help to reduce the dampening effect on the economy.
So are we entering a new era of fiscal policy? Is the government now using discretionary fiscal policy to boost aggregate demand, while also attempting to increase productivity? Or is the relaxation of the Fiscal Mandate just a redrawing of the rules to give a bit more flexibility over the level of stimulus the government can give the economy?
Autumn Statement 2016: Philip Hammond’s speech (in full) GOV.UK (23/11/16)
Philip Hammond’s autumn statement – video highlights The Guardian (23/11/16)
Key points from the chancellor’s first Autumn Statement BBC News, Andrew Neil (23/11/16)
Autumn Statement: higher borrowing, lower growth Channel 4 News, Helia Ebrahimi (23/11/16)
Autumn Statement: Chancellor’s growth and borrowing figures BBC News (23/11/16)
Markets react to Autumn Statement Financial Times on YouTube, Roger Blitz (23/11/16)
Hammond’s Autumn Statement unpicked Financial Times on YouTube, Gemma Tetlow (23/11/16)
Autumn Statement 2016: The charts that show the cost of Brexit Sjy News, Ed Conway (24/11/16)
BBC economics editor Kamal Ahmed on the Autumn Statement. BBC News (23/11/16)
Autumn statement: debate Channel 4 News, Financial Secretary to the Treasury, Jane Ellison, and Labour’s Shadow Business Secretary, Clive Lewis (23/11/16)
Autumn Statement: Workers’ pay growth prospects dreadful, says IFS BBC News, Kevin Peachey and Paul Johnson (24/11/16)
Autumn Statement 2016: Expert comment on fiscal policy Grant Thornton, Adam Jackson (23/11/16)
Philip Hammond loosens George Osborne’s fiscal rules to give himself more elbow room as Brexit unfolds CityA.M., Jasper Jolly (23/11/16)
Britain’s New Fiscal Mandate Opens Way To Invest For Economic Growth Forbes, Linda Yueh (23/11/16)
Autumn Statement 2016: experts respond The Conversation (23/11/16)
Chancellor’s ‘Reset’ Leaves UK Economy Exposed And Vulnerable Huffington Post, Alfie Stirling (23/11/16)
Britain’s Autumn Statement hints at how painful Brexit is going to be The Economist (26/11/16)
Chancellor’s looser finance targets highlight weaker UK economy The Guardian, Phillip Inman (24/11/16)
Hammond’s less-than-meets-the-eye plan that hints at the future Financial Times, Martin Sandbu (23/11/16)
Economists’ views on Philip Hammond’s debut Financial Times, Paul Johnson, Bronwyn Curtis and Gerard Lyons (24/11/16)
Autumn Statement 2016 HM Treasury (23/11/16)
Charter for Budget Responsibility: autumn 2016 update HM Treasury
Reports, forecasts and analysis
Economic and fiscal outlook – November 2016 Office for Budget Responsibility (23/11/16)
Autumn Statement 2016 analysis Institute for Fiscal Studies (November 2016)
- Distinguish between discretionary fiscal policy and rules-based fiscal policy.
- Why have forecasts of the public finances worsened since last March?
- What is meant by automatic fiscal stabilisers? How do they work when the economic growth slows?
- What determines the size of the multiplier from public-sector infrastructure projects?
- What dangers are there in relaxing the borrowing rules in the Fiscal Mandate?
- Examine the arguments for relaxing the borrowing rules more than they have been?
- If the economy slows more than has been forecast and public-sector borrowing rises faster, does the Chancellor have any more discretion in giving a further fiscal boost to the economy?
- Does the adjustment of borrowing targets as the economic situation changes make such a policy a discretionary one rather than a rules-based one?
As we saw in several posts on this site, last year was a tumultuous one for the Greek people and their economy. The economy was on the verge of bankruptcy; the Greek people rejected the terms of a bailout in a referendum; exit from the eurozone and having to return to the drachma seemed likely; banks were forced to closed at the height of the crisis; capital controls were imposed, with people restricted to drawing €60 a day or €420 a week – a policy still in force today; unemployment soared and many people suffered severe hardship.
To achieve the bailout, the Syriza government had to ignore the results of the referendum and agree to harsh austerity policies and sweeping market-orientated supply-side policies. This, at least, allowed Greece to stay in the eurozone. It held, and won, another election to seek a further mandate for these policies.
But what are the prospects for 2016? Will it be a year of recovery and growth, with market forces working to increase productivity? Does 2016 mark the beginning of the end and, as prime minister Alexis Tsipras put it, “a final exit from economic crisis”?
Or will the continuing cuts simply push the economy deeper into recession, with further rises in unemployment and more and more cases of real human hardship? Is there a hysteresis effect here, with the past six years having created a demoralised and deskilled people, with cautious investors unable and/or unwilling to rebuild the economy?
The article below looks at the rather gloomy prospects for Greece and at whether there are any encouraging signs. It also looks at the further demands of the troika of creditors – the IMF, the ECB and the European Commission’s European Stability Mechanism (ESM) – and at what the political and economic impact of these might be.
Greece’s economic crisis goes on, like an odyssey without end The Guardian, Helena Smith (4/1/16)
- Construct a timeline of Greece’s debt repayments, both past and scheduled, and of the bailouts given by the troika to prevent Greece defaulting.
- What supply-side reforms are being demanded by Greece’s creditors?
- What will be the effect of these supply-side reforms in (a) the short run; (b) the long run?
- Explain the meaning of hysteresis as it applies to an economy in the aftermath of a recession. How does the concept apply in the Greek situation?
- Discuss the alternative policy options open to the Greek government for tackling the persistent recession.
- Would it be better for Greece to leave the euro? Explain your arguments.
- “I cannot see how this government can survive the reforms. And I cannot see how it can avoid these reforms.” Is there any way out of this apparent impasse for the Greek government?
It was argued in an earlier blog on the Greek debt crisis that a deus ex machina was needed to find a resolution to the impasse between Greece and its creditors. The most likely candidate for such as role was the IMF.
Three days before the Greek referendum on whether or not to accept the Troika’s proposals, the IMF has stepped onto the stage. To the undoubted surprise of the other two partners in the Troika (the European Commission and the ECB), the IMF argues that Greece’s debts are unsustainable and that much more is needed than a mere bailout (which simply rolls over the debt).
According to the IMF, Greece needs €52bn of extra funds between October 2015 and December 2018, large-scale debt relief, a 20-year grace period before making any debt repayments and then debt repayments spread over the following 20 years. In return, Greece should commit to supply-side reforms to cut out waste, reduce bureaucracy, improve tax collection methods and generally improve the efficiency of the economic system.
It would also have to agree to the previously proposed primary budget surplus (i.e. the budget surplus excluding debt repayments) of 1 per cent of GDP this year, rising to 3.5 per cent in 2018.
So it this what commentators have been waiting for? What will be the reaction of the Greeks and the other two partners in the Troika? We shall see.
IMF says Greece needs extra €50bn in funds and debt relief The Guardian. Phillip Inman, Larry Elliott and Alberto Nardelli (2/7/15)
IMF: 3rd Greek bailout would cost €52bn. Or more? Financial Times, Peter Spiegel (2/7/15)
IMF: Greece needs to reform for sustainable debt, financing needs rising CNBC, Everett Rosenfeld (2/7/15)
The IMF has made an obvious point about Greece’s huge debt. Here’s why it still matters Quartz, Jason Karaian (3/7/15)
Greece: when is it time to forgive debt? The Conversation, Jagjit Chadha (2/7/15)
Greece: Preliminary Draft Debt Sustainability Analysis IMF (2/7/15)
Preliminary Debt Sustainability Analysis for Greece IMF (25/6/15)
- To which organisations is Greece indebted? What form to the debts take?
- To what extent is Greece’s current debt burden the result of design faults of the euro?
- What are the proposals of the IMF? What effect will they have on the Greek economy if accepted?
- How would the IMF proposals affect aggregate demand (a) directly; (b) compared with the proposals previously on the table that Greece rejected on 26 June?
- What would be the effects of Greek exit from the euro (a) for Greece; (b) for other eurozone countries?
- What bargaining chips can Greece deploy in the negotiations?
- Explain what is meant by ‘moral hazard’. Where in possible outcomes to the negotiations may there be moral hazard?
- What has been the impact of Greek austerity measures on the distribution of income and wealth in Greece?
- What are the practicalities of pursuing supply-side policies in Greece without further dampening aggregate demand?
In his annual Mansion House speech to business leaders on 10 June 2015, George Osborne announced a new fiscal framework. This would require governments in ‘normal times’ to run a budget surplus. Details of the new framework would be spelt out in the extraordinary Budget, due on 8 July.
If by ‘normal times’ is meant years when the economy is growing, then this new fiscal rule would mean that in most years governments would be require to run a surplus. This would reduce general government debt.
And it would eventually reduce the debt from the forecast ratio of 89% of GDP for 2015 to the target of no more than 60% set for member states under the EU’s Stability and Growth Pact. Currently, many countries are in breach of this target, although the Pact permits countries to have a ratio above 60% provided it is falling towards 60% at an acceptable rate. The chart shows in pink those countries that were in breach in 2014. They include the UK.
Sweden and Canada have similar rules to that proposed by George Osborne, and he sees them as having been more able to use expansionary fiscal policy in emergency times, such as in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2007/8, without running excessive deficits.
Critics have argued, however, that running a surplus whenever there is economic growth would dampen recovery if growth is sluggish. This makes the rule very different from merely requiring that, over the course of the business cycle, there is a budget balance. Under that rule, years of deficit are counterbalanced by years of surplus, making fiscal policy neutral over the cycle. With a requirement for a surplus in most years, however, fiscal policy would have a net dampening effect over the cycle. The chancellor hopes that this would be countered by increased demand in the private sector and from exports.
The rule is even more different from the Coalition government’s previous ‘fiscal mandate‘, which was for a ‘a forward-looking target to achieve cyclically-adjusted current balance by the end of the rolling, five-year forecast period’. The current budget excludes investment expenditure on items such as transport infrastructure, hospitals and schools. The fiscal mandate was very similar to the former Labour government’s ‘Golden rule’, which was to achieve a current budget balance over the course of the cycle.
By excluding public-sector investment from the target, as was previously done, it can allow borrowing to continue for such investment, even when there is a substantial deficit. This, in turn, can help to increase aggregate supply by improving infrastructure and has less of a dampening effect on aggregate demand. A worry about the new rule is that it could lead to further erosion of public-sector investment, which can be seen as vital to long-term growth and development of the economy. Indeed, Sweden decided in March this year to abandon its surplus rule to allow government borrowing to fund investment.
The podcasts and articles below consider the implications of the new rule for both aggregate demand and aggregate supply and whether adherence to the rule will help to increase or decrease economic growth over the longer term.
Video and audio podcasts
George Osborne confirms budget surplus law Channel 4 News, Gary Gibbon (10/6/15)
Osborne To Push Through Budget Surplus Rules Sky News (10/6/15)
OECD On Osborne’s Fiscal Plans Sky News, Catherine Mann (10/6/15)
‘Outright fiscal madness’ Osborne’s Mansion House Speech RT UK on YouTube, Harry Fear (11/6/15)
A “straightjacket” [sic] on future government spending? BBC Today Programme, Robert Peston; Nigel Lawson (11/6/15)
Thursday’s business with Simon Jack BBC Today Programme, Gerard Lyons (12/6/15)
Osborne seeks to bind successors to budget surplus goal Reuters, David Milliken (10/6/15)
George Osborne to push ahead with budget surplus law The Telegraph, Peter Dominiczak (10/6/15)
Osborne Wants U.K. to Build Treasure Chest During Good Times Bloomberg, Svenja O’Donnell (10/6/15)
Questions over Osborne’s Victorian-era budget plans BBC News (10/6/15)
Years more spending cuts to come, says OBR BBC News (11/6/15)
Is Chancellor right to want surplus in normal times? BBC News, Robert Peston (10/6/15)
George Osborne Unveils New Budget Surplus Law, But Critics Warn It Means Needless Cuts Huffington Post, Paul Waugh (10/6/15)
George Osborne’s fiscal handcuffs are political, but he does have a point Independent, Hamish McRae (11/6/15)
Osborne’s budget surplus law follows UK tradition of moving goalposts Financial Times, Chris Giles (10/6/15)
George Osborne’s budget surplus rule is nonsense and it could haunt Britain for decades Business Insider, Malaysia, Mike Bird (10/6/15)
To cut a way out of recession we need growth, not austerity economics Herald Scotland, Iain Macwhirter (11/6/15)
George Osborne moves to peg public finances to Victorian values The Guardian, Larry Elliott and Frances Perraudin (10/6/15)
The Guardian view on George Osborne’s fiscal surplus law: the Micawber delusion The Guardian, Editorial (10/6/15)
Academics attack George Osborne budget surplus proposal The Guardian, Phillip Inman (12/6/15)
Osborne plan has no basis in economics Guardian letters, multiple signatories (12/6/15)
Is there an optimal debt-to-GDP ratio? Vox EU, Anis Chowdhury and Iyanatul Islam
No basis in economics Mainly Macro, Simon Wren-Lewis (16/6/15)
- Explain what is meant by a ‘cyclically adjusted current budget balance’.
- How does the speed with which the government reduces the public-sector debt affect aggregate demand and aggregate supply?
- What are the arguments for and against running a budget surplus: (a) when there is currently a large budget deficit; (b) when there is already a budget surplus? How do the arguments depend on the stage of the business cycle?
- Do you agree with the statement that ‘the biggest issue with the UK economy right now is not the government deficit’. If so, what bigger issues are there?
- How could public-sector debt as a proportion of GDP decline without the government running a budget surplus?
- How might the term ‘normal times’ be defined? How does the definition used by the Chancellor affect the rate at which the public-sector debt is reduced?
- How sustainable is the current level of public-sector debt? How does its sustainability relate to the interest rate on long-term government bonds?
- If there is a budget surplus, such that G – T is negative, what can we say about the balance betwen (I + X) and (S + M)? What good and adverse consequences could follow?
- Why do George Osborne’s plans for budget surpluses ‘risk a liquidity crisis that could also trigger banking problems, a fall in GDP, a crash, or all three’?