Tag: COVID-19 and the public finances

At a meeting of the G7 finance ministers in London from 4–5 June, it was agreed to adopt a minimum corporate tax rate of 15% and to take measures to prevent multinational companies using tax havens to avoid paying taxes. It was also agreed that part of the taxes paid should go to the countries where sales are made and not just to those where the companies are based.

This agreement is the first step on the road to a comprehensive global agreement. The next step is a meeting of the finance ministers and central bank governors of the G20 countries in Venice from 9 to 10 July. The G7 ministers hope that their agreement will be adopted by this larger group, which includes other major economies such as Russia, China, India, Brazil, Australia, South Korea and South Africa.

Later in July, the proposals will be put to a group of 139 countries and jurisdictions at a meeting co-ordinated by the OECD. It is hoped that this meeting will finalise an international agreement with precise details on corporate tax rules. It follows work by the OECD on reforming international taxation under its Framework on Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS).

These meetings follow growing concerns about the ability of multinational companies to avoid taxes by basing regional headquarters in low-tax countries, such as Luxembourg or Singapore, and declaring their profits there, despite having only a tiny proportion of their sales in these countries.

The desire to attract multinational profits has led to a prisoners’ dilemma situation, whereby countries have been competing against each other to offer lower taxes, even though it reduces global corporate tax revenues.

With many countries having seen a significant rise in government deficits as result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the support measures put in place, there has been a greater urgency to reach international agreement on corporate taxes. The G7 agreement, if implemented, will provide a significant increase in tax revenue.

Details of the G7 agreement

The agreement has two parts or ‘pillars’.

Pillar 1 allows countries to tax large multinationals earning global profits of more than 10% if these companies are not based there but earn revenues there. Countries will be given tax rights over at least 20% of the profits earned there which exceed the 10% margin. The level of profits determined for each country will be based on the proportion of revenues earned there.

Pillar 2 sets a minimum corporate tax rate of 15% for each of the seven countries, which call on other countries to adopt the same minimum. The hope is that the G20 countries will agree to this and then at the OECD meeting in July a global agreement will be reached. If a country chooses to charge a rate below 15%, then a top-up tax can be applied by the home country to bring the total rate up to the 15%.

It is possible that these proposals will be strengthened/amended at the G20 and OECD meetings. For example, the 15% minimum rate may be raised. Indeed, the USA had initially proposed a 25% rate and then 21%, and several EU countries such as France, have been pushing for a substantially higher rate.

Analysis

The agreement was hailed as ‘historic’ by Rishi Sunak, the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer. This is true in that it is the first time there has been an international agreement on minimum corporate tax rates and locating part of tax liability according to sales. What is more, the rules may be strengthened at the G20 and/or OECD meetings.

There have been various criticisms of the agreement, however. The first is that 15% is too low and is well below the rates charged in many countries. As far as the UK is concerned, the IPPR think tank estimates that the deal will raise £7.9bn whereas a 25% rate would raise £14.7bn.

Another criticism is that the reallocation of some tax liabilities to countries where sales are made rather than where profits are booked applies only to profits in excess of 10%. This would therefore not affect companies, such as Amazon, with a model of large-scale low-margin sales and hence profits of less than 10%.

Also there is the criticism that a 20% reallocation is too low and would thus provide too little tax revenue to poor countries which may record large sales but where little or no profits are booked.

The UK was one of the more reluctant countries to sign up to a deal that would have a significant impact on tax havens in various British overseas territories and crown dependencies, such as the British Virgin islands, Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, the Channel Islands and Isle of Man. The agreement also calls into question whether the announced UK freeports can go ahead. Although these are largely concerned with waiving tariffs and other taxes on raw materials and parts imported into the freeport, which are then made into finished or semi-finished products within the freeport for export, they are still seen by many as not in the spirit of the G7 agreement.

What is more, the UK has been pushing for financial services to be exempted from Pillar 1 of the deal, which would otherwise see taxes partly diverted from the UK to other countries where such firms do business. For example, HSBC generates more than half its income from China and Standard Chartered operates mostly in Asia and Africa.

Update: July 2021

The G7 plan was agreed by the finance ministers of the G20 countries on July 11 in Venice. By that point, 130 of the 139 countries which are part of the Inclusive Framework of the OECD and which represent more than 90% of global GDP, had signed up to the plan and it was expected that there would be a global agreement reached at the OECD meeting later in the month. The other nine countries were Ireland, Hungary and Estonia in the EU and Kenya, Nigeria, Peru, Sri Lanka, Barbados and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. Several of these countries use low corporate taxes to encourage inward investment and are seen as tax havens.

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  1. How are multinationals currently able to avoid paying corporate taxes in many countries, even though their sales may be high there?
  2. If the deal is accepted at the OECD meeting in July, would it still be in the interests of low-tax countries to charge tax rates below the agreed minimum rate?
  3. Why was the UK reluctant to accept the 21% rate proposed by the Biden administration?
  4. Find out about the digital services tax that has been adopted by many countries, including EU countries and the UK, and why it will be abolished once a minimum corporate tax comes into force.
  5. Argue the case for and against taxing the whole of multinational profits in countries where they earn revenue in proportion to the company’s total global revenue. Would such a system benefit developing countries?
  6. Should financial services, such as those provided by City of London firms, be exempted from the deal?

Many developing countries are facing a renewed debt crisis. This is directly related to Covid-19, which is now sweeping across many poor countries in a new wave.

Between 2016 and 2020, debt service as a percentage of GDP rose from an average of 7.1% to 27.1% for South Asian countries, from 8.1% to 14.1% for Sub-Saharan African countries, from 13.1% to 42.3% for North African and Middle Eastern countries, and from 5.6% to 14.7% for East Asian and Pacific countries. These percentages are expected to climb again in 2021 by around 10% of GDP.

Incomes have fallen in developing countries with illness, lockdowns and business failures. This has been compounded by a fall in their exports as the world economy has contracted and by a 19% fall in aid in 2020. The fall in incomes has led to a decline in tax revenues and demands for increased government expenditure on healthcare and social support. Public-sector deficits have thus risen steeply.

And the problem is likely to get worse before it gets better. Vaccination roll-outs in most developing countries are slow, with only a tiny fraction of the population having received just one jab. With the economic damage already caused, growth is likely to be subdued for some time.

This has put developing countries in a ‘trilemma’, as the IMF calls it. Governments must balance the objectives of:

  1. meeting increased spending needs from the emergency and its aftermath;
  2. limiting the substantial increase in public debt;
  3. trying to contain rises in taxes.

Developing countries are faced with a difficult trade-off between these objectives, as addressing one objective is likely to come at the expense of the other two. For example, higher spending would require higher deficits and debt or higher taxes.

The poorest countries have little scope for increased domestic borrowing and have been forced to borrow on international markets. But such debt is costly. Although international interest rates are generally low, many developing countries have had to take on increasing levels of borrowing from private lenders at much higher rates of interest, substantially adding to the servicing costs of their debt.

Debt relief

International agencies and groups, such as the IMF, the World Bank, the United Nations and the G20, have all advocated increased help to tackle this debt crisis. The IMF has allocated $100bn in lending through the Rapid Financing Instrument (RFI) and the Rapid Credit Facility (RCF) and nearly $500m in debt service relief grants through the Catastrophe Containment and Relief Trust (CCRT). The World Bank is increasing operations to $160bn.

The IMF is also considering an increase in special drawing rights (SDRs) from the current level of 204.2bn ($293.3bn) to 452.6bn ($650bn) – a rise of 121.6%. This would be the first such expansion since 2009. It has received the support of both the G7 and the G20. SDRs are reserves created by the IMF whose value is a weighted average of five currencies – the US dollar (41.73%), the euro (30.93%), the Chinese yuan (10.92%), the Japanese yen (8.33%) and the pound sterling (8.09%).

Normally an increase in SDRs would be allocated to countries according their IMF quotas, which largely depend on the size of their GDP and their openness. Any new allocation under this formula would therefore go mainly to developed countries, with developing economies getting only around $60bn of the extra $357bn. It has thus been proposed that developed countries give much of their allocation to developing countries. These could then be used to cancel debts. This proposal has been backed by Janet Yellen, the US Secretary of the Treasury, who said she would “strongly encourage G20 members to channel excess SDRs in support of recovery efforts in low-income countries, alongside continued bilateral financing”.

The G20 countries, with the support of the IMF and World Bank, have committed to suspend debt service payments by eligible countries which request to participate in its Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI). There are 73 eligible countries. The scheme, now extended to 31 December 2021, provides a suspension of debt-service payments owed to official bilateral creditors. In return, borrowers commit to use freed-up resources to increase social, health or economic spending in response to the crisis. As of April 2021, 45 countries had requested to participate, with savings totalling more than $10bn. The G20 has also called on private creditors to join the DSSI, but so far without success.

Despite these initiatives, the scale of debt relief (as opposed to extra or deferred lending) remains small in comparison to earlier initiatives. Under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries initiative (HIPC, launched 1996) and the Multilateral Debt Relief Initiative (MDRI, launched 2005) more than $100bn of debt was cancelled.

Since the start of the pandemic, major developed countries have spent between $10 000 and $20 000 per head in stimulus and social support programmes. Sub-Saharan African countries on average are seeking only $365 per head in support.

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  1. Imagine you are an economic advisor to a developing country attempting to rebuild the economy after the coronavirus pandemic. How would you advise it to proceed, given the ‘trilemma’ described above?
  2. How does the News24 article define ‘smart debt relief’. Do you agree with the definition and the means of achieving smart debt relief?
  3. To what extent is it in the interests of the developed world to provide additional debt relief to poor countries whose economies have been badly affected by the coronavirus pandemic?
  4. Research ‘debt-for-nature swaps’. To what extent can debt relief for countries affected by the coronavirus pandemic be linked to tackling climate change?

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 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.