The COVID-19 pandemic had a stark effect on countries’ public finances. Governments had to make difficult fiscal choices around spending and taxation to safeguard public health, and the protection of jobs and incomes both in the present and in the future. The fiscal choices were to have historically large effects on the size of public spending and on the size of public borrowing. Here we briefly summarise the magnitude of these effects on public spending, receipts and borrowing in the UK.
The public sector comprises both national government and local or regional government. In financial year 2019/20 public spending in the UK was £886 billion. This would rise to £1.045 trillion in 2020/21. To understand better the magnitude of these figures we can express them as a share of national income (Gross Domestic Product). In 2019/20 public spending was 39.8 per cent of national income. This rose to 52.1 per cent in 2020/21. Meanwhile, public-sector receipts, largely taxation, fell from £829.1 billion in 2019/20 to £796.5 billion in 2020/21, though, because of the fall in national income, the share of receipts in national income rose very slightly from 37.3 to 37.9 per cent of national income.
The chart shows both public spending and public receipts as a share of national income since 1900. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.) What this chart shows is the extraordinary impact of the two World Wars on the relative size of public spending. We can also see an uptick in public spending following the global financial crisis and, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic. The chart also shows that spending is typically larger than receipts meaning that the public sector typically runs a budget deficit. .
If we focus on public spending as a share of national income and its level following the two world wars, we can see that it did not fall back to pre-war levels. This is what Peacock and Wiseman (1961) famously referred to as a displacement effect. They attributed this to, among other things, an increase in the public’s tolerance to pay higher taxation because of the higher taxes levied during the war as well as to a desire for greater public intervention. The latter arose from an inspection effect. This can be thought of as a public consciousness effect, with the war helping to shine a light on a range of economic and social issues, such as health, housing and social security. These two effects, it is argued, reinforced each other, allowing the burden of taxation to rise and, hence, public spending to increase relative to national income.
If we forward to the global financial crisis, we can again see public spending rise as a share of national income. However, this time the ratio did not remain above pre-crisis levels. Rather, the UK government was fearful of unsustainable borrowing levels and the crowding out of private-sector activity by the public sector, with higher interest rates making public debt an attractive proposition for investors. It thus sought to reduce the public-sector deficit by engaging in what became known as ‘austerity’ measures.
If we move forward further to the COVID-19 pandemic, we see an even more significant spike in public spending as a share of national income. It is of course rather early to make predictions about whether the pandemic will have enduring effects on public spending and taxation. Nonetheless the pandemic, in a similar way to the two world wars, has sparked public debates on many economic and social issues. Whilst debates around the funding of health and social care are longstanding, it could be argued that the pandemic has provided the government with the opportunity to introduce the 1.25 percentage point levy from April 2022 on the earned incomes of workers (both employees and the self-employed) and on employers. (See John’s blog Fair care? for a fuller discussion on the tax changes to pay for increased health and social care expenditure).
The extent to which there may be a pandemic displacement effect will depend on the fiscal choices made in the months and years ahead. The key question is how powerful will be the effect of social issues like income and wealth inequality, regional and inter-generational disparities, discrimination, poor infrastructure and educational opportunities in shaping these fiscal choices? Will these considerations carry more weight than the push to consolidate the public finances and tighten the public purse? These fiscal choices will determine the extent of any displacement effect in public spending and taxation.
Alan Peacock and Jack Wiseman, The Growth in Public Expenditure in the United Kingdom, Princeton University Press (1961).
- What do you understand by the term ‘public finances’?
- Why might you wish to express the size of public spending relative to national income rather than simply as an absolute amount?
- Undertake research to identify key pieces of social policy in the UK that were enacted at or around the times of the two World Wars.
- What do you understand by the terms ‘tolerable tax burden’ and ‘inspection effect’?
- Identify those social issues that you think have come into the spotlight as a result of the pandemic. Undertake research on any one of these and write a briefing note exploring the issue and the possible policy choices available to government.
- What is the concept of crowding out? How might it affect fiscal choices?
- How would you explain the distinction between public-sector borrowing and public-sector debt? Why could the former fall and the latter rise at the same time?
The coronavirus pandemic and the climate emergency have highlighted the weaknesses of free-market capitalism.
Governments around the world have intervened massively to provide economic support to people and businesses affected by the pandemic through grants and furlough schemes. They have also stressed the importance of collective responsibility in abiding by lockdowns, social distancing and receiving vaccinations.
The pandemic has also highlighted the huge inequalities around the world. The rich countries have been able to offer much more support to their people than poor countries and they have had much greater access to vaccines. Inequality has also been growing within many countries as rich people have gained from rising asset prices, while many people find themselves stuck in low-paid jobs, suffering from poor educational opportunities and low economic and social mobility.
The increased use of working from home and online shopping has accelerated the rise of big tech companies, such as Amazon and Google. Their command of the market makes it difficult for small companies to compete – and competition is vital if capitalism is to benefit societies. There have been growing calls for increased regulation of powerful companies and measures to stimulate competition. The problem has been recognised by governments, central banks and international agencies, such as the IMF and the OECD.
At the same time as the world has been grappling with the pandemic, global warming has contributed to extreme heat and wildfires in various parts of the world, such as western North America, the eastern Mediterranean and Siberia, and major flooding in areas such as western Europe and China. Governments again have intervened by providing support to people whose property and livelihoods have been affected. Also there is a growing urgency to tackle global warming, with some movement, albeit often limited, in implementing policies to achieve net zero carbon emissions by some specified point in the future. Expectations are rising for concerted action to be agreed at the international COP26 climate meeting in Glasgow in November this year.
An evolving capitalism
So are we seeing a new variant of capitalism, with a greater recognition of social responsibility and greater government intervention?
Western governments seem more committed to spending on socially desirable projects, such as transport, communications and green energy infrastructure, education, science and health. They are beginning to pursue more active industrial and regional policies. They are also taking measures to tax multinationals (see the blog The G7 agrees on measures to stop corporate tax avoidance). Many governments are publicly recognising the need to tackle inequality and to ‘level up’ society. Active fiscal policy, a central plank of Keynesian economics, has now come back into fashion, with a greater willingness to fund expenditure by borrowing and, over the longer term, to use higher taxes to fund increased government expenditure.
But there is also a growing movement among capitalists themselves to move away from profits being their sole objective. A more inclusive ‘stakeholder capitalism’ is being advocated by many companies, where they take into account the interests of a range of stakeholders, from customers, to workers, to local communities, to society in general and to the environment. For example, the Council for Inclusive Capitalism, which is a joint initiative of the Vatican and several world business and public-sector leaders, seeks to make ‘the world fairer, more inclusive, and sustainable’.
If there is to be a true transformation of capitalism from the low-tax free-market capitalism of neoclassical economists and libertarian policymakers to a more interventionist mixed market capitalism, where capitalists pursue a broader set of objectives, then words have to be matched by action. Talk is easy; long-term plans are easy; taking action now is what matters.
Articles and videos
- Why the next stage of capitalism is coming
BBC Future, Matthew Wilburn King (27/5/21)
- During the pandemic, a new variant of capitalism has emerged
The Guardian, Larry Elliott (30/7/21)
- When it comes to social and environmental justice, words don’t cut it
GreenBiz, C J Clouse (28/4/21)
- Introducing the Council for Inclusive Capitalism with the Vatican
Inclusive Capitalism (7/12/20)
- The State and Direction of Inclusive Capitalism
Saïd Business School, Ford Foundation and Deloitte Social Impact practice, Richard Barker, Mary Johnstone-Louis, Colin Mayer, Pradeep Prabhala, Noah Rimland Flower, Theodore Roosevelt Malloch, Tony Siesfeld and Peter Tufano (2018)
- Rising Market Power—A Threat to the Recovery?
IMF Blog, Kristalina Georgieva, Federico J Díez, Romain Duval and Daniel Schwarz (15/3/21)
- The Pandemic Alone Can’t Transform Capitalism
Jacobin, Ramaa Vasudevan (30/7/21)
- Down to earth: How entrepreneurs can collaborate to rejuvenate capitalism
EU-Startups, Luca Sabia (4/8/21)
- How similar is the economic response of Western governments to the pandemic to their response to the financial crisis of 2007–8?
- What do you understand by ‘inclusive capitalism’? How can stakeholders hold companies to account?
- What indicators are there of market power? Why have these been on the rise?
- How can entrepreneurs contribute to ‘closing the inequality gap for a more sustainable and inclusive form of society’?
- What can be done to hold governments to account for meeting various social and environmental objectives? How successful is this likely to be?
- Can inequality be tackled without redistributing income and wealth from the rich to the poor?
On 10 March, the House of Representatives gave final approval to President Biden’s $1.9tr fiscal stimulus plan (the American Rescue Plan). Worth over 9% of GDP, this represents the third stage of an unparalleled boost to the US economy. In March 2020, President Trump secured congressional agreement for a $2.2tr package (the CARES Act). Then in December 2020, a bipartisan COVID relief bill, worth $902bn, was passed by Congress.
By comparison, the Obama package in 2009 in response to the impending recession following the financial crisis was $831bn (5.7% of GDP).
The American Rescue Plan
The Biden stimulus programme consists of a range of measures, the majority of which provide monetary support to individuals. These include a payment of $1400 per person for single people earning less than $75 000 and couples less than $150 000. These come on top of payments of $1200 in March 2020 and $600 in late December. In addition, the top-up to unemployment benefits of $300 per week agreed in December will now continue until September. Also, annual child tax credit will rise from $2000 annually to as much as $3600 and this benefit will be available in advance.
Other measures include $350bn in grants for local governments depending on their levels of unemployment and other needs; $50bn to improve COVID testing centres and $20bn to develop a national vaccination campaign; $170bn to schools and universities to help them reopen after lockdown; and grants to small businesses and specific grants to hard-hit sectors, such as hospitality, airlines, airports and rail companies.
Despite supporting the two earlier packages, no Republican representative or senator backed this latest package, arguing that it was not sufficiently focused. As a result, reaction to the package has been very much along partisan lines. Nevertheless, it is supported by some 90% of Democrat voters and 50% of Republican voters.
Is the stimulus the right amount?
Although the latest package is worth $1.9tr, aggregate demand will not expand by this amount, which will limit the size of the multiplier effect. The reason is that the benefits multiplier is less than the government expenditure multiplier as some of the extra money people receive will be saved or used to reduce debts.
With $3tr representing some 9% of GDP, this should easily fill the estimated negative output gap of between 2% and 3%, especially when multiplier effects are included. Also, with savings having increased during the recession to put them some 7% above normal, the additional amount saved may be quite small, and wealthier Americans may begin to reduce their savings and spend a larger proportion of their income.
So the problem might be one of excessive stimulus, which in normal times could result in crowding out by driving up interest rates and dampening investment. However, the Fed is still engaged in a programme of quantitative easing. Between mid-March 2020 and the end of March 2021, the Fed’s portfolio of securities held outright grew from $3.9tr to $7.2tr. What is more, many economists predict that inflation is unlikely to rise other than very slightly. If this is so, it should allow the package to be financed easily. Debt should not rise to unsustainable levels.
Other economists argue, however, that inflationary expectations are rising, reflected in bond yields, and this could drive actual inflation and force the Fed into the awkward dilemma of either raising interest rates, which could have a significant dampening effect, or further increasing money supply, potentially leading to greater inflationary problems in the future.
A lot will depend what happens to potential GDP. Will it rise over the medium term so that additional spending can be accommodated? If the rise in spending encourages an increase in investment, this should increase potential GDP. This will depend on business confidence, which may be boosted by the package or may be dampened by worries about inflation.
Additional packages to come
Potential GDP should also be boosted by two further packages that Biden plans to put to Congress.
The first is a $2.2tr infrastructure investment plan, known as the American Jobs Plan. This is a 10-year plan to invest public money in transport infrastructure (such as rebuilding 20 000 miles of road and repairing bridges), public transport, electric vehicles, green housing, schools, water supply, green power generation, modernising the power grid, broadband, R&D in fields such as AI, social care, job training and manufacturing. This will be largely funded through tax increases, such as gradually raising corporation tax from 21% to 28% (it had been cut from 35% to 21% by President Trump) and taxing global profits of US multinationals. However, the spending will generally precede the increased revenues and thus will raise aggregate demand in the initial years. Only after 15 years are revenues expected to exceed costs.
The second is a yet-to-be announced plan to increase spending on childcare, healthcare and education. This should be worth at least $1tr. This will probably be funded by tax increases on income, capital gains and property, aimed largely at wealthy individuals. Again, it is hoped that this will boost potential GDP, in this case by increasing labour productivity.
With earlier packages, the total increase in public spending will be over $8tr. This is discretionary fiscal policy writ large.
- Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 bill wins final approval in House
Reuters, Susan Cornwell and Makini Brice (10/3/21)
- Biden’s Covid stimulus plan: It costs $1.9tn but what’s in it?
BBC News, Natalie Sherman (6/3/21)
- Biden’s $1.9 Trillion Challenge: End the Coronavirus Crisis Faster
New York Times, Jim Tankersley and Sheryl Gay Stolberg (22/3/21)
- Joe Biden writes a cheque for America – and the rest of the world
The Observer, Phillip Inman (13/3/21)
- Spend or save: Will Biden’s stimulus cheques boost the economy?
Aljazeera, Cinnamon Janzer (9/3/21)
- After Biden stimulus, US economic growth could rival China’s for the first time in decades
CNN, Matt Egan (12/3/21)
- Larry Summers, who called out inflation fears with Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package, says the US is seeing ‘least responsible’ macroeconomic policy in 40 years
Business Insider, John L. Dorman (21/3/21)
- With $1.9 Trillion in New Spending, America Is Headed for Financial Fragility
Barron’s, Leslie Lipschitz and Josh Felman (30/3/21)
- Biden unveils ‘once-in-a generation’ $2tn infrastructure investment plan
The Guardian, Lauren Gambino (31/3/21)
- Biden unveils $2tn infrastructure plan and big corporate tax rise
Financial Times, James Politi (31/3/21)
- The Observer view on Joe Biden’s audacious spending plans
The Observer, editorial (11/4/21)
- Draw a Keynesian cross diagram to show the effect of an increase in benefits when the economy is operating below potential GDP.
- What determines the size of the benefits multiplier?
- Explain what is meant by the output gap. How might the pandemic and accompanying emergency health measures have affected the size of the output gap?
- How are expectations relevant to the effectiveness of the stimulus measures?
- What is likely to determine the proportion of the $1400 stimulus cheques that people spend?
- Distinguish between resource crowding out and financial crowding out. Is the fiscal stimulus package likely to result in either form of crowding out and, if so, what will determine by how much?
- What is the current monetary policy of the Fed? How is it likely to impact on the effectiveness of the fiscal stimulus?
Rishi Sunak delivered his 2021 UK Budget on 3 March. It illustrates the delicate balancing act that governments in many countries face as the effects of the coronavirus pandemic persist and public-sector debt soars. He announced that he would continue supporting the economy through various forms of government expenditure and tax relief, but also announced tax rises over the medium term to begin addressing the massively increased public-sector debt.
Key measures of support for people and businesses include:
- An extension of the furlough scheme until the end of September, with employees continuing to be paid 80% of their wages for hours they cannot work, but with employers having to contribute 10% in July and 20% in August and September.
- Support for the self-employed also extended until September, with the scheme being widened to make 600 000 more self-employed people eligible.
- The temporary £20 increase to Universal Credit, introduced in April last year and due to end on 31 March this year, to be extended to the end of September.
- Stamp duty holiday on house purchases in England and Northern Ireland, under which there is no tax liability on sales of less than £500 000, extended from the end of March to the end of June.
- An additional £1.65bn to support the UK’s vaccination rollout.
- VAT rate for hospitality firms to be maintained at the reduced 5% rate until the end of September and then raised to 12.5% (rather than 20%) for a further six months.
- A range of grants for the arts, sport, shops , other businesses and apprenticeships.
- Business rates holiday for hospitality firms in England extended from the end of March to the end of June and then with a discount of 66% until April 2022.
- 130% of investment costs can be offset against tax – a new tax ‘super-deduction’.
- No tax rises on alcohol, tobacco or fuel.
- New UK Infrastructure Bank to be set up in Leeds with £12bn in capital to support £40bn worth of public and private projects.
- Increased grants for devolved nations and grants for 45 English towns.
It has surprised many commentators that there was no announcement of greater investment in the NHS or more money for social care beyond the £3bn for the NHS and £1bn for social care announced in the November Spending Review. The NHS England budget will fall from £148bn in 2020/21 to £139bn in 2021/22.
Effects on borrowing and GDP
The net effect of these measures for the two financial years 2020 to 2022 is forecast by the Treasury to be an additional £37.5bn of government expenditure and a £27.3bn reduction in tax revenue (see Table 2.1 in Budget 2021). This takes the total support since the start of the pandemic to £352bn across the two years.
According to the OBR, this will result in public-sector borrowing being 16.9% of GDP in 2020/21 (the highest since the Second World War) and 10.3% of GDP in 2021/22. Public-sector debt will be 107.4% of GDP in 2021/22, rising to 109.7% in 2023/24 and then falling to 103.8% in 2025/26.
Faced with this big increase in borrowing, the Chancellor also announced some measures to raise tax revenue beginning in two years’ time when, hopefully, the economy will have grown. Indeed, the OBR forecasts that GDP will grow by 4.0% in 2021 and 7.3% in 2022, with the growth rate then settling at around 1.7% from 2023 onwards. He announced that:
- Corporation tax on company profits over £250 000 will rise from 19% to 25% in April 2023. Rates for profits under £50 000 will remain at the current rate of 19%, with the rate rising in stages as profits rise above £50 000.
- Personal income tax thresholds will be frozen from 2022/23 to 2025/26 at £12 570 for the basic 20% marginal rate and at £50 270 for the 40% marginal rate. This will increase the average tax rate as people’s nominal incomes rise.
The policy of a fiscal boost now and a fiscal tightening later might pose political difficulties for the government as this does not fit with the electoral cycle. Normally, politicians like to pursue tighter policies in the early years of the government only to loosen policy with various giveaways as the next election approaches. With Rishi Sunak’s policies, the opposite is the case, with fiscal policy being tightened as the 2024 election approaches.
Another issue is the high degree of uncertainty in the forecasts on which he is basing his policies. If there is another wave of the coronavirus with a new strain resistant to the vaccines or if the scarring effects of the lockdowns are greater, then growth could stall. Or if inflation begins to rise and the Bank of England feels it must raise interest rates, then this would suppress growth. With lower growth, the public-sector deficit would be higher and the government would be faced with the dilemma of whether it should raise taxes, cut government expenditure or accept higher borrowing.
What is more, there are likely to be huge pressures on the government to increase public spending, not cut it by £4bn per year in the medium term as he plans. As Paul Johnson of the IFS states:
In reality, there will be pressures from all sorts of directions. The NHS is perhaps the most obvious. Further top-ups seem near-inevitable. Catching up on lost learning in schools, dealing with the backlog in our courts system, supporting public transport providers, and fixing our system for social care funding would all require additional spending. The Chancellor’s medium-term spending plans simply look implausibly low.
Articles and Briefings
- Budget 2021: Key points at-a-glance
BBC News (3/3/21)
- Budget 2021: Full round-up of what Chancellor Rishi Sunak has announced
MoneySavingExpert, Callum Mason (3/3/21)
- Budget 2021 at a glance: The key points from Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s speech
This is Money, Alex Sebastian (3/3/21)
- Budget 2021
- Rishi Sunak delivers spend now, tax later Budget to kickstart UK economy
Financial Times, Jim Pickard, Chris Giles and George Parker (3/3/21)
- Swifter and more sustained? What did we learn about the UK’s economic outlook from Rishi Sunak’s Budget?
Independent. Ben Chu (3/3/21)
- Spending fast, taxing slow: Briefing Note
Resolution Foundation, Torsten Bell, Mike Brewer, Nye Cominetti, Karl Handscomb, Kathleen Henehan, Lindsay Judge, Jack Leslie, Charlie McCurdy, Cara Pacitti, Hannah Slaughter, James Smith, Gregory Thwaites & Daniel Tomlinson (4/3/21)
- JRF Spring Budget 2021 analysis and briefing
Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Dave Innes and Katie Schmuecker (4/3/21)
- NHS, social care and most vulnerable ‘betrayed’ by Sunak’s budget
The Guardian, Robert Booth ,Patrick Butler and Denis Campbell (3/3/21)
- Spend now, pay later: Sunak flags major tax rises as Covid bill tops £400bn
The Guardian, Heather Stewart and Larry Elliott (3/3/21)
- Rishi Sunak digs in for battle against financial cost of Covid
The Guardian, Larry Elliott (3/3/21)
- Tax and spending experts say Sunak’s budget doesn’t add up
The Guardian, Larry Elliott and Heather Stewart (4/3/21)
- Budget 2021: Prepare for a dramatic rollercoaster ride after chancellor’s give-then-take budget
Sky News, Ed Conway (3/3/21)
Official documents and data
- Assess the wisdom of the timing of the changes in tax and government expenditure announced in the Budget.
- Universal credit was increased by £20 per week in April 2020 and is now due to fall back to its previous level in October 2021. Have the needs of people on Universal Credit increased during the pandemic and, if so, are they likely to return to their previous level in October?
- In the past, the government argued that reductions in the rate of corporation tax would increase tax revenue. The Chancellor now argues that increasing it from 19% to 25% will increase tax revenue. Examine the justification for this increase and the significance of relative profit tax rates between countries.
- Investigate the effects on the public finances of the pandemic and government fiscal policy in two other countries. How do the effects compare with those in the UK?
- The Joseph Rowntree Foundation looks at poverty in the UK and policies to tackle it. It set five tests for the Budget. Examine its Budget Analysis and consider whether these tests have been met.
The BBC podcast linked below looks at the use of quantitative easing since 2009 and especially the most recent round since the onset of the pandemic.
Although QE was a major contributor to reducing the depth of the recession in 2009–10, it was barely used from 2013 to 2020 (except for a short period in late 2016/early 2017). The Coalition and Conservative governments were keen to get the deficit down. In justifying pay restraint and curbing government expenditure, Prime Ministers David Cameron and Theresa May both argued that there ‘was no magic money tree’.
But with the severely dampening effect of the lockdown measures from March 2020, the government embarked on a large round of expenditure, including the furlough scheme and support for businesses.
The resulting rise in the budget deficit was accompanied by a new round of QE from the beginning of April. The stock of assets purchased by the Bank of England rose from £445 billion (the approximate level it had been since March 2017) to £740 billion by December 2020 and is planned to reach £895 billion by the end of 2021.
So with the effective funding of the government’s deficits by the creation of new money, does this mean that there is indeed a ‘magic money tree’ or, indeed, a ‘magic money forest’? And if so, is it desirable? Is it simply stoking up problems for the future? Or will, as modern monetary theorists maintain, the extra money, if carefully spent, lead to faster growth and a reducing deficit, with low interest rates making it easy to service the debt?
The podcast explores these issues. There is then a longer list of questions than normal relating to the topics raised in the podcast.
- Which of the following are stocks and which are flows?
(c) The total amount people save each month
(d) The money held in savings accounts
(e) Public-sector net debt
(f) Public-sector net borrowing
(g) National income
(h) Injections into the circular flow of income
(i) Aggregate demand
- How do banks create money?
- What is the role of the Debt Management Office in the sale of gilts?
- Describe the birth of QE.
- Is raising asset prices the best means of stimulating the economy? What are the disadvantages of this form of monetary expansion?
- What are the possible exit routes from QE and what problems could occur from reducing the central bank’s stock of assets?
- Is the use of QE in the current Covid-19 crisis directly related to fiscal policy? Or is this use of monetary policy simply a means of hitting the inflation target?
- What are the disadvantages of having interest rates at ultra-low levels?
- Does it matter if the stock of government debt rises substantially if the gilts are at ultra-low fixed interest rates?
- What are the intergenerational effects of substantial QE? Does it depend on how debt is financed?
- How do the policy recommendations of modern monetary theorists differ from those of more conventional macroeconomists?
- In an era of ultra-low interest rates, does fiscal policy have a greater role to play than monetary policy?