In his Budget on the 24th March the Chancellor of the Exchequer forecast that the public sector’s net borrowing, i.e. its budget deficit, in financial year 2009-10 would be £166.5 billion. This figure excludes the on-going effects from those ‘temporary financial interventions’ designed to ensure the stability of the financial system following the financial crisis. These interventions include injections of capital into financial institutions and payments received from financial institutions entering the Asset Protection Scheme – essentially an insurance scheme whereby these institutions could insure themselves against losses on assets placed in the scheme. The Chancellor also forecasted that the public sector’s stock of debt would rise to £776.6 billion. Again, the debt figure excludes the impact of ‘financial interventions’ and, in particular, the ‘balance sheet effects’ of those financial institutions now incorporated within the public sector.
The burgeoning size of the deficit and debt numbers has been the subject of considerable debate amongst the public, politicians and, of course, economists. Here we don’t intend to revisit those debates; rather we just present the latest public finance numbers from the Office for National Statistics.
Firstly, consider the budget deficit. The budget deficit is a flow concept representing the extent to which expenditures have exceeded receipts. Over the last financial year (2009/10), public sector net borrowing, inclusive of ‘temporary financial interventions’, was measured at £152.8 billion. When these interventions are excluded the figure rises to £163.4 billion; this is £3.1 billion less than was forecast in the Budget. Numbers of this magnitude are very hard to get one’s head around. But, some context is offered by expressing the level of net borrowing relative to GDP over the 12 month-period. This shows net borrowing in 2009/10 to have been equivalent to 11.62% of GDP, up significantly from 6.73% of GDP in financial year 2008/9. Further, it is considerably above the 2.6% average since 1955.
Secondly, consider the level of debt. Public sector net debt (net of liquid financial assets) is a stock concept. The stock of debt builds up if expenditures exceed receipts. It’s rather like the level of water in a bath tub; if the flow of water in through the taps is greater than the flow out through the plug hole, then the water level rises. At the end of the last financial year (2009/10) the public sector’s net debt, excluding ‘temporary financial interventions’, stood at £760 billion (£890b when including financial interventions). Again, putting this in context, this is equivalent to 53.8% of GDP (62% when including financial interventions), up from 44% in 2008/9 and 36.5% in 2007/08. Further, the level of public sector net debt relative to GDP was as low as 29.7% in 2001/2.
So what of future projections for deficits and debt? Well, part of the answer might lie in who forms the next government. But, as of February 2010 a Fiscal Responsibility Bill was enshrined in law. The Financial Responsibility Act, as it is now known, requires governments to set out legislative fiscal plans for delivering sound public finances and places a duty on Government to meet their plan. The Act also laid out the Government’s first Financial Consolidation Plan which includes reducing, year-on-year, net borrowing as a share of GDP up to 2015-16 and public sector net debt falling as a share of GDP in 2015-16.
UK budget deficit at record levels Associated Press, Jane Wardell (22/4/10)
Budget deficit at record £163 billion The Herald, Douglas Hamilton (23/4/10)
UK borrowing hits record £163.4 billion BBC News (22/4/10) )
Darling deficit highest in peacetime Financial Times, Chris Giles (22/4/10)
Gordon Brown wins boost as budget deficit proves £3billion lower than forecast The Guardian, Larry Elliott (22/4/10)
Latest on Public Sector Finances Office for National Statistics (22/4/10)
Public Sector Finances Statistical Bulletin, March 2010 Office for National Statistics (22/4/10)
Public Sector Finances (First Release) Time Series Data Office for National Statistics
For the Budget forecasts for the UK’s public finances see:
Annex C of the Financial Statement and Budget Report Budget 2010, HM Treasury
- What do you understand to be the difference between the concepts of ‘deficits’ and ‘debt’? Illustrate with reference to both your own financial situation and that of the public sector.
- In what ways will the Government’s interventions to ensure the stability of the financial system have affected the size of the budget deficit and the stock of public sector debt?
- If the government is to continue running deficits for the foreseeable future, how can public sector debt as a share of GDP begin to fall from 2015/16 as is set out in the Fiscal Consolidation Plan?
- What arguments can you make for government’s adhering to fiscal plans such as those now required by the Fiscal Responsibility Act?