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will rise from 3.9% in 2019 to a peak of 7.5% in mid-2021, after the furlough scheme and other support for employers is withdrawn.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.
There have been many analyses of the economic effects of Brexit, both before the referendum and at various times since, including analyses of the effects of the deal negotiated by Theresa May’s government and the EU. But with the prospect of a no-deal Brexit on 31 October under the new Boris Johnson government, attention has turned to the effects of leaving the EU without a deal.
There have been two major analyses recently of the likely effects of a no-deal Brexit – one by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and one by the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR).
The first was in April by the IMF as part of its 6-monthly World Economic Outlook. In Scenario Box 1.1. ‘A No-Deal Brexit’ on page 28 of Chapter 1, the IMF looked at two possible scenarios.
Scenario A assumes no border disruptions and a relatively small increase in UK sovereign and corporate spreads. Scenario B incorporates significant border disruptions that increase import costs for UK firms and households (and to a lesser extent for the European Union) and a more severe tightening in financial conditions.
Under both scenarios, UK exports to the EU and UK imports from the EU revert to WTO rules. As a result, tariffs are imposed by mid-2020 or earlier. Non-tariff barriers rise at first but are gradually reduced over time. Most free-trade arrangements between the EU and other countries are initially unavailable to the UK (see the blog EU strikes major trade deals) but both scenarios assume that ‘new trade agreements are secured after two years, and on terms similar to those currently in place.’
Both scenarios also assume a reduction in net immigration from the EU of 25 000 per year until 2030. Both assume a rise in corporate and government bond rates, reflecting greater uncertainty, with the effect being greater in Scenario B. Both assume a relaxing of monetary and fiscal policy in response to downward pressures on the economy.
The IMF analysis shows a negative impact on UK GDP, with the economy falling into recession in late 2019 and in 2020. This is the result of higher trade costs and reduced business investment caused by a poorer economic outlook and increased uncertainty. By 2021, even under Scenario A, GDP is approximately 3.5% lower than it would have been if the UK had left the EU with the negotiated deal. For the rest of the EU, GDP is around 0.5% lower, although the effect varies considerably from country to country.
The IMF analysis makes optimistic assumptions, such as the UK being able to negotiate new trade deals with non-EU countries to replace those lost by leaving. More pessimistic assumptions would lead to greater costs.
Building on the analysis of the IMF, the Office for Budget Responsibility considered the effect of a no-deal Brexit on the public finances in its biennial Fiscal risks report, published on 17 July 2019. This argues that, under the relatively benign Scenario A assumptions of the IMF, the lower GDP would result in annual public-sector net borrowing (PSNB) rising. By 2021/22, if the UK had left with the deal negotiated with the EU, PSNB would have been around £18bn. A no-deal Brexit would push this up to around £51bn.
According to the OBR, the contributors to this rise in public-sector net borrowing of around £33bn are:
- A fall in income tax and national insurance receipts of around £16.5bn per year because of lower incomes.
- A fall in corporation tax and expenditure taxes, such as VAT, excise duties and stamp duty of around £22.5bn per year because of lower expenditure.
- A fall in capital taxes, such as inheritance tax and capital gains tax of around £10bn per year because of a fall in asset prices.
- These are offset to a small degree by a rise in customs duties (around £10bn) because of the imposition of tariffs and by lower debt repayments (of around £6bn) because of the Bank of England having to reduce interest rates.
The rise in PSNB would constrain the government’s ability to use fiscal policy to boost the economy and to engage in the large-scale capital projects advocated by Boris Johnson while making the substantial tax cuts he is proposing. A less optimistic set of assumptions would, of course, lead to a bigger rise in PSNB, which would further constrain fiscal policy.
- What are the assumptions of the IMF World Economic Outlook forecasts for the effects of a no-deal Brexit? Do you agree with these assumptions? Explain.
- What are the assumptions of the analysis of a no-deal Brexit on the public finances in the OBR’s Fiscal risks report? Do you agree with these assumptions? Explain.
- What is the difference between forecasts and analyses of outcomes?
- For what reasons might growth over the next few years be higher than in the IMF forecasts under either scenario?
- For what reasons might growth over the next few years be lower than in the IMF forecasts under either scenario?
- For what reasons might public-sector net borrowing (PSNB) over the next few years be lower than in the OBR forecast?
- For what reasons might PSNB over the next few years be higher than in the OBR forecast?
The UK has voted to leave the EU by 17 410 742 votes (51.9% or 37.4% of the electorate) to 16 141 241 votes (48.1% or 34.7% of the electorate). But what will be the economic consequences of the vote?
To leave the EU, Article 50 must be invoked, which starts the process of negotiating the new relationship with the EU. This, according to David Cameron, will happen when a new Conservative Prime Minister is chosen. Once Article 50 has been invoked, negotiations must be completed within two years and then the remaining 27 countries will decide on the new terms on which the UK can trade with the EU. As explained in the blog, The UK’s EU referendum: the economic arguments, there are various forms the new arrangements could take. These include:
‘The Norwegian model’, where Britain leaves the EU, but joins the European Economic Area, giving access to the single market, but removing regulation in some key areas, such as fisheries and home affairs. Another possibility is ‘the Swiss model’, where the UK would negotiate trade deals on an individual basis. Another would be ‘the Turkish model’ where the UK forms a customs union with the EU. At the extreme, the UK could make a complete break from the EU and simply use its membership of the WTO to make trade agreements.
The long-term economic effects would thus depend on which model is adopted. In the Norwegian model, the UK would remain in the single market, which would involve free trade with the EU, the free movement of labour between the UK and member states and contributions to the EU budget. The UK would no longer have a vote in the EU on its future direction. Such an outcome is unlikely, however, given that a central argument of the Leave camp has been for the UK to be able to control migration and not to have to pay contributions to the EU budget.
It is quite likely, then, that the UK would trade with the EU on the basis of individual trade deals. This could involve tariffs on exports to the EU and would involve being subject to EU regulations. Such negotiations could be protracted and potentially extend beyond the two-year deadline under Article 50. But for this to happen, there would have to be agreement by the remaining 27 EU countries. At the end of the two-year process, when the UK exits the EU, any unresolved negotiations would default to the terms for other countries outside the EU. EU treaties would cease to apply to the UK.
It is quite likely, then, that the UK would face trade restrictions on its exports to the EU, which would adversely affect firms for whom the EU is a significant market. Where practical, some firms may thus choose to relocate from the UK to the EU or move business and staff from UK offices to offices within the EU. This is particularly relevant to the financial services sector. As the second Economist article explains:
In the longer run … Britain’s financial industry could face severe difficulties. It thrives on the EU’s ‘passport’ rules, under which banks, asset managers and other financial firms in one member state may serve customers in the other 27 without setting up local operations. …
Unless passports are renewed or replaced, they will lapse when Britain leaves. A deal is imaginable: the EU may deem Britain’s regulations as ‘equivalent’ to its own. But agreement may not come easily. French and German politicians, keen to bolster their own financial centres and facing elections next year, may drive a hard bargain. No other non-member has full passport rights.
But if long-term economic effects are hard to predict, short-term effects are happening already.
The pound fell sharply as soon as the results of the referendum became clear. By the end of the day it had depreciated by 7.7% against the dollar and 5.7% against the euro. A lower pound will make imports more expensive and hence will drive up prices and reduce the real value of sterling. On the other had, it will make exports cheaper and act as a boost to exports.
If inflation rises, then the Bank of England may raise interest rates. This could have a dampening effect on the economy, which in turn would reduce tax revenues. The government, if it sticks to its fiscal target of achieving a public-sector net surplus by 2020 (the Fiscal Mandate), may then feel the need to cut government expenditure and/or raise taxes. Indeed, the Chancellor argued before the vote that such an austerity budget may be necessary following a vote to leave.
Higher interest rates could also dampen house prices as mortgages became more expensive or harder to obtain. The exception could be the top end of the market where a large proportion are buyers from outside the UK whose demand would be boosted by the depreciation of sterling.
But given that the Bank of England’s remit is to target inflation in 24 month’s time, it is possible that any spike in inflation is temporary and this may give the Bank of England leeway to cut Bank Rate from 0.5% to 0.25% or even 0% and/or to engage in further quantitative easing.
One major worry is that uncertainty may discourage investment by domestic companies. It could also discourage inward investment, and international companies many divert investment to the EU. Already some multinationals have indicated that they will do just this. Shares in banks plummeted when the results of the vote were announced.
Uncertainty is also likely to discourage consumption of durables and other big-ticket items. The fall in aggregate demand could result in recession, again necessitating an austerity budget if the Fiscal Mandate is to be adhered to.
We live in ‘interesting’ times. Uncertainty is rarely good for an economy. But that uncertainty could persist for some time.
Why Brexit is grim news for the world economy The Economist (24/6/16)
International banking in a London outside the European Union The Economist (24/6/16)
What happens now that Britain has voted for Brexit The Economist (24/6/16)
Britain and the EU: A tragic split The Economist (24/6/16)
Brexit in seven charts — the economic impact Financial Times, Chris Giles (21/6/16)
How will Brexit result affect France, Germany and the rest of Europe? Financial Times, Anne-Sylvaine Chassany, Stefan Wagstyl, Duncan Robinson and Richard Milne (24/6/16)
How global markets are reacting to UK’s Brexit vote Financial Times, Michael Mackenzie and Eric Platt (24/6/16)
Brexit: What happens now? BBC News (24/6/16)
How will Brexit affect your finances? BBC News, Brian Milligan (24/6/16)
Brexit: what happens when Britain leaves the EU Vox, Timothy B. Lee (25/6/16)
An expert sums up the economic consensus about Brexit. It’s bad. Vox, John Van Reenen (24/6/16)
How will the world’s policymakers respond to Brexit? The Telegraph, Peter Spence (24/6/16)
City of London could be cut off from Europe, says ECB official The Guardian, Katie Allen (25/6/16)
Multinationals warn of job cuts and lower profits after Brexit vot The Guardian, Graham Ruddick (24/6/16)
How will Brexit affect Britain’s trade with Europe? The Guardian, Dan Milmo (26/6/16)
Britain’s financial sector reels after Brexit bombshell Reuters, Sinead Cruise, Andrew MacAskill and Lawrence White (24/6/16)
How ‘Brexit’ Will Affect the Global Economy, Now and Later New York Times, Neil Irwin (24/6/16)
Brexit results: Spurned Europe wants Britain gone Sydney Morning Herald, Nick Miller (25/6/16)
Economists React to ‘Brexit’: ‘A Wave of Economic and Political Uncertainty’ The Wall Street Journal, Jeffrey Sparshott (24/6/16)
Brexit wound: UK vote makes EU decline ‘practically irreversible’, Soros says CNBC, Javier E. David (25/6/16)
One month on, what has been the impact of the Brexit vote so far? The Guardian (23/7/16)
- What are the main elements of a balance of payments account? Changes in which elements caused the depreciation of the pound following the Brexit vote? What elements of the account, in turn, are likely to be affected by the depreciation?
- What determines the size of the effect on the current account of the balance of payments of a depreciation? How might long-term effects differ from short-term ones?
- Is it possible for firms to have access to the single market without allowing free movement of labour?
- What assumptions were made by the Leave side about the economic effects of Brexit?
- Would it be beneficial to go for a ‘free trade’ option of abolishing all import tariffs if the UK left the EU? Would it mean that UK exports would face no tariffs from other countries?
- What factors are likely to drive the level of investment in the UK (a) by domestic companies trading within the UK and (b) by multinational companies over the coming months?
- What will determine the course of monetary policy over the coming months?