Tag: public-sector deficits

One of the key economic issues in 2010 has been the state of countries’ public finances. We take one final look this year at the latest state of the UK public finances in light of the latest release of Public Sector Finances from the Office for National Statistics. In doing so we will be updating our blog of 20th November – What’s £81.6 billion and still rising?.

Well, a good place to start is to up-date you on the amount of net borrowing. This is the amount by which public sector expenditure exceeds current receipts, almost entirely taxation revenues. After adjusting for the impact of temporary ‘financial interventions’ or policies to provide stability for the financial system, the amount of net borrowing in November was a record high £23.3 billion. Therefore, the amount of net borrowing since April and so the start of the financial year rose from over £81 billion in October – and the reason for the title of the earlier blog – to £104.4 billion in November. This is roughly the same as in the first eight months of financial year 2009/10 when we had amassed net borrowing of £105.1 billion.

In the first eight months of the last two financial years monthly net borrowing has averaged close on £13 billion. The government’s independent economic forecaster the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) released its Economic and Fiscal Outlook at the end of November. The OBR is forecasting that over the entire financial year the amount of net borrowing will be £148.5 billion or the equivalent of 10% of GDP.

The public-sector current budget balance measures whether the public sector is able to afford its current expenditures. This balance was an important indicator under the previous Labour government of whether it was meeting its Golden Rule whereby over the economic cycle it should be able to its afford current expenditures and any borrowing would be for net investment, i.e. capital expenditures giving rise to a stream of benefits over time. Therefore, the current budget balance compares revenues with current expenditures, including the wages of public sector staff, welfare payments and expenditures on inputs consumed in the current financial year. The public sector’s current budget (excluding financial interventions) was in deficit in November by £20.0 billion.

In the financial year to date, the current budget deficit has reached £83.2 billion almost identical to the total in the previous financial year. This means that the average monthly current budget deficit over the first eight months of the last two financial years has been £10.4 billion. The OBR is forecasting that there will be a deficit on the current budget in 2010-11 of £106.2 billion, the equivalent of 7.2% of GDP

Finally, we update the public-sector net debt total. The public sector’s net debt is its stock of debt less its liquid financial assets (largely foreign exchange reserves and bank deposits). As of the end of November, the stock of net debt (excluding the impact of the financial interventions) stood at £863 billion, equivalent to 58% of GDP. The stock of debt at the end of the last financial year stood at £772 billion, equivalent to 54% of GDP. The OBR expects it to increase to £922.9 or 60.8% by the end of this financial year.

The extent of the increase in the stock of public sector net debt is very clearly illustrated illustrated if we compare the latest numbers with those at the end of 2006/7 and so before the financial crisis really took hold. Back then, the stock of debt stood at £498 billion or 36% of GDP and so the last government was meeting it sustainable investment rule by keeping net debt below 40% of GDP. Both the sustainable investment rule and the golden rule were to be abandoned during 2008 as the financial crisis took grip.

If we add back the impact of the financial interventions, most notably the balance sheet effects of public sector banks, including Northern Rock, then the stock of public sector net debt at the end of November was £971 billion or 65.1% of GDP. This means that the actual stock has almost doubled since March 2007. It is perhaps little surprise that the government is introducing the Bank Levy in 2011 which, in large part, is being designed to acknowledge the external costs that the banking system can cause to the wider economy and, of course, to the public finances.


Public borrowing soars to £23.3bn record high Independent, Nick Clark (22/12/10)
UK borrowing hits new record high as government spending jumps Telegraph, Emma Rowley (21/12/10)
Government borrowing hits record high Herald, Douglas Hamilton (22/12/10) )
Public borrowing: What the economists are saying Guardian (22/12/10)
Shock as govt borrowing hits record high Sky News, James Sillars (21/11/10)
Record UK borrowing raises concerns Financial Times, Daniel Pimlott (21/12/10)
UK government borrowing hits record high BBC News (21/12/10)
City shocked as government borrowing hits record high Scotsman, Natalie Thomas (22/12/10)

Data on UK Public Finances
Latest on Public Sector Finances Office for National Statistics (21/12/10)
Public Sector Finances Statistical Bulletin, November 2010 Office for National Statistics (21/12/10)
Public Sector Finances (First Release) Time Series Data Office for National Statistics
Statistics on Public Finance and Spending HM Treasury


  1. Give examples of variables which are stock concepts and those which are flow concepts. Is public sector net borrowing a stock or flow concept? What about public sector net debt?
  2. Give examples of public expenditures which are examples of current expenditures and examples of those which are capital expenditures?
  3. What arguments could you put forward for and against the previous Labour government’s golden rule? What about its sustainable investment rule?
  4. Explain the difference between the current budget balance and net borrowing. Why might governments want to measure both these budget balances?
  5. What arguments would you make for and against a rapid reduction of the level of net borrowing by the UK public sector?

So what’s £81.6 billion and still rising? The answer is the UK public-sector budget deficit so far this financial year. Given all the talk over the past week about the state of the Irish public finances it is perhaps timely to review the state of the UK public finances. To do this we take a look at the latest release of public sector finances from the Office for National Statistics. It is worth pointing out that the figures we will refer to take into account the impact of those financial interventions which were designed to ensure the stability of the financial system following the financial crisis. These interventions include the transfer of financial institutions like Northern Rock and HBOS to the public sector, injections of capital into financial institutions and the Asset Protection Scheme whereby institutions insured themselves against losses on assets placed in the scheme. The main impact of these interventions has been on the overall stock of public-sector debt following the incorporation of some financial institutions into the public sector.

We consider three key statistics of the public finances. Firstly, we consider the UK’s level of net borrowing. This is a flow concept measuring the degree to which the public sector’s expenditures exceed its receipts. In October net borrowing was recorded at £10.3 billion and, as we said at the outset, this takes the level of net borrowing so far this financial year (i.e. since April) to £81.6 billion. This compares with £87.5 billion in the same period in 2009. If all these numbers leave you a tad cold then perhaps it may help to note that since the beginning of January 2009 the public sector has been running an average monthly deficit of around £12 billion.

Another widely quoted fiscal indicator is the public-sector current budget. The current budget measures whether the public sector has been able to afford what are known as current expenditures and so net investment by the public sector is excluded from this fiscal indicator. Current expenditures include the wages of public sector staff, such as teachers and nurses, welfare payments and expenditures on a whole range of inputs consumed in the current financial year. Net investment by the public sector adds to our country’s capital stock and includes expenditures on such things as roads and school buildings as well as investment grants to the private sector, for example money to help better insulate our homes.

The public sector’s current budget was in deficit in October to the tune of £7.1 billion. This means that in the current financial year the current budget deficit has reached £64.1 billion which compares with £69.1 billion in the same period last year. Again to put the current budget into perspective we note that since January 2009 the average current budget deficit has been running at just under £8 billion per month.

The third key statistic reported by the ONS is public-sector net debt. This is the value of the sector’s stock of debt less its liquid financial assets (largely foreign exchange reserves and bank deposits). As of the end of October, the stock of net debt (excluding the impact of the financial interventions) stood at £845.8 billion, equivalent to 57.1% of GDP. If we include the impact of the financial interventions then the stock of public sector debt at the end of October was actually £955 billion and so not too far off the £1 trillion-mark. This figure is equivalent to 64.5% of GDP and shows quite clearly the impact of incorporating the balance sheets of those financial institutions now classified as public monetary and financial institutions.

But what about the future prospects for our 3 key indicators of the public finances. The Office for Budget Responsibility central projections at the time of the June Budget predicted that the government’s fiscal consolidation plan will see the current budget in balance across financial year 2015/16. This is expected to come about as the current budget deficit begins falling each year following the current financial year. It is also predicts that if we take into account the negative impact of the economy’s expected negative output gap on the public finances that the structural current budget deficit will have been removed by 2014/15. In other words, any current budget deficit in 2014/15 will be a cyclical deficit resulting from higher expenditure and/or lower receipts because of the economy’s actual output being below its potential output.

Of course, while the OBR is predicting that the actual current budget (i.e. without any adjustment for the cycle) will be in balance by 2015-16, this still means that the public sector will remain a net borrower because there is also net investment expenditure to take into account. Nonetheless, if the forecast is proved correct, this would see net borrowing across the whole of 2015-16 of only £20 billion. As for net debt, the OBR is predicting that it will peak at 70.3% of GDP in 2013-14 before falling to 69.4% by 2014-15.


U.K. had larger-than-expected budget deficit in October amidst modest growth Bloomberg, Svenja O’Donnell (18/11/10)
UK Oct public sector borrowing rise more than expected International Business Times, (18/11/10)
UK government borrowing at £10.3 billion in October BBC News (18/11/10) )
Deficit target still in sight despite new UK borrowing high Telegraph , Emma Rowley (18/11/10)
UK public sector borrowing rises Sky News, Goldie Momen Putrym (18/11/10)
Britain slumps another £10 billion in the red Independent, Holly Williams (18/11/10)


Latest on Public Sector Finances Office for National Statistics (20/11/10)
Public Sector Finances Statistical Bulletin, October 2010 Office for National Statistics (20/11/10)
Public Sector Finances (First Release) Time Series Data Office for National Statistics
Public Sector Finance Statistics HM Treasury


  1. What do you understand to be the difference between the concepts of deficits and debt? Illustrate your answer with reference to the public sector and a household’s finances.
  2. What types of public expenditures would be categorised as being current expenditures and what types as capital expenditures?
  3. What is the difference between the current budget and net borrowing? Why might governments want to measure both these budget balances?
  4. Explain what you think is meant by a cyclical deficit and a structural deficit? Can you have cyclical surpluses and structural surpluses?
  5. What is meant by an output gap? What impact would you expect an output gap to have on the public finances?
  6. In 1988/89 the UK ran a budget surplus equivalent to 6.3% of GDP. After cyclically-adjusting this surplus is estimated to have been a deficit with net borrowing equivalent to 1.3% of GDP. Can you explain how this is possible and what the economy’s output gap is likely to have been?
  7. Imagine that you have been asked by government to design either a fiscal rule (or rules) or a set of principles for fiscal policy. What sorts of considerations would you take into account and so what rule or principles, if any, would you suggest?

Keynes referred to the ‘paradox of thrift’ (see, for example, Box 17.5 on page 492 of Sloman and Wride, Economics, 7th edition). The paradox goes something like this: if individuals save more, they will increase their consumption possibilities in the future. If society saves more, however, this may reduce its future income and consumption. Why should this be so? Well, as people in general save more, they will spend less. Firms will thus produce less. What is more, the lower consumption will discourage firms from investing. Thus, through both the multiplier and the accelerator, GDP will fall.

What we have in the paradox of thrift is an example of the ‘fallacy of composition’ (see Sloman and Wride, Box 3.7 on page 84). What applies at the individual level will not necessarily apply at the aggregate level. The paradox of thrift applied in the Great Depression of the 1930s. People cutting back on consumption drove the world economy further into depression.

Turn the clock forward some 80 years. On 26/27 June 2010, leaders of the G20 countries met in Canada to consider, amongst other things, how to protect the global economic recovery while tackling the large public-sector deficits. These deficits have soared as a result of two things: (a) the recession of 2008/9, which reduced tax revenues and resulted in more people claiming benefits, (b) the expansionary fiscal policies adopted to bring countries out of recession.

But the leaders were divided on how much to cut now. Some, such as the new Coalition government in the UK, want to cut the deficit quickly in order to appease markets and avert a Greek-style crisis and a lack of confidence in the government’s ability to service the debt. Others, such as the Obama Administration in the USA, want to cut more slowly so as not to put the recovery in jeopardy. Nevertheless, cuts were generally agreed, although agreement about the timing was more vague.

So where is the fallacy of composition? If one country cuts, then it is possible that increased demand from other countries could drive recovery. If all countries cut, however, the world may go back into recession. What applies to one country, therefore, may not apply to the world as a whole.

Let’s look at this in a bit more detail and consider the individual elements of aggregate demand. If there are to be cuts in government expenditure, then there has to be a corresponding increase in aggregate demand elsewhere, if growth is to be maintained. This could come from increased consumption. But, with higher taxes and many people saving more (or reducing their borrowing) for fear of being made redundant or, at least, of having a cut in their incomes, there seems to be little sign that consumption will be the driver of growth.

Then there is investment. But, fearing a ‘double-dip recession’, business confidence is plummeting (see) and firms are likely to be increasingly reluctant to invest. Indeed, after the G20 summit, stock markets around the world fell. On 29 June, the FTSE 100 fell by 3.10% and the main German and French stock market indices, the Dax and the Cac 40, fell by 3.33% and 4.01% respectively. This was partly because of worries about re-financing the debts of various European countries, but it was partly because of fears about recovery stalling.

The problem is that cuts in government expenditure and rises in taxes directly affect the private sector. If government capital expenditure is cut, this will directly affect the construction industry. Even if the government makes simple efficiency savings, such as reducing the consumption of paper clips or paper, this will directly affect the private stationery industry. If taxes are raised, consumers are likely to buy less. Under these circumstances, no wonder many industries are reluctant to invest.

This leaves net exports (exports minus imports). Countries generally are hoping for a rise in exports as a way of maintaining aggregate demand. But here we have the fallacy of composition in its starkest form. If one country exports more, then this can boost its aggregate demand. But if all countries in total are to export more, this can only be achieved if there is an equivalent increase in global imports: after all, someone has to buy the exports! And again, with growth faltering, the global demand for imports is likely to fall, or at best slow down.

The following articles consider the compatibility of cuts and growth. Is there a ‘paradox of cuts’ equivalent to the paradox of thrift?

Osborne’s first Budget? It’s wrong, wrong, wrong! Independent on Sunday, Joseph Stiglitz (27/6/10)
Strategy: Focus switches from exit to growth Financial Times, Chris Giles (25/6/10)
Once again we must ask: ‘Who governs?’ Financial Times, Robert Skidelsky (16/6/10)
Europe’s next top bailout… MoneyWeb, Guy Monson and Subitha Subramaniam (9/6/10)
Hawks hovering over G20 summit Financial Times (25/6/10)
G20 applauds fiscal austerity but allows for national discretion Independent, Andrew Grice and David Usborne (28/6/10)
To stimulate or not to stimulate? That is the question Independent, Stephen King (28/6/10)
Now even the US catches the deficit reduction habit Telegraph, Jeremy Warner (28/6/10)
George Osborne claims G20 success Guardian, Larry Elliott and Patrick Wintour (28/6/10)
G20 accord: you go your way, I’ll go mine Guardian, Larry Elliott (28/6/10)
G20 summit agrees on deficit cuts by 2013 BBC News (28/6/10)
IMF says G20 could do better BBC News blogs: Stephanomics, Stephanie Flanders (27/6/10)
Are G20 summits worth having? What should the G20’s top priority be? (Economics by invitation): see in particular The G20 is heading for a “public sector paradox of thrift”, John Makin The Economist (25/6/10)
Why it is right for central banks to keep printing Financial Times, Martin Wolf (22/6/10)
In graphics: Eurozone in crisis: Recovery Measures BBC News (24/6/10)
A prophet in his own house The Economist (1/7/10)
The long and the short of fiscal policy Financial Times, Clive Crook (4/7/10)

G20 Communiqué
The G20 Toronto Summit Declaration (27/6/10) (see particularly paragraph 10)


  1. Consider the arguments that economic growth and cutting deficits are (a) complementary aims (b) contradictory aims.
  2. Is there necessarily a ‘paradox of cuts’? Explain.
  3. How is game theory relevant in explaining the outcome of international negotiations, such as those at the G20 summit?
  4. Would it be wise for further quantitative easing to accompany fiscal tightening?
  5. What is the best way for governments to avoid a ‘double-dip recession’?