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.)
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.
- What do you understand by the term financial wellbeing? What might this mean in respect of the government?
- What is meant by the fiscal arithmetic of government debt? Explain the factors that determine the fiscal arithmetic and the path of government debt?
- What is the difference between an increase in the size of a government deficit and an increase in the stock of government debt?
- Discuss the economic argument that, following the COVID-19 pandemic, government should avoid a return to an agenda of fiscal austerity ?
- What is the difference between the budget deficit, the primary deficit and the structural deficit?
- What are hysteresis effects? Discuss their relevancy in the design of the UK’s COVID-19 interventions.
The Autumn Statement, delivered annually by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in late November or early December, is rather like a second Budget. In his statement, the Chancellor presents new forecasts for the UK economy by the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) and announces various policy changes in the light of the forecasts.
So what does this OBR say? Its headline reads, “Government borrowing revised higher as weaker economy hits revenues” and this is followed by the statement:
The OBR has revised up its forecasts for public-sector borrowing over the next five years, as a weaker outlook for the economy reduces tax revenues. As a result, the Government no longer seems likely to achieve its target of reducing public-sector net debt in 2015–16.
The chart shows OBR forecasts for public-sector net borrowing made in June 2010 (its first forecast after the OBR was formed by the Coalition government), in March 2012 and in December 2012. The current forecast clearly shows borrowing set to decline more slowly than in the earlier forecasts. Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart. (Note that the effects of transferring the pension assets of the Royal Mail to the Treasury and the effects of not paying interest to the Bank of England on government bonds purchased under quantitative easing programmes have not been included in order to make the three forecasts consistent.)
So with a weaker economy and slower recovery than previously forecast, what are George Osborne’s options? He and his colleagues, along with various economists, argue for sticking to Plan A. This means continuing with austerity measures in order to get the public-sector deficit down. But with government borrowing having fallen more slowly than forecast, this means further government expenditure cuts, such as reductions in benefits, cuts in grants to local authorities and reductions in pensions relief. Even so, achieving his two targets – (1) eliminating the cyclically adjusted current (as opposed to capital) budget deficit by 2015/16 (the so-called ‘fiscal mandate’), and (2) public-sector debt falling as a proportion of GDP by 2015/16 – will both be missed. They were extended by a year in the Budget last March. They have now been extended by a further year to 2017/18.
The opposition and many other economists argue that Plan A has failed. Austerity has prevented the economy from growing and has thus meant a slower reduction in the deficit as tax revenues have not grown nearly as much as hoped for. A more expansionary policy would allow the deficit to be reduced more quickly, especially if extra government expenditure were focused on infrastructure and other capital spending.
It could be argued that George Osborne’s Autumn Statement moves some way in this direction – a Plan A+. He is making deeper cuts in welfare and government departmental spending in order to divert monies into capital spending. For example, there will be £1bn of extra expenditure on roads; £1bn extra on schools; £270m on FE colleges; and £600m extra for scientific research. Also, by extending the period of austerity to 2017/18, this has meant that he has not had to make even deeper cuts. What is more, he is increasing income tax allowances and cutting the rate of corporation tax by 1% more than originally planned and scrapping the planned 3p per litre rise in road fuel duty. He hopes to make up any lost tax revenue from these measures by HMRC clamping down on tax evasion.
But by sticking to his broad austerity strategy, and with many parts of the global economy having weakened, it looks as if the UK economy is in for several more years of sluggish growth. Winter is going to be long.
Webcasts and Podcasts
Autumn Statement: George Osborne scraps 3p fuel duty rise BBC News, Carole Walker (5/12/12)
Autumn Statement: OBR says deficit ‘shrinking more slowly’ BBC News, Robert Chote (5/12/12)
Autumn Statement: Headlines from George Osborne’s speech BBC News, Andrew Neil (5/12/12)
Autumn Statement: Flanders, Robinson and Peston reactio BBC News, Stephanie Flanders, Nick Robinson and Robert Peston (5/12/12)
Boosting the British Budget CNN, Jim Boulden (5/12/12)
Autumn statement 2012: key points – video analysis The Guardian, Larry Elliott, Jill Treanor, Patrick Collinson and Damian Carrington (5/12/12)
Autumn Statement 2012: the full speech The Telegraph (5/12/12)
Autumn Statement: Benefit squeeze as economy slows BBC News (5/12/12)
Autumn Statement: At-a-glance summary of key points BBC News (5/12/12/)
Austerity to last until 2018, admits George Osborne Independent, Oliver Wright
Autumn statement: George Osborne reveals benefits cut Channel 4 News (5/12/12/)
Autumn Statement 2012: Cut welfare, create jobs – a very Tory statement The Telegraph, Damian Reece (5/12/12)
Autumn statement 2012: economy weaker than expected, Osborne says The Guardian, Heather Stewart (5/12/12)
Analysis: Even the ‘autumn’ bit seemed optimistic BBC News, Chris Mason (5/12/12)
George Osborne’s autumn statement 2012: reaction The Guardian, Julia Kollewe (5/12/12)
Candid Osborne avoids political risk Financial Times, Janan Ganesh (5/12/12)
Autumn statement: Why George Osborne’s Budget won’t be a game changer The Telegraph, Allister Heath (4/12/12/)
Autumn statement 2012: expert verdict The Guardian, Richard Murphy, Dominic Raab, Ann Pettifor, Gavin Kelly, Prateek Buch and Mark Serwotka (5/12/12/)
The alternative autumn statement Channel 4 News (5/12/12)
Autumn Statement 2012: man cannot live by deficit reduction alone The Telegraph, Roger Bootle (5/12/12)
Autumn statement: cuts are just a sideshow The Guardian, John Redwood (5/12/12)
What does the Autumn Statement mean for business? Economia, David Mellor (5/12/12)
Autumn Statement Reaction: UK AAA ‘safe for today’ Investment Week (5/12/12)
Autumn Statement: A wintry statement of reality BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (4/12/12)
What has changed? BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (6/12/12)
UK warned on debt ‘credibility’ over AAA rating BBC News (5/12/12)
Autumn statement 2012 in charts The Guardian, Simon Rogers (5/12/12/)
Who suffers most from Britain’s austerity? How the figures stack up The Guardian, Tom Clark (5/12/12)
Economic and fiscal outlook charts and tables – December 2012 OBR (5/12/12)
Economic and fiscal outlook supplementary economy tables – December 2012 OBR (5/12/12)
Forecasts for the UK economy HM-Treasury
OBR, Treasury and IFS links
Economic and fiscal outlook – December 2012 OBR (5/12/12)
Autumn Statement 2012 HM Treasury (5/12/12)
Autumn Statement 2012 IFS
- Distinguish between ‘stocks’ and ‘flows’. Define (a) public-sector net borrowing (PSNB) and (b) the public-sector net debt (PSND) and explain whether each one is a stock or a flow.
- Summarise the measures announced by George Osborne in his Autumn Statement.
- What are his arguments for not adopting a more expansionary fiscal policy?
- Assess his arguments.
- What is meant by the ‘output gap’? What are the OBR’s forecasts about the output gap and what are the implications?
- How has quantitative easing affected PSNB and PSND?
- Distinguish between the cyclical and structural deficit. What implications does this distinction have for fiscal policy?
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
- 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?
- Give examples of public expenditures which are examples of current expenditures and examples of those which are capital expenditures?
- What arguments could you put forward for and against the previous Labour government’s golden rule? What about its sustainable investment rule?
- Explain the difference between the current budget balance and net borrowing. Why might governments want to measure both these budget balances?
- What arguments would you make for and against a rapid reduction of the level of net borrowing by the UK public sector?
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?