A billion pounds is a lot of money. Or is it?

A billion pounds is a lot of money.

Even when using the now commonly accepted ‘American’ meaning of the word, a billion is a seriously big number. At a thousand million, or 1,000,000,000 (that’s nine zeroes) it is decidedly large.

A pound may not be worth so much these days, but a billion of them? A very large sum of money in any language.

Indeed, for almost everyone apart from those tiny number of people who have that sort of wealth already, the value of a billion pounds is difficult to imagine. The interest in one year alone would be many times the amount most of us might hope to earn in our entire lifetime. To be able to afford thousands of homes, when many struggle to even buy one. Lots of money. Loads.

At the same time, a billion pounds is not a lot of money.

You hear about them on the news all the time. Our government plans to spend 802 of them this year and so one billion is small change, just 0.12% of a year’s spending. So small that the government could decide to spend an extra billion pounds and it might not even show up in the numbers due to rounding.

Of course, the reason for this duality is simple; for a country with tens of millions of inhabitants, even very small amounts for each individual add up to a lot of money.

Thus £1 billion is just £15.10 per person when spread over the 66.1 million people that live in the UK. On a monthly basis, that’s only £1.26 for each of us.

Enough to buy a high street coffee every other month. Not very much at all.

You can start to understand why there are so many of these billions around. A £4 billion cut in spending; that would save each of us about £5 a month. That extra £2 billion on housing? That’s going to cost us an additional £2.50.

So, when you hear that the government intends to spend an extra billion pounds a year on something or other to make our lives better, just remember that it is not a big amount of money at all.

Even so, it is also important to realise something too.

A billion pounds is a lot of money.

Printing money costs money

In a letter to the Guardian, Martin Wheatcroft comments on Professor Richard Murphy’s suggestion that ‘People’s QE’ can be used to finance government spending at no cost.

Professor Richard Murphy (Letters, 27 September) is mistaken when he claims that “QE debt carries no interest cost” and that we can ignore capital markets by using “People’s QE” to finance public spending cost-free. As a chartered accountant, he should know better. No debit exists without a credit, and the purchase of bonds by the Bank of England results in one form of public debt (government securities) being replaced by another (Bank of England deposits). Interest is payable on these deposits at the Bank of England base rate – currently 0.25%. This is not zero.

Quantitative easing swaps the benefit of locking-in the interest rate payable on long-term fixed-rate government securities for variable interest charges. The good news is that the £435bn of QE debt that we have today has been swapped into deposits paying 0.25%, costing the exchequer just £1bn in interest each year on this element of the national debt. However, the base rate could change very quickly depending on economic conditions and the decisions of the Monetary Policy Committee. An increase to 2% – historically still quite low – would cost an extra £8bn a year in interest, while at 5% – the rate in 2006 before the financial crisis – the annual interest cost would be £21bn higher than it is now.

Borrowing to finance public spending can be a sensible policy in the right circumstances, especially if directed at infrastructure and other investments that generate economic growth. But, politicians considering People’s QE as a policy choice should understand that there is no such thing as free finance, even for governments. As it turns out, even printing money costs money.

Martin Wheatcroft
Author of Simply UK Government Finances 2017-18

Surprisingly, a lower corporate tax rate may actually discourage investment in the UK

The Autumn Statement is tomorrow, and the press is full of speculation that our new Chancellor Philip Hammond will not only hold to previously announced cuts in the corporation tax rate, but will announce a further reduction, despite an expected hit to the public finances from lower economic growth.

A reduction from the current rate of 20% is planned for this April when it is due to come down to 19%, with a further cut to 17% in April 2020. As a consequence it is likely that any new announcement will be in the form of a commitment to reduce the rate to 15% at some point in the next decade.

This definitely sounds attractive – the UK should be an even more rewarding place to base your business than higher tax jurisdictions, such as Germany with its 30%-33% rates, or the US with its combined federal and state tax rates in the order of 40% (albeit Donald Trump is proposing to reduce federal taxes so that the combined rate would come down to around 20%). The UK will perhaps be in touching distance of Ireland with its comparatively low 12.5% rate.

However, a 5% cut in the corporate tax rate is going to cost a lot of money – at least £10 billion a year. Will we really make up for this through increased economy activity and encouraging businesses to invest in the UK?

Perhaps it will. A lower tax regime should encourage businesses to invest in the UK, shouldn’t it? And more investment should mean more jobs, more spending in the UK and and more profits, each generating taxes to offset the cost of the lower corporation tax rate.

But, and there is a but. This change will provide an incentive for international businesses to shift spending out of the UK and into higher tax jurisdictions.

This may sound counterintuitive, but remember that most investment and spending in the UK economy comes from businesses already operating in the UK and internationally. And for them the equation is a little different.

For example, take a business already operating in both the UK and Germany, paying taxes on its profits in each jurisdiction. The lower corporation tax rate will provide an incentive to increase profits in the UK and to decrease them in Germany.

The orthodox answer is to do what the government would like – to prioritise investment in the UK over Germany. But in reality, there is a much easier way to take advantage of this tax differential and that is to do the opposite – to increase spending in Germany and reduce spending in the UK.

After all, this would provide a 30% or so tax deduction on the additional German costs, at the cost of 15% on the higher profits it would generate in the UK – a 15% saving for each pound (or euro) of spending shifted over to Germany.

Of course, life is a bit more complicated than this simple example. In theory the international tax system of “transfer pricing” should offset this sort of cost shifting. But in reality, outside of a straightforward manufacturing or product business, it probably wouldn’t. Especially as this would not necessarily be a clearly linked event, perhaps not even a conscious decision. It would just make financial sense to prioritise cost cutting in the UK over cost cutting in Germany.

There are many arguments for lowering the corporation tax from its current level of 20%; not all of them about the effect on the public finances and on economic activity. Indeed, in years to come, a 20% rate may seem very high, just like the 52% rate that applied in the 1970s seems extremely high to us today. Arguably those historic rate reductions have generated positive returns to the economy, certainly in making the UK an attractive place to do business.

But, I do wonder. Are we getting to the point where cutting the rates below 20% will be effective at stimulating the economy or is this a case of diminishing returns?

Pressure on public services – is it immigration or people living longer?

During the current EU debate a frequent complaint from the Leave side is about the pressure that immigrants put on public services, while the Remain side reply with economic studies indicating that immigrants pay more in taxes than they take out.

Both sides have a point – there are definitely more people living in the UK as a result of migration and so there should in theory be a greater demand on public services. However, it is also true that new migrants are typically young, in good health and generally here to work, likely to be putting more into the system than they take out.

But can it be as simple as just that?  We are also regularly informed that the biggest pressures on public services are coming from an increasingly older population, so which is it: immigration or growing older?

I thought I would start by looking at what has happened over the last twenty years, when the population has grown by seven million people, from 58 million people living in the UK in 1995 to 65 million in 2015.

Of that increase, four million is due to net migration and three million from natural changes. So there you have it, migration is more than half the increase.

But then I looked at how the increase splits between older and younger people, i.e. those older or younger than 40?  It turns out that over the last twenty years, the number of people aged over 40 has increased by six million, while the number of people under 40 has increased by only one million.

And how much of that six million increase in the over 40s is down to migration?  Amazingly, I discovered that the answer is (approximately) zero.  17 million people reached the age of 40 over that time, much more than the just over 11 million people who died, a net increase of six million due to natural changes.

Now, just to be clear, there has of course been immigration amongst the over 40s. But, the numbers suggest that they have either been here for 20 years or more or, if they arrived more recently, that there has been equal and offsetting emigration by Brits over 40 who have left the country to work or retire abroad. For the over 40s, net migration has been effectively nil over the last couple of decades.

But of course now I was puzzled.  Looking at the overall population it appears that more than half the growth is due to migration, but if I just looked at older people of 40 and over, I discover that 6 million of the increase out of 7 million (85%) comes from those older people, with zero migration involved.

This becomes clearer when we look at the younger age group. This has only increased by 1 million people from 32 million to 33 million, an increase of just 3% over the two decades, compared with the 12% increase in the total population.

Where has all the migration gone you ask? Well, it hasn’t gone; there definitely has been a net 4 million increase in the number of people aged under 40 as a consequence of migration. But, this has been mostly offset by a reduction of three million in the number of younger people through natural changes.

Looked at in this way, it appears that three million migrants have replaced younger workers in the economy, with only one million going towards the overall increase in the total population.

A contrasting picture, as shown in this handy chart:

Immigration UK 1995 to 2015

So what is the answer? Is the increased pressure on public services due to the four million migrants arriving here over the last 20 years net of departures. Or is it down to the 6 million extra older people, which would have happened anyway even if there hadn’t been any immigration?

A question that I will leave with you to ponder.

 

Whole-of-Government Accounts for 2014-15 published at last

Yes, today is the day that the Whole of Government Accounts for 2014-15 have been published.  And, although it may be easy to criticise the 14 months it has taken since the end of the financial year to publish them, their publication is further evidence of the (quiet) revolution going on in the staid world of government accounting.

These accounts are the sixth set of financial statements published by the Government in this format, using International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS), in line with the commercial accounting rules applied to listed companies and many other organisations.

Fourteen months is actually still an improvement over the 15 months it took two years ago when the 2012-13 financial statements were published, but it is a reversal from the twelve months it took last year and is disappointing given the Government’s ambition to reduce the time taken to nine months this time around.

The primary cause of the delays stems from problems in the preparation of the accounts for one of the Government’s major ‘subsidiaries’, namely the Department for Education. It has struggled to cope with the transfer of thousands of local authority schools from to academy chains under the control of central government, causing a knock-on impact on the overall financial reporting programme.

Despite that there have been improvements, with Network Rail now incorporated and further improvements in the quality of the accounts.  And, perhaps just as importantly, the Government has started to realise that it needs to do a lot more if it is cope with the financial implications of devolution.

Unfortunately, there has been a small step backward in terms of the commentary provided on the financial statements. It has been streamlined (something I generally welcome as a matter of principle), but in doing so I think the commentary has lost some of the analysis that would be expected in a listed company’s annual report and so makes it a slightly less useful document than it could be. However, I am sufficiently realistic to accept that there is limited usefulness in a detailed comprehensive financial commentary relating to a period that ended over a year ago.

That demonstrates the reason why it is important for the dedicated team at the Treasury working on the WGA to work with departments such as Education in order to return to the path of more timely reporting. It will only when the Whole of Government Accounts are published within a reasonable time after the end of the financial year that they will be able to come into their own as a vehicle for holding the Government to account for the management of the nation’s finances and to support more effective decision making.

Now to actually read them… mmm… I think the £1.5 trillion in pension liabilities might be worthy of a little further follow up….

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/whole-of-government-accounts-2014-to-2015

The Curious Incident of the Surplus in the Night-Time

One of the challenges in getting to grips with the public finances is that government accounting can be just a little bit weird.  Without the strictures of double entry bookkeeping and balance sheets that (well) balance, it can often appear mysterious.

For example, take the Curious Incident of the Surplus in the Night-Time (or 2019/20 to be more specific).

A £10 billion surplus, according to the official forecasts published published just three weeks ago. If achieved, the Chancellor will have met his objective of balancing income with expenditure for the first time in decades. We will finally be in a position to start paying down some of the national debt, instead of just ‘inflating it away’ as a proportion of GDP.

But, hang on a second. Curiously, the Treasury is actually forecasting in the Budget that we will be £10 billion worse off in 2019/20, not £10 billion better off, with the national debt expected to increase from £1,715 billion to £1,725 billion over the year to 31 March 2020.

Even stranger, there is a forecast for £9 billion in asset sales, the proceeds of which we are told are used to pay off debt. So, a £10 billion increase in public sector net debt instead of the £19 billion reduction in debt that we might expect to see instead.

The Curious Incident of a Surplus in 2019/20.  One that doesn’t result in a positive improvement in the Government’s financial position.

A mystery indeed.

 

Budget surprises can be guaranteed

One of the challenges about trying to predict what will happen in the Budget is that the Chancellor has so many different levers that he can pull.  George Osborne could increase taxes or he could cut them.  He could increase spending or reduce it.  He could borrow more or he could reduce debt.

What makes predicting the Budget so difficult is that the Chancellor can and will do all of the above at the same time.

His existing plans to balance cash inflows with outflows requires tax revenues in 2019/20 to be £73 billion higher than this financial year, with £51 billion coming from economic growth and £22 billion from higher taxes.  With economic growth now expected to be lower he needs to find substantial sums to meet his revenue targets without damaging the economy in the process. This is why radical ideas like abolishing tax relief on pensions have been floated, as they are a way of raising substantial sums now, without (it is hoped) doing too much immediate damage to the economy.

With removing income tax relief on pensions rejected, he will be looking for a different route to raise the money he needs.  One possibility might be charging national insurance on employer contributions into private sector pension funds, while another might be to start cutting away at some of VAT anomalies, such as the lack of VAT on books and newspapers.  Together with rumoured increases in fuel and alcohol duties these measures could help him to meet his revenue target, even assuming phasing in over a number of years.

Of course, no Budget is possible without some form of tax cut or incentive to encourage good behaviour. Even as George takes pounds away with one hand, he will want to give back a few pennies with the other. Of course, this includes continuing the policy of raising personal tax allowances, but I would be surprised if there weren’t some other forms of tax giveaway in the offing. For small businesses, there might be some relief from increases in business rates.

He may need to increase the level of spending cuts he has to deliver, but that is more of an issue for 2018/19 and 2019/20 than it is for the new financial year. Yes, revenues will be lower, but low inflation and the extended period of low interest rates are likely to reduce some of the pressure on costs in the coming year.

If he does have any room to manoeuvre, the smart money is on George trying to increase investment infrastructure. With private infrastructure investment going into reverse following the ending of renewable energy incentives, the Chancellor may decide now is the time to increase the level of direct public investment. Boosting the economy with extra investment now may be the best way to ensure that the Government meets its revenue targets in four years time.

Headlines are likely to focus on whether the Government will achieve its objective of reducing debt as a proportion of GDP in 2015/16. This is dependent on the combination of inflation and economic growth increasing GDP and some £23 billion in asset sales to bring the ratio down. With both inflation and economic growth looking to be lower than expected, and with some of the planned asset sales deferred to the new financial year, this objective may not be met.

Perhaps more interesting will be the position going forward, especially in the three years between now and the 2019/20 financial year that George is committed to going into surplus. With lower deficits in the intervening years, he will have some flexibility in those years to borrow extra to fund investment or, if he chooses, to accept a slightly slower path in cost reductions just as he already has had to do with benefits in the form of tax credits.

So I am looking forward to the Budget on Wednesday. Surprises are guaranteed.

Simply UK Book Launch – Thursday 24 September

Simply UK: A Summary Guide to UK Government Finances 2015/16 is being launched tonight at the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England & Wales in the City of London.

How much is the Government going to spend this year? How does that compare with the amount raised in tax? What is austerity and how is the deficit being reduced? How much is the national debt and what is happening to it? What is the size of the economy anyway?

Transparency in public finances has frequently meant the provision of ever increasing amounts of financial information, without a focus on the need to make that information understandable. As a consequence, most of us know little about our government and how it is financed.

Simply UK aims to remedy that situation by providing a clear and concise summary of the UK Government’s financial position, using vivid and colourful charts to clearly explain how the national debt has grown by £1 trillion over the last decade and how economic growth, tax increases and austerity spending reductions are contributing to the Government’s objective of eliminating the deficit. It explains where the money comes from and where it goes. It also provides information about the EU Budget for 2015, the overall UK economy, and how the tax and welfare systems work.

Simply UK will be available for sale on Amazon from Monday 28 September 2015.  Click here to order your copy.

General Election 2015

With all the results in, it is clear that the Conservatives have received just under 37% of the votes and 331 MPs, a majority in the 650 seat House of Commons.

This chart illustrates how the Conservatives, Labour and the SNP have benefited from the first-past-the-post system at the expense of UKIP, the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party.

General Election 2015

It will be very interesting to see how the debate around electoral reform evolves following this election.