COVID tips Croydon Council over the edge into bankruptcy

17 November 2020: Croydon Council has gone into section 114 ‘bankruptcy’ following years of overspending, losses on commercial investments and the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. What went wrong?

Croydon Council issued a section 114 notice on Wednesday 11 November 2020, the first local authority to do so since Northamptonshire County Council went bust in 2018.

The move by Lisa Taylor, Croydon’s finance director and section 151 officer, followed pre-pandemic losses of £163m in 2019-20 and £221m in 2018-19 and the publication last month of a highly critical public interest report by external auditor Grant Thornton. A central government commissioned governance review is underway.

The public interest report was highly critical of how Croydon Council has run its finances over the last few years, with findings including the use of capital funding to cover operating losses, £545m borrowed over a three-year period – much of which was used to invest in commercial properties – and serious failings in governance in addressing the financial situation facing the council. Grant Thornton reported that General Fund and Earmarked General Fund reserves had reduced from £58.2m at 31 March 2016 to £16.6m at 31 March 2020, and conclude with the following statement:

“Had the Council implemented strong financial governance, responded promptly to our previous recommendations and built up reserves and addressed the overspends in children’s and adult social care, it would have been in a stronger position to withstand the financial pressures as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Council needs to urgently address the underlying pressures on service spends and build a more resilient financial position whilst also addressing the long-term financial implications of the capital spending and financing strategy together with the oversight of the Council’s group companies.”

The section 114 notice places a stop on non-statutory expenditures, resulting in the potential closure of some local services, redundancies to save costs and increasingly strained calls to the Ministry for Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG) asking for a bailout. It highlights a budget gap of at least £30m and additional risks of £37m or more.

Croydon is not alone in suffering from significant cuts in funding over the last decade and cost pressures in adult and child social care provision in particular. However, weak financial governance, a failure to address cost pressures, inadequate reserve levels and increased balance sheet risk from debt-financed commercial property investments have all made it more vulnerable to a crisis.

Although it is perhaps not surprising that Croydon has failed, given the issues highlighted by its external auditors, more section 114 notices are likely over the coming months as even well-run councils struggle to cover income shortfalls. 

The government will also be concerned about the number of councils planning to cut local services and investment in their local economies over the next few years, just as it is hoping to rebuild the economy and deliver on its levelling up agenda.

This article was originally published on the ICAEW website.

ICAEW writes to Chief Secretary on Spending Review priorities

16 November 2020: Alison Ring, ICAEW’s director for public sector, has written to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury ahead of the Spending Review to stress the importance of investment in infrastructure, data and financial management.

The government has announced that the Spending Review will take place on 25 November 2020 but with the uncertainties caused by coronavirus, it has decided to restrict this to only one year instead of the previously planned three-year time horizon.

In the letter to Steve Barclay MP, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, ICAEW stresses how vital it is the government moves forward with its ambitious programme of infrastructure investment, and that projects are not delayed by the postponement of the Budget until next year and the reduction of the scope of the Spending Review to one year.

Commenting on the letter Alison Ring OBE FCA, ICAEW’s director for public sector said: “The 2020 Spending Review comes at a critical time for the UK and its public finances and will quite rightly focus on the government’s current spending plans for the coming financial year starting in April 2021 and capital budgets for the following year. Well-targeted support will be critical to ensure as strong a recovery from the coronavirus pandemic as possible. 

Our letter to the Chief Secretary focuses on the importance of budgetary certainty to ensure infrastructure projects are green-lit now rather than risking further delays because of the restriction in Spending Review time horizon. The long-delayed National Infrastructure Strategy is urgently needed if the government’s ambitions to level up economic prosperity and deliver carbon neutrality are to be achievable.

The government also has ambitious plans to improve the way government works, with the recently published National Data Strategy setting out how digital innovation will be key. We comment in the letter how the importance of high-quality financial skills, finance processes and risk management to delivering better outcomes and ensuring value for money for taxpayers should not be underestimated. The government does not have the best of records in undertaking major transformation programmes, and we caution the Chief Secretary against under-resourcing the planning stages of these projects. 

Finally, we hope that the government will use the delays in the Budget and the later years of the Spending Review to think about the longer term and how to put the public finances on a sustainable path. Even before the pandemic and the huge amounts of additional borrowing being undertaken this year, the Office for Budget Responsibility had reported that the strains on public services, more people living longer, and growing debts and other public liabilities were not being addressed. A comprehensive long-term fiscal strategy is needed to look beyond the immediate and establish a sustainable framework for the public finances for the next quarter of a century.”

The letter to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury focuses on three key areas, all of which ICAEW believes are essential to re-balancing economic opportunity and performance across the UK and to achieving carbon neutrality, as well as being key to driving the post-pandemic economic recovery in 2021 and the decade ahead.

Sustainable infrastructure investment

The shortening of the Spending Review period risks causing uncertainty in departmental capital budgets and the potential for further delays in getting infrastructure projects underway. ICAEW believes that establishing capital budgets for 2023-24, as well as 2022-23, would help departments to be confident in carrying out the groundwork for these projects so that they can be implemented as soon as possible.

The National Infrastructure Strategy is more urgent than ever to reduce regional inequalities and deliver on the ‘levelling up’ agenda.

Data and financial management

ICAEW welcomes the publication of the recent National Data Strategy and the commitment to rethinking how government works set out in the Chief Secretary’s speech of 28 July – digital innovation and better use of data will be key to delivering improved public services at a lower cost. However, sufficient resources must be provided to the initial stages of these projects – the experience of ICAEW members is that underinvestment in planning is one of the major causes of project failure.

Relatively small amounts invested in improving the quality of financial information needed to support effective decision-making, in more efficient and effective finance systems and processes, and in enhancing financial controls such as fraud prevention and detection are likely to be paid back many times over.

A long-term fiscal strategy

One benefit of the delay in the Budget and the deferral of the second two years of the Spending Review is the additional time this will give the government time to think about the longer term and how to put the public finances on a sustainable path. 

This is more pressing than ever as strains on public services increase, people live longer, and debt and other public sector liabilities continue to grow. 

A comprehensive strategy setting out a framework for taxes, welfare and public services over the next quarter of a century would provide an opportunity for sustainable reform to deliver a robust public balance sheet, a more resilient government machine, and a stronger and more prosperous economy. 

This article was originally published on the ICAEW website.

ICAEW chart of the week: UK claimant count

13 November 2020: The claimant count soared at the start of the pandemic but levelled off since then. Will a wave of redundancies see it climb again over the winter?

UK claimant count. Jan 2019: 1,012,000 (597,000 men, 415,000 women) - Mar 2020: 1,240,000 (724,000, 516,000) - May 2020: 2,663,000 (1,620,000, 1,043,000) - Sep 2020: 2,634,000 (1,571,000, 1,063,000).

This week’s #icaewchartoftheweek looks at the claimant count, an experimental statistic compiled by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) that seeks to reflect those on Universal Credit who are not in employment or who are required to search for work, in addition to those receiving Jobseeker’s Allowance.

As the chart illustrates, the claimant count had already been on an upward path prior to the pandemic as Universal Credit rolled out across the country, reaching a total of 1,240,000 on 8 March before jumping to 2,663,000 a couple of months later in May during the first lockdown. The number has moved around a little since then, dropping slightly to stand at 2,634,000 on 8 October, comprising 1,571,000 men and 1,063,000 women.

The rapid rise in claimants has not been reflected in the same way in the unemployment statistics, which increased less dramatically, albeit still significantly, from 1,355,000 in March to 1,661,000 in September 2020. This suggests around 300,000 of the increase in the claimant count is down to greater unemployment, with the balance of approximately 1,150,000 arising from ‘underemployment’ as claimants have had their hours and/or pay levels cut taking them below the relevant Universal Credit thresholds.

The recent rise in redundancies – up to a record 314,000 in the quarter to September – is likely to add further to the claimant count over the winter, although the extension in furlough arrangements until next March may constrain that rise to a certain extent.

News that a vaccine is on its way may well be positive for the second half of 2021, but in the meantime it is going to be a hard winter for many.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: UK electricity projections

6 November 2020: Renewables, imports and nuclear are expected to provide around 85% of UK electricity generation by 2040, but will that be good enough to achieve carbon neutrality a decade later in 2050?

UK electricity projections chart (reference scenario):
Nuclear: 48 TWh in 2008, 62 TWh in 2020, 86 TWh in 2040.
Imports: 11 TWh, 28 TWh, 74 TWh.
Renewables: 23 TWh, 125 TWh, 188 TWh.
Carbon: 297 TWh, 109 TWh, 58 TWh in 2040.

The latest official energy and emissions projections, released by the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) on 30 October 2020, now extend out to 2040 – a decade before the 2050 target set by the UK Government to reach net zero.

The #icaewchartoftheweek takes a look at the progress being made on decarbonising electricity generation, with renewables, nuclear and imported electricity (much of which comes from nuclear or renewable sources) expected to increase from around 20% in 2008 to 66% this year and to just over 85% in 2040.

Overall electricity demand is expected to fall over the first half of the coming decade as improved energy efficiency and energy conservation measures (such as better insulation) continue to offset more demand from a growing population and economy (caveats apply). Lower demand in the residential and services sectors are then expected to be outweighed by higher demand for industrial and transport, particularly the latter as electric vehicles take to the roads.

Coal has now been almost entirely eliminated from electricity generation, falling from 118 TWh in 2008 (when there was also 6 TWh from oil and 173 TWh from natural gas) to 2 TWh projected in 2020 alongside 107 TWh from natural gas. Even so, coal may remain a small part of the mix even in 2040 as part of a projected 5 TWh of electricity from carbon capture and storage (CCS) plants. This should leave just 53 TWh from low (but still not no) carbon natural gas generation to eliminate over the subsequent decade.

Unfortunately, electricity is only part of the energy picture, with the reference scenario calculated by BEIS projecting that carbon sources will provide 980 TWh of final energy consumption in 2040 outside of electricity supply and direct power from renewables. This includes the equivalent of around 370 TWh from natural gas used domestically, 250 TWh from diesel and petrol used in transport, and 160 TWh from aviation fuels.

So while there continues to be welcome progress in greening the electricity supply, achieving net zero overall is not going to be as easy.

This chart was originally published on the ICAEW website.

Social value an increasingly important element to public procurement

3 November 2020: The Cabinet Office has announced new guidance on procurement for government departments, executive agencies and non-departmental public bodies (quangos), widening the criteria for contract selection to include social value and payment practices.

The social value in procurement model will come into force on 1 January 2021 and is intended to be used by government departments to assess a supplier’s social impact. The hope is that this will mean more opportunities for SMEs and social enterprises to win more of the £49bn spent on public contracts each year.

The Cabinet Office stresses that value for money will still be paramount, but by including a bidder’s ‘social value score’ into the assessment of each contract bid, the wider positive benefits provided by businesses can be taken into account, helping to build a more resilient and diverse supplier base.

The social value model, which departments will use to assess contract bids, includes how suppliers are helping local communities recover from the impact of COVID, how they tackle economic inequality, combat climate change and reduce waste, promote equal opportunity, tackle inequality, reduce the disability employment gap, and improve health, wellbeing and community integration.

This was followed up last week by the publication of a further procurement policy note (PPN) on another aspect of supplier behaviour – in this case on whether they are paying their own suppliers on time.

The procurement of many government contracts in excess of £5m per annum will now require suppliers to demonstrate they have paid their own suppliers in accordance with contractual terms and also that they are paying 95% of invoices within 60 days. 

If they can’t do so – or can’t provide an acceptable reason and an action plan to improve –they will be excluded from bidding or renewing contracts outside limited circumstances, such as a civil emergency or non-competitive markets.

Together, these moves indicate an increasing willingness by the Government to use its buying power to promote its economic and social agenda, without – it is hoped – compromising the value for money it obtains on behalf of taxpayers.

Alison Ring, director for public sector at ICAEW, commented: “The Government is the biggest purchaser of goods and services in the UK, but many socially responsible small businesses have struggled to win contracts in the face of competition from much larger businesses with less than stellar records on social and environmental responsibility.

By tipping the scales slightly in their favour, the Government hopes that it can encourage SMEs and social enterprises to compete more effectively in winning public contracts, with the added benefit to departments of diversifying their supplier bases.

Whether these changes in procurement rules will have the desired effect is uncertain. There remain many bureaucratic obstacles in the way of smaller businesses and social enterprises winning public contracts and these are likely to need addressing too if the Government is to achieve its objectives here.” 

Copies of the new procurement policies can be found on the Cabinet Office website.

Further reading:

This article was originally published on the ICAEW website.

ICAEW chart of the week: US federal deficit

30 October 2020: The US federal government spent $3.1tn more than it received in the year to 30 September 2020, more than three times the $1.0tn deficit incurred in 2019.

Chart showing US federal deficit for the year to 30 Sep 2020. Receipts £3.4tn, deficit $3.1tn and outlays $6.5tn.

The #icaewchartoftheweek is on the $3.1tn deficit incurred by the United States federal government, according to its preliminary financial results for the 2020 fiscal year published by the Bureau of the Fiscal Service, a unit of the US Department of the Treasury. 

Analysis by the US Congressional Budget Office reports that receipts of $3.4tn were 1% lower than in the previous financial year, which can broadly be split into a 6% increase in the first half from October 2019 to March 2020 and a 7% decrease in the second half of the year ending in September. 

As illustrated by the chart, the principal sources of revenue are $1.3tn in social security payroll tax deductions and $1.6tn in personal income taxes, together with $0.2tn in corporate income taxes and $0.3tn from excise taxes, customs duties, estate and gift taxes and other net receipts.

Outlays of $6.5tn in FY2020 were $2.1tn or 47% higher than in the FY2019, reflecting a 7% increase in the first half and an 87% increase in the second half. These increases were principally driven by the fiscal response to the coronavirus pandemic, including $0.6tn for small business furlough programmes, a $0.4tn increase in unemployment compensation, $0.3tn more in refundable tax credits, $0.2tn in emergency health measures and over $0.1tn for the Coronavirus Relief Fund. Other increases included $0.1tn in student loan subsidies, $0.3tn in federal reserve investments and $0.2tn in other increases, offset by a $0.1tn reduction in interest costs.

Outlays can broadly be split between $4.7tn of ‘mandatory’ spending on welfare, $0.3tn in interest costs and $1.5tn in ‘discretionary’ spending by the federal government. 

Welfare comprises spending on social security (principally pensions), Medicare and Medicaid (healthcare), veterans, income security (unemployment benefits and tax credits) and the Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses, while spending on the federal government is dominated by the $0.7tn spent on defence, followed by $0.2tn on education, $0.1tn on homeland security and justice, $0.1tn on transport and $0.4tn on everything else.

It is important to stress that these receipts and outlays relate only to the federal government and exclude what is normally in the region of $3tn in receipts and spending of state and local governments across the US. There is usually a surplus at the state and local level but this year is likely to be different as state and local tax revenues collapse and spending to tackle the pandemic locally continues to grow.

External public debt was $21.0tn at 30 September 2020, an increase of $4.2tn or 25% over the $16.8tn the US federal government owed a year previously, reflecting borrowing to fund the $3.1tn deficit and a net $1.1tn in lending, principally to businesses as part of the coronavirus response.

Even more borrowing is probable irrespective of which candidate wins the presidential election next week as the US struggles to get the pandemic under control and the increasing likelihood that Congress will pass a multi-trillion dollar stimulus bill after the election is over.

This chart was originally published on the ICAEW website.

ICAEW chart of the week: Half year public spending and receipts

23 October 2020: The gap between spending and receipts widened to £208bn in the half-year to September 2020, significantly greater than the £80bn in the first half of 2009-10 at the height of the financial crisis.

Line chart showing half-yearly spending and receipts with a shaded gap between them highlighting the deficit. A huge widening occurs in the most recent half year.

The #icaewchartoftheweek is on UK public spending and receipts in the light of the September 2020 public finance release that reported a fiscal deficit of £208bn for the six months ended 30 September 2020, comprising public spending of £567bn less receipts of £359bn.

The chart illustrates how the shortfall in receipts and public spending of £26bn (public spending £289bn – receipts £263bn) and £14bn (£303bn – £289bn) in the first and second halves of 2006-07 increased to £80bn (£347bn – £267bn) and £78bn (£375bn – £297bn) in 2009-10 before gradually declining to £31bn (£421bn – £390bn) and £8bn (£433bn – £425bn) in the first and second halves of 2018-19 respectively.

The chart highlights how deficits added up over a decade (a cumulative £1.1tn between 1 April 2008 and 31 March 2018) even as the gap between spending and receipts narrowed as well as how much the shortfall has widened in the first half of 2020-21. With a further £140bn or so shortfall expected in the second of the financial year, it will take a strong economic rebound to prevent another trillion of deficits accumulating over the coming decade.

Although the Spending Review in November will now only cover the 2021-22 financial year for current expenditure, it is expected to set capital expenditure budgets for 2022-23 as well. This will be important in giving departments confidence to get infrastructure spending projects underway as quickly as possible next year if there is to be an investment-led economic recovery.

Read more about the September 2020 public finances: Half-year deficit reaches £208bn as COVID costs continue to accumulate.

This chart was originally published on the ICAEW website.

Half-year deficit reaches £208bn as COVID costs accumulate

22 October 2020: Public finances remain on track for the worst peace-time deficit ever, thanks to lower receipts and large-scale coronavirus interventions.

The latest public sector finances reported a deficit of £36.1bn in September 2020, a cumulative total of £208.5bn for the first six months of the financial year.

Falls in VAT, corporation tax and income tax drove lower receipts, while large-scale fiscal interventions resulted in much higher levels of expenditure. Net investment is greater than last year, as planned, while the interest line has benefited from ultra-low interest rates.

Public sector net debt increased to £2,059.7bn or 103.5% of GDP, an increase of £259.2bn from the start of the financial year and £274.0bn higher than in September 2019. This reflects £50.7bn of additional borrowing over and above the deficit, most of which has been used to fund coronavirus loans to business and tax deferral measures.

Commenting on the figures Alison Ring, ICAEW Director for Public Sector, said: “The deficit of £208bn is already more than the full-year deficit at the height of the financial crisis a decade ago and remains on track to be the largest ever outside the two world wars. 

“The economic damage caused by the pandemic in the first half of the fiscal year was not as bad as originally feared, thanks in part to the extraordinary level of financial support provided by the Chancellor. However, the second wave is putting further strain on the public finances as new regional restrictions are placed on economic activity.

To help the recovery the Chancellor must take the opportunity at the Autumn Statement and Spending Round to invest in preparing infrastructure projects to start as soon as possible.”

Image of table showing public finances for month of September and six months to September together with variances from last year. Click on link to the article on the ICAEW website for a readable version.

The combination of receipts down 11%, expenditure up 34% and net investment up 37% has resulted in a deficit for the six months to September 2020 that is approaching four times the budgeted deficit of £55bn for the whole of the 2020-21 financial year set in the Spring Budget in March. This is despite interest charges being lower by 24%. The cumulative deficit is more than six times as much as for the same six-month period last year.

Cash funding (the ‘public sector net cash requirement’) for the six months was £257.8bn, compared with £7.1bn for the same period in 2019.

Interest costs have fallen despite much higher levels of debt, with extremely low interest rates benefiting both new borrowing to fund government cash requirements and borrowing to refinance existing debts as they have been repaid.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies’ recent IFS Green Budget 2020 annual pre-Budget report indicated that the deficit for the full year to March 2021 could reach £350bn or 17% of GDP.

Some caution is needed with respect to the numbers published by the ONS, which are expected to be repeatedly revised as estimates are refined and gaps in the underlying data are filled. In particular, the OBR points out that the ONS has yet to record any allowance for losses that might arise on the more than £100bn of tax deferrals, loans and guarantees provided to support businesses through the pandemic.

Image of table showing public finances for each month to September 2020 and for each month to September 2019. 

Click on link to the article on the ICAEW website for a readable version.

The ONS made a number of revisions to prior month and prior year fiscal numbers to reflect revisions to estimates and changes in methodology. These had the effect of reducing the reported fiscal deficit in the first five months from the £173.7bn reported last time to £172.4bn and reducing the reported deficit for 2019-20 from £55.8bn to £54.5bn.

For further information, read the public sector finances release for September 2020.

This article was originally published on the ICAEW website.

Where is the infrastructure for delivering infrastructure?

19 October 2020: How can the UK deliver on its ambitious infrastructure plans without a national infrastructure strategy, a comprehensive multi-year spending review, or an infrastructure investment bank?

It seems that everyone agrees that investing more in infrastructure is critical to the future prosperity of the UK, but how do we actually deliver those ambitions on the ground? 

After decades of underinvestment that has seen the UK fall behind many other developed, and even some developing countries, there is a great deal of consensus that a substantial amount of new investment is needed in both economic and social infrastructure right across the country. An investment-led recovery is also increasingly seen as essential to repair the economic damage caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

The UK does not score that well with only one relatively short high-speed railway, low broadband speeds across most of the country, severely congested roads, poor public transport networks outside London and the South East, a collapsing nuclear energy programme, underinvestment in hospitals, schools and care homes, and a failure to deliver enough houses. The fading glory of the on-time and on-budget delivery of the 2012 Olympics seems a long-time ago, as does the admittedly controversial PFI investment boom of the early 2000s.

A successful infrastructure programme requires many elements, starting with a clear national strategy setting out what needs to be built and how. Budget allocations for publicly funded infrastructure and a financial framework for privately funded infrastructure need to be in place well in advance. Financial institutions are required to provide finance for major infrastructure projects and to the businesses constructing them. An efficient planning system is needed that balances the economic benefits of building new assets with other interests.

Despite the enthusiasm for new investment from across the political spectrum, many of the building blocks are not yet in place. The National Infrastructure Strategy has been delayed several times and is still not published. The coronavirus pandemic has delayed the planned three-year Spending Review by yet another year, with a more limited one-year Spending Round expected this November instead. Similarly, we are still awaiting the outcome of the Infrastructure Finance Review that is expected to provide a new financial framework for private sector participation in infrastructure projects, as well as an anticipated UK successor to the European Investment Bank (EIB).

Despite this, there are some bright spots. Behind the scenes, there is a major upgrade underway of the UK’s energy transmission and distribution networks that is seeing tens of billions invested in improving the resilience and flexibility of the UK’s energy plumbing. And the UK has become a world leader in offshore wind power, with decisions taken a decade ago starting to bear fruit.

How can the UK deliver on ambitious plans to achieve carbon-neutrality while ensuring a reliable and secure energy supply, become a digital superpower and ‘level up’ deprived regions all at the same time? 

This is one of the more important debates we need to have – after all the very future of the country is at stake.

Join Katie Black, Director for Policy at the National Infrastructure Commission, Melanie Onn, Deputy Chief Executive for Renewable UK, Iain Wright, Director for Business and Industrial Strategy at ICAEW and Alison Ring, Director for Public Sector at ICAEW, to discuss the UK’s infrastructure plans at an ICAEW webinar on Thursday 22 October at 11am.

To read ICAEW’s submission to the Infrastructure Finance Review click here.

This article was originally published on the ICAEW website.

ICAEW chart of the week: UK debt financing requirement

16 October 2020: The Institute for Fiscal Studies annual pre-Budget report forecasts a doubling to £1.5tn in the amount of debt to be raised by the UK Government over the next five years.

UK debt financing requirement by year from 2020-21 to 2024-25, adding up to £757bn (March 2020 budget), £1,305bn (optimistic), £1,536bn (central) and £1,789bn (pessimistic forecast).

Although the Budget itself may have been delayed, the IFS Green Budget 2020 has been published on schedule, with a wealth (if that is the right word in the current context) of analysis on the economy and the public finances. 

With £201bn in discretionary measures and a £95bn economic impact from the coronavirus pandemic, the IFS is forecasting that the deficit will reach £350bn in the current financial year. At 17% of GDP, this is a level never before seen in the UK outside of the two world wars. 

Unfortunately, the effect of the pandemic on public finances will not be restricted to this financial year. Even if the economy recovers in 2021, or more likely in 2022, tax revenues will be significantly lower and spending significantly higher than they were previously expected to be.

This is perhaps best highlighted by looking at the UK Government’s gross financing requirement – the amount that the UK Debt Management Office (DMO) will be tasked with raising from external debt investors over the next five years to finance the shortfall in taxes compared with spending (the deficit), to finance business and other lending and to repay existing debts as they fall due. This is forecast by the IFS to double to £1.5tn in their central forecast, within a range from £1.3tn in a more optimistic scenario to £1.8tn in a more pessimistic scenario.

As the IFS points out, the enormous amount of debt being issued means that even small differences in financing costs will have a very large impact on the public finances. This is despite the sizeable proportion of debt being issued with long maturities (as long as 50 years in some case) that are locking in extremely low interest rates for decades to come.

Reducing interest costs on debt has provided the Chancellor with room to provide the unprecedented levels of financial support to the UK economy that we saw over the summer. The prospect of negative nominal rates could see investors paying the Government rather than the other way round, providing headroom for further interventions.

There is a downside, of course. The ‘good times’ of ultra-low interest rates may not last for ever, and with a central debt forecast at 31 March 2025 of 112% of GDP significantly higher than the 35% of GDP before the financial crisis a dozen years ago the exposure to changes in interests is that much more significant.

To find out more about the latest forecasts for the economy and the impact that will have on the public finances, please do read the IFS Green Budget 2020.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.