Pandemic costs add up to a very big number

21 September: The National Audit Office COVID-19 cost tracker provides critically important data about the current £210bn cost of the pandemic but disappoints in the way it presents this financial information.

Page 10 of the NAO covid-19 cost tracker

The National Audit Office (NAO) has published a COVID-19 cost tracker comprising details of over 190 different measures announced by government departments in response to the coronavirus pandemic. This is an extremely valuable exercise in seeking to track the huge amounts being spent in the absence of any centrally collated financial tracking by the Government itself.

As of 7 August 2020, the NAO has identified around £210bn of measures, of which around £70bn has been confirmed as having been incurred. A number of the measures are unquantified and many of the numbers are broad-brush estimates that may individually turn out to be significantly different.

The largest items in the list are the £47bn estimated cost of the coronavirus job retention scheme (CJRS), £16bn in bounce back loans, £15bn for the self-employed income support scheme, £15bn on personal protection equipment, £13bn for the devolved administrations under the Barnett formula, £12bn on business grants, £12bn in waived business rates and £10bn on testing and tracing. Together these eight items amount to around two-thirds of the total.

Unfortunately, the NAO has provided this data as a 22-page table with very limited summarisation or categorisation, making it extremely challenging to analyse the information which it provides. For example, costs are not analysed between tax cuts, public spending or lending activities, making it difficult to work out their impact on the public finances.

Admittedly, the NAO has had to put this information together itself, which it shouldn’t have had to do. A well-run central government finance function would have already collated and analysed this information, allowing the auditors to concentrate on providing assurance on the data through their audit work.

Despite those criticisms, the NAO COVID-19 cost tracker will help improve the quality of our understanding of the financial impact of the pandemic and will no doubt inform the next iteration of the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) coronavirus analysis.

This article was originally published on the ICAEW website.

ICAEW chart of the week: A square root-based recovery?

17 July 2020: Debate rages about which symbol to attribute to the shape of the economic recovery.

Chart on OBR Real GDP growth forecast. Shows huge economic hit in the first half of 2020 with potential recovery paths to Q1 2025. Upside scenario returns to previous trend by 2021, central scenario recovers but not fully, and downside is even worse.

The #icaewchartoftheweek is on the economy this week, with the Office for Budget Responsibility indicating that hopes of a sharp V-shaped recovery have receded. Instead, their central scenario is for a square root-based recovery – with economic activity recovering less quickly than originally hoped and not to the same level predicted before the pandemic took hold in the UK.

According to the OBR, quarterly GDP fell from £558bn in the fourth quarter of 2019 to £432bn before inflation in the second quarter of this year, a drop of almost 23% in the level of economic activity. Under the OBR’s central scenario GDP in real-terms is not expected to get back to where it was until the fourth quarter of 2022. At a predicted £584bn (excluding inflation) in the first quarter of 2025, GDP would be 3% lower than where it was predicted to be prior to the pandemic.

The OBR hasn’t completely ruled out a V-shaped recovery as a possibility and their upside scenario would see the economy returning to the previous trend by the second quarter of 2021. However, with job losses starting to accelerate, such a speedy return to trend seems increasingly unlikely.

The good news is that the OBR’s downside scenario, for which no symbol has yet been assigned, is not as shallow as the dreaded U-shaped recovery that some economists are worried about. In the downside scenario, economic activity recovers by the middle of 2024, unlike a U-shaped recovery that might extend into the second half of the 2020s.

In practice, the fortunes of different sectors of the economy are likely to vary, with some suggesting the recovery is more likely to be K-shaped, with some sectors stalling just as others emerge to grow back strongly following the end of the lockdown. The Government will be hoping that the fiscal interventions it has announced to support the hospitality, leisure and housing sectors in particular will help prevent the ‘full K’.

This chart of was originally published by ICAEW.

PAC slams Ministry for local commercial investment failures

13 July 2020: The Public Accounts Committee has severely criticised central government for complacency as local authorities put £7.6bn into risky commercial property investments.

In a hard-hitting report, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has severely criticised the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) for failing to properly oversee the local government prudential framework in England.

The National Audit Office (NAO) reported earlier this year on the huge rise in local authority investment going into commercial property, with £1.8bn invested in 2016-17, £2.6bn in 2017-18, £2.2bn in 2018-19 and £1bn in the first half of 2019-20. This compares with the £200m spent on commercial properties in 2015-16.

ICAEW submitted evidence to the inquiry.

Key findings and recommendations from the PAC report include:

  • More active oversight of the prudential framework is needed, including publicly challenging local authorities where there are concerns.
  • MHCLG’s failure to ensure local authorities adhere to the spirit of the framework has led to some local authorities taking on extreme levels of debt.
  • Requirements to set aside money each year to service debt (the Minimum Revenue Provision) should be strengthened.
  • Actions taken to address risky and non-compliant behaviour have been too little and too late.
  • A ‘soft’ approach of guidance changes has not worked, and ‘hard’ more timely and effective interventions are needed, with rigorous post-implementation reviews.
  • The local government prudential framework has been impaired and now requires a fundamental review.
  • MHCLG does not have access to the data it needs to carry out its oversight responsibilities.
  • External audit has a role to play, but more important is real-time scrutiny of commercial investment strategies and investment decisions.
  • Local governance arrangements are not robust enough, with investments not being properly transparent or subject to adequate scrutiny and challenge.

The PAC is particularly critical of the Ministry for taking four years between identifying that local authorities were starting to ‘borrow for yield’ to making more substantive changes to Public Loan Work Board lending rules. This was despite NAO and PAC reports highlighting the issue in 2016.

The PAC also highlights significant shortcomings in data, with MHCLG ‘flying blind’ as local authorities borrowed billions of pounds. It also doesn’t feel that lessons have been learned about capturing data on emerging and future commercial investment activities and not just about investments that have already been made.

Commenting on the report Alison Ring, Director for Public Sector at ICAEW, said: “This is a hard-hitting report from the Public Accounts Committee that severely criticises the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government for complacency about the huge expansion in debt-financed commercial property investment by English local authorities over the last four years.

The PAC rightly focuses on the importance of data in carrying out central government’s oversight role, enabling better understanding and analysis of risks in local authority balance sheets. Stronger governance at a local level is also needed, with improved transparency and scrutiny needed both before, and after, investments are made.

However, it is important that any changes to the prudential framework do not prevent local authorities in making essential investments in local infrastructure and in encouraging local economic activity as the country emerges from lockdown.

Supporting the economic recovery may involve councils taking on more – rather than less – balance sheet risk, making the PAC’s recommendations about strengthening both local governance and central oversight even more critical.”

This article was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: Fiscal interventions

10 July: Fiscal interventions reach £190bn as the Chancellor Rishi Sunak pours even more money into the economy in an attempt to keep it from stalling.

Components of £190bn in fiscal interventions - as set out in text below.

The Chancellor’s summer statement is the subject of this week’s #icaewchartoftheweek, with the £30bn ‘plan for jobs’ being the latest in a series of fiscal interventions in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
 
The measures announced included £9bn for a £1,000 job retention bonus for furloughed workers, £4bn for work placements and boosting work searching, skills training and apprenticeships, a £5bn boost for the hospitality and leisure industries in the form of a cut in VAT and discounts on eating out, and £12bn in economic stimulus. The latter includes over £5bn on infrastructure projects (as announced by the Prime Minister last week), £3bn to make homes energy-efficient and £4bn for a temporary cut in SDLT on housing sales under £500,000.
 
This brings the total amount of fiscal interventions to £190bn or around 9% of GDP, once an extra £33bn in spending on health and other public services is incorporated. This was also ‘announced’ yesterday, albeit by means of a small footnote buried inside one of the accompanying documents!
 
As a consequence, the fiscal interventions can be broadly split between £77bn being spent on supporting household incomes (£54bn on the furlough scheme, £15bn on the self-employed income support scheme and £8bn on universal credit), £30bn to support businesses (£13bn in business rates and other tax reliefs and £17bn in grants and other support), £53bn for public services and other (£39bn on health and social care and £14bn on public services and other spending), and £30bn in economic stimulus through the ‘plan for jobs’.
 
Businesses have also benefited from support with their cashflows through the deferral of £50bn in tax payments and £73bn of loans and guarantees.
 
This is not the end of the story for fiscal interventions. Not only are there are a number of sectors such as local government, universities, and manufacturing where rescue packages may be needed, but the Chancellor made clear that this announcement only covered the second of a three-phase response.
 
The third phase – rebuilding the economy – will be set out later in the year. How much additional money will be involved is anyone’s guess.

This article was originally published by ICAEW.

New funding package for English local authorities

2 July 2020: Secretary of State Robert Jenrick has announced a new £2bn package for English councils to replace lost income and cover spending pressures.

The government has announced additional funding for local authorities in England to help alleviate the financial pressures they are under. This follows on from our previous article on council funding pressures, which reported that total lost income and additional expenditure could amount to £9.4bn by next March.

The funding package announced today comprises £500m to cover incremental expenditures being incurred by councils – adding to the £3.2bn already provided – together with a reimbursement scheme covering up to 71% of lost income from sales, fees and charges.

The reimbursement scheme kicks in where losses are more than 5% of a council’s planned income from sales, fees and charges. The government will cover 75% of the lost income above 5%, meaning that councils will need to cover around 29% of the shortfall from their own resources. Depending on the final details, councils could receive somewhere in the order of £1.5bn and £2bn to replace lost income.

The Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG) also announced that councils would be able to phase repayments of council tax and business rates deficits over three years rather than one, reducing cashflow pressures on councils. However, the apportionment of irrecoverable council taxes and business rates will not be decided until the Spending Review in the autumn.

This announcement should significantly reduce the risk of councils needing to issue s114 ‘bankruptcy’ notices – for the next few months at least.

Commenting on the announcement Alison Ring, ICAEW Public Sector Director, said: “Although the new funding won’t cover all the expenditure and lost income councils have suffered due to coronavirus, it should be enough to help most get through the rest of the summer, and the prospects of some having to declare themselves bankrupt with s114 notices should recede for now. 

However, we’re concerned that councils will still have to cut back spending to cover the lost income from areas such as car parking, leisure centres, planning fees and other charges that are not being covered by central government. This has the potential to damage local economies just as they are trying to recover.”

This article was originally published by ICAEW.

PAC launches local authority property investments inquiry

ICAEW 27 April 2020: the Public Accounts Committee has launched a formal inquiry into the risks from English local authority investments in commercial property, and how these are monitored by the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government.

The inquiry will investigate concerns about gaps in commercial skills and whether risks are being properly monitored, as well as the potential for big losses following the coronavirus.

The National Audit Office (NAO) reported in February that English local authorities had invested £6.6bn in commercial property over the three years to 31 March 2019, an increase of 1,340% compared with the previous three years.

With many of these investments funded by borrowing, the PAC is concerned about what the coronavirus pandemic might be doing to local authority finances, especially on the £2.5bn invested by councils outside of their local areas.

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) plans to question officials from the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) on gaps in commercial skills in local government, and the extent to which MHCLG formally monitors commercial activity and long-term exposure to risk. The PAC will also ask officials about the Ministry’s response to COVID-19, and what impact the pandemic has had on local government finances.

Commenting on the launch of the investigation Alison Ring, Director, Public Sector at ICAEW, said: “The Public Accounts Committee is right to ask questions about the significant increase in balance sheet risk being taken on by a small but growing number of local authorities and how those risks are being managed both locally and by central government. The coronavirus pandemic will have resulted in significant losses in many local authority commercial property portfolios, adding to the pressure on their finances at a difficult time.

“The PAC also needs to consider the structural issues that have driven local authorities to establish debt-financed ‘mini sovereign wealth funds’ that predominantly invest in one particular asset class, rather than spreading risk across multiple types of investment. 

“Central government also needs to consider how local authorities can be encouraged to invest in infrastructure and other productive assets that will support economic growth and benefit local taxpayers in the long-term, in addition to managing financial investment risks effectively. This will be particularly important if the economy is to recover fully after the end of the pandemic.”

The PAC has put out a call for evidence asking for submissions by Wednesday 6 May 2020.

For further insights during the coronavirus pandemic, please see the ICAEW designated COVID-19 hub.

This article was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: Forecast deficit doubles in a week

20 March 2020: Emergency spending measures added to Spring Budget measures drives forecast deficit for 2020-21 to double in a week.

Forecast deficit pre-budget £40bn + Budget £15bn = OBR forecast £55bn - base rate £3bn + Covid I £12bn + Covid II £20bn = Latest forecast £84bn

20 March 2020.   Chart research by Martin Wheatcroft FCA, design by Sunday.   ©ICAEW 2020
Source: HM Treasury, ‘Spring Budget 2020’, and emergency announcements on 11 and 17 March 2020.

Three fiscal events within a period of a week is pretty much unprecedented. Two of these were on Wednesday 11 March when an expansionary Spring Budget was accompanied by a £12bn package of emergency measures. Less than a week later, the Chancellor announced a £20bn package of additional financial support, together with an initial £330bn in loans and guarantees to keep the economy operating.

As the #icaewchartoftheweek illustrates, this means that the forecast deficit for 2020-21 has more than doubled, from £40bn before the Budget to £84bn now.

It looks increasingly likely that the fiscal deficit in the coming year will exceed £100bn, potentially by a significant margin. Just a 2% drop in tax revenues would be enough to take the deficit over that level, even before the impact on welfare spending of job losses and income reductions, or the cost of writing down any loans or guarantees that are not repaid. Further financial support packages from the Chancellor over the weeks and months ahead are also likely.

Sit tight. This is going to be a bumpy ride for the public finances.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.