OBR: Pandemic worsens long-term outlook for public finances

ICAEW 20 July 2020: The Office for Budget Responsibility suggests tax rises or spending cuts of more than £60bn a year may be needed if the UK public finances are to be put onto a sustainable path.

The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) has reported that the public finances are unsustainable over the next 25 to 50 years, given expected levels of economic growth and pressures on public spending from more people living longer. Fiscal risks have also increased significantly with two ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ economic shocks occurring in just over a decade.

Without action to increase taxes or cut spending over the next few decades, the OBR projects that the gap between receipts and public spending before interest will widen from around 1% of GDP in 2019-20 to between 10% and 15% in 2069-70, depending on how quickly the UK recovers from the coronavirus pandemic. Public sector net debt could increase to between 320% of GDP and 520% of GDP, based on the assumptions made.

The OBR has highlighted how the coronavirus pandemic has not only worsened the immediate prospects for the UK and global economies, but ‘economic scarring’ will permanently damage the expected level of tax receipts over the next 50 years. The vulnerability of the public finances to potential future economic shocks has also increased significantly.

The OBR believes that a V-shaped economy is still possible, but this is now considered to be an upside scenario, with the OBR’s central scenario based on a much slower recovery from the pandemic. The downside scenario takes even longer for the economy to recover.

Economic activity, as measured by GDP, and tax receipts are both expected to be lower in all scenarios than in previous forecasts.

Prospects for the public finances in the current financial year have continued to deteriorate with the OBR now forecasting a fiscal deficit between 15% and 23% of GDP, with a central scenario of £372bn (19% of GDP). This reflects a total of £192bn in fiscal interventions in 2020-21 announced by the Government to date to support the UK economy through the pandemic.

The OBR projects that in its central scenario the gap between receipts and expenditure excluding interest will widen to almost 13% of GDP by 2069-70 if no actions are taken, equivalent to almost £300bn in 2019-20 terms. With much higher levels of debt, and interest rates likely to be higher in the medium to long-term, this could cause the fiscal deficit to increase to over 30% of GDP in 50 years time.

The OBR has calculated that ‘fiscal tightening’ in the order of 2.9% of GDP (£64bn a year) would be required based on a target level for public sector net debt of 75% of GDP. This is subject to a number of fiscal risks, including that no further significant changes are made to the planned profile of spending on health and social care – a key source of policy risk.

Closing this gap could require potentially very significant levels of tax increases or cuts in public spending, especially if difficult decisions, such as on how to fund social care, continue to be deferred.

Martin Wheatcroft FCA, adviser to ICAEW on public finances, commented: “The Office for Budget Responsibility has yet again assessed the public finances and concluded that they are not sustainable, even before taking account of the eye-watering levels of borrowing being added to the national debt as a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic.

Although we should expect tax cuts and spending increases in the immediate future as the Government looks to provide stimulus to the economy, the need to reduce the gap between tax receipts and public spending over the medium- to long-term means that tax rises or further cuts in public spending are likely in the years to come.

Despite this, there are actions that could be taken to improve the outlook for the public finances by developing a long-term fiscal strategy to put the public finances onto a sustainable path.”

Table 1 – OBR projections for the public finances: central scenario

CENTRAL SCENARIO2019-20
% OF GDP
2020-21
% OF GDP
2024-25
% OF GDP
2044-45
% OF GDP
2069-70
% OF GDP
Receipts excluding interest36.136.336.636.636.4
Expenditure excluding interest(37.2)(54.4)(40.3)(43.9)(49.1)
Primary deficit(1.1)(18.1)(3.7)(7.3)(12.7)
Net interest(1.5)(0.8)(0.9)(6.2)(17.8)
Fiscal deficit(2.6)(18.9)(4.6)(13.5)(30.5)

Public sector net debt

(88.5)

(106.6)

(102.1)

(173.7)

(418.4)

Source: OBR, ‘Fiscal sustainability report July 2020’.  2020-21 amounts adjusted for £50bn (2.5% of GDP) of additional fiscal interventions announced on 8 July 2020. Subsequent periods not adjusted.

Table 2 – OBR projections for the public finances: upside and downside scenarios

DIFFERENCES FROM     
CENTRAL SCENARIO       
                2020-21
% OF GDP
2024-25
% OF GDP
2044-45
% OF GDP
2069-70
% OF GDP
Upside scenario
Primary deficit3.62.12.22.3
Fiscal deficit3.62.23.86.5
Public sector net debt9.314.145.798.2
Downside scenario
Primary deficit(4.3)(2.2)(2.3)(2.4)
Fiscal deficit(4.3)(2.2)(3.9)(6.9)
Public sector net debt(9.1)(14.5)(47.9)(103.5)

Sources: OBR, ‘Fiscal sustainability report July 2020’; ICAEW calculations.
Positive differences = lower deficit or lower debt in percentage points of GDP; (negative) differences = higher deficit or higher debt.

This article was originally published by ICAEW.

OBR: deficit could reach £273bn or more

ICAEW 15 April 2020: a report from the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) indicates that the fiscal deficit could increase to £273bn in 2020-21, but it cautions that this is only one of many plausible scenarios.

The OBR has produced its first analysis of the potential economic and fiscal impact of the coronavirus, based on a three-month lockdown followed by restrictions for a further three months. 

At the same time, the International Monetary Fund has warned that the global economic contraction underway is likely to be the worst since the Great Depression, dwarfing the financial crisis twelve years ago.  

In its ‘coronavirus reference scenario’, the OBR indicates that the UK economy could fall by 35% in the second quarter of 2020, before bouncing back to leave the economy 13% smaller in 2020 than in 2019. 

The consequence would be an increase in the deficit for the fiscal year ending 31 March 2021 to £273bn or 14% of GDP, while public sector net debt could be £384bn higher than budgeted for, reaching £2.2tn or 95% of GDP by the end of the fiscal year.

The OBR says that the economic impact of the coronavirus will derive much less from people falling ill or dying, than from the public health restrictions and social distancing required to limit its spread, severely reducing demand and supply at the same time. That means lower incomes, less spending and weaker asset prices, all of which reduce tax revenues, while job losses will raise public spending.

Once the crisis has passed and policy interventions have unwound, the OBR thinks that annual borrowing could return to roughly the Spring Budget 2020 forecast. However, net debt would continue to be much higher, potentially £260bn (10% of GDP) more than the baseline forecast by 31 March 2025. 

The OBR analysis assumes that increased public spending, tax cuts and holidays, loans and guarantees, and actions taken by the Bank of England, designed to support household incomes and to limit business failures and layoffs, will help prevent greater economic and fiscal damage in the long term. However, it warns that the longer the disruption lasts, the more likely it is that the economy’s future potential output will be ‘scarred’ with adverse consequences for future deficits and for fiscal policy.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) now predicts that the global economy will contract by 3.0% in 2020, much worse than the 0.1% contraction seen during the financial crisis in 2009 and a cut of 6.3% from its previous prediction in January. The IMF prediction is based on a shallower, but longer recession than the OBR’s scenario for the UK. Overall, the IMF believes that the cumulative output loss in 2020 and 2021 from the pandemic could be as much as $9tn.

Alison Ring, Director, Public Sector for ICAEW, commented: “The analysis published by the OBR is not a forecast, but the scenario it presents is pretty startling; making clear that whatever actually happens, the damage to public finances from the coronavirus pandemic will be extremely severe.

“While the OBR suggests that the economy and tax receipts could recover relatively quickly, the additional debt burden will weigh on the public finances for many years for come.”

Fiscal deficit 2020-21: £55bn Spring Budget +£130bn lower receipts +£88bn higher spending = £273bn Reference scenario.  Net debt: £1,819bn +£384bn = £2,203bn.

This article was originally published by ICAEW.

Treasury announces extra £9.5bn for public services

ICAEW 14 April 2020: the Chancellor has increased the coronavirus emergency response fund to £14.5bn to cover the escalating costs of dealing with the pandemic.

Easter Monday saw Rishi Sunak announce an extra £9.5bn for the NHS and public services, adding to the £5bn already included in the emergency package announced with the Spring Budget on 11 March 2020.

This brings additional funding for the NHS and public services to £14.5bn, comprising £6.6bn for health services, £3.5bn to keep the railways running, £1.6bn for local authorities, and £0.9bn for food packages and other support for clinically vulnerable people, together with £1.9bn for the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Altogether, this brings the estimated cost of fiscal measures announced by the Government in response to the coronavirus pandemic to somewhere in the region of £95bn. In addition to the £14.5bn for the NHS and public services, £27bn has been announced in business rates discounts and small business grants, £5bn in enhancements to Universal Credit and housing benefit and £750m for charities. The costs of the employee furlough and self-employed income replacement schemes will depend on take-up, with estimates that these could cost around £40bn and £9bn respectively for their initial three-month terms.

This does not include the effect of collapsing tax revenues and higher welfare spending on the public finances, nor any potential costs from the £330bn of loans and guarantees being advanced to support business. As a consequence, the fiscal deficit this financial year is now almost certain to exceed £200bn, compared with the baseline of £55bn set out in the Spring Budget just over a month ago.

Martin Wheatcroft FCA, adviser to ICAEW on public finances, commented: “This is probably not going to be the last announcement of additional funding for the NHS and public services this year given the extraordinary challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic. 

“It is positive that the Chancellor has made it clear that money will be made available to front-line services as needed, an important signal for budget holders conditioned by a decade of austerity to manage resources carefully, rather than to spend whatever it takes to achieve a critical objective.

“We can and will worry about the bill later, when the need for a long-term fiscal strategy to put the public finances onto a sustainable path will be more important than ever before.”

This article was originally published by ICAEW.

IFS: deficit to triple as budget contingency increases

30 March 2020: the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has suggested that the budgeted fiscal deficit for the financial year starting 1 April 2020 of £55bn could more than triple to £177bn due to the coronavirus pandemic.

In a new publication, the economic research institute also stated that there is a chance the 2020-21 deficit could end up exceeding £200bn.

The Chancellor has already stopped reporting financial estimates for a series of emergency measures, such as the funding of 80% of pay for furloughed workers and support for self-employed workers, incurring tens of billions of public money to keep an economy going whilst in lockdown.

The Contingencies Fund Act 2020 (passed by Parliament on 25 March 2020 alongside the Coronavirus Act 2020), increases the amount available for contingencies from a limit of 2% of spending authorised by Parliament in the preceding financial year to a limit of 50%. In effect, this gives the Chancellor the power to spend an additional £266bn in 2020-21 over and above spending plans already announced, a substantial increase from the £11bn that would have been available otherwise.

The IFS’s estimate assumes that a 5% contraction in the economy would reduce tax revenues by somewhere in the region of £80bn in 2020-21, albeit this would be offset by savings in interest costs following the reduction in the base rate to 0.1% and quantitative easing operations by the Bank of England.

Fiscal measures include the £12bn emergency package announced on the day of the Budget and the £20bn announced on 17 March, together with an estimate by the IFS of £18bn for further measures announced up until 25 March 2020.

The effect on the public finances estimated by the IFS is summarised in the table below.

Estimate of coronavirus revisions to the Spring Budget 2020

Financial year 2020-21Spring Budget
£bn
Economic contraction
£bn
Fiscal measures
£bn

Revised
£bn
Taxes and other income873(80)(22)771
Total managed expenditure(928)8(28)(948)
Fiscal deficit(55)(72)(50)(177)
% of GDP2.4%+3.4%+2.3%8.1%

Source: HM Treasury, Spring Budget 2020; IFS, estimates of economic contraction and fiscal measures to date, 26 March 2020; ICAEW, rough estimate of the split of fiscal measures between waiving tax and additional spending.

The IFS analysis of fiscal measures includes £10bn for the 80% job retention credit for employed workers (for which the IFS have assumed a 10% take-up), but it was prepared for the announcement of support for the self-employed. This could add another £9bn to the deficit for 2020-21.

The IFS has not included the risk of bad debts on the Government’s £330bn programme of financial guarantees and business loans or on the £30bn of second quarter deferred VAT payments. There is also no cost provision for the exposure to additional bank financing and corporate bond purchases by the Bank of England that is being guaranteed by HM Treasury.

Altogether, this would increase the deficit to £177bn, or 8.1% of GDP based on a 5% smaller economy, before taking account of the support package announced for the self-employed. The prospect of further fiscal measures in the weeks and months to come, combined with the risks from loans and guarantees, means that the prospect of a deficit in excess of £200bn is looking increasingly likely.

For more information

  • For the latest news and guidance on the ongoing impact of COVID-19 for businesses and accountants, visit ICAEW’s dedicated Coronavirus Hub.

This article was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: Post-GE2019 fiscal deficits

With the General Election now complete, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) was able to release a restated version of its March 2019 fiscal forecasts this morning, reflecting technical revisions to the way the fiscal numbers are calculated, in particular that of student loans. This enables us to update the numbers set out our GE2019 Fiscal Insight on the party manifestos as best we can, given that the OBR has not deigned to include either the changes to public spending announced in the Spending Round 2019 nor the tax and spending changes in the Conservatives manifesto.

As illustrated by the #icaewchartoftheweek, the revised baseline forecast for the fiscal deficit is now £50bn for the current fiscal year, followed by £59bn next year in 2020-21, £58bn in 2021-22 and 2022-23 and £60bn in 2023-24.

It was frustrating that the OBR scheduled their publication of these revised numbers for the first day of the General Election purdah period making it vulnerable – as happened – to being pulled. A day earlier and that would not have happened! Ideally, these revisions would have been published as soon as practical after the publication by the ONS of their revisions to historical numbers in September.

It would have been even better if the OBR had been able to update their economic forecast too, given that the current baseline is still based on an economic and fiscal analysis from nine-months ago. With weak economic growth over the first half of the financial year, it is likely that the OBR will cut its forecasts for tax revenues over the forecast period when it does get round to updating them, resulting in higher deficits – even before taking account of suggestions that the Conservative GE2019 winners plan to announce a splurge of more capital expenditures in the Spring Budget in February.

Unfortunately, we won’t see an updated long-term forecast until at least July 2020, when the OBR is scheduled to publish its next fiscal sustainability report on the prospects for the public finances.

ICAEW chart of the week: General Election 2019

With voters in the UK going to the polls tomorrow, the #icaewchartoftheweek is on the political party’s plans for the public finances.

All the political parties are promising to increase taxes, public spending and investment, with the plan to eliminate the fiscal deficit now well and truly abandoned. 

The Conservatives are promising the least in terms of additional spending and investment, with £3bn a year extra spending in 2023-24, £8bn in extra capital investment and tax rises broadly offsetting tax cuts. However, this is unlikely to be the final result as they have deferred significant financial decisions, such as the funding of adult social care, until after the election. 

Labour is planning to spending much more with £83bn a year more spending by 2023-24, funded by £78bn tax increases and £5bn from higher economic growth. They plan capital investment of £55bn a year and £58bn in total over five years to compensate ‘WASPI’ women. This is pretty ambitious, leading the IFS and others to cast doubt on the achievability of their plans, while these numbers don’t include the additional borrowing from their plans to nationalise utilities, nor the borrowing of those businesses post-nationalisation.

The Lib Dem plans are also very ambitious, with £50bn extra a year public spending by 2024-25 funded by £37bn in higher taxes and £14bn in higher economic growth from cancelling Brexit. They plan to borrow an extra £25bn a year to fund new capital investment.

The Greens’ are planning to be even more ambitious, including completely reforming welfare provision with the introduction of a universal basic income, contributing to a £124bn increase in taxes and public spending (albeit some of this is a switch from tax deductions to cash payments). Their capital investment plans are the largest and likely to most difficult to deliver of all the major parties at £82bn a year on average over 10 years.

Unfortunately, none of the major political parties appear to have a fiscal strategy that extends beyond the next five years, with only limited measures to address the big financial challenges of more people living longer. This is disappointing given that relatively small actions taken now could make a big difference to the financial position of the nation in 25 years’ time.

ICAEW’s full analysis of the party manifestos can be found at icaew.com/ge2019manifestoanalysis.


You can be part of the conversation as part of ICAEW’s GE 2019: It’s More Than a Vote campaign.

ICAEW chart of the week: First half fiscal deficit

H1 2018-19 -£33.2bn fiscal deficit + £4.5bn growth + £1.8bn RBS dividends - £3.0bn lower revenues - £10.4bn higher spending = -£40.3bn fiscal deficit for H1 2019-20.

The ONS published the fiscal numbers for the first half of the UK Government’s 2019-20 financial year this morning, with the #icaewchartoftheweek illustrating the changes in comparison with the first half of last year.

If revenues had increased in line with economic growth then the deficit would have reduced by £4.5bn (net of the effect of inflation on both revenues and expenditures). Unfortunately, tax receipts have been relatively weak, coming in £3.0bn below growth, with higher national insurance and council tax receipts being more than offset by lower corporation tax, income tax, inheritance tax, fuel duties, excise duties, and stamp duty.

The Government’s preferred measure of the deficit (which excludes government-owned banks) did benefit from £1.8bn in dividends from the Royal Bank of Scotland.  

Expenditures were £10.4bn higher than the first half of last year, reflecting more spending on public services (including the NHS), Brexit preparations, a growth in the size of the civil service, and a £3bn or so increase in capital investment.

This means that there is a shortfall of £40.3bn between receipts of £395.5bn and expenditures of £435.7bn in the first half of this financial year, compared with £33.2bn for the same period last time, when receipts were £384.2bn and expenditures totalled £417.4bn. (The first half deficit last year was originally reported as £19.9bn. This was subsequently revised down to £19.3bn before £13.9bn in accounting changes, including irrecoverable student loans.)

Fortunately for the Chancellor, the deficit tends to be much lower in the second half of the year given the boost from self-assessment tax declarations in January. Despite this the deficit could exceed £50bn this year if trends continue, a big disappointment for those who had hoped to continue on the path to eliminating the deficit.

With warning signs over the economy flashing, these numbers do not provide an auspicious backdrop for the Budget on Wednesday 6 November when the Chancellor is hoping to announce a number of major tax cuts.

For further information go to:

ONS – Public sector finances, September 2019

OBR – Commentary on the Public Sector Finances: September 2019

ICAEW chart of the week: fiscal changes

Chart: Fiscal methodology changes and error corrections. £23.6bn 2018-19 deficit before changes, £41.4bn changes after changes.

The public sector finances were subjected this week to some big methodology changes by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), as illustrated by the #icaewchartoftheweek.

At the same time, the ONS took the opportunity to fix some errors in the reported fiscal numbers, including a correction of £2.6bn in 2018-19 relating to double counting by HMRC within corporation tax revenues. This is an error that turns out to have been occurring for the last 7 years, raising questions over the quality of controls over fiscal reporting within government. 

There were also a number of other revisions to the numbers amounting to £1.5bn, increasing the reported deficit for 2018-19 from £23.6bn to £27.7bn before methodology changes.

The treatment of student loans in the fiscal measures has been misleading for many years, and the ONS have finally dealt with the ‘fiscal illusion’ this created (as the OBR describes such flaws in the National Accounts).

The new treatment increases the deficit in 2018-19 by £12.4bn, with a charge of £8.6bn for loans that are never expected to be recovered (just under half of the total loans extended in the year), the removal of £2.3bn in interest on student loans also not expected to be collected, and £1.5bn from the loss experienced on the sale of part of the student loan portfolio during last year.

The treatment of pension funds has changed too, with a £1.3bn increase in the deficit relating to how the Pension Protection Fund and local authority and other public sector pension funds are recorded.

Overall, the fiscal deficit for 2018-19 has been increased to £41.4bn, a 75% increase in the headline number from that previously reported.

Not shown in the chart is the effect on public sector net debt. This was not affected by the student loans change, but was reduced at 31 March 2019 from £1,802bn to £1,773bn as a consequence of eliminating £29bn owed to local authority and other pension funds, without reflecting the associated liability to public sector employees. We disagree with this elimination, which we think understates the headline measure for the national debt.

Despite this, the overall effect of these changes is to improve the reporting of the public finances. A positive step forward, even if there remains a long way to go.

Further information:

– UK public sector finances, 24 September 2019 (ONS)

– Commentary on the public sector finances (OBR)