Public sector debt hits £2tn for the first time

21 August 2020: The fiscal deficit of £150.5bn for the four months to July 2020 is almost triple the £55bn budgeted for the entire financial year.

The latest public sector finances for July 2020 published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) on Friday 21 August 2020 reported a deficit of £26.7bn in July 2020, following on from £123.8bn for the three months to June 2020 (revised from £127.9bn reported last time).

Public sector net debt increased to £2,004.0bn or 100.5% of GDP, an increase of £198.3bn from the start of the financial year and £227.6bn higher than in July 2019. This is the first time this measure has exceeded £2tn, a major milestone that has arrived several years earlier than anticipated as a consequence of the pandemic.

Image of table showing variances against prior year. Go to the ICAEW website at the end for the table itself.

The combination of lower tax receipts and much higher levels of public spending has resulted in a deficit for the four months to July 2020 that is almost triple the budgeted deficit of £55bn for the whole of the 2020-21 financial year set in the Spring Budget in March, and almost seven times as much as the same period last year.

Cash funding (the ‘public sector net cash requirement’) for the four months was £199.1bn, compared with £5.4bn 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.

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.

Commenting on the latest figures Alison Ring FCA, director for public sector at ICAEW, said:

“The positive news for the Government is that despite debt reaching £2tn, low interest rates have reduced its cost, and its growth is slowing as the exceptional support measures to deal with the pandemic are withdrawn and furloughed employees return to work.

“The big question is how much permanent damage is being done to the economy, with accelerating job losses a concerning sign as we approach the autumn. How quickly debt continues to grow will also depend on any additional support that the Government might provide to sectors that are still struggling.”

Image of tables showing monthly breakdown for April through July 2020 and 2019. Go to the ICAEW website at the end for the tables themselves.

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

This article was originally published on the ICAEW website.