ICAEW chart of the week: Public sector productivity

My chart for ICAEW this week suggests that the public sector is less productive than it was, but difficulties in measuring productivity make it hard to say for sure.

According to the Office for National Statistics, public sector productivity has not recovered following the pandemic and is now lower than it was in 1997, despite technological advances since then.

My chart highlights how public sector productivity fell between 1997 and 2010 as spending and investment increased – a fall of 3.3% or 0.25% a year on average over 13 years – before climbing during the austerity years until 2019 – an improvement of 7.5% or 0.8% a year over nine years. The pandemic led to productivity collapsing as public services were severely disrupted before partially recovering, with productivity flat between 2022 and 2023 – overall a net drop of 6.3% or 1.6% a year on average over four years.

Overall, this means public sector productivity as measured by the ONS has fallen by 2.6% or 0.1% a year on average over the last 26 years. It is important to note that these changes do not cover all of the public sector – in some areas such as defence spending, productivity (value of outputs / cost of inputs) is assumed to be a constant 1, reflecting how difficult and subjective it would be to attempt to measure our military preparedness for war.

Despite that, the picture shown by this metric aligns with our more general understanding of what happened in these periods. The decline in productivity between 1997 and 2010 as the then Labour government improved pay and conditions for public sector employees makes sense, while the austerity policies of the Coalition and Conservative governments between 2010 and 2019 constrained the cost of delivering public services. And the pandemic resulted in many public services being closed or curtailed, and we know that many public services – particularly the NHS and schools – are still struggling to recover from the pandemic.

The chart provokes questions about how well this statistic values outputs given that while it is very easy to measure inputs, it is less easy to assess the value produced. For example, larger class sizes might give rise to an apparent productivity improvement as measured (more children taught for the same input of teaching time), but this may not capture any deterioration in quality that may result. 

Not only is the quality of outputs difficult to measure in calculating productivity, but it also doesn’t measure outcomes, often much more important than outputs. In the health context this is whether the patient survives rather than how many operations were performed, for education it means how well-equipped our young people are for the world rather than how many hours they spent in a classroom, and for the criminal justice system how few crimes are committed rather than how many criminals are prosecuted.

Public sector productivity is an important metric, even if an imperfect one. It is helpful to understand how well public service activities are being delivered from a cost perspective – and how there is a need for improvement. But it doesn’t tell us whether those activities are improving our well-being, growing our economy, improving our environment, or building our resilience as a nation.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: Cocoa

My chart for ICAEW this week looks at the price of cocoa, which has been popping as shifting weather patterns have caused harvests in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire to collapse.

Line chart

ICAEW chart of the week

Cocoa futures price per tonne

Line starts at 30 Oct 2023 £3,399
Bumps around to get to 30 £3,381 on 30 Dec 2023
Moves up more sharp to £5,454 on 29 Feb 2024
Continues up sharply with some zigs and zag to £8,370 on 2 Apr 2024.

Falls a bit but then rises sharply, then falls, then rises very steeply to £10,173 on 19 April.

Then falls (with a couple of zigs) to £8,418 on 30 April 2024.

2 May 2024.
Chart by Martin Wheatcroft FCA. Design by Sunday.


© ICAEW 2024

Developments in international commodity markets can often seem only distantly connected with everyday life, but for us chocolate lovers the quadrupling in the cocoa price since the beginning of last year is causing concern, not just about how much we will have to pay for our favourite sweet treat, but whether our next fix might be in jeopardy.

My chart this week skips over the just 65% increase in the one-month London cocoa futures price from £2,060 per metric ton at the end of 2022 to £3,399 at the end of October 2023 to focus on the last six months, during which the price has soared to record highs.

As the chart illustrates, the price had stabilised at around £3,400 to £3,600 per tonne between 30 October 2023 when the price was £3,399 per tonne, to 8 January 2024 when the price dipped to £3,381. The price has increased rapidly since then, up to £5,454 per tonne on 28 February, to £8,370 by 2 April before zigzagging up to a peak of £10,173 per tonne on 19 April. The price came down to £8,418 per tonne on 28 April 2024 (or just under £8.42 per kilogram) as buyers scaled back purchases in the light of lower spot prices, as well as concerns about the ability of suppliers to meet scheduled delivery commitments.

The rapid rise in prices has been driven by poor harvests in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, the two largest producers of cocoa as drier weather, hotter temperatures and shifts in rainfall patterns have all adversely impacted growing conditions. With poor harvests expected to continue and limited options for alternative supply in the near-term, global cocoa prices are unlikely to come back down any time soon.

This has of course fed into the cost of chocolate, with the UK media reporting that Easter eggs cost 50% more this year than in 2023, while our favourite chocolate treats are much more expensive than they were.

One consolation – at least for the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee – is that chocolate constitutes less than 0.6% of the consumer price inflation index, meaning that even if chocolate inflation continues to accelerate, it shouldn’t stop the overall inflation level from coming back down to target in the coming months.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: Global military spending

While the UK commits to increasing its defence and security expenditure, our chart this week looks at military spending around the world, which has reached $2.4trn.

Column chart

Global military spending
ICAEW chart of the week

Column 1: NATO

USA $916bn
UK $75bn
Rest of NATO $360bn
Total $1,351bn

Column 2: SCO and CSTO

China $296bn
Russia $109bn
India and other $106bn
Total $511bn

Column 3: Rest of the world

Other US allies $304bn
Ukraine $65bn
Other countries $212bn
Total $581bn

25 April 2024.
Chart by Martin Wheatcroft FCA. Design by Sunday.

Source: SIPRI Military Expenditure Database. Excludes Cuba, North Korea, Syria and Yemen.

© ICAEW 2024

Our chart this week is based on the latter, with SIPRI reporting that global military expenditure has increased to $2,443bn in 2023, a 6.8% increase after adjusting for currency movements. SIPRI’s numbers are based on publicly available information, which means that some countries may be spending even more on their militaries that are included in the database. SIPRI was unable to obtain numbers for military spending by Cuba, North Korea, Syria, Yemen, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Somalia, Eritrea, Djibouti, and Laos.

Military spending is the news this week following the announcement by the UK government that it will commit to spending 2.5% of GDP on defence and security, the recent vote by the US Congress to provide $95bn in military aid to Ukraine ($61bn), Israel ($26bn) and Taiwan and others in the Indo-Pacific ($8bn), and the release of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) Military Expenditure Database for 2023.

More than half of that spending is incurred by NATO, with total military spending of $1,351bn, comprising $916bn by the US, $75bn by the UK and $360bn by other NATO members. Of the latter, $307bn was spent by the 23 members of the EU that are also members of NATO (including $67bn by Germany, $61bn by France, $36bn by Italy, $32bn by Poland and $24bn by Spain), while $53bn was spent by the other seven members (including $27bn by Canada and $16bn by Türkiye).

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) are partially overlapping economic and military alliances convened by China and Russia respectively. China has the biggest military with $296bn spent in 2023, while Russia spent $109bn and other members spent $106bn (of which India spent $84bn).

We have categorised the rest of the world between other US allies which spent $304bn in 2023 (including $76bn by Saudi Arabia, $50bn by non-US members of the Rio Pact, $50bn by Japan, $48bn by South Korea, $32bn by Australia, $27bn by Israel and $17bn by Taiwan), Ukraine which spent $65bn, and $212bn spent by other countries for which SIPRI has data.

The numbers do not take account of the differences in purchasing power, particularly on salaries. That means China and India, for example, can employ many more soldiers, sailors and aircrew than NATO countries can for the same amount of money.

The Ukraine number also excludes $35bn in military spending funded by the US ($25bn) and other partners ($10bn) during 2023 that was not part of its national budget.

Global military spending is expected to increase further in 2024 as the international security situation deteriorates. This includes NATO members that plan to increase their defence and security spending to meet or exceed the 2% of GDP NATO minimum guideline set in 2014 to be achieved by 2024.

This includes the UK, which now plans to increase its spending on defence and security from 2.35% of GDP in 2023/24 to 2.5% of GDP by 2028/29, with suggestions from defence sources that setting a target of 3% of GDP may be necessary at some point in the next decade.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: IMF Fiscal Monitor

Our chart this week finds that the UK is ranking highly in the IMF’s latest five-year forecasts for general government net debt.

Bar chart

General government net debt/GDP: 2029 forecast

Emerging and developing economies (green bars)
World (purple bar)
Advanced economies (blue bar)
UK (red bar)

Kazakhstan (green) 8%
Canada (blue) 13%
Saudi Arabia (green) 22%
Iran (green) 23%
Australia (blue) 24%
South Korea (blue) 29%
Türkiye (green) 30%
Indonesia (green) 37%
Germany (blue) 43%
Netherlands (blue) 43%
Nigeria (green) 47%
Mexico (green) 51%
Poland (green) 55%
Egypt (green) 56%
Pakistan (green) 61%
Brazil (green) 70%
World (purple) 79%
South Africa (green) 84%
Spain (blue) 92%
UK (red) 98%
France (blue) 107%
US (blue) 108%
Italy (blue) 136%
Japan (blue) 153%

18 Apr 2024.
Chart by Martin Wheatcroft FCA. Design by Sunday.
Source: IMF Fiscal Monitor: 17 Apr 2024.

©️ ICAEW 2024

The International Money Fund (IMF) released its latest IMF Fiscal Monitor on 17 April 2024, highlighting how public debts and deficits are higher than before the pandemic and public debts are expected to remain high. The IMF says: “Amid mounting debt, now is the time to bring back sustainable public finances”, commenting that as prospects for a global economic soft landing have improved, it is time for action to bring government finances back under control. 

Our chart this week illustrates how the UK is one of the ‘leading’ nations in government borrowing, with general government net debt projected by the IMF to reach 98% of GDP by 2029, compared with 92.5% in 2023. (Note: general government net debt is different to the public sector net debt measure used in the UK public finances – the latter includes the Bank of England and other public corporations.)

The chart illustrates how the major countries with the largest debt burdens tend to be advanced economies, with Spain (92% of GDP), the UK (98%), France (107%), US (108%), Italy (136%) and Japan (153%) having debt levels close to, or exceeding, the sizes of their economies.

Some countries are in much better fiscal positions, with Germany expected to bring its general government net debt down to 43% of GDP by 2029, while the Netherlands (43%), South Korea (29%), Australia (24%) and Canada (13%) also have relatively low levels of public debt compared with other advanced economies.

Emerging market ‘middle-income’ and ‘low-income’ developing countries often have much lower levels of public debt than advanced countries, often simply because it is more difficult for them to borrow to the same extent as well as not having the same scale of welfare provision as richer countries to finance. Examples include Kazakhstan (projected to have a general government debt of 8% of GDP in 2029), Saudi Arabia (22%), Iran (23%), Türkiye (30%) and Indonesia (37%). However, that does not stop some emerging and developing countries borrowing more, such as Nigeria (47%), Mexico (51%), Poland (55%), Egypt (56%), Pakistan (61%), Brazil (70%) and South Africa (84%).

Not shown in the chart are China and India for which no net debt numbers are available. The IMF projects them to have general government gross debt in 2029 of 110% and 78% of GDP respectively, indicating how their public debts have grown substantially in recent years. However, without knowing their levels of cash holdings it is less clear where they stand in the rankings.

Also not shown is Norway, the only country with negative general government net debt reported by the IMF. Norway’s general government net cash is projected to reach 139% of GDP in 2029, up from 99% in 2023.

As with all metrics, there are some issues in comparing the circumstances of individual countries. Many countries will also have investments, other public assets, or natural resource rights that are not netted off against debt, while many will also have other liabilities or financial commitments that aren’t counted within debt. For example, the UK has significant liabilities for unfunded public sector pensions as well as even larger financial commitments to the state pension, either of which, if included, would move the UK above the US in the rankings.

The IMF believes that as the world recovers from the pandemic and inflation is brought under control, it is important for countries to start tackling the deficits in the public finances and start bringing down the level of public debt. 

This may be difficult for countries such as the UK where significant pressures on the public finances mean public debt is expected to increase over the medium term rather than fall.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: Public spending crunch

Public spend as a share of the economy must fall over the next five years to make the sums add up – a big challenge for the next government.

Step chart:

Public spending crunch
ICAEW chart of the week

Change in total public spending compared to change in nominal GDP

2025/26: -1.1%
2026/27: -0.7%
2027/28: -1.1%
2028/29: -0.7%
Cumulative: -3.6%

11 April 2024.
Chart by Martin Wheatcroft FCA. Design by Sunday.

Sources: HM Treasury, 'Spring Budget 2024'; OBR, 'Economic and Fiscal Outlook 2024'; ICAEW calculations.

©️ ICAEW 2024

My recently published in-depth Fiscal Insight into the Spring Budget 2024 highlights how the UK’s public finances are in a weak position, with difficult choices on spending deferred and post-election tax rises likely, irrespective of who wins the general election.

My chart for ICAEW this week illustrates how total public spending is forecast to fall by 3.6% as a share of national income between the first and final year of the fiscal forecast. This is equivalent to a 1.6 percentage point reduction in total managed expenditure from a budget of 44% of GDP in 2024/25 to a forecast of 42.4% of GDP in 2028/29.

At a reduction of 1.1% in 2025/26, 0.7% in 2026/27, 1.1% in 2027/28 and 0.7% in 2028/29, this may not sound that large – after all surely there must be some efficiencies that can be found in a budget of £1.2trn, or £1.4trn by 2028/29?

However, this doesn’t take account of the fact that around half of public spending goes on welfare, health and social care spending, where costs are principally driven by people living longer, the triple-lock state pension guarantee, and increasing levels of ill-health. And another 10% or so goes on interest, where costs are driven by no-longer-very-low interest rates on a growing level of debt.

Nor does it allow for the significant pressures facing many public services that are likely to need additional funding to address. This includes the deteriorating international security situation that has prompted recent calls for defence and security spending to increase from 2% to 3% of GDP, underperformance across a range of public services from the criminal justice system to potholes to HMRC service standards, local authorities that are struggling financially, and crumbling infrastructure (in some cases literally) – among many others. There is also little sign of the scale of investment that would be needed to transform the delivery of public services to achieve sustainable cost reductions while maintaining or improving service quality.

It is perhaps unsurprising that the government decided to postpone the three-year Spending Review scheduled for 2024 until after the general election, given how the Office for Budget Responsibility has highlighted how the 2021 Spending Review led to a departmental spending increase of £32bn a year, or around 1.2% of GDP. A similar revision to current spending plans would have more than absorbed the amounts used for tax cuts in the Autumn Statement 2023 and the Spring Budget 2024, or pushed up borrowing levels even higher than are currently planned.

If we are lucky, there will be more detail on each party’s tax and spending plans in their manifesto documents. Then again…

Read more in the ICAEW Fiscal Insight: Spring Budget 2024 or visit our Spring Budget 2024 hub for our extensive coverage of its tax and public finance implications.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW publishes in-depth Fiscal Insight on the Spring Budget

Now that the dust has settled on last month’s Spring Budget, ICAEW has published a more detailed analysis on the implications for the public finances.

ICAEW’s Fiscal Insight on the Spring Budget 2024 provides an analysis of the key numbers, risks to the Office for Budget Responsibility forecast, tax measures, forecast revisions since the 2023 Autumn Statement, the fiscal position in the 2024/25 Budget year, borrowing over the next five years, the calculation of underlying debt, the £1.2trn that HM Treasury needs to raise from debt investors, and our conclusions on what the numbers mean for the public finances.

Key points highlighted in the report include:


  • Modest improvement in forecasts and small tax increases ‘pay for’ national insurance cut.
  • Headroom of £9bn against the Chancellor’s primary fiscal rule is tiny compared with risks.
  • End of low-cost borrowing is hampering investment in infrastructure and public services.
  • Weak economy, high debt, demographic challenges, underperforming public services.
  • No long-term fiscal strategy.

Key numbers

  • Tax and other receipts of £1,139bn in 2024/25, equivalent to £1,375 per person per month.
  • Public spending of £1,226bn in 2024/25, equivalent to £1,480 per person per month.
  • Deficit projected to fall by a quarter to £87bn in 2024/25 and gradually to £39bn in 2028/29.
  • Headline debt expected to reach £2.8trn by March 2025 and £3.0trn by March 2029.
  • Underlying debt/GDP forecast to increase from 88.8% to 93.2% and then fall to 92.9%.


  • Difficult choices on spending deferred until after the general election.
  • Post-election tax increases likely, irrespective of who wins the general election.
  • A badly designed fiscal rule driving poor decisions and unrealistic spending forecasts.
  • Predicted reduction in the deficit to below 2% of GDP by 2027/28 is unlikely to occur.
  • Further pre-election tax cuts could affect credibility with debt markets. 

Alison Ring OBE FCA, ICAEW Director for Public Sector and Taxation, is quoted in the Fiscal Insight as follows:

“The principal story of the Spring Budget has been how the Chancellor was able to find room for tax cuts while still meeting his fiscal targets to ‘bring down debt and the deficit’.

“This is a frustrating narrative as it misses the bigger picture of public finances that are on an unsustainable path, with little sign of a long-term fiscal strategy to address demographic change, growing balance sheet liabilities, underperforming public services, rising debt interest, or resilience against future economic shocks.

“Debt is high and projected to be even higher in five years’ time than it is today. ‘Headroom’ is tiny in context of trillions of pounds of tax receipts and public spending over the next five years and forecasts that don’t reflect government practice in freezing fuel duties nor likely spending increases from the now postponed Spending Review.

“And we have a fiscal target that discourages essential infrastructure investment while at the same time never needing to be achieved as it is rolled forward each year.

“All of our fiscal eggs are now in a basket labelled ‘hope’ [for economic growth].”

Fiscal Insight

Read the full Fiscal Insight report, which provides detailed analysis on the Spring Budget’s implications for the public finances.

For further coverage, including more detailed information about tax measures, visit ICAEW’s Spring Budget 2024 site by clicking here.

This article was written by Martin Wheatcroft FCA on behalf of ICAEW and was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: Whole of Government liabilities

My chart for ICAEW this week looks at how liabilities in the UK’s public balance sheet have risen significantly over the five years to March 2022.

Column chart:

Whole of Government liabilities
ICAEW chart of the week

Employee pensions (blue)
Payables and provisions (purple)
Financial liabilities (orange)

31 Mar 2018: £2.1trn financial liabilities + £0.6trn payables and provisions + £1.9trn employee pensions = £4.6trn total

31 Mar 2019: £2.2trn + £0.5trn + £1.9trn = £4.6trn

31 Mar 2020: £2.2trn + £0.6trn + £2.2trn = £5.0trn

31 Mar 2021: £2.6trn + £0.6trn + £2.3trn = £5.5trn

31 Mar 2022: £2.9trn + £0.8trn + £2.6trn = £6.3trn

4 Apr 2024.
Chart by Martin Wheatcroft FCA. Design by Sunday.
Source: HM Treasury, 'Whole of Government Accounts 2017/18 to 2021/22'.

(c) ICAEW 2024.

HM Treasury published the Whole of Government Accounts (WGA) 2021/22 on 26 March 2024, just under two years after the balance sheet date. This is a significant improvement from the 27 months it took to publish the 2020/21 edition, but is still a lot longer than the nine or 10 months HM Treasury is aiming for in the medium term, or the four months or less that it generally takes listed companies to publish their consolidated financial statements.

WGA are consolidated financial statements for more than 10,000 or so organisations in the UK public sector, including central government departments, devolved administrations, regional and local authorities, the Bank of England and other public corporations, government agencies, schools, hospitals, police and fire services, transport authorities and other public bodies. They are prepared in line with international generally accepted accounting practice – International Financial Reporting Standards – different to the statistical standards used by governments to report fiscal numbers in National Accounts.

My chart for ICAEW illustrates how the liability side of the balance sheet has grown over the five-year period, from £4.6trn on 31 March 2018 and 2019 to £5trn on 31 March 2020, £5.5trn on 31 March 2021 and £6.3trn on 31 March 2022.

This reflects how debt liabilities increased from £2.1trn to £2.9trn over that time, with huge sums borrowed in 2020/21 and 2021/22 during the coronavirus pandemic. 

The other big liability in the balance sheet is the net pension obligation for public sector employees, which was £1.9trn on 31 March 2018 but had risen to £2.6trn by 31 March 2022, with falling discount rates a key factor in that rise. The latter comprises liabilities of £2.5trn for unfunded pension schemes and net liabilities of £0.1trn (£0.5trn liabilities less £0.4trn in assets) for local government and other funded pension schemes.

The balance sheet does not include the much larger commitment to pay the state pension, which as a welfare benefit is accounted for when incurred.

Total liabilities of £6.3trn on 31 March 2022 are equivalent to £93,000 per person in the UK, comprising £43,000 in financial liabilities, £11,000 in payables and provisions, and £39,000 in for public sector employee pensions.

Not shown in the chart is the asset side of the balance sheet, with assets of £2.4trn on 31 March 2022 or £36,000 per person, comprising fixed assets of £1.4trn (£20,500 per person), investments of £0.5trn (£7,000), receivables and other of £0.2trn (£3,500) and cash and other financial assets of £0.3trn (£5,000). This results in an overall net liability position of £3.9trn or £57,000 per person on 31 March 2022. 

The good news is that HM Treasury is working hard to reduce the delays in producing the WGA, which means it shouldn’t be too long before we discover what is in the 31 March 2023 balance sheet. This is expected to show an improvement, as although the government has continued to borrow, pushing up financial liabilities, the net present value of pension obligations and provisions should fall significantly as discount rates have risen sharply since March 2022.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: Retail sales

My chart for ICAEW this week looks at how retail sales have increased by 19.5% over the past five years, comprising a 1.4% fall in volumes and a 21.2% increase in prices.

Double step chart:

Years to Feb 2020, 2021, 2022, 2023 and 2024 = Five years to Feb 2024.

Retail sales
ICAEW chart of the week

Prices up (orange)
Prices down (purple)
Volumes up (teal)
Volumes down (green)

Top step chart: prices

+1.0%, -1.1%, +7.8%, +9.6%, +2.6% = +21.2%

Bottom step chart: volumes

-0.2%, -3.3%, +7.0%, -4.2%, -0.3% = -1.4%

Total retail sales in the horizontal axes descriptions:

Year to Feb 2020 +0.8%, Year to Feb 2021 -4.4%, Year to Feb 2022 +15.4%, Year to Feb 2023 +5.0%, Year to Feb 2024 +2.3% = Five years to Feb 2024 +19.5%

27 Mar 2024.
Chart by Martin Wheatcroft FCA. Design by Sunday.
Sources: ONS, 'Retail sales, Great Britain: Feb 2024 (seasonally adjusted)'; ICAEW calculations.

(c) ICAEW 2024

The latest statistics from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) up to February 2024 highlight how retail sales in Great Britain (England, Wales and Scotland) have been on a rollercoaster ride over the past five years as the pandemic, then the cost-of-living crisis, battered the economy.

As our chart of the week illustrates, changes in retail sales can be split between volumes and prices, with growth in retail sales of 19.5% over the five years to February 2024 consisting of a 1.4% fall in volumes and a 21.2% increase in prices.

Our chart also shows how retail sales have increased by year, starting with a 0.8% increase in retail sales in the year to February 2020 (from a 0.2% fall in volumes and a 1% increase in prices) before the first pandemic lockdown the following month. That first year of the pandemic to February 2021 resulted in a 4.4% decline in sales (a 3.3% fall in volumes and a 1.1% reduction in prices) as we cut back on spending, followed by a massive 15.4% jump in retail sales in the year to February 2022 (7% from higher volumes and 7.8% from higher prices) as the nation emerged and started to spend heavily.

The cost-of-living crisis was behind a 5% increase in retail sales in the year to February 2023, as although prices rose 9.6% as inflation accelerated, households cut back on what they bought in response to drive a 4.2% fall in retail volumes.

Retail sales were up by a more modest 2.3% in the year to February 2024, comprising a 0.3% fall in volumes and a 2.6% increase in prices as inflation moderated.

Evening out the ups and downs gives an average increase in retail sales of 3.6% a year over the last five years, comprising an average fall of 0.3% a year in volumes and an average increase of 3.9% in prices.

This is not as positive a picture for retail business as the numbers might imply. Although it appears that retailers are selling slightly less overall at much higher prices, our chart doesn’t reflect the substantial increases many have seen in their input costs over the same period.

For more ICAEW analysis on the economy, click here.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

Fiscal deficit still too high for comfort

Only a small improvement in the year-to-date deficit of £107bn reported in the penultimate monthly public finance release for 2023/24 over the same period a year ago.

The monthly public sector finances for February 2024 released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) on Thursday 21 March 2024 reported a provisional deficit for the month of £8bn, while at the same time revising the year-to-date deficit up by £2bn. This increased the cumulative deficit for the first 11 months of the financial year to £107bn, £5bn less than in the same period last year. 

The deficit for the first 11 months of 2023/24 is slightly ahead of the £114bn full-year estimate made by the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) in its latest fiscal forecasts that accompanied the Spring Budget 2024 earlier this month.

Alison Ring OBE FCA, ICAEW Director of Public Sector and Taxation, said: “The numbers for February saw the public finances return to deficit following January’s self-assessment-driven surplus, bringing the cumulative deficit to £107bn for the first 11 months of the financial year. This is a £5bn improvement on the same period last year, with lower cost of living support payments and lower interest on index-linked debt as inflation has fallen, but it is still higher than is comfortable.

“Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s aim to cut the deficit by a quarter to £87bn in the coming financial year will be challenging to achieve given much-higher-than-inflation rises to the state pension, benefits and the minimum wage, while pressure to find extra money for defence, local government and public services is only likely to grow as the general election approaches.”

Month of February 2024

The fiscal deficit of £8bn for the month was £3bn lower than in February 2023, but slightly higher than some predictions.

Taxes and other receipts amounted to £95bn, up 8% compared with the same month last year, while total managed expenditure was 4% higher at £103bn.

Public sector net debt as of 31 January 2024 was £2,659bn or 97.1% of GDP, £12bn higher than at the start of the month and £120bn higher than at the start of the financial year.

Eleven months to February 2024

The provisional shortfall in taxes and other receipts compared with total managed expenditure for the first 11 months of the 2023/24 financial year to February 2024 was £107bn, £5bn less than the amount reported for the first 11 months of 2022/23. 

This reflected a year-to-date shortfall between tax and other receipts of £995bn and total managed expenditure of £1,102bn, each up 6% compared with the corresponding numbers for April 2022 to February 2023.

Inflation benefited tax receipts for the first 11 months compared with the same period in the previous year, with income tax up 11% to £249bn and VAT up 6% to £181bn. Corporation tax receipts were up 18% to £93bn, partly reflecting the increase in the corporation tax rate from 19% to 25% from 1 April 2023, while national insurance receipts were up by just 1% to £163bn as the abolition of the short-lived health and social care levy in 2022/23 offset the effect of wage increases in the current financial year, in addition to the cut in employee national insurance implemented in January. Council tax receipts were up 6% to £39bn, but stamp duty on properties was down by 24% to £12bn, while the total for all other taxes was up by just 1% at £153bn as economic activity slowed. Non-tax receipts were up 10% to £105bn, primarily driven by higher investment income and higher interest charged on student loans.

Total managed expenditure of £1,102bn in the 11 months to February 2024 can be analysed between current expenditure excluding interest of £935bn, interest of £114bn and net investment of £53bn, compared with £1,049bn in the same period in the previous year, comprising £893bn, £125bn and £31bn respectively.

The increase of £42bn or 5% in current expenditure excluding interest was driven by a £33bn increase in pension and other welfare benefits (including cost-of-living payments), £19bn in higher central government pay, and £11bn in additional central government procurement spending, less £18bn in lower subsidy payments (principally relating to energy support schemes) and £3bn in net other changes.

The fall in interest costs for the 11 months of £11bn or 9% to £114bn comprises a £23bn or 46% reduction to £27bn for interest accrued on index-linked debt as the rate of inflation fell, partially offset by a £12bn or 16% increase to £87bn from higher interest rates on variable-rate debt and new and refinanced fixed-rate debt.

The £22bn increase in net investment spending to £53bn in the first 11 months of the current financial year is distorted by a one-off credit of £10bn arising from changes in interest rates and repayment terms of student loans recorded in December 2022. Adjusting for that credit, the increase of £12bn reflects high construction cost inflation amongst other factors that saw a £16bn or 17% increase in gross investment to £112bn, less a £4bn or 7% increase in depreciation to £59bn.


Public sector finance trends: February 2024

11 months to Feb 2020 | 2021 | 2022 | 2023 | 2024

Receipts: 756 | 719 | 835 | 937 | 995
Expenditure: (721) | (906) | (836) | (893) | (935)
Interest: (53) | (40) | (71) | (125) | (114)
Net investment: (36) | (62) | (48) | (31) | (53)

Deficit: (54) | (289) | (120) | (112) | (107)

Other borrowing: 20 | (53) | (77) | (9) | (13)

Debt movement: (34) | (342) | (197) | (121) | (120)

Net debt: 1,811 | 2,157 | 2,349 | 2,502 | 2,659

Net debt / GDP: 84.5% | 97.4% | 96.0% | 94.8% | 97.1%

The cumulative deficit of £107bn for the first 11 months of the financial year is £5bn below the OBR’s November 2023 forecast of £112bn for the same period but slightly higher than it should be to be consistent with the updated £114bn full year estimate for 2023/24 in its March 2024 forecast.

The OBR’s March 2024 forecast predicts an £87bn deficit in the next financial year commencing in April (2024/25) a reduction of approximately a quarter compared with the current financial year.

Balance sheet metrics

Public sector net debt was £2,659bn at the end of February 2024, equivalent to 97.1% of GDP.

This is an increase since the start of the financial year of £120bn, comprising borrowing to fund the deficit for the 11 months of £107bn plus an additional £13bn of borrowing to fund lending to students, businesses and others, net of loan repayments and working capital movements.

Public sector net debt is £844bn more than the £1,815bn reported for 31 March 2020 at the start of the pandemic and £2,124bn more than the £535bn number as of 31 March 2007 before the financial crisis, reflecting the huge sums borrowed over the last couple of decades.

Public sector net worth, the new balance sheet metric launched by the ONS this year, was -£668bn on 29 February 2024, comprising £1,596bn in non-financial assets and £1,062bn in non-liquid financial assets minus £2,659bn of net debt (£319bn liquid financial assets – £2,977bn public sector gross debt) and other liabilities of £667bn. This is a £65bn deterioration from the -£613bn reported for 31 March 2023.


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. 

The latest release saw the ONS revise the reported deficit for the 10 months to January 2024 up by £2bn as estimates of tax receipts and expenditure were updated for better data, as well as revise the calculation of the public sector net debt to GDP ratio at 31 January 2024 from 96.5% to 96.8% as GDP estimates were updated in line with the latest OBR forecasts.

The ONS also revised its estimate for the deficit for the financial year to March 2023 (2022/23), down by £1bn to £128bn.

This article was written by Martin Wheatcroft FCA on behalf of ICAEW and was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: Core inflation

The Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee held interest rates constant at its latest meeting, despite CPI falling to 3.4% in February and core inflation dropping to 4.5%.

Line chart:

Core inflation
ICAEW chart of the week

CPI (purple) - line
Core inflation (orange) - line
Bank of England target range - shaded area

Annual inflation rates for the years to Dec 2022 to Feb 2024:

CPI: 10.5%, 10.1%, 10.4%, 8.7%, 8.7%, 7.9%, 6.8%, 6.7%, 6.7%, 4.6%, 3.9%, 4.0%, 4.0%, 3.4% (just above the Bank of England target range).

Core inflation: 6.4%, 5.8%, 6.2%, 6.8%, 7.1%, 6.9%, 6.9% (crossing over CPI and back again), 6.2%, 6.1% (crossing over CPI), 5.7%, 5.1%, 5.1%, 5.1%, 4.5%.

Bank of England target range: shaded area across the chart between 1.0% and 3.0% with 2.0% solid line through the middle.

21 Mar 2024.
Chart by Martin Wheatcroft FCA. Design by Sunday.
Source: ONS, 'Consumer price inflation, UK: Feb 2024'.

(c) ICAEW 2024

The Office for National Statistics reported its latest estimates for inflation on Wednesday 20 March 2024, with both annual consumer price inflation (CPI) and annual consumer price inflation excluding food, alcohol, tobacco and energy (core inflation) in February falling by 0.6 percentage points to 3.4% and 4.5% respectively.

Our chart this week illustrates how CPI fell from 10.5% in the year to December 2022 to 4% in December 2023 and to 3.4% in February 2024, a rapid decline in the headline measure. This contrasts with the annual rate of core inflation, which increased from 6.4% in December 2022 to a peak of 7.1% in May 2023, before declining more gradually to 5.1% in December 2023 and to 4.5% in February 2024.

Annual food price inflation (5% in February 2024), alcohol and tobacco (11.9%), and energy prices (-13.8%) are of course many of the prices that we as consumers notice the most – what we buy in the supermarket, off-licence, at the fuel pump, or pay to heat and power our homes. However, food, alcohol, tobacco and energy prices are often very volatile and so core inflation allows us to understand what is happening to the (generally less volatile) prices of the other 78% of the things we buy as measured by the CPI Index. 

The drop in core inflation to 4.5% is a positive sign for the Monetary Policy Committee, even if it didn’t reduce interest rates at its most recent meeting on Thursday 21 March 2024. The headline measure of CPI is coming down, and is expected to fall further over the next few months as large food price increases a year ago drop out of the annual comparison, a factor that won’t affect core inflation directly.

Policymakers are expected to remain cautious about cutting interest rates for several more months, as they will want to see how inflationary the scheduled increases in April of 9.8% in the minimum wage, 8.5% in the state pension and 6.7% in universal credit and other welfare benefits will be. Salaries are a significant input cost for the majority of businesses and it is likely that many will seek to pass on higher salary costs to their customers, while higher spending by pensioners and those in receipt of benefits could start to push up prices again just at the point that the Bank of England hopes to have brought inflation under control. 

While there is likely to be much celebration and declaration of victory once the headline CPI measure drops into the target range over the next few months, how long it takes to bring down core inflation to within the target range is likely to be a better indicator of whether inflation has actually been tamed.

For more ICAEW analysis on the economy, click here.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.