Economic storm clouds darken outlook for public finances

A slightly higher fiscal deficit for May and rising interest rates provide no comfort for the Chancellor as he considers how to respond to public sector wage demands.

The monthly public sector finances released on Thursday 23 June 2022 reported a provisional deficit for the month of May 2022 of £14.0bn, an improvement from this time last year, but still £8.5bn higher than May 2019, the year before the pandemic.

Public sector net debt increased by £21bn from £2,342bn at the end of March 2022 to £2,363bn or 95.8% of GDP at the end of May. This is £570bn higher than 31 March 2020, reflecting the huge sums borrowed over the course of the pandemic.

The deficit reported for the two months to May 2022 of £35.9bn was an improvement of £6.4bn from the deficit of £42.3bn reported for the months of April and May 2021, and £64.2bn better than the £100.1bn reported for April and May 2020. However, it was £19.8bn worse than the pre-pandemic deficit of £16.1bn for the two months to May 2019.

Tax and other receipts in the two months amounted to £147.5bn, £12.4bn or 9% higher than a year previously. This included higher income tax receipts from wage increases and bonuses as well as the new higher rate of national insurance, as well as higher VAT receipts driven by higher retail prices.

Expenditure excluding interest and investment for the year to date of £158.5bn was unchanged from the same period last year, as reduced spending on the pandemic including furlough programmes was offset by planned increases in spending announced in last year’s Spending Review and by additional support to households to help with their energy bills.

Interest amounted to £15.7bn in April and May, £6.1bn or 64% higher than the £9.6bn in the two months ended 31 May 2021, reflecting how higher interest rates and higher inflation are increasing the government’s cost of borrowing.

Net public sector investment in April and May 2022 was reported to be £9.2bn, which is £0.1bn lower than a year previously. This is slightly surprising given planned increases in capital expenditure as well as the subsidies given in the past two months to Bulb Energy, a failed energy supplier taken over by the government.

The increase in net debt of £21.2bn since the start of the financial year comprises the deficit for the month of £35.9bn less £14.7bn in net borrowing repayments. This reflects the recovery of loans to banks through the Bank of England’s Term Funding Scheme and of loans to businesses via the British Business Bank (including bounce-back and other coronavirus loans), offset by funding for student loans and other government cash requirements.

Alison Ring OBE FCA, Public Sector and Taxation Director for ICAEW, said: “A slightly higher deficit than expected in this month’s numbers and a rising interest bill will not provide any comfort for the Chancellor as he considers how to respond to public sector wage demands at the same time as attempting to build capacity for pre-election tax cuts next year.

The economic storm clouds hovering over the fiscal outlook, as living standards go into reverse and inflation erodes the extent of planned investment in local communities, are likely to make the government’s ambition to level up the country even more difficult to achieve.”

Table showing cumulative numbers for April and May 2022 and variances against the same period a year ago:

Receipts £147.5bn: £12.4bn or +8%
Expenditure (£158.5bn): £0.0bn
Interest (£15.7bn): (£6.1bn) or +39%
Net investment: (£9.2bn): £0.1bn or -1%
Deficit (£35.9bn): £6.4bn or -18%
Other borrowing: £14.7bn: £31.1bn or -212%
(Increase) in net debt: (£21.2bn): £37.5bn or -177%

Public sector net debt: £2,363.2bn: £170.1bn or +8%
Public sector net debt / GDP 95.8%: 0.5% or +0.5%

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 ONS made several revisions to the prior period fiscal numbers to reflect revisions to estimates. These had the effect of increasing the reported fiscal deficit for the month of April 2022 by £3.3bn from £18.6bn to £21.9bn and decreasing the reported fiscal deficits for the 12 months to March 2022 by £0.9bn from £144.6bn to £143.7bn and for the year ended 31 March 2021 by £7.7bn from £317.3bn to £309.6bn.

Table showing receipts, expenditure, interest, net investment, deficit and net debt for April and May combined in 2019, 2020, 2021 and 2022 respectively.

For details, click on the link to the original article on the ICAEW website.

This article was originally published by ICAEW.

A Spring Statement dominated by inflation

Tax plans brought forward as Chancellor Rishi Sunak seeks to limit spending commitments and build fiscal headroom ahead of the Autumn Budget.

Inflation dominated the Spring Statement as the Chancellor added to his support package for households and businesses facing rapidly rising prices but held off giving any extra money for public services.

Despite a major tax cut from raising National Insurance thresholds, the OBR estimates that the measures announced by the Chancellor for the coming financial year will offset around a third of the fall in living standards. This will leave household budgets to take most of the strain of the rapidly rising prices, with the potential that the government will need to intervene again later in the year as the impact becomes clearer.

The biggest individual change in the government’s spending plans is the bill for interest on central government debt, which increases from £24bn in 2020/21 to £54bn this year and a forecast of £83bn for 2022/23. This is the biggest driver of an increase in the forecast deficit for next year from last October’s forecast of £62bn to a revised forecast of £99bn, despite an £11bn boost from restructuring the system for student loans that could see graduates paying back their loans almost up until retirement.

Despite the increase in the coming financial year, the OBR expects the deficit in the rest of the forecast period to be lower than before, with the projected deficits in the subsequent four years up to 2026/27 down from £62bn, £46bn, £46bn and £44bn to £50bn, £37bn, £35bn and £32bn – a net improvement of £11bn a year on average. 

Higher tax receipts are the primary driver of a reduced forecast for public sector net debt at 31 March 2027 of £2,480bn, down from a previous forecast of £2,567bn, but still £687bn higher than the £1,793bn at 31 March 2020. The impact on the debt-to-GDP ratio is greater, with lower cash outflows and higher GDP driven by inflation combining to reduce the ratio from a previous forecast of 88% in 2027 to 83%, reversing a significant proportion of the increase caused by the pandemic.

The OBR calculates that the Chancellor has about £30bn of headroom against his fiscal targets, giving him more capacity to provide additional support for households and businesses later in the year if he thinks it necessary. Given the uncertainties surrounding the potential impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the UK economy, it is perhaps understandable for Rishi Sunak to want to accelerate the reduction in debt in relation to the size of the economy and build greater fiscal resilience. However, he will be conscious of the risk of a recession if households cut back their spending in the domestic economy by too much.

Other than some welcome additional funding to tackle fraud, there was no significant additional funding for departments or local authorities who will need to stick within their original budgets set by the three-year Spending Review announced last October. This could result in ‘unplanned austerity’ as they seek to find savings to offset rising costs, in particular the government’s capital investment plans, where the cost of building infrastructure is likely to increase significantly, potentially jeopardising priorities such as levelling up.

Alison Ring, Director of Public Sector and Taxation, commented: “The story of the Spring Statement is inflation, which is driving a sharp fall in living standards and is causing the interest bill on public debt to multiply. The government has responded with a package of measures that the OBR estimates offset about a third of the decline, but this still leaves household budgets exposed to the effect of rapidly rising prices. The Chancellor’s focus on building up fiscal resilience suggests he may be trying to preserve some firepower for possible further interventions later in the year.

“With public finances in a better shape than previously forecast, the Chancellor will hope that he is going to be able to make good on his pledge to cut income tax in 2024.”

This article was originally published by ICAEW.

Spring Statement: what the new measures will mean

ICAEW Insights quotes me in an article on the Spring Statement 2022:

“Despite its impact on the government’s interest bill, there is a major benefit to inflation in that it helps bring down the debt-to-GDP ratio more quickly, providing the Chancellor more space to intervene to help with the cost of living,” Martin Wheatcroft, public finance adviser to ICAEW, explains.

According to the OBR, the new measures announced in the Spring Statement, along with the existing package announced previously, should offset around a third of the increase in costs that households are facing, leaving them with the burden of the other two-thirds, Wheatcroft says. “I think we should expect further measures from the Chancellor in the summer or autumn as the impacts on households become more apparent.”

Wheatcroft adds that it is likely that some of the announcements included in the Spring Statement were brought forward to ease tensions with backbenchers. “With members of his own party pressing for a delay in the NIC increase, I suspect the Chancellor felt pressure to bring forward measures that he may have been saving for later in the year, in particular his planned cut to income tax in 2024 and a tax plan that was likely set for a summer release ahead of the Autumn Budget.”

To read the full article, click here.

Public finances raise hopes for Spring Statement giveaway

February’s £13.1bn deficit was offset by revisions to prior month estimates, boosting public finances and putting further pressure on the Chancellor to provide more help to households and businesses facing rapidly rising prices.

The public sector finances for February 2022, released on Tuesday 22 March 2022, reported a deficit for the month of £13.1bn. This was an improvement of £2.4bn from the deficit of £15.4bn reported for February 2021, but £12.8bn worse than the £0.4bn deficit reported for February 2020.

The cumulative deficit of £138.4bn for the first 11 months of the 2021/22 financial year was £0.1bn less than that reported last month, as the £13.1bn deficit for February was offset by £13.2bn in revisions to prior month estimates.

Public sector net debt increased by £6.6bn from £2,320.2bn at the end of January to £2,326.8bn or 94.7% of GDP at the end of February, with tax and loan recoveries partly offsetting the deficit for the month. Despite that, debt is £192.4bn higher than at the start of the financial year and £533.7bn higher than March 2020.

The year-to-date deficit of £138.4bn compares with a cumulative deficit for the first 11 months of the financial year of £290.9bn in 2020/21 and £48.7bn in 2019/20. This was £25.9bn below the forecast published by the Office for Budget Responsibility alongside last October’s Autumn Budget and Spending Review 2021, with higher-than-forecast tax receipts being partially offset by higher-than-forecast interest charges on index-linked debt. Both are driven by higher rates of inflation, which takes more time to feed through to non-interest expenditure. This suggests that the deficit for the full year could end up somewhere in the region of £30bn below the official forecast of £183bn.

Cumulative receipts in the first 11 months of the 2021/22 financial year amounted to £826.0bn – £104.7bn or 15% higher than a year previously but £69.3bn or 9% above the level seen in the first 11 months of 2019/20. At the same time, cumulative expenditure excluding interest of £846.2bn was £65.1bn or 7% lower than the same period last year, but £127.4bn or 18% higher than two years ago.

Interest amounted to £69.2bn in the eleven months to 28 February 2022, which was £29.4bn or 74% higher than the same period in 2020/21, principally because of the effect of higher inflation on index-linked gilts. Interest costs were £17.8bn or 35% more than in the equivalent 11-month period ended 29 February 2020.

Cumulative net public sector investment up to February 2022 was £49.0bn. This was £12.1bn or 20% below the £29.7bn reported for the first 11 months of last year, which included around £17bn of COVID-19 related lending that the government does not expect to recover. Investment was £13.8bn or 39% more than two years ago, principally reflecting greater capital expenditures, including on HS2.

The increase in debt of £192.4bn since the start of the financial year comprises the cumulative deficit of £138.4bn and £54.0bn in other borrowing. The latter has been used to fund lending to banks through the Bank of England’s Term Funding Scheme, lending to businesses via the British Business Bank (including bounce-back and other coronavirus loans), student loans and other cash requirements, net of the recovery of taxes deferred last year and loan repayments.

Alison Ring OBE FCA, Public Sector and Taxation Director for ICAEW, says: “Today’s numbers show the impact inflation is having on the public finances as it continues to drive both tax receipts and interest costs higher. The deficit for the financial year is expected to be around £30bn lower than October’s official forecast of £183bn, while tomorrow’s Spring Statement forecasts could see a smaller deficit next year than the £62bn expected before the pandemic.

“Uncertainty about the impact of the war in Ukraine on the UK means it will be extremely difficult for the Chancellor to gauge the level of intervention needed to support households and businesses facing rocketing energy prices if he’s to avoid a recession that could permanently damage the economy and the public finances, and still leave room for tax cuts in the Autumn Budget.”

Table showing cumulative 11 month numbers and variances against prior year and two years ago. All amounts in £bn, with negative numbers in brackets (costs / negative variances).

Receipts 826.0: 104.7 +15% better than prior year; 69.3 +9% versus two years ago

Expenditure (846.2): 65.1 -7%; (127.4) +18%

Interest (69.2): (29.4) +74%; (17.8) +35%

Net investment (49.0): 12.1 -20%; (13.8) +39%

Subtotal Deficit (138.4): 152.5 or -52% lower than the prior year; (89.7) +184% higher than two years ago

Other borrowing (54.0): (8.5) +19%; (73.3) -380%

Total (Increase) in net debt (192.4): 144 -43%; (163.0) +554%

Also:

Public sector net debt 2,326.8: 197.3 or +9% higher than prior year and 542.8 +30% higher than two years ago

Public sector net debt / GDP 94.7%: 0.3% or 0% higher than prior year; 12.7% or +15% higher than two years ago.

Caution is needed with respect to the numbers published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), which are expected to be repeatedly revised as estimates are refined and gaps in the underlying data are filled.

The ONS made a number of revisions to prior month and prior year fiscal numbers to reflect revisions to estimates. These had the effect of decreasing the reported fiscal deficit for the 10 months to January 2022 by £13.2bn from £138.5bn to £125.3bn and reducing the deficit for the year ended 31 March 2021 by £4.1bn from £321.9bn to £317.8bn.

Table showing receipts, expenditure, interest, net investment and the deficit by month from Apr 2021 to Feb 2022.

Click on link below to the article on the ICAEW website for a readable version of this table.

This article was originally published by ICAEW.

Boost to tax revenues is a dilemma for the Chancellor

January’s public sector finance surplus of £2.9bn was driven by a boost to tax revenues as inflation drove up VAT receipts and self assessment income grew, putting further pressure on Chancellor Rishi Sunak to increase support to households facing huge rises in energy prices.

The public sector finances for January, released on 22 February, reported a surplus for the month of £2.9bn. This was an improvement of £5.4bn from the deficit of £2.5bn reported for January 2021, but £7bn smaller than the £9.9bn surplus reported for January 2020.

Total receipts were £97.9bn in January, up from £76.0bn in the previous month.

Public sector net debt fell from £2,339.7bn at the end of December to £2,317.6bn or 95% of GDP at the end of January, with tax and loan recoveries supplementing the surplus for the month. Despite that, debt is £210.7bn higher than at the start of the financial year and £524.5bn higher than in March 2020.

The cumulative deficit for the first 10 months of the financial year was £138.5bn, compared with £278.7bn and £48.4bn for the same period last year and the year before that respectively.

This was £17.7bn below the forecast published by the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) alongside last October’s Autumn Budget and Spending Review 2021, although higher than forecast tax receipts were partially offset by higher than forecast interest charges on index-linked debt. Both are driven by higher rates of inflation, which takes more time to feed through to non-interest expenditure.

Cumulative receipts in the first 10 months of the 2021/22 financial year amounted to £741bn, £93.3bn or 14% higher than a year previously, but only £56.1bn or 8% above the level seen in the first 10 months of 2019/20. At the same time, cumulative expenditure excluding interest of £776.7bn was £58.8bn or 7% lower than the same period last year, but £122.2bn or 19% higher than two years ago.

Interest amounted to £59.6bn in the 10 months to January 2022, £25.4bn or 74% higher than the same period in 2020/21, principally because of the effect of higher inflation on index-linked gilts. Interest costs were £12.8bn or 27% more than in the equivalent 10-month period ended 31 January 2020.

Cumulative net public sector investment up to January 2022 was £43.2bn. This was £13.5bn or 24% below the £56.7bn reported for the first 10 months of last year, which included around £17bn of COVID-19-related lending that the government does not expect to recover. Investment was £11.3bn or 35% more than two years ago, principally reflecting greater capital expenditures, including on HS2.

The increase in debt of £183.2bn since the start of the financial year comprises the cumulative deficit of £138.5bn and £44.7bn in other borrowing. The latter has been used to fund lending to banks through the Bank of England’s Term Funding Scheme, lending to businesses via the British Business Bank (including bounce-back and other coronavirus loans), student loans, and other cash requirements, net of the recovery of taxes deferred last year and loan repayments.

Alison Ring OBE FCA, Public Sector and Taxation Director for ICAEW, said: “The strong tax receipts reported today will provide a welcome respite for the public finances, reducing the shortfall in the government’s income compared with its expenditure from previous forecasts. However, the deficit is still on track to be the third highest ever recorded in peacetime, while public debt is more than half a trillion pounds higher than it was at the start of the pandemic.

“The challenge for Sunak will be balancing the strong pressures on him to increase the support package for households facing rapidly rising energy costs and retail prices, with the need to strengthen the resilience of the public finances in the face of a great deal of economic uncertainty and increasing global security concerns. The Chancellor will be acutely aware that while inflation is adding to tax revenues today it will go on to add to public spending tomorrow”.

Table showing receipts, expenditure, interest, net investment, deficit, other borrowing the increase in net debt for the 10 months to Jan 2021 and public sector net debt and public sector net debt / GDP at 31 Jan 2021 together with variances versus prior year and two years ago.

Click on link at the end of this article to the version of this article on the ICAEW website which has a readable version of this table.

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 ONS made a number of revisions to prior month and prior year fiscal numbers to reflect revisions to estimates. These had the effect of decreasing the reported fiscal deficit for the nine months to December 2021 from £146.8bn to £141.4bn and increasing the deficit for the year ended 31 March 2021 from £321.8bn to £321.9bn.

Table showing receipts, expenditure, interest, net investment and the deficit for each of the 10 months to Jan 2021.

Click on link below to the version of this article on the ICAEW website which has a readable version of this table.

This article was originally published by ICAEW.

IFRS 16: A lot of effort, but a great opportunity too

In an article for Room 151, ICAEW Public Sector Director, Alison Ring writes that bringing leases onto the balance sheet from 1 April provides council finance teams with a real “opportunity” to help councillors better understand the scale and scope of local authority finances.

The introduction of International Financial Reporting Standard 16 ‘Leases’ (IFRS 16) on 1 April 2022 will have a significant impact on many local authority balance sheets as well as require a huge effort from council finance teams.

Many finance officers will be glad just to get the work needed to comply with IFRS 16 done, but they should also grasp the opportunity to use the comprehensive review of contracts they are undertaking to educate council leadership teams and councillors on the scale and scope of the local authority finances they are responsible for.

Capturing lease contracts

IFRS 16 abolishes the distinction between off-balance sheet ‘operating leases’ and on-balance sheet ‘finance leases’ and brings almost all leases longer than a year onto the balance sheet. The deadline for public sector entities to become compliant with the standard is April this year, so local authorities need to ensure they are not caught out.

The purpose of IFRS 16 is to provide financial statement users with a better understanding of the resources available to an organisation by requiring assets utilised via contractual arrangements to be recorded on balance sheets alongside legally-owned assets. This will cover many leased office buildings, that will now need to be included in the primary financial statements, rather than being disclosed in the operating lease note towards the end of the accounts.

The standard captures most contracts that give the right to use an asset for a period of time of more than one year, as well as lease arrangements where that right is “embedded” into a larger contract. The latter was already the case for embedded rights that met the old criteria to be treated as finance leases, including many private-finance initiative contracts started a decade or two ago, but IFRS 16 means that other types of lease arrangement will need to be identified and—if they meet the criteria—capitalised as an asset and a related lease liability.

Identifying lease assets

In theory, finance teams should have all the information they need to calculate the amounts to record for both asset and liability sides of the balance sheet, as well as recording depreciation and interest in place of lease payments in the expenditure statement.

However, in practice there needs to be a thorough exercise to review thousands of contracts to see if they are leases or contain embedded lease arrangements that fall within the scope of IFRS 16.

In addition to office buildings, there will be a range of assets to identify, ranging from office equipment to vehicle fleets, to leased facilities and equipment. This is not just about reviewing the legal text of contracts, but also involves working with operating departments to understand whether there is a right to use an asset.

Fortunately, there are two main exemptions that should make this exercise easier, with contracts with a term of 12 months or less or below a de minimus value in the order of £3,500 excluded completely.

Unlike in the private sector, the requirement to revalue local authority assets within the balance sheet adds to the complications that finance teams face. This is in addition to the raft of information required for disclosure purposes, such as sub-leasing arrangements, sale and leaseback transactions and variable lease payments.

There will also be challenges in accounting for lease modifications, where a change to the original terms and conditions requires a reassessment of the carrying value for an asset and its associated lease liability, based on the new pattern of lease payments and discount rate.

Beefing up management controls

The good news is that this exercise, while onerous, has benefits too. Creating an inventory of contracts with key terms identified and understood provides a resource that can be used for other purposes, including controlling costs and monitoring financial exposures.

A more comprehensive understanding of the assets in use across the organisation will help in ensuring that resources are being fully utilised for the benefit of service users and council taxpayers.

Processes to vet new contracts for their accounting implications also provide an opportunity to beef up risk management controls. And there may be opportunities to renegotiate contract terms such as lease lengths and renewal options, or to identify contracts that are no longer needed and that can be dispensed with.

Just as importantly, IFRS 16 implementation provides finance teams with a real opportunity to educate council leadership teams and councillors on the finances of the organisations they are responsible for.

Not only is there a need to explain the accounting change and what this means for the financial statements, but the outputs of the implementation exercise can be used to help those charged with governance to better understand the scale and scope of contracting undertaken, the nature of the assets available to be utilised and, most importantly, the commitments and risks that have been made to suppliers and to service users.

There is a temptation to see IFRS 16 as a problem, and I can understand why yet another major compliance exercise may not be embraced with overwhelming enthusiasm. However, I believe that this particular problem is an opportunity – one that should definitely be grasped.

This article was originally published by Room 151.

December public finances: rising debt interest costs offset higher tax revenues

December’s deficit of £16.8bn saw both a rise in tax revenues and in interest on inflation-linked debt as pressure grows on the Chancellor to address energy price hikes and rising prices in the shops.
The public sector finances for December 2021 released on Tuesday 25 January 2022 reported a monthly deficit of £16.8bn. This was £7.6bn lower than the £24.4bn reported for December 2020 but £11bn higher than the £5.8bn deficit reported for December 2019.

This brings the cumulative deficit for the first nine months of the financial year to £146.8bn compared with £276.1bn and £58.4bn for the same period last year and the year before that respectively.

Public sector net debt increased from £2,321.8bn at the end of November to £2,339.9bn or 96% of GDP at the end of December. This is £205.5bn higher than at the start of the financial year and an increase of £546.8bn from March 2020. As a proportion of GDP, debt is the highest it has been since March 1963, almost 60 years ago.

The deficit for the month was in line with the revised forecast for 2021/22, published by the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) alongside last October’s Autumn Budget and Spending Review 2021, although higher than forecast interest charges on index-linked debt offset the benefit of higher than forecast tax revenues.

Cumulative receipts in the first three quarters of the 2021/22 financial year amounted to £641.4bn, £82.8bn or 15% higher than a year previously, but only £44.2bn or 7% above the level seen in the first three quarters of 2019/20. At the same time, cumulative expenditure excluding interest of £700.5bn was £52.4bn or 7% lower than the first nine months of 2020/21, but £113.4bn or 19% higher than the same period two years ago.

Interest amounted to £53bn in the nine months to December 2021, £20.5bn or 63% higher than the same period in 2020/21, principally because of the effect of higher inflation on index-linked gilts. Interest costs were £10.6bn or 25% more than in the equivalent nine months ended 31 December 2019.

Cumulative net public sector investment in the three quarters to December 2021 was £34.7bn. This was £14.6bn or 30% less than the £49.3bn reported for the first nine months of last year, which included around £17bn of COVID-19-related lending that the government does not expect to recover. Investment was £8.6bn or 33% more than two years ago, principally reflecting greater capital expenditures, including on HS2.

The increase in debt of £205.5bn since the start of the financial year comprises the deficit of £146.8bn and £58.7bn in other borrowing. The latter was used to fund lending to banks through the Bank of England’s Term Funding Scheme, lending to businesses overseen by the British Business Bank (including bounce-back and other coronavirus loans), student loans, and other cash requirements, net of the receipt of taxes deferred last year and loan repayments.

Martin Wheatcroft FCA, external advisor on public finances to ICAEW, said: “Today’s numbers highlight the impact inflation is having on the public finances, with higher tax revenues collected in December offset by the rising cost of index-linked debt. We expect interest charges to increase further in the next few months as the time lag on index-linked debt catches up with the current 7.5% rate of RPI.

“With borrowing costs low and headroom in forecasts for the next financial year, the temptation will be to delay fixing the public finances in order to tackle the immediate hit to household budgets from anticipated energy prices hikes and higher prices in the shops, so pressure on the Chancellor to postpone or phase in April’s national insurance rise is likely to grow.”

Table showing receipts, expenditure, interest, net investment, deficit, other borrowing the increase in net debt for the 9 months to Dec 2021 and public sector net debt and public sector net debt / GDP at 31 Dec 2021 together with variances versus prior year and two years ago.

Click on link at the end of this article to the version of this article on the ICAEW website which has a readable version of this table.

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 ONS made a number of revisions to prior month and prior year fiscal numbers to reflect revisions to estimates. These had the effect of decreasing the reported fiscal deficit for the eight months to November 2021 from £136bn to £130bn and the deficit for the year ended 31 March 2021 from £321.9bn to £321.8bn.

Table showing receipts, expenditure, interest, net investment and the deficit for each of the 9 months to Dec 2021.

Click on link below to the version of this article on the ICAEW website which has a readable version of this table.

This article was originally published by ICAEW.

Public debt at highest level for almost 60 years

While November’s deficit of £17.4bn is in line with expectations, public sector net debt is up by more than half a trillion pounds since the start of the pandemic and as a proportion of GDP, debt is the highest it has been since March 1963.


The public sector finances for November 2021 released on Tuesday 21 December reported a monthly deficit of £17.4bn – £4.8bn lower than the £22.2bn reported for November 2020 but £11.8bn higher than the £5.6bn deficit reported for November 2019.

This brings the cumulative deficit for the first eight months of the financial year to £136.0bn compared with £251.7bn and £52.5bn for the same period last year and the year before that respectively.

Public sector net debt increased from £2,283.0bn at the end of October to £2,317.7bn or 96.1% of GDP at the end of November. This is £183.3bn higher than at the start of the financial year and an increase of £524.6bn over March 2020. As a proportion of GDP, debt is the highest it has been since March 1963, almost 60 years ago.

The increase in public sector net debt of £34.7bn in the month reflects borrowing to finance the deficit of £17.4bn and £26.9bn in the final tranche of the Bank of England’s Term Funding Scheme, offset by repayments in coronavirus lending as well as other net movements.

As in previous months this financial year, the deficit came in below the forecast for 2021-22 prepared by the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) in March 2021 but was in line with the OBR’s revised forecast issued in October 2021 alongside the Autumn Budget and Spending Review 2021.

Cumulative receipts in the first eight months of the 2021-22 financial year amounted to £560.7bn, £71.4bn or 15% higher than a year previously, but only £31.2bn or 6% above the level seen a year before that in 2019-20. At the same time cumulative expenditure excluding interest of £622.7bn was £44.4bn or 7% lower than the first eight months of 2020-21, but £102.1bn or 20% higher than the same period two years ago.

Interest amounted to £44.2bn in the eight months to October 2021, £14.6bn or 49% higher than the same period in 2020-21, principally because of higher inflation affecting index-linked gilts. Despite debt being 29% higher than two years ago, interest costs were only £5.0bn or 13% more than the equivalent eight months ended 30 November 2019.

Cumulative net public sector investment in the eight months to November 2021 was £29.8bn. This was £14.5bn less than the £44.3bn reported for the first eight months of last year, which included around £17bn or so of coronavirus lending that is not expected to be recovered. Investment was £7.6bn or 34% more than two years ago, principally reflecting a higher level of capital expenditure, in particular on investment in HS2.

Debt increased by £183.3bn since the start of the financial year, £47.3bn more than the deficit. This reflects funding to cover outflows on lending, including to banks through the Term Funding Scheme, lending to businesses through the British Business Bank, and student loans, offset by the receipt of taxes deferred last year and the repayment of coronavirus loans taken out during the pandemic.

Commenting on the figures Alison Ring, ICAEW Public Sector and Taxation Director, said: “While the numbers for November are in line with expectations, it’s notable that debt has risen both in cash terms and as a proportion of GDP, and at 96.1% is the highest it has been for almost 60 years. The monthly deficit of £17.4bn is below the peaks of last year but still substantially above the pre-pandemic position.

“Despite the rise in interest rates earlier this month, the Chancellor is still able to take advantage of historically-low borrowing costs if he wants to provide support to businesses adversely affected by the Omicron variant and prevent further scarring to the economy. His concern will be how to do so without stoking inflation, which is expected to head even higher over the next few months.”

Table showing receipts, expenditure, interest, net investment, deficit, other borrowing the increase in net debt for the 8 months to Nov 2021 and public sector net debt and public sector net debt / GDP at 30 Nov 2021 together with variances versus prior year and two years ago.

Click on link at the end of this article to the version of this article on the ICAEW website which has a readable version of this table.

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 ONS made a number of revisions to prior month and prior year fiscal numbers to reflect revisions to estimates. These had the effect of decreasing the reported fiscal deficit for the seven months to October 2021 from £127.3bn to £118.6bn and the deficit for the year ended 31 March 2021 from £323.1bn to £321.9bn.

Table showing receipts, expenditure, interest, net investment and the deficit for each of the 8 months to Nov 2021.

Click on link below to the version of this article on the ICAEW website which has a readable version of this table.

This article was originally published by ICAEW.

Deficit in line with expectations at £19bn but public debt jumps by £69bn

The monthly public sector deficit was flat at £18.8bn in October but a last-minute rush by banks to access cheap finance caused public sector net debt to jump by £68.7bn to £2,277.6bn.


The public sector finances for October 2021 released on Friday 18 November reported a monthly deficit of £18.8bn, slightly better than the £19.0bn reported for October 2020 but higher than the £11.6bn deficit in October 2019.

This brings the cumulative deficit for the first seven months of the financial year to £127.3bn compared with £230.7bn last year and £46.9bn for the equivalent period two years ago.

Public sector net debt increased from £2,208.9bn at the end of September to £2,277.6bn or 95.1% of GDP at the end of October. This is £141.8bn higher than at the start of the financial year and an increase of £484.5bn over March 2020.

The increase in public sector net debt of £68.7bn in the month includes £57.3bn to funding lending to banks who rushed to borrow under the ‘Term Funding Scheme with additional incentives for SMEs’ (TFSME) before the extended drawdown period ended on 31 October 2021. A further £26.9bn will be recorded in November for cash movements after the cut-off date, bringing the total amount financed through the TFSME to £193.4bn on 10 November 2021.

As in previous months this financial year, the deficit came in below the forecast for 2021-22 prepared by the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) in March 2021 but was in line with the OBR’s revised forecast issued in October 2021 alongside the Autumn Budget and Spending Review 2021.

Cumulative receipts in the first seven months of the 2021-22 financial year amounted to £489.0bn, £65.7bn or 16% higher than a year previously, but only £23.7bn or 5% above the level seen a year before that in 2019-20. At the same time cumulative expenditure excluding interest of £548.2bn was £39.3bn or 7% lower than the first seven months of 2020-21, but £92.5bn or 20% higher than the same period two years ago.

Interest amounted to £39.3bn in the seven months to October 2021, £14.2bn or 57% higher than the same period in 2020-21, principally because of higher inflation affecting index-linked gilts. Despite debt being 24% higher than two years ago, interest costs were only £2.6bn or 7% more than the equivalent seven months ended 31 October 2019.

Cumulative net public sector investment in the seven months to October 2021 was £28.8bn. This was £12.6bn less than the £41.4bn in the first seven months of last year, which included around £17bn on coronavirus lending that is not expected to be recovered. Investment was £9.0bn or 45% more than two years ago, principally reflecting a higher level of capital expenditure.

Debt increased by £141.8bn since the start of the financial year, £14.5bn more than the deficit. This reflects funding to cover outflows on lending to business, including to banks through the Term Funding Scheme, and student loans offset by the receipt of taxes deferred last year and the repayment of coronavirus loans taken out during the course of the pandemic.

Alison Ring, ICAEW Public Sector Director, said: “Today’s public finance numbers show a deficit of £18.8bn in October, which is in line with the revised forecasts published by the Office for Budget Responsibility last month. The deficit has stopped growing now that the furlough and other pandemic support schemes have finished.

“However, a last-minute rush by banks to obtain cheap loans for small and medium enterprises, before the application deadline on 31 October, caused government debt to jump by £68.7bn last month. These loans should help businesses navigate choppy economic waters with rapidly rising inflation, as well as supply chain and staffing challenges. Nonetheless, the Chancellor will need to continue watching events closely to see if he will need to reintroduce any pandemic support schemes.”

Table showing receipts, expenditure, interest, net investment, deficit, other borrowing the increase in net debt for the 7 months to Oct 2021 and public sector net debt and public sector net debt / GDP at 31 Oct 2021 together with variances versus prior year and two years ago.

Click on link at the end of this article to the version of this article on the ICAEW website which has a readable version of this table.

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 ONS made a number of revisions to prior month and prior year fiscal numbers to reflect revisions to estimates. These had the effect of increasing the reported fiscal deficit for the six months to September 2021 from £108.1bn to £108.5bn and the deficit for the year ended 31 March 2021 from £319.9bn to £323.1bn.

Table showing receipts, expenditure, interest, net investment and the deficit for each of the 7 months to Oct 2021.

Click on link below to the version of this article on the ICAEW website which has a readable version of this table.

This article was originally published by ICAEW.

A trillion-pound Autumn Budget driven by tax and spending

The Chancellor used tax rises to start repairing the public finances but spending pressures could derail his hopes for a pre-election tax giveaway in 2023 or 2024.
Wednesday’s Autumn Budget and Spending Review saw total public spending settle permanently above a trillion pounds a year, as additional spending increases more than offset the end of temporary COVID-19 interventions.

Table setting out headline numbers for the six financial years from 2021-22 to 2026-27. These comprise taxes and other income, total managed expenditure, deficit, other borrowing, change in debt, opening net debt and closing net debt, plus closing net debt / GDP.

Click on link at the end of this article to the version of this article on the ICAEW website which has a readable version of this table.

A ‘Boris Budget’ – full of fizz and capital spending announcements

Despite Rishi Sunak’s avowed commitment to a small state and low taxes, the Autumn Budget reality featured both higher taxes and higher spending, and the Spending Review focused on addressing the many pressures bearing down on public services.

The Chancellor benefited from a faster rebound in the economy due to the vaccination programme, as well as being helped by the time lag between inflation benefiting the revenue line and when it starts to feed through into public spending. Combined with the health and social care levy and other tax rises, this provided him with the budgetary capacity to increase spending on health, reverse previously announced cuts in departmental spending, and still reduce borrowing.

This led the Resolution Foundation to label this a ‘Boris Budget’, reflecting the reputedly more generous instincts of Prime Minister Boris Johnson as compared with his Chancellor.

The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR)’s high-level analysis was that the Chancellor used around half the £50bn net benefit from forecast revisions and tax rises in 2022-23 to increase spending, with the balance reducing the deficit from £107bn to £83bn. However, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) points out that, apart from health and social care, the additional spending mostly reversed planned cuts made during the November 2020 and March 2021 Budgets that were always going to be difficult to achieve in practice.

The good news from better economic forecasts, including the OBR’s revision of its estimate of the permanent scarring effect on the economy from 3% to 2%, was offset by concerns over the impact of inflation on living standards and the impact of the ending of the temporary uplift in universal credit on those on low incomes.

Higher inflation will also put public sector budgets under pressure as higher wage settlements and supplier costs start to eat into the spending increases awarded as part of the Spending Review. Clearing backlogs built up over the course of the pandemic will absorb further amounts, while there is also a risk that construction worker shortages and rising construction costs will make it difficult to deliver on the capital programmes announced in such a flurry over the weekend before the Budget announcement.

Unemployment – the dog that didn’t bark

One of the key reasons for the better economic situation than was expected at the start of the pandemic is that unemployment has not gone up significantly. The contribution of the furlough schemes and business support has been hugely significant to this outcome, not only by supporting workers and businesses during successive lockdowns but more importantly preserving businesses and the jobs for workers to return to as pandemic restrictions have been lifted.

Unemployment may still increase following the ending of the furlough schemes in September, but any increase is likely to be significantly smaller than the potential more than doubling in unemployment rates that some had anticipated at the start of the first lockdown.

Modest tax reforms overshadowed by higher tax rates, fiscal drag and a major ‘tax’ cut

Perhaps the most radical ‘tax’ change announced in the Autumn Budget was not a formal tax at all. The reduction in the universal credit taper rate from 63% to 55% is in effect a significant tax cut on those on the lowest incomes, even if it still leaves poorer households on higher effective marginal rates than those earning over £150,000 a year. It also does not make up for the removal of the temporary £20 a week boost to universal credit that has already started to hit many of the poorest households this month.

Higher inflation benefits the public finances by increasing fiscal drag as tax allowances reduce in value in real terms, bringing more people into the scope of income tax or onto higher tax bands. This is a hidden tax increase that brings in more for the government without it needing to increase headline rates.

Of course, the government did that as well. The headline rates of employee national insurance, employer national insurance and dividend tax were increased by 1.25% in the coming year, even if in subsequent years the health and social care levy will appear on payslips and PAYE statements as a separate tax in its own right.

Modest reforms to business rates (principally more frequent revaluations), alcohol duties, and air passenger duties were relatively light touch compared with the previously announced health and social care levy and the planned 6% increase in the main corporation tax rate, even if banks saw a reduction of 5% in the bank levy on corporate profits to offset some of that increase.

More money for health and the criminal justice system, but less for the armed forces

The Spending Review saw extra money for health (funded by the new health and social care levy) where demographic pressures continue to drive demand in addition to dealing with the costs of the pandemic and the backlog of treatments that have built up.

The criminal justice system also received a substantial settlement (4.1% on average over three years), but this will not be sufficient to restore spending to the level before austerity. Indeed, the IFS has calculated that with the exception of the Department for Health & Social Care, the Home Office and the Department for Education, all other departments will continue to spend less in real terms than they did in 2009-10.

One surprise in the detail was the flat current spending settlement for the Ministry of Defence over the coming three years, implying a further cut in spending in real terms on the armed forces, which are expected to contract even further than they have done already. While equipment spending is up as part of a ‘more drones, fewer soldiers’ policy, this is one area where additional settlements in the next couple of Budgets appear more likely than not.

Higher levels of capital investment targeted at boosting regional economic growth

A big credit to the Chancellor is that despite the many challenges facing the public finances following the pandemic he has not scaled back the government’s capital investment programme. While it is the case that his two immediate predecessors pencilled in the substantial increases that we are now seeing, it is the current Chancellor who is delivering on them. There are significant boosts in investment in economic infrastructure, housing, research & development and digitising government amongst other areas.

Open questions remain in areas such as transport, where the long-awaited Integrated Rail Plan was not published with the Spending Review as expected. However, the £7bn pre-announced for regional rail upgrades demonstrates how much can be done with a bigger pot of money for investment.

The step-change in the level in capital budgets – from £70bn in 2019-20 to £107bn in 2022-23 is remarkable. The one concern will be whether the relatively flat capital budget allocations in subsequent years will mean investment starts to fall in real terms again, possibly ‘pulling the plug’ on the economic benefits of investment just as the economy recovers from the pandemic.

New fiscal rules: a cautious approach to repairing the public finances

The Chancellor announced two new fiscal rules: a current budget balance target and a declining debt to GDP ratio; although they were accompanied by subsidiary rules, including a 3% of GDP cap on investment spending and a commitment to return overseas development assistance to 0.7% of GDP once budget balance is achieved.

In effect, they provide a fiscally conservative framework of generating sufficient tax revenues to cover day-to-day spending, while allowing a certain amount of borrowing for investment. While debt should still grow – and is expected to reach over £2.5tn during the forecast period, the debt to GDP ratio should start to fall as the economy grows over time.

These changes confirm that George Osborne’s ambition to eliminate the fiscal deficit completely has been abandoned, replaced by a Gordon Brown-style current budget balance target. This is calculated under the statistics-based National Accounts fiscal framework, which for example excludes the long-term cost of public sector pensions; the government is still planning to continue to lose money on an accounting basis under IFRS.

The forward-looking current-budget balance accompanies the Chancellor’s other principal fiscal rule with is to reduce the ratio of public sector net debt to GDP, although again this uses a target based on fiscal measures that do not include other liabilities in the public sector balance sheet.

Even there, the Chancellor adopted a non-GASP (non-Generally Accepted Statistical Practice) measure to target (public sector net debt excluding the Bank of England) that excludes some central bank liabilities, which rather strangely means that money used to finance premiums paid to private investors for gilts purchased by the Bank of England is excluded from the formal fiscal targets.

Irrespective of the precise KPIs used in the fiscal rules, the overall approach is one of repairing the public finances gradually over time. Higher rates of economic growth would enable that to be accelerated, but the government has as yet been unable to identify how to get back onto the pre-financial crisis levels of productivity improvements that would be required to make this possible. In the meantime, the fiscal rules provide a framework in which tax rises to fund public spending are more likely, in particular to fund increases in the health, social care and the state pension costs driven by more people living longer.

There are many risks to the Chancellor keeping to his fiscal rules over the forecast period, especially as there is relatively little headroom within the current forecasts according to the OBR and the IFS. There are also risks from recessions over a longer period.

A weaker but more transparent public balance sheet

The pandemic has seen the liability side of the public balance sheet rise significantly, with £2.2tn rising to £2.5tn in debt adding to similar amounts of liabilities for public sector pensions and other obligations including nuclear decommissioning and clinical negligence.

Higher gearing in a balance sheet already in negative territory increases the exposure of the public finances to changes in interest rates and inflation, providing a higher risk profile for the public finances. For example, the OBR has estimated that a 1% increase in interest rates would add £25bn to interest costs each year – approaching more than twice the amount raised by the health and social care levy.

One positive aspect of the Autumn Budget and Spending Review announcement was a greater amount of balance sheet analysis, providing improved insights into how the government is managing the public balance sheet and into the risks facing the public finances. This includes much more granular detail on contingent liabilities.

Pre-election tax cuts have been promised, but will they happen?

The Chancellor was very clear in telling his backbenchers and the country that he would like to cut taxes before the next election, demonstrating his and the government’s commitment to lowering taxes.

For many commentators, this seemed a contradictory statement to make at the same time as presenting a fiscal event where the government is in the process of raising taxes to their highest level since the 1950s.

In practice, the Chancellor has some capacity to cut taxes based on the current forecasts and he will be hoping that the post-pandemic recovery is better than anticipated, enabling him to be even more generous.

However, as our recent article on the long-term pressures facing the public finances highlighted, the prospects of reversing the entirety of recent tax increases are remote. Long-term fiscal pressures continue to imply higher taxes will be needed absent much stronger economic growth than is anticipated, while there are plenty of economic storm clouds on the horizon including a potential cost-of-living crisis this winter.

This article was originally published by ICAEW.