17 April 2020: The #icaewchartoftheweek is on the ‘coronavirus reference scenario’ put together by the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR).
It suggests that the deficit for the current fiscal year could end up somewhere in the region of £273bn, around five times as much as the official Spring Budget forecast of £55bn, while public sector net debt could exceed £2.2tn by 31 March 2021, £384bn more than previously expected.
This scenario, which the OBR stresses is not a forecast, is based on a three-month lockdown followed by restrictions for a further three months, resulting in a 35% contraction in the economy in the second quarter of 2020, before bouncing back relatively quickly to leave the economy 13% smaller in 2020 than in 2019.
Once the crisis has passed and policy interventions have unwound, the OBR thinks that annual borrowing could return to roughly the Spring Budget 2020 forecast. However, net debt would continue to be much higher, potentially £260bn (10% of GDP) more than the baseline forecast by 31 March 2025.
This is only of one many potential scenarios, but what is clear is that whatever actually happens, the damage to the public finances from the coronavirus pandemic will be extremely severe.
We can (and will) worry about the bill later, when the need for a long-term fiscal strategy to put the public finances onto a sustainable path will be more important than ever before.