ICAEW chart of the week: 40 years of technology

18 December 2020: Our last chart this year takes a look at how technology has advanced over the last forty years, using the number of transistors in central processing unit microprocessors as a proxy for technological advancement.

Transistors on chips: 2020 Apple M1 16bn, 2010 Intel Xeon 2.3bn, 2000 Intel Pentium IV 42m, 1990 Motorola 68040 1.2m and 1980 Motorola 68000 68,000.

As we look back over the course of a difficult year, the contribution of technology to keeping the economy working has become apparent. Working from home instead of the office, joining video calls instead of in-person meetings and collaborating using online tools have made it possible for most businesses to continue to operate, albeit perhaps not quite as normal. Similarly, consumers have been able to turn to online retail, streaming services and cashless technology to cope with closed stores and shuttered entertainment venues during lockdowns and tiered restrictions.

This has only been possible as a consequence of huge advancements in technology over the past forty years, with the arrival of affordable personal computers in the 1980s, mobile phones in the 1990s, practical laptops and broadband connections in the 2000s, and smartphones and tablets in the 2010s.

We have used the number of transistors in central processing unit (CPU) microprocessors as a proxy for technological advancement in the #icaewchartoftheweek, but of course there have been many other advancements that have been just as significant, from processing capabilities, memory size, data storage, video quality and broadband speeds.

Back in 1980, the Motorola 68000 chip with 68,000 transistors was the leading chip. It was originally used in high-end business computers before lower production costs enabled it to be included in the original Apple Macintosh launched in 1984. That first Macintosh had separate chips to provide 64K of read-only-memory (ROM), 128k of random-access memory (RAM), a built-in 400KB floppy disk drive and 512 x 342 monochrome display.

A decade later, Intel had caught up with Motorola in chip design, with the Intel 80486 containing 1,180,235 transistors, matching Motorola’s 68040 chip that contained approximately 1.2 million transistors. The Intel 80486 was used in many IBM-compatible PCs while the Motorola 68040 was used in the Commodore Amiga 4000 and HP Series 400 desktops.

Intel was the leading chip-maker in 2000 with the Pentium series of microprocessors being the core of many PCs, albeit against strong competition from AMD’s Athlon x86 compatible CPUs. The Pentium 4 had 42 million transistors, while by 2010, Intel had taken over from Motorola in Apple’s range of computers, although its Xeon series of chips (with 2.3 million transistors in 2010) was primarily used in high-end workstations and servers rather than in desktops or laptops.

In 2020, Apple has started to replace Intel in its computers with the launch of its ARM-based M1 chip. This has 16 billion transistors, more than 235,000 times as many as there were in the leading edge Motorola 68000 of 40 years ago. Processing power and capability is expected to continue to expand: for example, we didn’t have enough room on the chart to fit in AMD’s Epyc Rome microprocessor with 39.5billion transistors on a single chip.

The recently launched M1-based edition of the Apple MacBook Air has a specification that would unimaginable to the personal computer owner of four decades past, with a base configuration containing 8Gb of memory (62,500 times as much RAM as the original Macintosh desktop), 256 GB of storage (640,000 times) and a 2560 x 1600 colour display. 

Our ability to cope with the pandemic would have been much harder even a mere decade ago when smartphones were only just emerging, let alone if we had been back in the world of dial-up modems and fax machines of 40 years ago. This demonstrates just how much technology has improved our ability to deal with a global crisis such as the coronavirus pandemic.

The #icaewchartoftheweek is taking a break for a couple of weeks in order to enjoy socially-distanced Christmas and New Year celebrations and will be returning on 8 January 2021. After such a difficult year, we hope you will be able to take some time off to recharge and return to your home-office (and eventually your actual office) energised for what we hope will be a much improved 2021!

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: Government bond yields

11 December 2020: Ultra-low or negative yields provide governments with an opportunity to borrow extremely cheaply, but what will happen if and when interest rates rise?

Government 10-year bond yields

Germany -0.61%, Switzerland -0.59%, Netherlands -0.53%, France -0.36%, Portugal -0.02%, Japan +0.01%, Spain +0.02%, UK +0.26%, Italy +0.58%, Greece +0.60%, Canada +0.76%, New Zealand +0.91%, USA +0.95%, Australia +1.02%

On 9 December, the benchmark ten-year government bond yield for major western economies ranged from -0.61% for investors in German Bunds through to 0.95% for US Treasury Bonds and 1.02% for Australia Government Bonds, as illustrated in the #icaewchartoftheweek.

One of the more astonishing developments of the last decade or so has been the arrival of an era of ultra-low or negative interest rates, even as governments have borrowed massive sums of money to finance their activities. This is not only a consequence of weak economic conditions and the slowing of productivity-led growth, but it has also been driven by the monetary policy actions of central banks through quantitative easing operations that have driven down yields by buying long-term fixed interest rate government bonds in exchange for short-term variable rate central bank deposits.

For bond investors this has been a wild ride, with the value of existing bonds sky-rocketing as central banks have come calling to buy a proportion of their holdings, crystallising their gains. The downside is the extremely low yields available to debt investors on fresh purchases of government bonds, which in some cases involve paying governments for the privilege of doing so.

Yields vary according to maturity, with yields on UK gilts ranging from -0.08% on two-year gilts through to 0.26% for 10-year gilts (as shown in the chart) up to 0.81% on 30-year gilts. In practice, the UK issues debt with an average maturity between 15 and 20 years, so the current average cost of its financing is higher than that shown in the chart at between 0.48% and 0.77% being the yields on 15-year and 20-year gilts respectively. This has the benefit of locking in low interest rates for longer, in contrast with most of the other countries shown that tend to issue debt with an average maturity of less than ten years.

Quantitative easing complicates the picture, as by repurchasing a significant proportion of government debt and swapping it for central bank deposits, central banks have reversed the security of fixed interest rates locked in to maturity with a variable rate exposure that will hit the interest line immediately if rates change. 

In theory, this should not be a problem, as higher interest rates are most likely to accompany stronger economic growth and hence higher tax revenues with which to pay the resultant higher debt interest bills, but in practice treasury ministers are not so sanguine. In leveraging public balance sheets to finance their responses to COVID-19 – on top of the legacy of debt from the financial crisis – governments have significantly increased their exposure to movements in interest rates, just as other fiscal challenges are growing more pressing.

Expect to hear a lot more over the coming decade about the resilience of public finances as governments seek to reduce gearing and reduce their vulnerability to the next unexpected crisis, whenever that may occur.

This chart was originally published on the ICAEW website.

Test and trace in England falls short despite £22bn budget

11 December 2020: Despite achieving significant increases in testing activity, the Department of Health and Social Care’s test and trace service failed to meet recommended effectiveness rates, according to the NAO.

The rapid scale-up of COVID-19 test and trace service saw 23 million tests carried out, 630,000 of 850,000 people testing positive reached and 1.4 million of their contacts traced up to 4 November. However, at 66% the close contact trace rate is below the 80% needed to be effective.

The National Audit Office (NAO) has issued an interim report on the NHS Test and Trace Service set up by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC or the Department) to test for COVID-19 and to trace close contacts of those testing positive. 

The NAO reports that between 28 May and 4 November 2020, only 41% of test results were provided within the target time of 24 hours and only 66% of close contacts of those testing positive were reached and asked to self-isolate, compared with the 80% rate recommended by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) for an effective test and trace system.

Test and trace programmes are a core public health response in epidemics that can be used with other measures, such as social distancing, barriers (such as masks) and handwashing, to reduce infections. At the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, Public Health England carried out comprehensive testing and tracing on the relatively low numbers of initial infections, but this was suspended at the start of the first national lockdown in mid-March. The Department scaled-up testing capacity from April onwards and on 28 May 2020 launched the NHS Test and Trace Service covering England.

The NAO’s key findings include:

  • The Department has achieved significant increases in testing activity, set up a national contact tracing service scratch and has tested millions of people.
  • The delivery model chosen for the national test and trace programme, which excluded local public health teams from the response, was only documented in a retrospective business case written in September 2020.
  • The Department spent £4bn up to October 2020, around £2bn less than forecast, due to underspending on laboratories, machines and mass testing. The total budget for 2020-21 is now £22bn with a significant expansion in mass testing planned in the remaining months of the financial year ending in March 2021.
  • 407 contracts worth £7bn have been signed with 217 public and private organisations, with a further 154 contracts worth £16bn expected to be signed by next March (this includes spend going into the next financial year). An internal government review of test and trace systems in 15 other countries confirmed that the UK approach was atypical, as although some countries had used private sector outsourcing to increase testing capacity, none had done so to increase tracing capacity, which was generally built up from existing public health expertise.
  • Connecting discrete services provided by different organisations into an effective end-to-end process has been challenging, with the initial focus on creating a ‘minimum viable process’ shifting to refining, integrating and stabilising the process so it operates reliably at scale.
  • Accountability is unclear, with the executive chair of the test and trace service reporting directly to the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Secretary, bypassing normal reporting lines within the Department.
  • There are now 593 testing sites and 15 laboratories, with plans to add a further 15 lighthouse laboratories and two high-capacity ‘mega-laboratories’ in January 2021. Testing capacity expanded rapidly in line with the public target of 500,000 available tests per day on 31 October, but the average number of tests since May has been only 68% of capacity, below the 85% expected level. The ambition is to increase testing capacity to 800,000 tests a day by the end of January.
  • Turnaround of test results peaked in June with 93% of community (pillar 2) test results provided in 24 hours, but this had deteriorated to 14% around mid-October before improving to 38% by the beginning of November. Turnaround times for hospital and care homes have consistently been about 90%, albeit measured on a different basis.
  • The Department did not plan for a sharp rise in testing demand in early autumn when schools and universities reopened, resulting in the number of tests available being limited, longer turnaround times and extra assistance being commissioned.
  • Initial problems in sharing data with local authorities have now been largely resolved, but there are a number of significant data risks to be managed pending a planned upgrade of contact tracing software scheduled for January 2021.
  • High reported levels of non-compliance with self-isolation rules represent a key risk to the success of test and trace, and national and local government have been trying to increase public engagement.

The NAO concludes by commenting that although a rapid scale-up in activity has been achieved with new infrastructure and capacity built from scratch, issues with implementation and potentially the initial choice of delivery model mean that the government is not yet achieving its objectives.

The NAO also highlights the most significant risks remaining, including in how to increase utilisation of testing capacity, manage spikes in testing demand and expand the use of local authority public health teams. There are challenges to be overcome in delivering mass testing across the country, increasing public engagement to improve compliance with self-isolation and in ensuring contracts awarded contain sufficient flexibility to respond to changing requirements at reasonable cost.

Finally, the NAO stresses the importance of embedding strong and sustainable management structures, controls and lines of accountability, addressing arrangements where accountability does not clearly align with organisational and strategic objectives in other aspects of the government’s COVID-19 response.

Alison Ring, director for public sector at ICAEW, commented: “While the need to move quickly in response to an out-of-control pandemic was always likely to prove extremely challenging, the NAO has highlighted how consequential the initial decisions made under pressure can be. 

The NAO hints (without being explicit) that the choice to exclude local public health teams and local expertise from the initial roll-out of national test and tracing was a major mistake that the government is still struggling to recover from. They also do not sound entirely comfortable with the governance arrangements for the test and trace service and intend to look at value-for-money and contract management in their second report expected in spring 2021.

Despite an eye-watering £22bn price tag, the investment in test and trace will be worthwhile if it saves lives ahead of the roll-out of vaccines and enables restrictions on our freedom and on economic activity to be lifted as quickly as possible in 2021.”

Read the full report here.

This article was originally published on the ICAEW website.

ICAEW chart of the week: UK trade in goods

With less than a month to go before the UK leaves the EU Single Market and Customs Union, trade is high on the agenda as negotiations between the UK and the EU go down to the wire.

UK trade in goods in the year to September 2020: exports £338bn & imports £420bn

EU: £153bn & £230bn
Continuity deals: £49bn & £43bn
USA: £53bn & £38bn
China: £32bn & £54bn
Other: £51bn & £54bn

The #icaewchartoftheweek this week is on international trade, illustrating how exports and imports of goods amounted to £338bn and £420bn respectively in the year to 30 September 2020. This excludes £289bn and £181bn of services exports and imports over the same period that are also extremely important, but which are not the principal subjects of the free trade deal currently being negotiated.

The UK’s largest trading partnership for goods is with the members of the EU Customs Union (together with Turkey for non-agricultural products), with the UK exporting £153bn (45% of total goods exports) and importing £230bn (55% of total goods imports). 

This is followed by a further £49bn (15%) of exports to and £43bn (10%) of imports from 52 countries that have trade deals with the EU that the UK has been able to agree replacement trade arrangements with. These include Norway, Switzerland, Japan, South Korea, Canada and South Africa, with discussions underway to roll-over trade deals with a further 13 countries not included in these numbers, in particular with Singapore and Vietnam.

The UK’s two largest individual trading partners are the USA and China, where the UK will continue to trade on World Trade Organisation (WTO) terms. The UK exported £53bn (16%) of goods to the USA and imported £38bn (9%) in the year to September, while it exported £32bn (9%) to China and imported £54bn (13%).

The balance of goods trade, comprising exports of £51bn (15%) and imports of £54bn (13%), is with over 130 other countries and territories where the UK does not have a trade deal in place for after 1 January 2021, including India, Russia, Vietnam, Taiwan, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Thailand, Singapore, Australia, Malaysia and Nigeria.

Both exports and imports of goods have reduced in the year to September 2020 compared with a year previously, with exports down 7% and imports down 18%. The principal driver of the fall is the coronavirus pandemic, although reconfiguration of cross-border supply chains ahead of the end of the transition period may also be a factor.

Although global trade is expected to pick up in 2021 once covid-19 vaccines are widely available, there is significant uncertainty as to the effect on trade of the UK’s departure from the Single Market and Customs Union – with or without a deal. Either way, increased trade frictions are likely to have at least some impact, while the imposition of tariffs in the event of no deal could cause significant additional problems for key sectors such as car manufacturing and agriculture.

The size and closeness of the EU economy means that it will continue to be the most important trading partner for the UK whatever is agreed. If only we knew on what terms we are going to be trading in less than a month’s time and what the major changes that are coming in January will mean for the future!

This chart was originally published on the ICAEW website.

ICAEW chart of the week: Spending Review 2020

In the wake of the government’s Spending Review, this week’s chart focuses on the bigger picture and looks at the scale of public spending in relation to the size of the overall economy.

Spending Review 2020: Public spending as % of GDP

2019-20: Department spending 17.0% + other spending 12.3% + welfare 10.3% + covid 0.2% = 39.8%

2020-21: 19.3% + 13.3% + 11.5% + 12.2% = 56.3%

2021-22: 19.5% + 12.4% + 10.6% + 2.6% = 45.1%

2022-23: 19.2% + 12.2% + 10.6% = 42.0%

2023-24: 19.2% + 12.1% + 10.5% = 41.8%

2024-25: 19.3% + 12.1% + 10.5% = 41.9%

2025-26: Departmental spending 19.3% + other spending 12.0% + welfare 10.5% = 41.8%

There was a lot of substance in the Spending Review 2020 announced this week, with a lot more going on under the surface with – for example – the launch of the National Infrastructure Strategy. However, we thought we would focus on the bigger picture for the #icaewchartoftheweek and to look at the scale of public spending in relation to the size of the overall economy.

Of course, the current financial year has seen a massive expansion in the amount of public spending – up from £884bn or 39.8% of GDP of £2,218bn in 2019-20 to a revised budget of £1,165bn or 56.3% of GDP of £2,069bn. The combination of higher spending and a smaller economy this year makes for an eye-watering percentage.

Next financial year will see further COVID support measures adding to public spending, but the key takeaway from the chart is that public spending is expected to persist at around 42% of GDP from 2022-23 onwards, reflecting a permanently smaller economy following the pandemic combined with slightly higher spending in real terms. This is 2% higher than the just under 40% seen in 2019-20 and 3%-4% higher than the 38%-39% longer-run average.

Around half of the increase in departmental spending seen in the chart relates to capital investment in line with the government’s infrastructure plans, while the remainder relates to operational spending with more for health, education and defence being partially offset by the reduction in development spending and the one-off public sector pay freeze.

With scope for substantial reductions in public spending seen to be limited, there are two main routes for covering this increase in costs – economic growth to boost the size of the economy or higher taxes. The government will be hoping that its increase in capital investment will help to deliver on the former, but it appears increasingly likely that tax rises will be needed over the course of the coming decade.

This chart was originally published on the ICAEW website.

Spending Review 2020: public finances dominated by COVID aftermath

26 November 2020: The Office for Budget Responsibility presented its latest economic and fiscal forecasts to accompany yesterday’s Spending Review. As expected, the forecasts were far from pretty.

In its latest economic and fiscal outlook, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) confirmed that economic and fiscal damage from the pandemic is severe and will have a lasting effect. 

The fiscal watchdog now expects to see a sea of red ink across the first half of the coming decade: a £394bn deficit (19% of GDP) this year and the UK still running a fiscal deficit of over £100bn in five years’ time. This will be a decade after the point at which a previous Chancellor, George Osborne, hoped to have eliminated the deficit completely.

This is the highest ever fiscal deficit experienced in peacetime by the UK and reflects an additional £21bn for the cost of extending the furlough scheme across the winter and £30bn in anticipated write-offs of CBILS and other lending packages.

The fiscal pain is expected to continue into the next financial year starting on 1 April 2021, with the government planning an additional £55bn in COVID-related spending. This is offset to an extent by £10bn in lower departmental budgets, partly as a consequence of the one-year public sector pay freeze. The government says that despite this, ‘core day-to-day department spending’ is growing at 3.8% a year on average in real terms from 2019-20 to 2021-22.

Deficit to remain high for years to come

Table 1 below highlights how the deficit is forecast to be £164bn next year and to remain at over £100bn over the rest of the forecast period. This is despite GDP recovering in 2021-22 to the same level as last year (about 4% lower once inflation is taken into account) with the Chancellor hoping for strong growth to continue into 2022-23 before returning to trend after that.

Table 1 - OBR November 2020 summary economic and fiscal forecasts to 2025-26.

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

The Spending Review boasts that it includes £100bn of central government capital investment in 2021-22, a £27bn real-terms increase compared with 2019-20. This reflects planned increases in previous budgets, with no new funding included in yesterday’s announcement. There are concerns about how deliverable the government’s capital investment plans are, with the OBR increasing its estimate for capital budget underspends and scaling back expectations of local authority and public corporation capital expenditure by £4bn in 2021-22 and by £3bn in subsequent years. These are both likely to reduce any positive impact that may come from the £4bn ‘levelling up fund’ announced by the Chancellor

Table 2 summarises the changes between the pre-pandemic forecasts presented in the Spring Budget in March 2020 and the latest forecasts published yesterday.

Table 2 - OBR November 2020 changes since March 2020 pre-pandemic forecasts

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

Table 3 illustrates how debt is expected to increase from £1.8tn in March 2020 to £2.3tn in March 2021 and to continue to grow to £2.8tn by March 2026, in excess of 100% of GDP throughout the next five years.

Fortunately for the government, the cost of the additional borrowing required to fund the deficit has continued to fall dramatically, with central government debt interest falling from £37bn in 2019-20 to £18bn in 2021-22, before gradually rising to £29bn in 2025-26.

Table 1 - OBR November 2020 public sector net debt to 2025-26

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

Martin Wheatcroft FCA, external adviser to ICAEW on public finances, commented: “The Spending Review was pretty much as expected, with COVID-related spending extended into the next financial year and the trailed public sector pay freeze allowing the government to maintain its capital investment ambitions.

However, buried in the detail is an expectation by the OBR that it will be difficult to deliver those plans on schedule. Combined with lower capital expenditure by local government and public corporations, the hoped-for economic boost could prove elusive.

With the spending side buttoned-down for now, the focus will move to how the Chancellor plans to close the gap between receipts and spending, with the prospect of tax rises on the horizon. It is important the government takes this opportunity to develop a long-term fiscal strategy to address the long-term unsustainability of the public finances that needed addressing even before the pandemic added to the scale of the challenge.”

This article was originally published on the ICAEW website.

What is tomorrow’s Spending Review all about?

Major fiscal events can be confusing for those not familiar with the public finances – this brief explainer may help.

The primary purpose of the Spending Review announcement tomorrow by the Chancellor will be to set out the UK Government’s departmental spending plans for the 2020-21 financial year that starts on 1 April 2021, but there is a lot more going on than that.

Before going further, it is important to distinguish between the one-year Spending Review that will be presented and the three-year Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) that was originally planned. The CSR has unfortunately been deferred until next year because of the uncertain economic outlook following the arrival of the coronavirus, with the Chancellor Rishi Sunak choosing to set department budgets for only the coming financial year. These budgets will have been based on bids submitted by each department that will have been pared back following extensive negotiations across Whitehall.

The process for establishing multi-year departmental budgets has now been deferred for the third year running, with the calling of the General Election last year resulting in Sajid Javid’s one-year Spending Round in 2019 and Brexit-related uncertainty resulting in one-year departmental spending allocations within Philip Hammond’s 2018 Budget. Although perhaps understandable on each individual occasion, the lack of medium-budget certainty for several years is far from ideal in terms of good financial management!

An important innovation last year was the setting of departmental capital budgets for two years rather than just one to provide greater certainty around capital programmes with long lead times. We are anticipating this will also be the case this time, although ICAEW has suggested extending capital budgets a further year in our letter to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury (the minister within HM Treasury with responsibility for public spending) in order to provide more certainty for long-term infrastructure projects.

Another exception to the shorter time horizon for this year’s Spending Review is the multi-year settlement for the Ministry of Defence announced last Thursday, which provides an additional £4bn a year over the next four years on top of the existing commitment to increase the defence budget by 0.5% in excess of inflation. This will underpin the Integrated Defence & Security Review expected to be published in early 2021.

Although headlined as a spending announcement, tomorrow’s statement will also constitute one of the two annual fiscal events where the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) is required by law to publish its Economic and Fiscal Outlook (EFO) containing financial forecasts for the next five years. These are not expected to be very pretty, with the coronavirus pandemic spreading red ink across not only the public finances this year, but also dragging down expected revenues and increasing spending in future years. These forecasts will also be much more uncertain than is normal, which might be one reason the Chancellor has not chosen to describe this event as an Autumn Statement.

The EFO will cover not only planned spending by central government departments – known as departmental expenditure limits (DEL) – but also welfare, interest and other types of expenditure driven by economic conditions – known as annually managed expenditure (AME). Combined with expectations for tax and other receipts in 2020-21, it will roll these forecasts forward a further four years to 2024-25 to provide a five-year forecast for the fiscal deficit (the shortfall between receipts and spending) and public debt. There will be even greater caveats than normal not only in the forecasts but also in the estimate for the remainder of the current financial year.

This is not a full-blown Budget and so we do not expect to see many permanent tax changes beyond a few that were announced last week, although the Chancellor could take this opportunity to extend some temporary tax measures in addition to the extension of £1m Annual Investment Allowance temporary cap to the end of 2021. For example, he is likely to be considering whether or not to extend relief from business rates currently scheduled to end in March 2021 into the next financial year. There could also be an announcement about National Insurance thresholds for next year.

Fiscal events are often accompanied by other publications, with the long-delayed National Infrastructure Strategy anticipated to set out how the Government plans to deliver the ‘Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution’ announced by the Prime Minister last week. Making the Government’s ambitious infrastructure investment plans a reality will take a lot more than just allocating money in a Spending Review spreadsheet; it will also be critical to have a clear strategy, faster decision making, strong delivery capabilities, and the right framework for attracting private sector investment. ICAEW’s response to the Infrastructure Finance Review last year addressed many of these issues.

Other updates are likely to include a revised remit for the Debt Management Office (DMO) to raise funds over the course of the rest of the financial year and progress reports on HM Treasury projects such as the Balance Sheet Review.

In summary, Wednesday’s announcement will still be very important despite the delay in the Budget until the spring and the deferral of the CSR to next year.

TermDescription
Spending ReviewOn this occasion, the setting of budgets for central government departments for 2021-22 and capital budgets for 2021-22 and 2022-23.
2020-21The current financial year – from 1 April 2020 to 31 March 2021.
2021-22The next financial year – from 1 April 2021 to 31 March 2022.
Autumn or Spring StatementThe second major fiscal event each year after the Budget at which the Chancellor presents an update on the public finances. This can sometimes include new tax and spending measures but is not required to. Tomorrow’s announcement is technically an Autumn Statement in addition to the Spending Review.
BudgetThe primary fiscal event each year in which the Chancellor of the Exchequer sets out plans for tax, spending and borrowing to finance government activities for the coming financial year and medium-term forecasts for the public finances. The Budget planned for this autumn was postponed until March 2021.
Chancellor of the ExchequerRishi Sunak MP, the cabinet minister and head of HM Treasury responsible for the economic matters and for the public finances.
Chief Secretary to the TreasurySteve Barclay MP, the most senior minister at HM Treasury after the Chancellor, with primary responsibility for public spending and for negotiating the Spending Review with departments.
Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR)A multi-year set of departmental operating and capital budgets, typically covering three years. A CSR was planned for 2020 but has been delayed until next year.
DebtPublic sector net debt (PSND) is the primary measure of financial position used by the Government within the National Accounts. It comprises debt owed to external parties less cash and other liquid financial assets and excludes some debt-like liabilities such as private-finance initiative embedded lease obligations and non-liquid loan receivables. The majority of public debt is raised by the Debt Management Office (DMO) selling government bonds (principally gilts) to professional investors. National Savings & Investments also raises money by taking retail deposits from the public.
DeficitThe fiscal deficit, officially known as public sector net borrowing (PSNB), is the primary measure of financial performance used by the Government. It is the shortfall between receipts and total managed expenditure calculated in accordance with statistics-based National Accounts rules. Despite its official name it does not equal the movement in public sector net debt as it excludes borrowing for other purposes (such as to fund lending to businesses) in addition to cash timing differences. The Government uses a modified form of the deficit that excludes the state-owned NatWest Group (formerly The Royal Bank of Scotland).
DEL and AMEDepartment expenditure limits and annually managed expenditure, being the two categories government spending is divided into. DEL comprises programme and administration costs incurred by central government departments, while AME consists of other types of expenditure such as welfare, interest, devolved administrations, local government and a number of other activities. DEL and AME are both net of ancillary income such as fees and charges and are measured in accordance with UK Government-specific ‘resource accounting’ rules that differ from both operating and capital expenditure reported in financial statements under International Financial Reporting Standards and the fiscal numbers reported in the National Accounts under international statistical standards.
Resource DEL and Resource AMEThe government equivalent of expenditure, net of ancillary income.
Capital DEL and Capital AMEThe government equivalent of capital expenditure, net of proceeds from the sale of assets.
Economic and Fiscal Outlook (EFO)A set of economic and financial forecasts prepared by the independent Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) that combines extrapolations of government spending plans from the most recent Spending Review with projections for tax and other receipts, welfare spending, interest and other costs. The fiscal forecast usually comprises a revised estimate for the current financial year and projections for the next five financial years based on the economic assumptions determined by the OBR.
Economic growthAn increase in GDP in excess of the GDP deflator.
GDPGross Domestic Product, an estimate of the total value of transactions within the UK economy.
GDP deflatorA measure of inflation across all sectors of the economy (including government) that is used in the economic and fiscal forecasts. It differs from other measures of inflation such as the consumer price index (CPI), the consumer-price index including housing (CPIH) and the retail prices index (RPI).
Public sectorThe UK Government and the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish devolved administrations and bodies they directly control (central government), regional and local authorities, police & crime commissioners, fire services, Transport for London and bodies they control (local government), and the Bank of England and government-owned businesses (public corporations).
Supply EstimatesThe formal process of obtaining Parliamentary approval for government spending each year. These convert the budgets agreed with the Treasury for both DEL and AME each year and convert them into a formal legal authorisation to incur expenditure. Supplementary Supply Estimates during the course of the financial year are sometimes needed if budgets need to be adjusted upwards.
Total managed expenditure (TME)The combination of expenditure and net investment (capital expenditure less depreciation) measured in accordance with the statistics-based National Accounts rules.
Whole of Government Accounts (WGA)Consolidated financial statements for the public sector prepared in accordance with International Financial Reporting Standards. The WGA recognises a wider range of assets and liabilities than are reported in the fiscal numbers and an accounting loss that includes long-term pension costs, nuclear decommissioning, clinical negligence and other costs that are excluded from the fiscal deficit.

This article was originally published on the ICAEW website.

Public sector cash burn slows in October, but a difficult winter lies ahead

ICAEW’s public sector director Alison Ring has called for the focus of Wednesday’s Spending Review to be on how the government can put in place building blocks for economic recovery.

The latest public sector finances from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) for October 2020 show the UK incurred a £22.3bn deficit in October, bringing the total shortfall over seven months to £214.9bn – £169.1bn more than the £45.8bn recorded for the same period last year.

Commenting on the figures, Alison Ring public sector director ICAEW’s said that the government was spending at a slower rate than in previous months, it was still spending heavily during October.

“Fortunately, ultra-low borrowing costs mean that the Chancellor will not have to worry about having to plug the fiscal hole with Wednesday’s Spending Review,” said Ring. “The long-delayed National Infrastructure Strategy will be key, as will proposals to reform government operations to make them more effective.

Ministers must be hoping that recent positive news on vaccines will allow the focus in 2021 to change from providing emergency life-support for the economy to ‘building back better’.”

Net debt increase

According to the ONS, falls in VAT, corporation tax and income tax drove lower receipts, while large-scale fiscal interventions resulted in much higher levels of expenditure. Net investment is greater than last year, as planned, while the interest line has benefited from ultra-low interest rates.

Public sector net debt increased to £2,076.8bn or 100.8% of GDP, an increase of £276.3bn from the start of the financial year and £283.8bn higher than in October 2019. This reflects £61.4bn of additional borrowing over and above the deficit, most of which has been used to fund coronavirus loans to business and tax deferral measures.

Image of table containing public sector finances for the month and the 7 months to October 2020. Click on the link to the ICAEW website at the bottom of this post to access a readable version of this table.

The combination of receipts down 9%, expenditure up 29% and net investment up 51% has resulted in a deficit for the seven months to September 2020 that is almost four times the budgeted deficit of £55bn for the whole of the 2020-21 financial year set in the Spring Budget in March, despite interest charges being lower by 32%. The cumulative deficit is approaching five times as much as for the same seven-month period last year.

Cash funding (the ‘public sector net cash requirement’) for the month was £17.0bn, the lowest monthly amount in this financial year so far. The total for seven months was £274.8bn, compared with £6.4bn for the same period in 2019. 

Interest costs have fallen despite much higher levels of debt, with extremely low interest rates benefiting both new borrowing to fund government cash requirements and borrowing to refinance existing debts as they have been repaid.

The deficit remains on track to exceed £300bn in the financial year to March 2021, with the Institute for Fiscal Studies’ recent IFS Green Budget 2020 annual pre-Budget report suggesting that the deficit for the full year to March 2021 could reach £350bn or 17% of GDP. The Office for Budget Responsibility is scheduled to publish revised forecasts on Wednesday 25 November

Some caution is needed with respect to the numbers published by the ONS, which are expected to be repeatedly revised as estimates are refined and gaps in the underlying data are filled. In particular, the OBR points out that the ONS has yet to record any allowance for losses that might arise on the more than £100bn of tax deferrals, loans and guarantees provided to support businesses through the pandemic.

Image of table containing public sector finances for the seven months to October 2020. Click on the link to the ICAEW website at the bottom of this post to access a readable version of this table.

Image of table containing public sector finances for the seven months to October 2019 and twelve months to March 2020. Click on the link to the ICAEW website at the bottom of this post to access a readable version of this table.

The ONS made a number of revisions to prior month and prior year fiscal numbers to reflect revisions to estimates and changes in methodology. These had the effect of reducing the reported fiscal deficit in the first six months from the £208.5bn reported last time to £192.6bn and increasing the reported deficit for 2019-20 from £54.5bn to £56.1bn.

This article was originally published on the ICAEW website.

ICAEW chart of the week: Ireland Budget 2021

20 November 2020: The #icaewchartoftheweek takes a look at the Irish Government’s fiscal plans for 2021 and how it plans to tackle the twin headwinds of COVID and Brexit.

Ireland Budget 2021:

2019 Revenue £89bn, expenditure £87bn

2020 Revenue £84bn, expenditure £106bn

2021 Revenue £89bn, expenditure £109bn

The Irish Government held its Budget 2021 announcement last month, setting out how the coronavirus pandemic has damaged the public finances in 2020 and how it plans to help the economy recover in 2021.

There was a fiscal surplus of €2bn in 2019 with general government revenue of €89bn exceeding expenditure of €87bn, but the pandemic has squeezed revenues (expected to fall to €84bn in 2020) and increased spending (expected to increase to €106bn), resulting in an expected shortfall of €22bn this year. This is equivalent to 6.2% of GDP or 10.7% of Gross National Income (GNI).

General government revenues are forecast to recover to €89bn in 2021, well below the level they would have been without the pandemic. Although much of the emergency spending incurred in 2020 will not be repeated, the Irish Government still plans to increase total spending in 2021 to €109bn. This reflects social payments continuing to run at a higher level (€32bn in 2019, €39bn in 2020 and €38bn in 2021) and greater capital investment (€10bn, €12bn and €12bn), but mainly reflects extensive Brexit-related spending to soften the anticipated adverse economic impacts of increased trade frictions with the UK from 1 January 2021, as well as a €3bn COVID recovery fund intended to help the economy recover from the pandemic. 

As a consequence, the fiscal deficit in 2021 is forecast to be €20bn, 5.7% of GDP and 9.8% of GNI.

General government debt is expected to increase from €204bn at the end of 2019 to €219bn in December 2020 and €239bn in December 2021. This is equivalent to 57%, 63% and 67% of GDP which may not appear to be that high, but with a much wider gap between GDP and GNI than most countries, the debt-GNI ratios of 96%, 108% and 115% are much more of a concern.

Fortunately, interest costs in 2021 are expected to be around €1bn lower despite the significant increase in debt, reflecting the extremely low interest rates available to Ireland as a member of the Eurozone.

The uncertainties surrounding the Irish economy, the pandemic and Brexit mean that Ireland’s Department of Finance decided to publish a one-year economic and fiscal forecast this year instead of the normal five years. They will be hoping for clarity to emerge over the coming year!

This chart was originally published on the ICAEW website.

COVID tips Croydon Council over the edge into bankruptcy

17 November 2020: Croydon Council has gone into section 114 ‘bankruptcy’ following years of overspending, losses on commercial investments and the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. What went wrong?

Croydon Council issued a section 114 notice on Wednesday 11 November 2020, the first local authority to do so since Northamptonshire County Council went bust in 2018.

The move by Lisa Taylor, Croydon’s finance director and section 151 officer, followed pre-pandemic losses of £163m in 2019-20 and £221m in 2018-19 and the publication last month of a highly critical public interest report by external auditor Grant Thornton. A central government commissioned governance review is underway.

The public interest report was highly critical of how Croydon Council has run its finances over the last few years, with findings including the use of capital funding to cover operating losses, £545m borrowed over a three-year period – much of which was used to invest in commercial properties – and serious failings in governance in addressing the financial situation facing the council. Grant Thornton reported that General Fund and Earmarked General Fund reserves had reduced from £58.2m at 31 March 2016 to £16.6m at 31 March 2020, and conclude with the following statement:

“Had the Council implemented strong financial governance, responded promptly to our previous recommendations and built up reserves and addressed the overspends in children’s and adult social care, it would have been in a stronger position to withstand the financial pressures as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Council needs to urgently address the underlying pressures on service spends and build a more resilient financial position whilst also addressing the long-term financial implications of the capital spending and financing strategy together with the oversight of the Council’s group companies.”

The section 114 notice places a stop on non-statutory expenditures, resulting in the potential closure of some local services, redundancies to save costs and increasingly strained calls to the Ministry for Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG) asking for a bailout. It highlights a budget gap of at least £30m and additional risks of £37m or more.

Croydon is not alone in suffering from significant cuts in funding over the last decade and cost pressures in adult and child social care provision in particular. However, weak financial governance, a failure to address cost pressures, inadequate reserve levels and increased balance sheet risk from debt-financed commercial property investments have all made it more vulnerable to a crisis.

Although it is perhaps not surprising that Croydon has failed, given the issues highlighted by its external auditors, more section 114 notices are likely over the coming months as even well-run councils struggle to cover income shortfalls. 

The government will also be concerned about the number of councils planning to cut local services and investment in their local economies over the next few years, just as it is hoping to rebuild the economy and deliver on its levelling up agenda.

This article was originally published on the ICAEW website.