ICAEW chart of the week: Exploding debt

My chart for ICAEW this week takes a look at how UK public debt has exploded since the financial crisis to more than quintuple from £0.6trn in March 2008 to a projected £3.1trn in March 2029.

Exploding debt

Step chart showing how UK public sector net has changed between March 2008 and the projected position in March 2029.

[debt bars shaded orange, changes shaded in purple]

March 2008: £0.6trn
Financial crisis: +£0.7trn
March 2012: £1.3trn
Austerity years: +£0.5trn
March 2020: £1.8trn
Pandemic / energy crisis: +£0.9trn
March 2024: £2.7trn

[bar colours shaded by 50% to indicate the following are projected numbers]

Latest plan: +£0.4trn
March 2029:  £3.1trn

30 Nov 2023.
Chart by Martin Wheatcroft FCA. Design by Sunday.
Source: OBR, 'Public finances databank - Nov 2023'.

As illustrated by our chart this week, the sums borrowed by the government since the financial crisis of a decade and half ago have been truly astonishing. 

In March 2008, the official measure of net debt for the UK public sector was less than £0.6trn. During the financial crisis, government borrowing totalled £0.7trn over a four-year period, causing public sector net debt to more than double to £1.3bn in March 2012. 

The eight austerity years saw government cut spending on public services to a significant degree but still borrow a further £0.5trn to see net debt reach £1.8trn in March 2020 – arguably not mending the roof while the sun was shining. This was then followed by an exceptional amount of borrowing during four years of pandemic and energy crisis (including the current financial year) that is expected to see net debt increase by a total of £0.9trn to reach £2.7trn in March 2024.

The Autumn Statement 2023 on Wednesday 22 November saw the Chancellor set out his latest plan for the UK public finances over the next five financial years. This includes a further £0.4trn of borrowing, with public sector net debt projected to amount to £3.1trn in March 2029 – more than quintuple the net amount owed by the UK state 21 years earlier in March 2008.

This assumes that the government can stick to its borrowing plans – many commentators have suggested that planned cuts in spending on public services are unrealistic, meaning more borrowing if taxes are not to rise.

The £2.5trn increase in debt between 2008 and 2029 comprises £2.2trn in borrowing to fund 21 years of deficits (the annual shortfall between receipts and spending) and £0.3trn in other borrowing to fund government lending (such as student loans) and working capital requirements.

As a share of the economy, the increase is less dramatic but still significant – rising from a net debt to GDP ratio of 35.6% in March 2008, to 74.3% in March 2012, to 85.2% in March 2020, to an anticipated 97.9% in March 2024. However, the good news is that net debt / GDP is expected to fall to 94.1% in March 2029 as inflation and economic growth offset the additional borrowing.

The worry for this (or any alternative) government is that while borrowing levels in the OBR’s forecast spreadsheet for the next five years appear manageable and are (just) within the current fiscal rules, the numbers assume that we don’t enter another recession or other economic crisis in that time. Otherwise, we could see debt exploding again.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: Spending Round 2019: an ‘end to austerity’?

Spending Round 2019 £330.8bn + inflation £6.1bn + reclass £1.6bn + increases £13.8bn = £352.3bn

On 4 September 2019, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced the UK Government’s plans for departmental spending for the next financial year, 2020-21; as illustrated by the #ICAEWchartoftheweek. 

This was unusual, as the announcement was not accompanied by a Budget setting out how those plans would be funded, nor by updated economic forecasts to indicate the expected effect on the overall public finances. This is also the second year running that the three-year Spending Review has been delayed and replaced by a one-year plan.

The primary announcement was for an increase of £13.8bn in departmental current spending in the next financial year (2020-21), a 4.1% real-terms increase over the current financial year. This was £11.7bn more than had been previously included in public finance forecasts and increases ‘Resource DEL excluding depreciation’ to £352.3bn.

There is an extra £4.1bn for health, £1.0bn for social care, £2.2bn for education, £1.3bn for law & order, £0.7bn for defence and security, £0.6bn for devolved administrations, and £1.3bn in other increases. The latter includes £0.4bn for transport, £0.2bn for the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, £0.1bn for international development, £0.1bn for the next census, £0.1bn for the Department for Work & Pensions, £68m for air quality, biodiversity and animal health, £54m to tackle homelessness, and £46bn for the Birmingham Commonwealth Games. 

The Chancellor also announced that departmental capital spending would increase by £3.9bn or 5.0% in real terms. This is £1.7bn more than had previously been announced and increases ‘Capital DEL’ to £81.9bn. There is £2.2bn for transport infrastructure (including HS2, other rail projects and road building), £1.9bn in additional international development investment, £0.5bn for the defence equipment programme, and £0.5bn for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, partially offset by £1.2bn in lower reserves and other changes.

Although department current spending is expected to rise by 4.1%, and capital spending by 5.0%, the overall increase in total managed expenditure in 2020-21 is a 2.4% rise to £865.2bn, with annually managed expenditure (‘AME’) relatively flat in real-terms. With the cost of pensions rising ahead of inflation, this implies further cuts in the welfare budget, and so this may not be the full ‘end to austerity’ claimed by the Chancellor.

The uncertain economic outlook also causes concern. A recession, whether or not induced by Brexit, could have adverse consequences for the public finances, raising the worrying prospect of a return to austerity in the three-year Spending Review now scheduled for next year.