ICAEW chart of the week: Overseas travel

My chart this week is about visits abroad by UK residents, illustrating how people have started to travel again following restrictions during the pandemic.

Column chart showing number of foreign trips by UK residents by calendar quarter.

2017: 15.9m, 23.7m, 28.7m. 18.9m
2018: 16.6m, 24.6m, 29.9m, 19.4m
2019: 18.2m, 25/8m, 30.0m, 19.2m
2020: 13.9m, 0.9m, 6/2m, 2.8m
2021: 0.9, 1.2m, 8.1m, 9.0m
2022: 9.4m, 20.4m

Visits abroad by UK residents have picked up following the depths of the pandemic but have yet to recover to pre-pandemic levels.

According to the Office for National Statistics, the number of visits abroad by UK residents by quarter amounted to 15.9m, 23.7m, 28.7 and 18.9m in 2017; 16.6m, 24.6m, 29.9m and 19.4m in 2018; 18.2m, 25.8m, 30.0m and 19.2m in 2019; 13.9m, 0.9m, 6.2m and 2.8m in 2020; 0.9m, 1.2m, 8.1m and 9.0m in 2021; and 9.4m and 20.4m in the first two quarters of 2022.

Although substantially higher than at the height of COVID-19 travel restrictions, trips abroad during the first half of 2022 were still substantially lower than before the pandemic. 

The 20.4m visits during the second quarter of 2022 comprised 15.1m to countries in the European Union, 1.3m to other European countries, 1.0m to North America and 3.0m to other countries around the world. Of these trips, 13.4m were for holidays, 5.1m were to visit friends or relatives, 1.4m for business and 0.5m were for other reasons. 

These numbers compare with 25.8m visits in the second quarter of 2019, comprising 18.9m to the EU, 1.4m to other European countries, 1.6m to North America and 3.9m to the rest of the world. This comprised an estimated 16.8m holidays, 6.0m visits to friends or relatives, 2.5m business trips and 0.5m other.

The amount spent by travellers in the second quarter of 2022 was estimated to be £15.8bn, an average of approximately £775 per visit. This compares with an average of around £630 in the second quarter of 2019, reflecting a weaker pound, inflation and the mix of travellers and countries visited.

Trips abroad during the key summer quarter of July to September 2022 has yet to be released by the ONS, so we wait to see whether there will be anywhere near the peak of 30.0m visits recorded in Q3 of 2019.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: Workforce

My chart this week looks at the changes in the numbers of people between 16 and 64 who are employed, unemployed or economically inactive over the past three years.

Three section column chart showing changes in those employed, unemployed and inactive aged 16-64 over the the last three years.

Employed: -486,000 (to quarter ending Feb 2021) +520,000 (to quarter ending Aug 2022) = net change +34,000

Unemployed: +385,000, -518,000 = net -133,000

Inactive: +218,000 +106,000 = +324,000

According to the Office for National Statistics, on a seasonally adjusted basis the working-age population (ages 16 to 64) comprised 31,366,000 people in employment, 1,297,000 unemployed and 8,675,000 economically inactive in the quarter from June to August 2019.

As our chart this week illustrates, the numbers in employment fell by 486,000 over the following 18 months to the quarter from December 2019 to February 2021. Over the same period, there were 385,000 more people aged 16 to 64 recorded as being unemployed and 106,000 more as economically inactive. This was a net increase of just 5,000 as the normal growth in population was offset by migrants returning home at the start of the pandemic and a higher death rate than normal as a consequence of the pandemic.

Over the subsequent 18 months to the quarter from June to August 2022, employment of those between the ages of 16 and 64 recovered as the economy reopened, growing by 520,000, while unemployment fell by 518,000. However, the number economically inactive continued to grow, increasing by a further 218,000.

This resulted in a net movement over the three years of 225,000, comprising 34,000 more people in employment (to 31,400,000 in the quarter ended August 2022), 133,000 fewer unemployed (to 1,164,000), and 324,000 more who were economically active (to 8,999,000).

The numbers who were economically inactive in the June to August 2022 quarter comprised 2,419,000 students (up 103,000 from three years previously), 1,726,000 homemakers (down 254,000), 2,662,000 who were sick (up 424,000), 1,181,000 in early retirement (up 61,000) and 1,011,000 others (down 10,000).

This is not the total workforce, which in the quarter to August 2022 also includes 1,355,000 aged 65 or over in employment (up 27,000 from three years previously), 24,000 who were registered as unemployed (up 7,000) and 10,994,000 economically inactive (up 355,000), the majority of whom were retired.

Not shown in the chart is the change in the number of vacancies, which fell by 188,000 in the 18-month period from 812,000 in the quarter from June to August 2019 to 624,000 in the quarter from December 2020 to February 2021 and then rose by 635,000 over the following 18 months to 1,259,000 in the quarter from June to August 2022, a net movement of +447,000 over three years.

There has been much debate about the rise in the number of people who are categorised as long-term sick, which is believed to be down to a combination of ‘long Covid’ and NHS treatment backlogs.

The big jump in vacancies over the last three years – to a point where there are now more vacancies than the number of people recorded as unemployed – is putting significant pressure on businesses that are struggling to recruit new workers. 

This position could change rapidly, however, with many commentators concerned that the cost-of-doing business crisis could result in a sharp rise in unemployment and a fall in vacancies over the next six months as consumers reign back spending in response to energy costs, rapidly rising prices, higher mortgage payments and an increasingly uncertain economic outlook.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: before the emergency fiscal event

My chart this week looks at how the budgeted deficit was supposed to play out according to the Spring Statement back in March, ahead of an emergency fiscal event expected within the next few weeks.

Step chart:

(£144bn) 2021/22 provisional deficit

+£84bn COVID-19 measures not repeated

+£18bn Economic growth net of inflation

-£27bn Higher interest costs

-£30bn Tax and spending changes

=

(£99bn) 2022/23 budgeted deficit

The new Chancellor will be looking at a range of possible large scale interventions to support individuals and businesses as they face unprecedented cost-of-living and cost-of-doing-business crises this winter. Several commentators have suggested that the combination of tax cuts trailed by new Prime Minister Liz Truss and a massive emergency support package could add more than £100bn to the deficit, more than doubling the budgeted deficit of £99bn established back in March 2022 just before the start of the financial year.

My chart illustrates how the deficit was expected to change from a provisional outturn of £144bn for the deficit in the year ended 31 March 2022, when taxes and other receipts were £914bn and total managed expenditure amounted to £1,058bn.

Last year’s totals included £84bn in COVID-19 related measures (£14bn of tax cuts and £70bn of spending measures) that are not repeated this year, with further spending this year – including continuing to treat COVID-19 patients and tackling NHS backlogs that stem from the pandemic – folded into departmental budgets set during the three-year Spending Review back in October 2021.

Economic growth net of inflation was expected to reduce the deficit by a further £18bn, comprising £21bn in extra receipts from forecast economic growth of 2.2% less £3bn (£41bn on spending, £38bn on receipts) from forecast inflation of 4.1%. The latter uses the GDP deflator measure for the ‘whole economy’ and was estimated at a point when consumer price inflation was expected to reach 8.0% this year.

Inflation also drove much of the jump in interest costs of £27bn in comparison with the previous year, principally because of interest accrued on inflation-linked gilts, but also as a consequence of higher interest rates.

Tax and spending changes amounted to £30bn, comprising £31bn in additional spending less a net £1bn in tax changes. The former comprises a £21bn or 2.0% increase in public spending principally stemming from the 2021 Spending Review, together with £10bn of support for household energy bills announced by former chancellor Rishi Sunak back in February and March 2022. Tax rises were expected to add £20bn to the top line, of which £18bn stems from the rise in national insurance rates from April pending the introduction of the health and social care levy next year. However, this was offset by £19bn in tax cuts and other movements, including a £6bn tax cut from increasing national insurance thresholds, £2bn from cutting fuel duty by 5p, and £1bn from freezing the business rates multiplier.

These changes result in a budgeted deficit of £99bn, being forecast tax and other receipts of £988bn less public spending of £1,087bn.

These amounts exclude £15bn in additional help for energy bills since the budget was finalised in March 2022, partially offset by £5bn from the windfall tax on energy companies announced at the same time. Adjusting for these two items, however, is relatively small beer compared with the large-scale fiscal announcements made by new Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng. This is before the Office for Budget Responsibility works its magic in updating the fiscal forecasts for changes in the economic situation, taking account of higher inflation and interest rates, and lower economic growth or even an economic contraction.

The worsening economic outlook continues to overshadow the public finances, providing perhaps one of the worst foundations for any incoming Chancellor since the Second World War.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: Spring Statement 2022

This week we look at the Spring Statement, where the story is all about inflation as the Chancellor responded to the pressures that have contributed to the cost of living crisis.

Step chart showing changes from the October forecast for the deficit in 2022/23 and the revised Spring Statement forecast for the same period.

October forecast £83bn - higher receipts £30bn - lower unemployment £3bn + debt interest +£41bn + other revisions £2bn = updated forecast of £93bn.

The - student loans £11bn + energy support £12bn + tax cuts £6bn - other changes £1bn = Spring Statement forecast of £99bn.

What Chancellor Rishi Sunak had originally hoped would be a short report to Parliament on the latest economic and fiscal forecasts turned into a fully-fledged fiscal event as he responded to a ‘cost of living’ crisis that is expected to put severe pressure on household budgets and is risking the viability of many businesses. The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) estimates that the Chancellor’s energy support package and tax cuts will cover around a third of the decline in living standards expected in the coming financial year.

Inflation is now centre stage in a way that it hasn’t been since the 1970s.

Our chart summarises the changes in the forecast for fiscal deficit the coming financial year commencing on 1 April 2022, showing how last October’s forecast of a £83bn shortfall between receipts and expenditure has increased to a £99bn shortfall in the latest forecasts by the OBR.

The good news is that the economic recovery from the pandemic has been stronger than previously thought, with the pandemic support measures such as the furlough scheme being rewarded with stronger tax receipts coming through into the forecasts. An extra £30bn is expected in 2022/23, complemented by lower unemployment than expected, which also reduces the forecast for welfare spending by an estimated £3bn.

Offsetting that is a huge rise in interest costs. This is driven by a sharp rise in the retail prices index (RPI), to which a substantial proportion of the government’s debt is linked, combined with higher interest rates as the Bank of England attempts to prevent inflation rising even further. These factors add an extra £41bn to the forecast interest bill for next year, bringing it up to £83bn, three and a half times the £24bn in 2020/21 and more than 50% higher than the £54bn now expected for the current financial year. Interest in subsequential financial years has been revised up by around £9bn a year on the basis (the forecasters hope) that inflation is brought back under control in 2023/24.

Other changes to the fiscal forecast add £2bn to the deficit forecast, bringing it up to £93bn before taking account of policy decisions announced since last October. The first, which for some reason was not highlighted by the Chancellor in his speech, was the impact of increasing the amounts that graduates will have to repay on their student loans, reducing the anticipated bad debt write-off in 2022/23 by £11bn from the estimate made last October.

The Chancellor did talk about the energy support package that he announced last month as the energy prices rises coming in April were announced. However, he did not add to that package directly – instead choosing to announce tax cuts of about £6bn in 2022/23. The main element is an increase from July of around £3,000 in the threshold at which National Insurance is payable by employees, which will benefit many low to middle income families, but not (as the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the Resolution Foundation and others have pointed out) the very poorest that will be hit hardest by price rises. More than two thirds of the benefit will go to higher income households.

Overall, the OBR says the energy support package and tax cuts together will offset around a third of the fall in living standards that is expected in the coming year.

Other policy changes amounting to around £1bn were offset by indirect effects of £2bn, resulting in a net £1bn benefit to bring the forecast deficit to £99bn, some £16bn higher in total than that predicted in October.

These numbers don’t include the 1p cut in the basic rate of income tax from 6 April 2024 that was also announced by the Chancellor. This is expected to cost around £6bn a year in lower tax receipts, but is expected to be more than offset by the effect of freezing both income tax and national insurance thresholds (expected to bring in somewhere in the region of £18bn extra a year). In effect, the Chancellor has chosen to bank the ‘benefit’ of higher inflation on his decision to freeze thresholds.

The big question is whether the Chancellor will be able to hold off from providing further support to households and businesses for the rest of the financial year. Most commentators appear to suggest that it is likely that he will return to the despatch box in the House of Commons before the next round of energy prices rises in October in order to make further announcements.

This article was originally published by ICAEW.

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.

ICAEW chart of the week: pre-Spring Statement debt forecast

This week’s chart reviews the sharp increase in the national debt to GDP ratio as we reflect on the challenges facing Chancellor Rishi Sunak.

Step chart showing changes in the debt to GDP ratio.

March 2015: 79.8% +12.6% borrowing -9.7% economic growth and inflation = 82.7% in March 2020.

82.7% + 26.1% - 10.6% = 98.2% in March 2022

98.2% + 7.8% - 18.0% = 88.0% forecast for March 2027.

Better tax receipts and higher inflation are expected to contribute to an improvement in the fiscal forecasts that will accompany the Spring Statement on 23 March 2022, further increasing the pressure on the Chancellor to do more to support households and businesses facing spiralling energy prices and a cost-of-living crisis.

Our chart this week is based on the latest official forecast for public sector net debt prior to its update on 23 March 2022 at the Spring Statement. The chart highlights how it took five years for debt to increase from 79.8% to 82.7% as a share of GDP before leaping to a projected 98.2% over the two years to 31 March 2022 and then falling to a projected 88.0% at 31 March 2027.

The debt to GDP ratio is probably the most important key performance indicator used by most governments to assess their public finances, so much so that when ministers talk about reducing debt, they do not mean paying back the amounts owed to debt investors (unless they are in the German government). Instead, governments in most developed countries aim to borrow at a slower rate than the increase in the size of the economy, allowing the combination of economic growth and inflation to offset the often-significant sums of cash required to finance the shortfall between tax receipts and public spending.

This objective has been difficult to achieve over the past decade of low economic growth and low inflation, as illustrated by the increase in the UK’s debt to GDP ratio from 79.8% to 82.7% between 31 March 2015 and 2020. In cash terms, public sector net debt increased by £261bn from £1,532bn to £1,793bn over that five-year period, equivalent to 12.6% of a year’s GDP. The debt to GDP ratio only went up by 2.9 percentage points, with economic growth and inflation offsetting the increase in the amounts owed by the equivalent of 9.7% of GDP. (The objective would have been achieved but for a quirk in the choice of GDP measure used for this calculation by the Office for National Statistics in the UK, which is ‘mid-year GDP’; at 31 March 2020 this encompassed both the last six months of 2019/20 before the pandemic but also the first six months of 2020/21 and the lockdowns that occurred during that time, reversing some of the economic growth experienced in the preceding five years.)

The chart goes onto illustrate how the more than half a trillion pounds (£576bn or 26.1% of GDP) borrowed by the government in just two years over the course of the pandemic is partially offset by the economic recovery and a great deal more inflation, reducing the impact on the debt to GDP ratio by the equivalent of 10.6%.

Debt as a share of GDP over the next five years is then expected to decline, with a projected net addition of £198bn (7.8% of GDP) expected to be added to debt according to last October’s forecast. Projected public sector net debt of £2,567bn at 31 March 2027 is currently expected to be lower in proportion to the size of the economy at 88.0% of GDP, as the post-pandemic recovery and already forecast higher rates of inflation cause GDP to rise at a faster rate than the government can borrow, resulting in a reduction equivalent to 18.0% of GDP.

The official projections for the current financial year, prepared last October by the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), are expected to be revised upwards to incorporate the stronger tax receipts reported in recent monthly public sector finance reports and higher levels of GDP from even higher rates of inflation than previously expected. These effects are likely to combine to reduce the 98.2% of GDP forecast for debt for the end of March 2022 by several percentage points.

There is a much greater deal of uncertainty about how the OBR’s medium-term projections will deal with the potential future path of the pandemic, the cost-of-living squeeze on household incomes, and the effect of the war in Ukraine and sanctions on Russia on UK businesses. This is in addition to its normal difficulty in both measuring and forecasting the trillions of financial transactions that are undertaken every year in an economy of more than 67m people.

Many economic commentators expect stronger tax receipts and higher inflation to flow through to the projections for the next five years, even after taking account of the increased interest costs that come from higher rates of inflation and higher interest rates and the already announced package of support measures for households struggling with energy price rises. This should in theory result in a substantial improvement in the projected debt to GDP ratio in March 2027 from the 88.0% previously forecast, but what we won’t know until the Spring Statement is to what extent Chancellor Rishi Sunak intends to spend some of that improvement.

Mixed signals mean that it is difficult to tell to whether there will be an improvement to the support package to households facing large rises in their energy costs and the prices they pay for food and other essentials, whether the Chancellor will also choose to reduce fuel duties to help motorists, and how far he will opt to support businesses affected by substantially higher input costs in addition to the knock-on effects of the war in Ukraine and sanctions on Russia. Not to mention the political pressure on the Chancellor to announce increases in the defence budget now rather than waiting for the Autumn Budget.

For what was envisioned as a quiet fiscal occasion dealing with routine revisions to the fiscal forecasts, the Spring Statement has turned into a significant fiscal event. After all, even if the Chancellor decides to do nothing, that will still be a choice, with major implications for the public finances and the UK economy.

As the sage once said (or possibly didn’t), we live in fiscally interesting times.

This chart 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.

ICAEW chart of the week: UK quarterly public finances

Our chart this week looks at the fiscal forecast for the final quarter of the government’s financial year ending in March 2022.

Column chart showing quarterly deficits:

2019/20 outturn £55bn deficit: Apr-Jun £23bn, Jul-Sep £12bn, Oct-Dec £23bn, Jan-Mar -£3bn

2020/21 outturn £322bn deficit: Apr-Jun £133bn, Jul-Sep £77bn, Oct-Dec £66bn, Jan-Mar £46bn

2021/22 forecast £183bn deficit: Apr-Jun £61bn, Jul-Sep £41bn, Oct-Dec £45bn, Jan-Mar £23bn, with £13bn headroom

The December 2021 public sector finances published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) on Tuesday 25 January provided numbers for the first three quarters of the current financial year. As our chart this week illustrates, this leaves the final quarter still to go, with £13bn of headroom against the official forecast prepared by the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) at the time of the Autumn Budget and Spending Review 2021 back in October.

To put the current fiscal year into context, our chart shows how the deficit of £55bn in 2019/20 comprised quarterly deficits of £23bn for April to June 2019, £12bn for July to September 2019 and £23bn for October to December 2019 less a surplus of £3bn for January to March 2020. Although there was some impact from the pandemic on the last month of that financial year, it broadly provides an indication of a ‘normal’ pattern of deficits across the year, with the second quarter and more especially the fourth quarter benefiting from self assessment tax receipts – the latter despite typically higher levels of capital expenditure in the run up to the end of the financial year.

This was followed by the first full year of the pandemic and associated lockdowns which saw tax receipts fall significantly and expenditures rise dramatically, resulting in an unprecedented peacetime deficit of £322bn in 2020/21, comprising £133bn, £77bn, £66bn and £46bn for the four quarters respectively.

The current forecast is also on course for a pretty eye-watering deficit, which despite being substantially below that seen last year is forecast to be as much as £183bn. The provisional numbers for the first three quarters of 2021/22 of £61bn, £41bn and £45bn respectively are currently £13bn below the October forecast, implying an equivalent amount of headroom for the final quarter, assuming the OBR’s forecast deficit of £23bn for the fourth quarter proves to be accurate.

In practice, it would be surprising if the fourth quarter did come in on target other than by coincidence. Better than expected tax revenues are expected to continue to reduce the deficit over the final quarter but this is likely to be offset to a greater or lesser extent by higher interest costs on index-linked debt driven by rising inflation. There are also significant uncertainties around expenditures given the continuation of pandemic restrictions into January and the potential for further interventions to support businesses and individuals struggling financially as a consequence.

There have been suggestions that this headroom of £13bn is a ‘windfall’ that the Chancellor should use to support households expected to be hit by a greater than 50% rise in energy prices from April 2022 as discussed in last week’s chart of the week.

However, this perspective has also been contradicted by Carl Emmerson, Deputy Director at the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), who is reported to have commented: “While borrowing last month was in line with the Budget forecast, over the first nine months of 2021/22 it is now £13bn below that forecast for the same period in the October Budget – £147bn instead of the £160bn expected in October. The latest improvement to borrowing over this period has been driven by higher-than-expected corporation tax being paid by some very large companies.

“Some have suggested better borrowing figures provide the Chancellor room to act on the cost of living by, for example, delaying the rise in National Insurance contributions planned for April. The truth is these figures make no difference to that calculation. Mr Sunak certainly could find money to delay tax rises or find other one-off ways of supporting living standards such as uprating benefits in April with a more up-to-date measure of inflation. But the long-run pressures on public services, especially health and social care, remain just the same and tax rises are likely to be needed if these are to be met. If he acts now on the cost of living, Mr Sunak will also need to find a credible means of committing to taking tough action on the public finances in the not too distant future.”

Even if the deficit does come in below the official forecast of £183bn, it will still be at a much higher level than that expected before the pandemic, when the forecast deficits for 2019/20, 2020/21 and 2021/22 were £47bn, £55bn and £67bn respectively compared with the much larger numbers reported in our chart. A variance of £13bn is also relatively small in the context of the £547bn increase in public sector net debt between March 2020 and December 2021.

All this suggests that the next fiscal event scheduled for 23 March 2022 is likely to take on even more importance as the Chancellor seeks to navigate between the rock of fiscal responsibility and a hard place of a cost of living crisis.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

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.

EU fiscal consultation

Input into ICAEW’s response to the future of the EU Economic Governance Framework.

I recently contributed to ICAEW’s response to a consultation on the future of the EU Economic Governance Framework by Dr Susanna Di Feliciantonio, ICAEW’s Head of European Affairs.

To read more see Susanna’s article about the consultation response.