Our chart this week illustrates how in representing more than half of the world economy, decisions taken by the G7 can have a significant impact on the entire planet.
The G7 summit hasn’t formally started yet, but Group of Seven (G7) ministers and their guests have already started to meet ahead of the main event next month, albeit subject to quarantine restrictions.
The #icaewchartoftheweek illustrates how important this gathering is by highlighting how the seven major democratic nations and the European Union that together comprise the G7 represent more than half the global economy – and even more than that, once four invited guest nations are included.
Overall, the G7 economies are forecast by the IMF to generate £35.9tn of economic activity in 2021 at current prices, 54% of forecast global GDP of £66.8tn. This comprises the economies of seven individual member nations: the USA (£16.3tn), Japan (£3.8tn), Germany (£3.1tn), the UK (£2.2tn), France (£2.1tn), Italy (£1.5tn) and Canada (£1.3tn), together with the 24 other EU member states (£5.6tn).
The guests invited to the 47th G7 summit in Cornwall are expected to generate a further £4.9tn or 7% of global GDP in 2021, bringing the total economic activity represented at the summit to £40.8tn or 61% of the total. They are India (£2.2tn), South Korea (£1.3tn), Australia (£1.2tn) and South Africa (£0.2tn).
Not represented at the G7 are China (£12.2tn), Russia (£1.2tn) and Brazil (£1.1tn) and around 160 other nations across the globe (£11.5tn in total).
The G7 summit presents an opportunity for the 11 national leaders and 2 EU representatives involved to shape the direction for much of the world, with discussions expected to range from saving the planet through to transparency in financial and non-financial reporting.
This week’s chart looks at how the pandemic has driven government debt levels higher, a topic that will be on the agenda at the G7 summit in Cornwall in six weeks’ time.
The #icaewchartoftheweek is on the topic of government debt, looking at the indebtedness of the seven nations that comprise the G7 together with the EU.
The strength (or otherwise) of public finances will underlie many of the discussions at the upcoming G7 summit in Cornwall in June as countries decide how best to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, achieving net-zero carbon and the COP26 goals, strengthening defence and security, and economic recovery. All of these are likely to require significant public investment at a time when public finances have been hit hard from a combination of the financial crisis just over a decade ago and the coronavirus pandemic over the past year.
Perhaps best-placed amongst the G7 are Canada and Germany, with stronger public balance sheets than their peers putting them in a better position to fund public investment. Canada’s general government net debt to GDP ratio (the net debts of the federal government, provincial governments and local authorities combined compared with Canadian GDP) is forecast to increase from 23% at 31 December 2019 to 37% at 31 December 2021, while Germany’s general government net debt to GDP ratio is forecast to increase from 41% to 52% over the same period.
The UK is next with its general government net debt up from 75% of GDP to a forecast 97% of GDP, followed by France with its net debt increasing from 89% in December 2019 to a forecast 106% of GDP for the end of 2021. The USA is expected to overtake France with its major stimulus packages seeing debt rise from 83% as a proportion of GDP to 109% by the end of this year. The biggest ratios within the G7 are Italy, which is expected to increase from 122% to 144%, while Japan is expected to rise from 150% to 172% of GDP.
Not shown on the chart are G7 guest nations this year: Australia (up from 26% to a forecast 49% of GDP) and South Korea (12% to 23%) are both in relatively strong public finance positions, while India (74% to 99%) is in a more challenging fiscal situation.
Despite the differences in debt levels, there will be a commonality amongst all the nations present in needing to find money to deal with increased pressure on public services and social security systems as populations age, for public investment in achieving net zero and in infrastructure more generally, to fund defence in an increasingly unstable global security environment and in economic stimulus to restart economies as they reopen, not to mention the need to replace tax income on fossil fuels as they are eliminated over the coming decades.
The signs are that tax reform will play a larger part in discussions than it may have done previously, with the USA’s suggestion for a minimum corporation tax indicative of a move to limit tax competition between nations and work more collaboratively to capture tax receipts from increasingly mobile global corporations and individuals.
Hence while many of the headlines from the G7 summit are likely to be focused on the heads of government talking about the global response to the coronavirus pandemic, the global security situation and global plans to deliver net zero, the side room containing finance ministers discussing global taxation and global public investment may be just as consequential.
This week’s chart examines how France inserted a layer of regional administration between the national government in Paris and the 96 departments in mainland France and Corsica.
France’s regional tier of government was created in 1982 with 22 regions in Metropolitan France (ie mainland France and Corsica) and has generally seen to be a success. However, it was concluded that there were too many regions, resulting in a consolidation in 2015 into the current 13 regions, as illustrated by the #icaewchartoftheweek.
The regions range in size from the 12.3m population eight-department Île de France that includes Paris, to the 2.6m six-department Centre – Val de Loire region in mainland France and the 0.3m two-department Corsica region. This excludes the five overseas one-department regions of Guadeloupe, French Guiana, Réunion, Martinique and Mayotte.
Regional councils in mainland France and the assembly in Corsica can raise taxes and control substantial budgets, in particular over education and infrastructure investment, as well as having some regulatory powers (but not statutory law-making powers). Elections are on a proportional representation system, with regional presidents chosen by the elected councillors or assembly members.
The establishment of the regions has been part of a process of devolving power from the central government, moving away from the highly centralised control exercised since the French Revolution, which saw the establishment of departments, broadly equivalent to county councils in England. Although each of the 96 departments in Metropolitan France has an elected departmental council and president, many responsibilities for local administration (such as policing) still sit with departmental prefects and subprefects that are appointed by the central government. The lowest tier of local government comprises 36,552 communes, each with an elected council and mayor, with the exception of central Paris, Lyon and Marseille that are further divided into municipal arrondissements.
The comprehensive reforms adopted in France for regional government contrast with the patchwork approach in England, where regional authorities in the form of metropolitan councils were abolished in 1986, only to see a regional tier return in 2000 with the creation of the Greater London Authority. This has been followed over the last decade by the establishment of 10 regional combined authorities, comprising Greater Manchester (2011), Liverpool City Region (2014), Sheffield City Region (2014), North East (2014), West Yorkshire (2014), Tees Valley (2016), West Midlands (2016), West of England (2017), Cambridgeshire & Peterborough (2017) and North of Tyne (2018).
The stop-start approach in England has involved a process of negotiation between central and local government on whether to establish regional combined authorities in particular areas, with a number of proposals across the country under consideration. However, even if they are approved, this will still leave many parts of the country without a regional tier of government. The elections in May in England will therefore see elections for regional authorities only in some areas (including the first-ever elected mayor of West Yorkshire), for between one and three different tiers of local government, and for police & crime commissioners outside of Greater London and Greater Manchester. A rather complex picture!
Back in France, the regional elections scheduled for March have had to be postponed. Instead, a new set of regional administrations across the entirety of Metropolitan France are expected to be elected in June 2021.
19 March 2021: The UK’s Integrated Review is the inspiration for this week’s chart, illustrating the 20 countries around the world that spend the most on their militaries.
The UK Government launched its Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy on 16 March 2021, setting out a vision for the UK’s place in the world following its departure from the European Union and in the context of increasing international tensions and emerging security threats.
At the core of the Integrated Review is security and defence, and ICAEW’s chart of the week illustrates one aspect of that by looking at military spending around the world.
The chart shows spending by the top 20 countries, which together comprise in the order of £1.2tn of estimated total military spending of around £1.4tn to £1.5tn globally in 2019 – an almost textbook example of the 80:20 rule in action.
More than a third of the total spend is incurred by just one country – the USA – which spent in the order of £526bn in 2019 converted at current exchange rates. The next biggest were China and India at £200bn and £50bn respectively, although differences in purchasing power mean that they can afford many more soldiers, sailors and aircrew for the same amount of money. This is followed by Saudi Arabia (£45bn), Russia (£41bn), France (£38bn), the UK (£38bn), Germany (£38bn), Japan (£34bn), South Korea (£33bn), Australia (£21bn), Italy (£20bn), Canada (£17bn), Israel (£16bn), Brazil (£14bn), Spain (£13bn), Turkey (£11bn), the Netherlands (£9bn), Iran (£9bn) and Poland (£9bn).
Exchange rates affect the relative orders of many countries in the list, for example between Russia, France, the UK and Germany which can move up or down according to movements in their currencies, while there are a number of caveats over the estimates used given the different structures of armed forces around the world and a lack of transparency in what is included or excluded in defence budgets in many cases.
In addition, the use of in-year military spending does not necessarily translate directly into military strength. Military capabilities built up over many years or in some cases (such as the UK) over many centuries need to be taken into account, as do differing levels of technological development and spending on intelligence services, counter-terrorism and other aspects of security. Despite these various caveats, estimated military spending still provides a useful proxy in understanding the global security landscape and in particular highlights the UK’s position as a major second-tier military power – in the top 10 countries around the world.
Global Britain in a Competitive Age: the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy sets out some ambitious objectives for security and defence, which it summarises as follows: “Our diplomatic service, armed forces and security and intelligence agencies will be the most innovative and effective for their size in the world, able to keep our citizens safe at home and support our allies and partners globally. They will be characterised by agility, speed of action and digital integration – with a greater emphasis on engaging, training and assisting others. We will remain a nuclear-armed power with global reach and integrated military capabilities across all five operational domains. We will have a dynamic space programme and will be one of the world’s leading democratic cyber powers. Our diplomacy will be underwritten by the credibility of our deterrent and our ability to project power.”
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?
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.
26 June 2020: The prime minister has announced a reduction in the number of government departments. How big is the cabinet compared to the rest of the world?
The news that the UK Government is reducing the number of government departments by one prompts the #icaewchartofthemonth to take a look at the size of government executives across the world.
As the chart highlights, with 26 members, the UK cabinet is one of the largest amongst major economies – comprising the prime minister Boris Johnson, 21 department ministers and four ‘ministers attending cabinet’. This does not include the Cabinet Secretary or other officials, meaning that cabinet meetings generally involve more than 30 people in total.
Compare that with the more compact 16-member German federal cabinet (Chancellor Angela Merkel and 15 departmental ministers) and the ten-member Chinese state council executive (comprising the premier Li Keqiang, five vice-premiers and four other senior departmental ministers).
It is certainly much larger than FTSE-100 company boards, where the average size is 11, and very few listed companies have more than 16 board members.
There is some debate around whether reducing the size of the UK cabinet would be more conducive to effective government. Some suggestions that the merger of the Department for International Development (DfID) with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) to form the new Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) in September is the first step on the way to that goal – with further mergers possible. However, although there will be one fewer departmental minister, there is a reasonable prospect of the minister responsible for development at the FCDO being invited to attend cabinet given its importance to the government’s global agenda.
Of course, merging departments is not the only way to achieve a slimmer cabinet – for example, the 31-member Russian cabinet (not shown in the chart) rarely meets as one body. Instead, there are regular meetings of the 10-strong prime ministerial group (the prime minister Mikhail Mishustin and nine deputy prime ministers) and occasional meetings of the 20-strong cabinet praesidium that includes the most senior ministers as well.
The UK Cabinet also works in this way to a certain extent, with critical decisions often being made in smaller groupings of senior ministers, such as the 9-member National Security Council, the 9-member Climate Change Committee or the 12-strong EU Exit Operations Committee for example. Canada, with its 37-member cabinet, also operates through a series of cabinet committees ranging from around 8 to 15 members. However, in both cases, the full cabinet still meets regularly and remains the formal executive body for authorising government actions.
With rumours of a cabinet reshuffle in the UK this autumn, it will be interesting to see whether moves to reduce the size of the cabinet will actually take place or whether we will see further development of cabinet committees as the places to be ‘in the room where it happens’.