OBR: deficit could reach £273bn or more

15 April 2020: a report from the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) indicates that the fiscal deficit could increase to £273bn in 2020-21, but it cautions that this is only one of many plausible scenarios.

The OBR has produced its first analysis of the potential economic and fiscal impact of the coronavirus, based on a three-month lockdown followed by restrictions for a further three months. 

At the same time, the International Monetary Fund has warned that the global economic contraction underway is likely to be the worst since the Great Depression, dwarfing the financial crisis twelve years ago.  

In its ‘coronavirus reference scenario’, the OBR indicates that the UK economy could fall by 35% in the second quarter of 2020, before bouncing back to leave the economy 13% smaller in 2020 than in 2019. 

The consequence would be an increase in the deficit for the fiscal year ending 31 March 2021 to £273bn or 14% of GDP, while public sector net debt could be £384bn higher than budgeted for, reaching £2.2tn or 95% of GDP by the end of the fiscal year.

The OBR says that the economic impact of the coronavirus will derive much less from people falling ill or dying, than from the public health restrictions and social distancing required to limit its spread, severely reducing demand and supply at the same time. That means lower incomes, less spending and weaker asset prices, all of which reduce tax revenues, while job losses will raise public spending.

Once the crisis has passed and policy interventions have unwound, the OBR thinks that annual borrowing could return to roughly the Spring Budget 2020 forecast. However, net debt would continue to be much higher, potentially £260bn (10% of GDP) more than the baseline forecast by 31 March 2025. 

The OBR analysis assumes that increased public spending, tax cuts and holidays, loans and guarantees, and actions taken by the Bank of England, designed to support household incomes and to limit business failures and layoffs, will help prevent greater economic and fiscal damage in the long term. However, it warns that the longer the disruption lasts, the more likely it is that the economy’s future potential output will be ‘scarred’ with adverse consequences for future deficits and for fiscal policy.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) now predicts that the global economy will contract by 3.0% in 2020, much worse than the 0.1% contraction seen during the financial crisis in 2009 and a cut of 6.3% from its previous prediction in January. The IMF prediction is based on a shallower, but longer recession than the OBR’s scenario for the UK. Overall, the IMF believes that the cumulative output loss in 2020 and 2021 from the pandemic could be as much as $9tn.

Alison Ring, Director, Public Sector for ICAEW, commented: “The analysis published by the OBR is not a forecast, but the scenario it presents is pretty startling; making clear that whatever actually happens, the damage to public finances from the coronavirus pandemic will be extremely severe.

“While the OBR suggests that the economy and tax receipts could recover relatively quickly, the additional debt burden will weigh on the public finances for many years for come.”

Fiscal deficit 2020-21: £55bn Spring Budget +£130bn lower receipts +£88bn higher spending = £273bn Reference scenario.  Net debt: £1,819bn +£384bn = £2,203bn.

This article was originally published by ICAEW.

Treasury announces extra £9.5bn for public services

14 April 2020: the Chancellor has increased the coronavirus emergency response fund to £14.5bn to cover the escalating costs of dealing with the pandemic.

Easter Monday saw Rishi Sunak announce an extra £9.5bn for the NHS and public services, adding to the £5bn already included in the emergency package announced with the Spring Budget on 11 March 2020.

This brings additional funding for the NHS and public services to £14.5bn, comprising £6.6bn for health services, £3.5bn to keep the railways running, £1.6bn for local authorities, and £0.9bn for food packages and other support for clinically vulnerable people, together with £1.9bn for the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Altogether, this brings the estimated cost of fiscal measures announced by the Government in response to the coronavirus pandemic to somewhere in the region of £95bn. In addition to the £14.5bn for the NHS and public services, £27bn has been announced in business rates discounts and small business grants, £5bn in enhancements to Universal Credit and housing benefit and £750m for charities. The costs of the employee furlough and self-employed income replacement schemes will depend on take-up, with estimates that these could cost around £40bn and £9bn respectively for their initial three-month terms.

This does not include the effect of collapsing tax revenues and higher welfare spending on the public finances, nor any potential costs from the £330bn of loans and guarantees being advanced to support business. As a consequence, the fiscal deficit this financial year is now almost certain to exceed £200bn, compared with the baseline of £55bn set out in the Spring Budget just over a month ago.

Martin Wheatcroft FCA, adviser to ICAEW on public finances, commented: “This is probably not going to be the last announcement of additional funding for the NHS and public services this year given the extraordinary challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic. 

“It is positive that the Chancellor has made it clear that money will be made available to front-line services as needed, an important signal for budget holders conditioned by a decade of austerity to manage resources carefully, rather than to spend whatever it takes to achieve a critical objective.

“We can and will worry about the bill later, when the need for a long-term fiscal strategy to put the public finances onto a sustainable path will be more important than ever before.”

This article was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: Age profile of monthly public spending

Chart: £902 at age 0, £1,505 at 10, £889, £618, £639, £742, £761 at age 60, £1,761 at 70, £2,246, £3,296, £3,515 at age 100.

With the General Election in full swing, the #icaewchartoftheweek is on one of the principal drivers of public spending: age.

As data from the Office for Budget Responsibility illustrates, public spending on the young increases as the population is educated, but then falls back to a low of around £600 per month at around age 28, after which spending per person starts to increase gradually over working lives until retirement age. From that point on, not only is there a significant increase in welfare spending as the state pension kicks in, but the costs of health care, and then adult social care start to increase dramatically.

With the number of people in the UK aged 70 or more expected to increase by 58% over the next 25 years, total public spending will increase accordingly, especially with all political parties promising to protect and improve the state pension, health provision and adult social care.

The number of people under the age of 70 projected by the ONS to increase by only around 2% over that same period, or potentially even fall by around 7% if net inward migration is lower than expected, while further cuts in public services are apparently off the table with the ‘end of austerity’. The implication is that taxes will need to rise, that social provision in retirement will need to be cut, or for there to be a resumption in austerity policies  (or a combination of all three).

Unfortunately, none of the major political parties appear to have a fiscal strategy that extends beyond the next five years, with only limited measures to address the big financial challenges of more people living longer. This is disappointing given that relatively small actions taken now could make a big difference to the financial position of the nation in 25 years’ time.

This election, voters have the opportunity to focus on the big challenges of sustainability, technology and the public finances. To find out more, visit GE2019 – It’s More Than a Vote.

ICAEW chart of the week: Public sector capital expenditure

Chart: Capex (real-terms) £61.5bn (3.5% of GDP) in 2009-10, to £64.1bn in 2011-12, down to £49.2bn (2.6%)  in 2013-14, up to £60.0bn (2.9%) in 2017-18.

With apologies for the delay because of being away, this week’s #ICAEWchartoftheweek is on public sector capital expenditure (capex), something that all the political parties in the #GE2019 have promised to increase – in some cases by very significant amounts! 

As part of ICAEW’s It’s More Than A Vote campaign, ICAEW will be analysing the political party manifestos over the next few weeks, including the potential implications for the public finances.

One area that all the major parties appear to agree on is the need to increase investment in infrastructure and other assets, which is why we thought we would look at the last nine years of capital expenditure reported in the Whole of Government Accounts (WGA), prepared under International Financial Reporting Standards. This differs from public sector investment in the National Accounts, with the latter including capital grants and other transactions that do not result in the creation of publicly-owned fixed assets.

As the chart illustrates, capital expenditure in 2017-18 of £60.0bn was lower than the £64.1bn incurred in 2011-12 after adjusting for inflation and to include Network Rail, the government owned railway infrastructure company prior to 2014-15 when it was incorporated into the WGA). As a proportion of the economy, capex in 2017-18 was 2.9% of GDP, a smaller ratio than the 3.5% calculated for 2011-12.

Only around £16bn (0.8% of GDP) of the amount spent in 2017-18 went into infrastructure assets (principally transport infrastructure such as roads and railways), with in the order of £24bn (1.2%) going into land & buildings, including hospitals and schools. Approximately £9bn (0.4%) was spent on military equipment, with the balance of £11bn (0.5%) invested in other public sector assets, ranging from tangible fixed assets such as plant & equipment, IT hardware, vehicles and furniture & fittings, as well as intangible fixed assets such as software.

Capex comprises a relatively small proportion of total expenditures (capital and non-capital) of £1.0tn reported in the WGA for 2017-18. As a consequence, even relatively small incremental amounts will constitute proportionately large increases in capital budgets in the next few years.

Whether these plans will be deliverable is another question, given that traditionally the government has struggled to spend all its capital budgets, not to mention the difficulties there will be in finding all the workers necessary for a major expansion in construction activity.

It’s More Than A Vote

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.

ICAEW chart of the week: Schools budget up £14bn, or is it £1.2bn?

English schools budget 2020-21 +£2.6bn, 2021-22 +£4.8bn, 2022-23 +£7.1bn

The Prime Minister’s announcement of a ‘£14bn package’ of more money was welcome news for English schools as they prepare to re-open their doors after the summer holidays.

Unfortunately, as is common with government announcements, there is a tendency to add several years together to give a bigger headline, exacerbated this time by the inclusion of inflation to make the headline even bigger! 

In reality the announcement is a lot less exciting, as illustrated by the #ICAEWchartoftheweek. The announced increase in the 5-16 schools’ budget in three years’ time of £7.1bn (from £45.1bn in 2019-20 to £52.2bn in 2022-23) turns out to be £3.6bn, or an average of £1.2bn a year after taking account of inflation and the expected growth in the number of school pupils of around 2% over that time.

This is still very good news for schools trying to manage within constrained budgets, but (as the IFS and others have reported) the increase will still be insufficient to restore real-terms per pupil funding to the levels seen before the financial crisis. A 12% increase in pupil numbers since 2009-10 has seen budgets squeezed as funding has been constrained to inflation-only increases for most of the last decade.

Ironically, the Chancellor wasn’t able to take advantage of the same trick in his announcement the following day of £400m for further education and sixth forms, despite the fact that this was proportionately a bigger increase. The announcement was only for one year, so he couldn’t add multiple years together to create a bigger headline, and HM Treasury no doubt held the line about not adding in inflation.

Either way, these announcements are indication of how the fiscal approach is changing after a decade of austerity and struggling public services. This week’s Spending Review will give us a few more clues about the direction of public spending, although if (as rumoured) the Budget is postponed then we may not find out what the plans for taxes and borrowing to fund these increases until the Spring.