Economic storm clouds darken outlook for public finances

A slightly higher fiscal deficit for May and rising interest rates provide no comfort for the Chancellor as he considers how to respond to public sector wage demands.

The monthly public sector finances released on Thursday 23 June 2022 reported a provisional deficit for the month of May 2022 of £14.0bn, an improvement from this time last year, but still £8.5bn higher than May 2019, the year before the pandemic.

Public sector net debt increased by £21bn from £2,342bn at the end of March 2022 to £2,363bn or 95.8% of GDP at the end of May. This is £570bn higher than 31 March 2020, reflecting the huge sums borrowed over the course of the pandemic.

The deficit reported for the two months to May 2022 of £35.9bn was an improvement of £6.4bn from the deficit of £42.3bn reported for the months of April and May 2021, and £64.2bn better than the £100.1bn reported for April and May 2020. However, it was £19.8bn worse than the pre-pandemic deficit of £16.1bn for the two months to May 2019.

Tax and other receipts in the two months amounted to £147.5bn, £12.4bn or 9% higher than a year previously. This included higher income tax receipts from wage increases and bonuses as well as the new higher rate of national insurance, as well as higher VAT receipts driven by higher retail prices.

Expenditure excluding interest and investment for the year to date of £158.5bn was unchanged from the same period last year, as reduced spending on the pandemic including furlough programmes was offset by planned increases in spending announced in last year’s Spending Review and by additional support to households to help with their energy bills.

Interest amounted to £15.7bn in April and May, £6.1bn or 64% higher than the £9.6bn in the two months ended 31 May 2021, reflecting how higher interest rates and higher inflation are increasing the government’s cost of borrowing.

Net public sector investment in April and May 2022 was reported to be £9.2bn, which is £0.1bn lower than a year previously. This is slightly surprising given planned increases in capital expenditure as well as the subsidies given in the past two months to Bulb Energy, a failed energy supplier taken over by the government.

The increase in net debt of £21.2bn since the start of the financial year comprises the deficit for the month of £35.9bn less £14.7bn in net borrowing repayments. This reflects the recovery of loans to banks through the Bank of England’s Term Funding Scheme and of loans to businesses via the British Business Bank (including bounce-back and other coronavirus loans), offset by funding for student loans and other government cash requirements.

Alison Ring OBE FCA, Public Sector and Taxation Director for ICAEW, said: “A slightly higher deficit than expected in this month’s numbers and a rising interest bill will not provide any comfort for the Chancellor as he considers how to respond to public sector wage demands at the same time as attempting to build capacity for pre-election tax cuts next year.

The economic storm clouds hovering over the fiscal outlook, as living standards go into reverse and inflation erodes the extent of planned investment in local communities, are likely to make the government’s ambition to level up the country even more difficult to achieve.”

Table showing cumulative numbers for April and May 2022 and variances against the same period a year ago:

Receipts £147.5bn: £12.4bn or +8%
Expenditure (£158.5bn): £0.0bn
Interest (£15.7bn): (£6.1bn) or +39%
Net investment: (£9.2bn): £0.1bn or -1%
Deficit (£35.9bn): £6.4bn or -18%
Other borrowing: £14.7bn: £31.1bn or -212%
(Increase) in net debt: (£21.2bn): £37.5bn or -177%

Public sector net debt: £2,363.2bn: £170.1bn or +8%
Public sector net debt / GDP 95.8%: 0.5% or +0.5%

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 several revisions to the prior period fiscal numbers to reflect revisions to estimates. These had the effect of increasing the reported fiscal deficit for the month of April 2022 by £3.3bn from £18.6bn to £21.9bn and decreasing the reported fiscal deficits for the 12 months to March 2022 by £0.9bn from £144.6bn to £143.7bn and for the year ended 31 March 2021 by £7.7bn from £317.3bn to £309.6bn.

Table showing receipts, expenditure, interest, net investment, deficit and net debt for April and May combined in 2019, 2020, 2021 and 2022 respectively.

For details, click on the link to the original article on the ICAEW website.

This article was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: Railway journeys

This week’s chart illustrates how railway strikes are not the only problem facing Great British Railways, the new publicly owned body being established to run the rail network from next April.

Column chart showing railway journeys in Great Britain by quarter from Q1 of 2018/19 to Q4 of 2021/22 split between season tickets; peak, anytime and advance; and off-peak and other. See text below for numbers.

The ICAEW chart of the week is on railway journeys in Great Britain over the past four financial years, highlighting how the number of trips on the network have fallen from a peak of 1,753m in 2018/19 to 1,739m in 2019/20 and 388m in 2020/21, before increasing to 990m in the most recent financial year ended 31 March 2022. These numbers exclude London Underground and light rail and tram systems in London and elsewhere, but they include London Overground.

Passenger numbers are well below pre-pandemic levels – a challenge with a government increasingly reluctant to plug the gap in passenger revenues with additional subsidies on an ongoing basis.

The biggest fall has been in trips using Season tickets, which at 51m during January through March 2022 were 70% below the 170m reported for the fourth quarter of 2018/19. Trips using Peak, Anytime and Advance tickets and Off-peak and other tickets in Q4 of 2021/22 were 22% and 15% down on the quarter ended 31 March 2019. The chart illustrates how travel patterns have changed as many more people work from home on a regular basis, especially regular commuters who have traditionally formed the backbone of rail passenger traffic.

These falls in usage – and in the associated revenue from ticket sales and other income – are likely to present a huge challenge for Great British Railways, the new public body scheduled to take over the running of the railways in England, Wales and Scotland from 1 April 2023 (not including Transport for London and light rail and tram systems). 

Great British Railways is taking on responsibility for the track and stations currently owned by Network Rail and for the running of train services too – with the train operating companies engaged to run services on its behalf under concession arrangements that expose the taxpayer to revenue risk. A difficult enough task at the best of times, but one made even more challenging by the consequences of the pandemic and with a shareholder in the form of a government keen to cut subsidies that have ballooned since the start of the pandemic.

As the chart shows, trips using Season tickets by quarter were 149m, 142m, 160m and 170m in 2018/19; 141m, 139m, 154m and 153m in 2019/20; 10m, 21m, 36m and 26m in 2020/21; and 32m, 36m, 48m and 51m in 2021/22. Trips using Peak, Anytime and Advance tickets were 127m, 128m, 132m and 130m in 2018/19; 133m, 140m, 141m and 119m in 2019/20; 11m, 46m, 46m and 27m in 2020/21; and 63m, 89m, 103m and 102m during 2021/22. Trips using Off-peak and other tickets were 152m, 163m, 157m and 143m in 2018/19; 163m, 169m, 166m and 121m in 2019/20; 14m, 67m, 57m and 27m in 2020/21; and 87m, 123m, 134m and 122m in 2021/22.

The recent strikes won’t help, especially if they recur over the summer. However, whatever happens, getting people back to using the railways is going to be a big task for the new team at Great British Railways – whether by persuading workers to return to the office, encouraging people out of their cars or by just enticing us all to let the train take the strain more often than we do at the moment.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: Whole of Government Accounts 2019/20

We take a look at the government balance sheet at 31 March 2020 this week, following publication by HM Treasury of the long-delayed 2019/20 audited financial statements for the UK public sector.

Step chart showing public assets £2,129bn, liabilities of (£4,973bn) and net liabilities of (£2,834bn).

Fixed assets £1,353bn, receivables & other £195bn, investments £323bn, financial assets £268bn.

Financial liabilities (£2,207bn), payables (£201bn), pensions (£2,190bn).

Taxpayer equity (£2,834bn).

HM Treasury was up in front of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) this week to be grilled on the Whole of Government Accounts (WGA) for the year ended 31 March 2020. The first question posed by MPs was why it had taken more than 26 months to publish the audited financial statements for the UK public sector, unlocking a tale of woe regarding the pandemic, delays in central government reporting, even greater delays in local government, and problems in implementing a new consolidation system. 

For all that, the PAC expressed their appreciation for the contents of the WGA, which comprises a performance report, governance statements, financial statements prepared in accordance with International Financial Reporting Standards, an audit report and a reconciliation to the fiscal numbers reported by the Office for National Statistics. The UK is one of the leading governments around the world in preparing comprehensive financial reports similar to those seen in the private sector, and is the only one to attempt to incorporate local government as well as central government and public corporations.

Our chart summarises the balance sheet reported in the consolidated financial statements at 31 March 2020, when there were total assets of £2,139bn, total liabilities of £4.973bn and negative taxpayer equity of £2,834bn. These numbers do not reflect the more than half a trillion pounds borrowed since then which are likely to see the 2020/21 and 2021/22 WGA move even further into negative territory. 

On the positive side of the balance sheet were:

  • £195bn of receivable and other assets, comprising £160bn of trade and other receivables due within one year, £22bn of receivables due in more than year, £11bn of inventories and £2bn of assets held for sale;
  • £1,353bn of fixed assets, consisting of £676bn for infrastructure, £459bn of land and buildings, £77bn of assets under construction, £41bn of military equipment, £60bn of other tangible fixed assets, and £40bn of intangibles;
  • £323bn of investments, including £126bn of non-current loans and deposits, £77bn in student loans, £36bn in equity investments, £22bn invested in the IMF, £38bn in derivatives and other, and £24bn in investment property; and 
  • £268bn of current financial assets, of which £118bn were in debt securities, £74bn in loan balances due within one year, £38bn in cash and cash equivalents, £13bn in gold holdings, £13bn in IMF special drawing rights and £12bn in derivatives and other.

On the negative side, there were:

  • £2,207bn in financial liabilities, comprising £1,266bn in government securities (gilts and Treasury bills), £560bn of deposits owed to banks, £179bn owed to investors in National Savings & Investments, £78bn in bank and other borrowings, £74bn in banknotes and £50bn in derivatives and other financial liabilities;
  • £201bn of payables, including £66bn of accruals and deferred income, £55bn of trade and other payables, £42bn in lease obligations, £34bn in tax and duty refunds payable and £4bn in contract liabilities;
  • £2,190bn in net pension obligations, of which £2,062bn were for unfunded pension schemes (NHS £760bn, teachers £490bn, civil service £309bn, armed forces £233bn, police & fire £197bn, other £73bn) and £128bn for funded schemes (local government £359bn less £253bn = £106bn, and other funded schemes £106bn less £84bn = £22bn). This balance does not include the state pension, which is treated as a welfare benefit and not a liability for accounting purposes; and
  • £375bn in provisions for liabilities and charges, including £157bn for nuclear decommissioning, £86bn for clinical negligence, £39bn for EU liabilities, £31bn for the pension protection fund and £62bn in other provisions.

Net liabilities therefore amounted to £2,834bn, reflecting the general policy decision taken by successive governments not to fund liabilities in advance, but instead to rely on future tax revenues and borrowing to provide cash as needed to settle liabilities and other financial obligations and commitments. As Sir Tom Scholar, Permanent Secretary at HM Treasury, informed the PAC, this minimises the investment risks the government might otherwise be exposed to if it were to invest in (say) the stock market.

Cat Little, Head of the Government Finance Function, set out plans to bring down the time to prepare the WGA, to within 24 months for the 2020/21 WGA and to within 20 months for the 2021/22 WGA. This remains a long way off the long-term objective of producing the WGA within nine months of the balance sheet date.

While the numbers in these financial statements are now more than two years old, they are still extremely valuable in providing a baseline for the financial position of the UK public sector as the country headed into the pandemic. It is well worth a read if you have the time.

The Whole of Government Accounts 2019/20 is available online.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: Public finances by region 2020/21

The ICAEW chart this week highlights how every single region and nation in the UK was in deficit in the first fiscal year of the pandemic.

Our chart this week highlights how every single region and nation in the UK was in deficit in the first fiscal year of the pandemic.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) recently released an analysis of government revenue and expenditure by region and nation of the UK for the financial year ended 31 March 2021 – the first year of the pandemic. 

This was a year that saw public spending balloon to £1,112bn from £884bn in 2019/20 as the government splurged cash in response to the arrival of the coronavirus. At the same time, taxes and other income fell to £794bn in 2020/21 from £829bn the year before, while unprecedented levels of support to businesses and individuals prevented a much greater collapse in tax receipts. The resulting deficit of £318bn was the largest ever in peacetime.

The chart illustrates how every region incurred a deficit in 2020/21, with a deficit per head of approximately £800 in Greater London (revenue per head £18,440/expenditure per head £19,240), followed by £1,640 in the South East (£14,020/£15,660), £3,360 in the East of England (£11,940/£15,300), £5,000 in the South West (£10,940/£15,940), £5,140 in the East Midlands (£9,860/£15,000), £5,920 in Yorkshire and The Humber (£9,620/£15,540), £6,220 in the West Midlands Region (£9,380/£15,600), £6,580 in Scotland (£11,780/£18,360), £6,780 in the North West (£9,800/£16,580), £7,960 in the North East (£8,700/£16,660), £8,180 in Wales (£9,060/£17,240) and £9,500 in Northern Ireland (£8,740/£18,240). These numbers compare with an overall UK average deficit of approximately £4,740 per person, comprising per capita revenue of £11,840 less per capita spending of £16,580 based on a population of 67.1m.

The deficit in 2020/21 was so large that even London and the South East, which normally supply substantially more revenue to the government than they receive back in expenditure, saw the reverse this time. (In contrast, for example, with the surpluses of £4,520 and £2,180 per head respectively in 2019/20.)

Inclusive of pandemic spending, most regions ended up benefiting from government expenditure and welfare support of between £15,000 and £17,000 per person in the year, the outliers being Scotland and Northern Ireland, where spending exceeded £18,000 and London where it exceeded £19,000 per head. There is much wider range in the average for taxes and other income, from less than £9,000 per person in in the North East and Northern Ireland (more than 25% lower than the UK-wide average) up to more than £14,000 per head in the South East and more than £18,000 per head in London (more than 50% higher than the UK average).

For the public finances 2020/21 was a landmark year, in which exceptional levels of expenditure and an extraordinarily large deficit led to a significant increase in public debt. Despite that – as our chart illustrates – there continue to be significant economic and fiscal disparities across the regions and nations of the UK.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: Inflation around the world

This week we look at how inflation is racing upwards across the world, with the UK reporting in April one of the highest rates of increase among developed countries.

Bar chart showing inflation rates by G20 country: Russia 17.8%, Nigeria 16.8%, Poland 12.4%, Brazil 12.1%, Netherlands 9.6%, UK 9.0%, Spain 8.3%, USA 8.3%, India 7.8%, Mexico 7.7%, German 7.4%, Canada 6.8%, Italy 6.0%, South Africa 5.9%, France 4.8%, South Korea 4.8%, Indonesia 3.5%, Switzerland 2.5%, Japan 2.4%, Saudia Arabia 2.3%, China 2.1%.

Inflation has increased rapidly over the last year as the world has emerged from the pandemic. A recovery in demand combined with constraints in supply and transportation has driven prices, with myriad factors at play. These include the effects of lockdowns in China (the world’s largest supplier of goods), the devastation caused by the Russian invasion in Ukraine (a major food exporter to Europe, the Middle East and Africa), and the economic sanctions imposed on Russia (one of the world’s largest suppliers of oil and gas).

As the chart shows, the UK currently has – at 9% – the highest reported rate of consumer price inflation in the G7, as measured by the annual change in the consumer prices index (CPI) between April 2021 and April 2022. This compares with 8.3% in the USA, 7.4% in Germany, 6.8% in Canada, 6.0% in Italy, 4.8% in France and 2.4% in Japan. 

The UK’s relatively higher rate partly reflects the big jump in energy prices in April from the rise in the domestic energy price cap, which contrasts with France, for example, where domestic energy price rises have been much lower (thanks in part to state subsidies). The UK inflation rate also hasn’t been helped by falls in the value of sterling, making imported goods and food more expensive.

Other countries shown in the chart include Russia at 17.8%, Nigeria at 16.8%, Poland at 12.4%, Brazil at 12.1%, Netherlands at 9.6%, Spain at 8.3%, India at 7.8%, Mexico at 7.7%, South Africa 5.9%, South Korea at 4.8%, Indonesia at 3.5%, Switzerland at 2.5%, Saudi Arabia at 2.3% and China at 2.1%. For most countries, the rate of inflation is substantially higher than it has been for many years, reflecting just how major a change there has been in a global economy that had become accustomed to relatively stable prices in recent years. 

This is not the case for every country, and the chart excludes three hyperinflationary countries that already had problems with inflation even before the pandemic, led by Venezuela with an inflation rate of 222.3% in April, Turkey with a rate of 70%, and Argentina at 58%.

Policymakers have been alarmed at the prospect of an inflationary cycle as higher prices start to drive higher wages, which in turn will drive even higher prices. For central banks that has meant increasing interest rates to try and dampen demand, while finance ministries have been looking to see how they can protect households from the effect of rising prices, particular on energy, whether that be by intervention to constrain prices, through temporary tax cuts, or through direct or indirect financial support to struggling households.

Here in the UK, both the Bank of England and HM Treasury have been calling for restraint in wage settlements as they seek to head off a further ramp-up in inflation. They hope that inflation will start to moderate later in the year as price rises in the last six months start to drop out of the year-on-year comparison and supply constraints start to ease, for example as oil and gas production is ramped up in the USA, the Middle East and elsewhere to replace Russia as an energy supplier, and as China emerges from its lockdowns.

Despite that, prices are likely to rise further, especially in October when the energy price cap is expected to increase by 40%, following a 54% rise in April. This is likely to force many to make difficult choices as household budgets come under increasing strain.

After all, inflation is much more than the rate of change in an arbitrary index; it has an impact in the real world of diminishing spending power and in eroding the value of savings. 

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: Global population

The ICAEW chart of the week looks at how the estimated global population of almost 8bn people is distributed around the world.

Bubble chart showing estimated global population of 7,995m in 2022: South Asia 1,894m, East Asia 1,671m, South East Asia 682m, Pacific 43m, Africa 1,419, Europe 592m, Middle East 357m, Eurasia 246m, North America 511m, South America 443m and Central America & Caribbean 97m.

UN projections show that the planetary population will reach approximately 7,955m in June this year, a 1.0% increase over the 7,875m estimate for June 2021.

The largest region on our chart is South Asia, which has 1,894m inhabitants, including 1,411m in India, 216m in Pakistan, 173m in Bangladesh, 40m in Afghanistan and 31m in Nepal. This is followed in size by the 1,671m people living in East Asia, including 1,432m in mainland China (currently the most populous country in the world), 126m in Japan, 52m in South Korea and 26m in North Korea.

Africa is the third largest region with 1,419m inhabitants, with 482m living in Eastern Africa (including Ethiopia 118m, Tanzania 67m, Kenya 56m, Uganda 50m, Mozambique 34m and Madagascar 29m), 424m in Western Africa (including Nigeria 217m, Ghana 32m, Côte d’Ivoire 27m and Niger 26m), 254m in Northern Africa (including Egypt 106m, Sudan 46m, Algeria 45m and Morocco 38m), 190m in Middle Africa (including the Democratic Republic of the Congo 95m, Angola 35m and Cameroon 27m), and 69m in Southern Africa (of which 60m are in South Africa).

Excluding Russia and Belarus, Europe has 592m people, including 444m in the 27 countries of the EU (including Germany 83m, France 66m, Italy 59m, Spain 46m and Poland 38m), 68m in the UK and 43m in Ukraine, although these numbers are all before taking account of the several million Ukrainians who have been forced to flee the war and are living temporarily in other countries. 

Eurasia, comprising the Commonwealth of Independent States of Russia, Belarus and the ‘stans’ of central Asia, has 246m inhabitants (including Russia 143m and Uzbekistan 34m), while the Middle East has an estimated 357m people (including Turkey 85m, Iran 85m, Iraq 44m, Saudi Arabia 36m and Yemen 32m.

North America has 511m inhabitants (USA 336m, Mexico 137m, Canada 38m), while 97m live in Central America (52m) and the Caribbean (45m), and 443m live in South America (including Brazil 217m, Colombia 51m, Argentina 46m, Peru 34m and Venezuela 34m).

South East Asia has 682m inhabitants, including 277m in Indonesia, 113m in the Philippines, 100m in Vietnam, 70m in Thailand, 56m in Myanmar and 34m in Malaysia. A further 43m people live in the Pacific region, of which 26m are in Australia. 

Although the rate of global population growth was projected to slow significantly in recent years, from 1.3% a year in 2000 when the population was 6.1bn, to 1.0% a year currently and to a forecast of around 0.7% in 20 years’ time, that still means that the number of people on the planet is expected to grow to around 9.8bn in 2050, placing even greater demands on natural resources than today. 

This highlights just how important achieving net zero and environmental sustainability is to the lives and wellbeing of future generations.

ICAEW chart of the week: VAT receipts by quarter

This week’s chart highlights how the VAT deferral scheme is almost entirely behind higher VAT receipts in recent quarters, providing a note of caution to recent media headlines welcoming bumper tax revenues.

Horizontal bar chart showing VAT receipts by quarter from Jan-Mar 2017 through to Jan-Mar 2022.

2017: £31.7bn, £30.3bn, £31.1bn,  £31.8bn (Oct-Dec)
2018: £33.2bn, £30.8bn, £33.5bn, £32.9bn
2019: £35.4bn, £32.2bn, £34.3bn, £34.2bn
2020: £29.2bn, -£0.4bn, £28.4bn, £34.2bn
2021: £39.4bn, £35.2bn, £40.2bn, £41.4bn
2022 Jan-Mar: £40.6bn

The ICAEW chart of the week is on the topic of VAT, illustrating the quarterly pattern of VAT receipts since 2017 according to the HMRC tax receipts and national insurance contributions monthly bulletin published on 26 April.

The chart highlights how VAT receipts have grown steadily since 2017 up until the start of the pandemic, with receipts in calendar quarters of £31.7bn (Jan-Mar), £30.3bn (Apr-Jun), £31.1bn (Jul-Sep) and £31.8bn (Oct-Dec) in 2017; £33.2bn, £30.8bn, £33.5bn and £32.9bn in 2018; and £35.4bn, £32.2bn, £34.3bn and £34.2bn in 2019. This was followed by a big dip in 2020, with £29.2bn in Jan-Mar 2020, a net negative outflow of -£0.4bn in Apr-Jun, £28.4bn in Jul-Sep and £34.2bn in Oct-Dec 2020. In 2021, VAT receipts strengthened, with £39.4bn, £35.2bn, £40.2bn and £41.4bn by quarter, followed by £40.6bn in Jan-Mar 2022, the last quarter of the 2021/22 fiscal year.

The significant drop in VAT receipts in 2020 was driven by a combination of the economic contraction caused by the pandemic, cuts in VAT rates for hospitality, and – most significantly – £33.5bn in deferrals under the VAT payments deferral scheme implemented at the time of the first lockdown in 2020. This is the primary driver of the negative VAT receipts in the Apr-Jun quarter 2020 highlighted in the chart.

The original intention was that VAT deferred from 2020 would be due by no later than 30 June 2021, however, further relief in the form of a monthly instalment plan allowed VAT-registered businesses to spread the payment of the deferred VAT over the rest of the 2021/22 fiscal year. This has boosted the last three quarters of VAT receipts shown in the chart.

HMRC reports that £31.3bn of the VAT deferred was carried forward in 2021/22, which would imply a swing between financial years in the order of £60bn. This is greater than the £56bn increase in VAT receipts seen between the £101bn recorded for the four quarters to March 2021 and the £157bn in the following four quarters constituting the 2021/22 fiscal year.

VAT receipts excluding the effect of the deferral scheme may therefore have decreased in the last four quarters, which is surprising in the context of rising prices and the end of the discounted VAT rate for hospitality.

Recent media headlines reporting a bumper tax windfall for the Chancellor should therefore be treated with some caution. While tax receipts in 2021/22 have been much stronger than expected, a significant element of the increase relates to the collection of VAT held over from the previous year and not to any genuine increase in underlying tax revenues.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: G7 economic growth

The latest IMF economic forecasts put the UK at the bottom of the pile in 2023, but our chart this week elevates the UK to fifth place out of seven by looking at average growth for the four years from 2020 to 2023.

Chart presenting economic growth for the G7 in 2020, 2021, 2022, 2023 and the average over four years.

USA: -3.4%, +5.7%, +3.7%, +2.3%, average +2.0%
Canada: -5.2%, +4.6%, +3.9%, +2.8%, average +1.4%
Germany: -4.6%, +2.8%, +2.1%, +2.7%, average +0.7%
France: -8.0%, +7.0%, +2.9%, +1.4%, average +0.7%
UK: -9.3%, +7.4%, +3.7%, +1.2%, average +0.6%
Japan: -4.5%, +1.6%, +2.4%, +2.3%, average +0.4%
Italy: -9.0%, +6.6%, +2.3%, +1.7%, average +0.2%

Recent media reports have contrasted the government’s boast of being the best performing economy in the G7 in 2021 with the latest forecasts from International Monetary Fund (IMF) that suggest the UK economy will be bottom of the same league in 2023. Our chart this week attempts to take a step back and look at the overall picture by illustrative average economic growth by the G7 nations over the four years between 2020 and 2023.

These numbers are based on the IMF’s World Economic Outlook and the accompanying World Economic Outlook Database that were published on 19 April, setting out economic forecasts for the world economy over the next few years.

According to the IMF, the USA is the best performing economy in the G7, with average annual economic growth of +2.0% over the period from 2020 to 2023. An economic contraction of 3.4% in 2020 was more than offset by a rebound of 5.7% in 2021, followed by forecast growth of 3.7% in 2022 and 2.3% in 2023. Canada is not far behind, with an average growth of 1.4% over the four years, comprising respectively -5.2%, +4.6%, +3.9% and +2.8% in 2020, 2021, 2022 and 2023.

Germany and France fare pretty similarly to each other, with Germany projected to experience marginally above 0.7% average growth and France marginally below. The patterns are different, however, with Germany having suffered a less severe economic hit during 2020 followed by moderate growth (-4.6%, +2.8%, +2.1%, 2.7%), while France was hit much harder by the pandemic followed by a much stronger rebound before a return to lower growth in 2023 (-8.0%, +7.0%, +2.9%, +1.4%).

The UK is in fifth place in this league table, but at 0.6% average economic growth over the four years selected this is only slightly less than Germany and France. With an economic contraction in 2020 of 9.3%, the UK suffered more severely from the pandemic than the other members in the G7 (although this is partly because of differences in statistical methodologies) but then saw the biggest rebound in 2021 with growth of 7.4%. Growth this year is forecast by the IMF to be 3.7% before falling to an (unfortunately) more typical level of 1.2% in 2023.

Vying for the wooden spoon are Japan and Italy, with Japan continuing a long period of low growth and a slower recovery from the pandemic than the others to average 0.4% a year (-4.5%, +1.6%, +2.4%, +2.3%). Italy secured the bottom position by virtue of being hit hardest by the pandemic and having less of a rebound than others (-9.0%, +6.6%, +2.3%, +1.7%), a net average growth rate of 0.2% over the four-year period.

For those that follow this particular league table, there is a hope that slightly stronger growth than the IMF has forecast could move the UK up one or two places above France and/or Germany. However, the bigger concern for most of us is about the downside risks to the global and UK economies from the war in Ukraine, rampant inflation, and a global cost of living crisis. These may put back even further any hope of returning the UK and other developed economies to a pre-financial crisis path of moderate economic growth.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: UK International Reserves

We take a look at the UK’s official international reserves that are held to safeguard sterling and support monetary policy.

Step chart showing components of the UK International Reserves.

Gross reserves: £101bn foreign currency securities and deposits, £36bn IMF, £15bn gold, £23bn other instruments.

Liabilities: (£109bn) other instruments

Net reserves: £66bn

Our chart this week is on the UK International Reserves, which comprise foreign currency securities and deposits, gold, investments in the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and other financial instruments primarily used to manage sterling as a national currency and support monetary policy.

As illustrated by the chart, the combined total of UK government and Bank of England international gross reserves was £175bn at 31 March 2022, comprising £101bn in foreign currency securities and deposits, £36bn invested in the IMF, £15bn in gold and £23bn in other financial instruments. This was offset by £109bn in liabilities to arrive at net reserves of £66bn.

According to the Bank of England, the £101bn in foreign currency securities consisted of £75bn in bonds and notes issued by foreign governments, £15bn in foreign government money market investments, £6bn in foreign central bank deposits and £5bn in private sector securities. The £36bn invested the IMF comprises £6bn in IMF reserves (effectively the IMF’s share capital) and £31bn in Special Drawing Rights (SDRs), a government-specific financial asset underpinned by a basket of currencies (US dollar, Euro, Chinese Yuan, Japanese Yen and sterling). The UK government also owned or had rights to 9,976,041 fine troy ounces of gold worth £15bn on 31 March 2022, while other financial instruments of £23bn included £20bn of claims against counterparties on account of reverse repo transactions.

Reserve assets were offset by £109bn in liabilities, comprising loans and securities used to finance reserve assets, repo obligations, and derivative financial instruments including foreign currency forwards, cross currency interest rate swaps and sterling interest rate swaps.

Not shown in the chart is the split between the UK government’s net reserves of £66bn, consisting of £151bn in gross assets less £85bn in liabilities, and the Bank of England’s approximately zero net reserve position, consisting of £24bn in gross assets (£12bn in foreign currency securities and bonds plus £12bn in other financial instruments) less £24bn in liabilities.

The Bank of England manages both its own foreign currency reserves, used to support its monetary policy objectives of controlling inflation, and the UK government’s international reserves, most of which sit in the Exchange Equalisation Account established in 1932 to provide a fund that can be used, when necessary, to regulate the exchange value of sterling. In normal circumstances the Bank of England’s main objectives in managing the reserves are to ensure the liquidity of sterling, the liquidity and security of the reserve assets themselves, and to ensure the reserves are managed in a cost-effective way.

In normal circumstances, the reserves are not used to actively intervene in foreign exchange markets, but are kept ‘in reserve’ on a precautionary basis in case there is any change in exchange rate policy in the future or in the event of any unexpected shocks. More prosaically, they are used to provide foreign currency services for government departments and agencies needing to transact in foreign currencies, as well as to buy, hold and sell SDRs as required by the UK’s membership of the IMF.

Although relatively small in the context of over £1trn a year in UK public spending and £2.3trn in public sector net debt, the UK’s international reserves provide HM Treasury and the Bank of England with a substantial amount of firepower in the foreign exchange markets should there ever be a need to intervene to support sterling. Fortunately, almost all of the foreign currency securities and deposits held in the reserves are invested in governments and central banks of allied countries, a contrast to the position of Russia, which has seen a substantial proportion of its international reserves frozen following its invasion of Ukraine.

One piece of good news amid all the economic gloom at the moment is that the UK International Reserves aren’t hitting the headlines. Because when they do, you really will know that all is not well.

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.