ICAEW chart of the week: GDP revisions

This week’s chart takes a look at recent revisions to GDP that have caused some consternation in the world of statistics.

Combination of a column chart horizontally and a step chart vertically.

Top section: GDP reported in Blue Book 2022 for 2019, 2020 and 2021:

2019: £2,238bn -5.7% = 2020: £2,110bn +7.6% = 2021: £2,270bn

(2020 -5.7% nominal, -11.0% growth, 2021 +7.6% nominal, 7.6% growth)

Middle section: GDP revisions

 2019: -£4bn, 2020: -£6bn, 2021: +£14bn

Bottom section: GDP to be reported in Blue Book 2023

2019: £2,234bn -5.8% = 2020: £2,104bn +8.5% = 2021: £2,284bn

(2020 -5.8% nominal, -10.4% growth, 2021 +8.5% nominal, 8.7% growth)

Each year the Office for National Statistics (ONS) publishes the ‘Blue Book’ on the national accounts, its definitive analysis of economic activity over the course of the previous year. This analysis supersedes the preliminary and revised monthly and quarterly estimates issued up until that point, based on extensive analysis by the official statisticians.

The 2023 edition of the Blue Book is scheduled to be published on 31 October 2023. It will be eagerly pored over by economists in and outside government who will be eager to understand how the UK economy performed during 2022, and how this ‘final’ version of the 2022 numbers line up with those preliminary and revised estimates, just as they did last year when looking at GDP for 2021.

However, in the world of statistics numbers are never final. On 1 September 2023, the ONS announced methodological and data improvements to last year’s Blue Book – the numbers for 2021 and earlier years. These prior-period adjustments partly reflected a methodology change in the way the three different methods of calculating GDP (output, income and expenditure) are reconciled, but much more significant were revisions to the data used to calculate some of the key statistics, causing much wailing and gnashing of teeth by some prominent economic commentators as the narrative around the UK’s emergence from the pandemic changed.

As our chart this week illustrates, the revisions to GDP do not at first sight appear to be that significant. GDP for 2019 has been revised down by £4bn from the previously reported £2,238bn to a new official number of £2,234bn; GDP for 2020 is £6bn down from £2,110bn to £2,104bn; and GDP for 2021 has been revised up by £14bn from £2,270bn to £2,284bn. These seem relatively small changes when looking at trillions of pounds of economic activity.

Where the change really has an impact is in looking at the trends, especially after adjusting for inflation. On a nominal basis, a 5.7% nominal decrease in 2020 followed by a 7.6% increase in 2021 has changed to a 5.8% decrease and an 8.5% increase, but in real terms the previously reported economic contraction of 11.0% in 2020 followed by a 7.6% recovery has changed to a smaller contraction of 10.4% followed by a stronger recovery of 8.7%.

Of course, the devil is in the detail and some of the revisions at an industry level have been much more dramatic, with wholesalers and retailers now believed to have grown more strongly than previously believed, while the iron and steel industry changed from growth to contraction.

Many economic commentators have focused on the change in quarterly GDP (not shown in the chart) where the arithmetical changes have been more pronounced. The movement from the fourth quarter of 2019 (previously £568bn, now £566bn) and the fourth quarter for 2021 (previously £593bn, now £597bn) has gone from a 4.4% increase over two years to a 5.5% increase; in real terms from a 1.2% contraction in the economy to growth of 0.7%. Still anaemic, but at least in positive territory.

Despite this small improvement in the economic story portrayed by the GDP statistics, we should not get too carried away. Economic growth remains well below the pre-financial crisis levels and the public finances are in a significantly worse state than they were back in 2008.

In the meantime, the Office for Statistics Regulation has commenced a review into how these small revisions with big implications for our understanding of the economy were not identified at the time.

Further reading 

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

July public sector finances: a mixed set of results

Higher self-assessment tax receipts and end of energy support payments help improve what is otherwise a disappointing set of numbers.

The monthly public sector finances for July 2023 were released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) on Tuesday 22 August 2023. These reported a provisional deficit for the fourth month of the 2023/24 financial year of £4bn, bringing the total deficit for the four months to £57bn, £14bn more than in the first third of the previous year.

Alison Ring OBE FCA, Public Sector and Taxation Director for ICAEW, said: “These numbers reflect a mixed set of results for the first four months of the financial year, as higher self assessment tax receipts and the end of energy price guarantee support payments led to an improved fiscal situation in July. But debt remains on track to hit £2.7trn by the end of the year, up from £1.8trn before the pandemic, adding to the scale of the challenge facing the government and taxpayers in repairing the public finances.

“Stubbornly high core inflation and the prospect of further interest rate rises will concern the Chancellor as he bears down on public spending in the hope of freeing up the money he needs to both pay for the state pension triple-lock and find room for pre-election tax cuts.”

Month of July 2023

The provisional shortfall in taxes and other receipts compared with total managed expenditure for the month of July 2023 was £4bn, being tax and other receipts of £93bn less total managed expenditure of £97bn, up 5% and 9% respectively compared with July 2022.

This was the fifth-highest July deficit on record since monthly records began in 1993, despite being a £3bn improvement over July 2022, driven by higher self assessment tax receipts and the end of payments under the energy price guarantee.

Four months to July 2023

The provisional shortfall in taxes and other receipts compared with total managed expenditure for the four months to July 2023 was £57bn, £14bn more than the £43bn deficit reported for the first third of the previous financial year (April to July 2022). This reflected a widening gap between tax and other receipts for the four months of £343bn and total managed expenditure of £400bn, up 7% and 10% respectively compared with April to July 2022.

Inflation benefited tax receipts for the four months, with income tax up 13% to £85bn and VAT up 9% to £65bn. The rise in corporation tax, up 17% to £30bn, reflected both inflation and the increase in the corporation tax rate to 25% from 1 April 2023. However, national insurance receipts were down by 3% to £57bn because of the abolition of the short-lived health and social care levy last year, while the total for all other taxes was down by 1% to £69bn as economic activity slowed. Other receipts were up 17% to £37bn, driven by higher investment income.

Total managed expenditure of £400bn in the four months to July can be analysed between current expenditure excluding interest of £334bn (up £26bn or 8% over the same period in the previous year), interest of £51bn (up £7bn or 16%), and net investment of £15bn (up £4bn or just over a third).

The increase of £26bn in current expenditure excluding interest compared with the prior year has been driven by £11bn from the uprating of benefit payments, £8bn in higher central government staff costs, £3bn in central government procurement and £5bn in energy support scheme costs, less £1bn in net other changes.

The rise in interest costs of £7bn to £51bn reflects a fall in the interest payable on index-linked debt of £6bn from £30bn to £24bn as inflation has moderated compared with the same period last year, combined with a £13bn increase in interest on non-inflation linked debt from £14bn to £27bn as the Bank of England base rate rose. 

The £4bn increase in net investment spending to £15bn in the first four months of the current year reflects high construction cost inflation among other factors that saw a £5bn or 17% increase in gross investment to £35bn, less a £1bn increase in depreciation to £20bn. 

Public sector finance trends: July 2023

 Four months toJul 2019 (£bn)Jul 2020 (£bn) Jul 2021 (£bn) Jul 2022 (£bn) Jul 2023 (£bn)
 Net investment(10)(26)(13)(11)(15)
 Other borrowing 4 (66) (22) 5 10
 Debt movement(19)(221)(86)(38)(47)
 Net debt 1,7962,0362,2392,4202,579
 Net debt / GDP 80.1% 96.9% 97.7% 96.6% 98.5%
Source: ONS, ‘Public sector finances, July 2023’.

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 latest release saw the ONS revise the reported deficit for the three months to June 2023 down by £2bn as estimates of tax receipts and expenditure were updated for better data, as well as reduce the reported deficit for the 2022/23 financial year by £1bn from £132bn to £131bn for similar reasons. The ONS also revised its estimates of GDP for more recent economic data, resulting in a lower reported net debt / GDP ratio.

Balance sheet metrics

Public sector net debt was £2,579bn at the end of July 2023, equivalent to 98.5% of GDP.

The debt movement since the start of the financial year was £47bn, comprising borrowing to fund the deficit for the four months of £57bn plus £10bn in net cash inflows as loan repayments and positive working capital movements exceeded cash outflows for lending to students, business and others.

Public sector net debt is £764bn or 42% higher than it was on 31 March 2020, reflecting the huge sums borrowed since the start of the pandemic.

Public sector net worth, the new balance sheet metric launched by the Office for National Statistics this year, was -£631bn on 31 July 2023, comprising £1,604bn in non-financial assets, £1,011bn in non-liquid financial assets and £336bn in liquid financial assets less public sector gross debt of £2,915bn and other liabilities of £667bn. This is a £54bn deterioration from the -£577bn reported for 31 March 2023.

This new measure seeks to capture more assets and liabilities than the narrowly focused public sector net debt measure traditionally used to assess the financial position of the UK public sector. However, it excludes unfunded employee pension liabilities that amounted to more than £2trn at 31 March 2021 according to the Whole of Government Accounts, although they are expected to be much lower today as discount rates have risen significantly since then.

For further information, read the public sector finances release for July 2023.

This article was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: OBR long-term fiscal projections

The OBR’s July 2023 fiscal risks and sustainability report indicates that, without higher taxes, public sector net debt as a share of GDP could triple or more over the next 50 years.

Column chart with bars equal to projected public sector net debt / GDP:

2022/23 Baseline projection: 101%
2072/73 Baseline projection: 310%
2072/73 + spending pressures: 385%
2072/73 + interest rate sensitivity: 376%
2072/73 + 21st century shocks: 435%

The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) published its latest fiscal risks and sustainability report on 13 July 2023, providing its analysis of the key risks confronting the UK public finances and long-term fiscal projections for the next 50 years.

This is a sobering report, suggesting that public sector net debt as a share of economic activity as measured by GDP could more than triple between March 2023 and March 2073 – and perhaps go even higher in certain circumstances. The OBR concludes that the public finances are on an unsustainable path.

As illustrated by this week’s chart, the OBR’s baseline projection suggests that the ratio of public sector net debt to GDP could rise from 101% of GDP in 2022/23 to 310% of GDP in 2072/73. The OBR also presented three alternate scenarios: the first is based on higher levels of spending, which could result in the ratio reaching 385% of GDP; one involves higher interest rates, where the ratio might reach 376% of GDP; and a further scenario assuming additional economic shocks, where the ratio might hit 435% of GDP.

The projections are based on the government’s current medium-term fiscal plans as set out in the March 2023 Spring Budget, extrapolated into the future based on existing trends. The starting point is the already high level of public debt that has built up over the past 15 years, together with the current government’s plan to cut spending on public services over the next five years.

The OBR has then overlayed its view of economic growth over the next half century and expected changes in patterns of public spending. This reflects a substantial rise in spending on pensions, health and social care as the proportion of the population in retirement rises, among other drivers that include the financial costs and benefits of delivering net zero. Other key assumptions relate to productivity, demographics (births, deaths and net migration), interest rates and inflation.

The one thing the OBR hasn’t been able to do is to include probable but not enacted tax changes in its projections, with increases in public spending assumed to be financed by higher levels of borrowing instead of the tax rises that future governments are in reality going to opt for. 

The projections therefore reflect borrowing that compounds over time to result in some very large headline debt numbers in March 2073, rather than the 1.5% of GDP rise in the tax burden each decade that would, according to the OBR, maintain the debt to GDP ratio at close to its current level.

The fiscal projections calculated by the OBR highlight just how difficult a position the UK’s public finances are in and the major fiscal challenges that will face the incoming government – whoever that may be – after the next general election.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: A big number

Public spending is expected to approach £1.2trn this year, an extremely large and incomprehensible number to most of us. Our chart this week attempts to make that number more digestible.

Chart labelled 'A big number' comprising nine boxes in a grid each with the same number in nine difference versions:

First row of three boxes

- £1.2bn for UK budgeted public spending in 2023/24
- equivalent to £99bn per month
- or £23bn per week

Second row:

- £1.2bn is equivalent to £41,600 per household in 2023/24
- or £3,470 per household per month
- or £800 per household per week

Third row:

- £1.2bn is equivalent to £17,400 per person for 2023/24
- or £1,450 per person per month
- or £335 per person per week

Public spending in the current financial year is budgeted to amount to £1,189bn or just under £1.2trn. But what does such a large number really mean? 

It can be difficult to comprehend the sheer scale of public spending that a major economy such as the UK incurs each year. The 2023/24 budget of £1,189,000,000,000 is just a huge amount of money to think about.

One way to understand the number is to break it down a little; knowing that the UK public spending is expected to be an average of £99bn a month or £23bn a week during the current financial year helps a little. However, smaller but still exceptionally large amounts can be equally difficult to understand.

The traditional way to look at the public finances, not shown in the chart, is to relate it to the size of the UK economy. GDP is projected to amount to £2,573,000,000,000 in 2023/24, meaning that public spending should be equal to around 46% of the overall economy. However, while this is helpful in putting public spending into context, it is still just a ratio between two incredibly large numbers that very few of us really comprehend. Surely there must be a better way of getting to grips with the public finances.

Our chart this week attempts to do so. By dividing the total for public spending by the number of households in the UK (expected to reach around 28.6m in September, the middle of the financial year) and by the size of the UK population (anticipated to be approximately 68.2m) as well as by month and by week, we can hopefully get a better a feeling for what is going on.

As our chart this week illustrates, average public spending in 2023/24 is equivalent to £41,600 per household, which breaks down to £3,470 per household per month or £800 per household per week, and it may be helpful to think about public spending. Whether you prefer to think in annual, monthly or weekly time periods, they are pretty big numbers in the context of most people’s household budgets.

Alternatively, you may find it easier to identify with how public spending in 2023/24 is equivalent to an average of £17,400 per person living in the UK, breaking down to £1,450 per person per month or £335 per person per week. Again, a very large number, particularly when you realise the average covers children as well as the adult population.

In some ways these much smaller versions of a big number – such as public spending of £3,470 per household per month – feel a lot larger when brought into a more relatable context. The figure of £1.2trn is baffling, but when you know the UK public sector plans to spend £800 per week for each of its 28.6m households, you get a better sense of just how much the UK state spends.

Of course, in working out averages it is important to be clear that they are just that – averages. Many people will benefit more, or less, from public spending than others, while conversely different groups will pay more or less in the taxes needed to fund that spending. Pensioners and children generally pay much less in taxes than those of working age, while benefiting from a much greater proportion of public spending. Similarly, poorer households will receive more in benefits and other forms of support, while richer households pay more in taxes. 

Despite that, per household and per person averages give us an opportunity to compare public spending with reference points we can relate to, such as our own salary or household budget.

One of the reasons the numbers are so high, whichever way you look at them, is that the state does an awful lot. Average spending planned of £1,450 per person per month can be broken down further to approximately £420 on pensions and welfare, £350 on health and social care, £160 on education, £140 on defence, security, policing and justice, £140 on debt interest, £75 on transport, and £165 per person per month on everything else. Each of these in turn are made up of hundreds if not thousands of different central and local government programmes, many costing mere fractions of a penny per person per month, but that together add up to a lot of money.

No matter how you break it down, public spending will always be a huge number.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: Consumer price inflation

Our chart illustrates how ‘core inflation’, energy price rises, and food, alcohol and tobacco price inflation contributed to a lower than expected fall in the overall rate of inflation in April 2023.

Column chart breaking down annual CPI from Jan 2022 through April 2023 between energy prices (8% of index), food, alcohol and tobacco (16% of index) and core inflation (76% of index).

CPI all items - 5.5%, 6.2%, 7.0%, 9.0%, 9.1%, 9.4%, 10.1%, 9.9%, 10.1%, 11.1%, 10.7%, 10.5%, 10.1%, 10.4%, 10.1%, 8.7%.

Energy prices - 23.2%, 22.7%, 27.6%, 52.1%, 52.8%, 57.3%, 57.8%, 52.0%, 49.6%, 59.0%, 55.6%, 52.8%, 52.8%, 51.2%, 49.0%, 40.5%, 10.8%.

Food, alcohol and tobacco - 4.0%, 4.6%, 5.6%, 6.0%, 7.5%, 8.2%, 10.4%, 10.8%, 11.8%, 13.2%, 12.7%, 12.9%, 13.2%, 14.3%, 15.0%, 16.0%.

Core inflation - 4.4%, 5.2%, 5.7%, 6.2%, 5.9%, 5.8%, 6.2%, 6.3%, 6.5%, 6.5%, 6.3%, 6.4%, 5.8%, 6.2%, 6.2%, 6.8%.

The annual rate of consumer price inflation (CPI) fell from 10.1% in March 2023 to 8.7% in April 2023, but this fall was not considered very good news by economists, policymakers or the financial markets. 

The response to April’s inflation statistics has been dramatic, with financial markets now predicting that the Bank of England could increase its base interest rate to as much as 5.5%, instead of sticking at the 4.5% rate announced in May that many commentators had previously suggested might be the peak needed to bring inflation under control.

The reasons why there are these concerns can be illustrated by our chart this week, which analyses CPI into three component sub-indices: energy price inflation, food, alcohol and tobacco, and core inflation. Our chart highlights how core inflation and the annual rate of food, alcohol and tobacco price rises both unexpectedly increased in April 2023, partially offsetting the anticipated slowdown in energy price inflation as the huge rises in domestic energy costs that took effect in April 2022 fell out of the year-on-year comparison. 

Energy price inflation, comprising both domestic energy and fuels such as petrol and diesel, currently represent just 8% of the overall consumer price inflation index, but the rises over the past 15 months have been so large they have contributed significantly to the overall headline CPI rate. Annual energy price inflation in January 2022 was already high at 23.2% as the constrained energy supply drove prices high while the global economy started to recover from the pandemic. This was followed by 22.7% in February 2022 and 27.2% in the year to March 2022, before jumping to 52.1% in April 2022. The annual rate of increase in energy prices remained high over the following months rising to 52.8%, 57.3% then 57.8% in July, 52.0%, 49.6% to a peak of 59.0% in October. The rate of increase decelerated to 55.6%, 52.8% and then 51.2% in January, to 49.0% and 40.5% in February and March 2023, before dropping to 10.8% in April 2023 when compared with the higher base of April 2022.

Food, alcohol and tobacco prices represent about 16% of the CPI index and were 4.0% higher than a year previously in January 2022. Since then the annual rate of increase has gradually increased each month, to 4.6%, 5.6% and then 6.0% in April 2022, to 7.5%, 8.2% and 10.4% in July 2022, and then to 10.8%, 11.8% and 13.2% in October 2022. The annual rate of increase moderated to 12.7% and 12.9% in November and December, before returning to 13.2% in January 2023. The annual rate of price increases accelerated to 14.3% in February, 15.0% in March and to 16.0% in April.

Not shown in the chart is the sub-subindex of food and non-alcoholic beverages, which was running at 19.1% in the year to March 2023 and 19.0% in the year to April 2023, with the jump in April coming from alcohol and tobacco prices, which rose from 5.3% in March to 9.1% in April.

Perhaps more worrying than the jump in alcohol and tobacco prices is what is happening to ‘core inflation’, which is defined as CPI excluding energy, food, alcohol and tobacco. Representing just over three quarters (76%) of consumer spending, annual core inflation was running at 4.4% in January last year, rising to 5.2%, 5.7% and then 6.2% in April 2022, 5.9%, 5.8% then 6.2% in July, 6.3%, 6.5% then 6.5% in October, 6.3%, 6.4% then 5.8% in January, 6.2%, 6.2% and then 6.8% in April 2023.

By excluding more volatile components of the CPI index, core inflation is generally more stable than overall CPI. By hovering within the 5.7% to 6.5% range for the past year, the hope was that core inflation was – while pretty high – at least not out of control. The unexpected rise to 6.8% in April is worrying for the Bank of England, which is concerned that inflation could become embedded into the UK economy at a rate much higher than its 1%-3% mandated target range.

The good news is that planned cuts to domestic energy prices in July, together with other price rises last summer falling out of the year-on-year comparison, should feed through to a much lower headline rate of inflation over the next few months, reducing the pressure on wage settlements and other input costs that are currently driving up prices across the whole economy.

Despite that, the markets believe that further interest rate rises may still be necessary on top of the actions already taken by the Bank of England, potentially risking overtightening that could worsen the cost-of-living crisis and the squeeze on businesses.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: International migration 2022

As the ONS reports that just over 600,000 more people came to live in the UK in 2022 than left to live elsewhere, this week’s chart looks at the numbers behind the comings and goings.

Step chart showing immigration of +1,163,000 in 2022 (first column) less emigration of -557,000 (second column) = net migration +606,000 (third column).

The first column is broken down into +248,000 settlement and asylum, +316,000 workers and dependents, +404,000 students and dependents, +64,000 to join family and +131,000 other reasons.

Net inward migration of 606,000 in the year ended 31 December 2022 was boosted by a quarter of a million Ukrainians, Hong Kongers and asylum seekers according to ONS experimental statistics on international migration to and from the UK.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) released provisional numbers for international migration on 25 May 2023, providing its estimate of long-term arrivals and departures from the UK for the 2022 calendar year, with 1,163,000 immigrants arriving in the UK and 557,000 emigrants, a net migration number of 606,000.

These numbers exclude tourists and other travellers planning to stay for less than a year, as well as UK residents going abroad on holiday or likewise planning to be away for less than a year. However, the numbers include students and others coming for more than a year who don’t plan to stay in the UK after they finish their courses or their work visas expire.

Traditionally these statistics have been prepared using arrival and departure surveys completed by a sample of travellers when they arrive or depart from UK airports and ports, but these have been found to be inaccurate in recent years. The ONS has started to address this by using other administrative sources to improve the quality of their analysis, in the meantime slapping this dataset with ‘experimental’ and ‘provisional’ labels to emphasise how less than definitive it is.

As our chart of the week illustrates, 248,000 immigrants arrived through settlement schemes or to claim asylum, 316,000 came for work reasons, 404,000 for study, 64,000 to join family, and 131,000 for other reasons. 

All of the 248,000 immigrants who arrived through settlement schemes or to claim asylum came from outside the EU. They comprised 114,000 Ukrainian refugees, 52,000 British Overseas Nationals from Hong Kong, 6,000 through other resettlement schemes (principally Afghanistan), and 76,000 asylum seekers. Some 3,000 asylum seekers were believed to have left the country in 2022, but the ONS does not have sufficient data to identify the number of Ukrainian refugees or other settlers who may have returned or moved elsewhere.

Of the 316,000 who came for work reasons, 235,000 were from outside the EU (of which 127,000 came to work and 108,000 were dependents), 62,000 came from EU countries, and 19,000 were UK citizens. Unfortunately, the ONS has not been able to analyse the number of EU or UK citizens who left for work reasons (either to start a new job elsewhere or because their UK-based job came to an end), but they have estimated that 56,000 non-EU non-UK workers and dependents left the UK in 2022 (29,000 workers and 27,000 dependents).

Study was the biggest immigration category in 2022, as the higher education sector continued to recruit international students as part of a big export drive. 404,000 people arriving during 2022. This comprised 361,000 from outside the EU (of which 276,000 came to study and 85,000 were dependents), 39,000 students from the EU and 4,000 being UK citizens who lived elsewhere before coming to the UK to study. The ONS reports that 153,000 non-EU citizens left the UK in 2022 after courses were completed (136,000 students and 17,000 dependents), but doesn’t report equivalent numbers for EU and UK citizens. 

The number of non-EU students and dependents arriving has risen quite significantly over the last couple of years (from 121,000 in 2019 and 113,000 in 2020 to 301,000 in 2021) and so the net impact should reduce significantly in 2024 and thereafter as courses complete. The net number could turn negative if the recently announced restrictions on masters students bringing dependents (masters courses often being the first step towards PhD study) causes incoming numbers to fall below the level of departures.

The majority of the 64,000 arriving to join family came from outside the EU, with 51,000 arriving from non-EU countries, 8,000 from the EU, and 5,000 being UK citizens. Again, the ONS does not have data on EU and UK citizens leaving to join family or returning after a long-term stay with family, but it does report 42,000 non-EU citizens in this category left the UK in 2022.

‘Other’ arrivals comprise a combination of genuine other reasons for people choosing to settle in the UK as well as data collection issues, with the ONS finding it difficult to identify the reasons why many EU and UK citizens arrive or leave the UK. Of the 131,000 immigrants classified as other, 29,000 came from outside the EU, 42,000 came from EU countries and around 60,000 were returning UK nationals.

While the headlines about the migration numbers have not necessarily been that favourable to the government, the Chancellor may be more cheerful than many of his colleagues given the recent improvement in the IMF’s short-term economic outlook for the UK, partly as a consequence of migrants arriving to fill domestic labour shortages, as well as the contribution to the economy of a growing number of fee-paying students.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: VAT threshold

The mystery of just why so many businesses sit just below the VAT registration threshold will be a big topic of debate at ICAEW’s VAT at 50 conference on Monday 22 May.

Line chart showing number of businesses plotted against £1,000 turnover intervals.

An orange line shows how the number of traders curves down as turnover increases, before increasing sharply before the VAT threshold (a vertical line in the chart at £85,000) and dropping almost vertically. 

A purple line shows a relatively straight decline to the right of the VAT threshold, with some bumps along the way.

A teal-coloured dotted trendline curves through the chart, with  businesses all above the trendline to the left of the VAT threshold, and below the trendline to the right up until £130,000.

Our chart this week celebrates the 50th anniversary of the introduction in the UK of Value Added Tax (VAT), the indirect tax on commercial transactions that now generates around 20% of tax receipts. 

One of the big mysteries in the tax system is why so many small businesses and sole traders cluster just below the VAT threshold of £85,000.

As illustrated by our chart, the number of businesses below the threshold gradually falls from almost 31,000 in the turnover band between £50,000 and £50,999 to just under 17,000 in the turnover band between £77,000 and £77,999, before diverging above the trendline to increase up to just over 20,000 in the £84,000 to £84,999 turnover band – immediately below the threshold for registering for VAT. This is almost twice as many as the just over 10,000 traders in the £85,000 to £85,999 turnover band, the first band legally required to register for VAT. 

One explanation may be that there is some gaming (or possibly even misreporting) going on, with business owners approaching the threshold for VAT deciding to spread their business activities across multiple legal entities or keeping ‘cash-in-hand’ transactions off the books to avoid, or evade, adding VAT of 20% in most cases onto their prices.

However, perhaps a more worrying concern is if these businesses are not getting around the rules, but instead deliberately choosing to keep their businesses small given the competitive disadvantage that goes with adding VAT to prices charged to consumers, and the hassles and hazards involved with becoming a tax collector on behalf of the government. 

This is a big issue for a UK economy experiencing weak economic growth. Not only is government income at stake, but also the wider benefits of more prosperous small businesses to the overall economy and what that means for the national economy.

Of course, many businesses do register despite being below the threshold, with around 1.1m traders in 2018/19 with turnover less than £85,000 signed up to VAT.

Other countries take a different approach, with much lower registration thresholds across most of Europe. Domestic thresholds range from nil in Spain, Italy and Greece, NOK40,000 (approximately £3,000) in Norway, €22,000 (£19,000) in Germany and €37,500 (£33,000) in Ireland, up to €50,000 (£43,000) in Slovenia. Switzerland is an exception with a higher registration threshold than the UK at CHF100,000 (£89,000). 

In general, this means that a much greater proportion of actively trading businesses across Europe are registered for VAT compared with the UK, where there are estimated to be more than 3m or so traders with annual revenue of between £10,000 and £84,999 who have not registered for VAT – more than £100bn in total revenue.

Some believe that raising the threshold would provide a boost to the economy, given that many businesses would be more willing to grow (or declare) more of their revenue, while others believe the better option would be to reduce the threshold to capture many more businesses. The former would likely result in lower tax receipts overall, by allowing businesses just above the existing threshold to stop collecting VAT. The latter should in theory generate much more in tax receipts, perhaps as much as £20bn a year, in addition to removing one of the distortions that the tax system creates in this part of the economy.

The irony is that a relatively high VAT threshold in the UK designed to encourage and support small businesses may be one of the factors holding back economic growth. And with an unchanged threshold combined with inflation of more than 10% over the past year, this may be an even bigger drag on the economy/incentive to cheat than it has been in the past.

Click here to find out more about VAT at 50, ICAEW’s celebration (if that is the right word) of the 50th anniversary of VAT, and what the future holds for our most beloved of indirect taxes.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: Food prices

An inflation rate of 10.1% in the year to March 2023 conceals a huge variation in individual price rises, as illustrated by this week’s chart on food prices.

Column chart showing annual inflation for a sample of individual food and non-alcoholic drink items across six different categories, according to the Office for National Statistics prices comparison tool for March 2023.

A horizontal line shows the average food price inflation over that period of +17%.

Each category is ordered from lowest price rise to highest, with only the highest labelled.

Snacks and sweets: 18 items (9 below line, 9 going above) the highest of which is plain biscuits +26%.

Meat and fish: 12 items (7 below, 5 going above), pork chops +28%.

Frozen: 10 items (3 below, 7 going above), chicken nuggets +35%.

Deli and dairy: 30 items (10 below, 1 going to the line, 19 going above), hard cheese +44%.

Store cupboard: 41 items (23 below, 18 going above), olive oil +49%.

Fruit and veg: 28 items (16 below, 12 going above), cucumber +52%.

One of the problems in measuring inflation is that a weighted average of thousands of different prices is very different from our individual experience of inflation. Not only are we unique in terms of the basket of goods and services that we buy, but we also tend to notice some price changes more than others – making our personal experience very different from everyone else’s.

Nowhere is this more pronounced than in our regular trips to the shops to buy groceries, where we can see higher prices both on the shelves and when we come to pay at the till. This can be much more visible to us than bills paid by direct debit, for example, where money just disappears from our bank account and we need to make an effort to work out what is going on.

The Office for National Statistics has recently launched a shopping prices comparison tool that allows you to choose a basket of goods and see how retail prices have increased across different types of purchases: food and drink, clothing and footwear, restaurants and bars, health, household items, recreation and culture, services, and transport. Even there, the prices they quote are averages from many different retail outlets, specific products, and brands – and so won’t exactly match what is happening to your individual basket.

For our chart this week, we have chosen to look at food prices, choosing a basket that in total has increased by 17% over the past year, rising from £422.40 if you had bought everything on the list in March 2022 to £495.43 in March 2023. We have allocated these into six different categories to give a bit more flavour (pun intended) to what is going on.

There is a huge amount of variation between different foodstuffs, with our chart illustrating how in the snacks and sweets category the average price of 200-300g of plain biscuits has increased by 26% (from 98p to £1.24), while in meat and fish, pork loin chops have gone up by 28% (from £6.35 per kg to £8.12 per kg). In the frozen category, chicken nuggets are up 35% (from £1.79 to £2.41), while in deli and dairy, hard cheese has gone up the most on average, by 44% (from £6.92 per kg to £9.98 per kg). Olive oil tops our store cupboard classification, up 49% (from £3.87 to £5.78 on average between 500ml and 1 litre), but the king of food price inflation is the humble cucumber, up a massive 52% over a one year period from 55p to 84p each.

Not highlighted in the chart are the smallest price rises in each category, with peanuts up 5% (from £1.23 to £1.29 for 150-300g), lamb loin chop/steaks up 4% (from £15.49 to £16.13 per kg), frozen vegetable burgers up 11% (£1.99 to £2.21), sliced ham up 9% (£2.41 to £2.64 for 100-200g), low-sugar/non-chocolate breakfast up 6% (£2.08 to £2.20), and sweet potato up a mere 2% (from £1.17 to £1.19 per kg).

The Bank of England continues to tighten the screws on inflation, raising its base rate to 4.5% on 11 May 2023, and the projections are that inflation overall should start to reduce quite rapidly over the next few months. 

However, as ICAEW Economies Director Suren Thiru recently said in a TV interview on BBC Breakfast, inflation is now becoming embedded into the everyday things that we buy. This makes the challenge for the Bank of England to bring inflation back down to its target range of 1% to 3% that much harder.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: Public finances 2022/23

The public finances continue to be battered by economic shocks as this week’s chart on the past five years of red ink illustrates.

Column chart with five financial years illustrating tax and other receipts (top bar) less total managed expenditure (middle bar) = deficit (bottom bar).

2018/19 outturn: £813bn - £837bn = -£44bn
2019/20 outturn: £827bn - £888bn = -£61bn
2020/21 outturn: £793bn - £1,106bn = -£313bn
2021/22 outturn: £920bn - £1,041bn = -£121bn
2022/23 provisional: £1,016bn - £1,155bn = -£139bn

The monthly public sector finances for March 2023 released on Tuesday 25 April contained the first cut of the government’s financial result for 2022/23, with our chart this week illustrating trends over the past five years in receipts, expenditure and the deficit.

As our chart highlights, tax and other receipts increased from £813bn in 2018/19 to £827bn in 2019/20, before falling to £793bn during the first year of the pandemic. They recovered to £920bn in 2021/22 before rising with inflation to a provisional estimate of £1,016bn for the year ended 31 March 2023.

Total managed expenditure (TME) increased from £857bn in 2018/19 to £888bn in 2019/20, before exceeding £1trn for the first time in 2020/21 as the pandemic caused expenditure to rise significantly. TME fell in 2021/22 to £1,041bn as pandemic-released spending was scaled back, before rising this year to £1,155bn as inflation, higher interest rates and energy support packages more than offset the pandemic related spending that was not repeated in 2022/23.

The deficit of £44bn in 2018/19 was the lowest it had been since the financial crisis, following an extended period of spending restraint over a decade. The purse strings were loosened a little in 2019/20 as previous government plans to eliminate the deficit were abandoned, with the deficit rising to £61bn. The huge cost of the pandemic saw the deficit rise to £313bn in 2020/21 as the borrowing rose to meet the huge costs of dealing with the pandemic, before falling back to £121bn in 2021/22.

There were hopes that the situation would improve further, with the government in October 2021 budgeting for a deficit of £83bn. Unfortunately, rampant inflation and the energy crisis following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine mean that the government does not currently expect to reduce the deficit to below £50bn until 2027/28 at the earliest. And that is with what some commentators believe are unrealistic assumptions about the government’s ability to reduce spending on public services beyond the cuts already delivered.

Provisional receipts in 2022/23 were 25% higher than the outturn for 2018/19, which in the absence of economic growth has principally been driven by inflation of around 15% over that period combined with an increase in the level of taxation and other receipts from around 37% to approaching 41% of the economy. Total managed expenditure is provisionally 35% higher than in 2018/19, although this includes substantial amounts of one-off expenditures on the energy support packages and index-linked debt interest that should moderate, at least assuming inflation reduces in the coming financial year.

Not shown in the chart is what these numbers mean for public sector net debt, which has increased by £753bn over the past five years from £1,757bn at 1 April 2018 to a provisional £2,530bn at 31 March 2023. This comprises £678bn in borrowing to fund the deficits shown in the chart, and £75bn to fund lending by government and working capital requirements.

Our chart this week may be well presented, but it is not a pretty picture.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: debit and credit card transactions

Volumes have been the main driver of the increase in value of debit and credit card transactions since 2022, as average spend on debit cards fell and the average transaction on credit cards rose by less than inflation.

Step chart showing volume and value per transaction changed between £73.9bn in card transactions in January 2022 and £83.5bn in Jan 2023.

Debit card transactions: £57.7bn in Jan 2023 +£7.7bn volume (+13.4% to 1,971m) -£0.7bn (-1.1% to £32.82) = £64.7bn in Jan 2023.

Credit card transactions: £16.2bn in Jan 2023 +£1.6bn volume (+9.9% to 321m) +£1.0bn (+6.0% to £58.58) = £18.8bn in Jan 2023.

UK Finance, the industry body for the banking and finance industry, released its latest data on UK card transactions on 20 April 2023. This provides an insight into UK debit and credit card transactions between January 2022 and 2023, and our chart this week takes a look at the year-on-year change in transaction amounts.

The monthly total value of transactions on UK-issued debit and credit cards increased from £73.9m in January 2022 to £83.5bn in January 2023, putting card transactions on course to exceed £1trn over the course of 2023. This includes online and telephone purchases, as well as in-person retail transactions and spending overseas.

Our chart illustrates how the value of debit card transactions increased from £57.7bn in January 2022 to £64.7bn, analysed between £7.7bn from a 13.4% increase in the volume of transactions to 1,971m, less £0.7bn from a 1.1% fall in the average value of each debit card purchase to £32.82. 

In the context of inflation in excess of 10%, a decline in the average value of debit transactions may seem counterintuitive. This is partly because of the continued displacement of cash as a method of payment, especially for low value purchases – contributing to growth in the volume of transactions, but a decline in average purchase amounts. Consumers scaling back their spending in response to the cost-of-living crisis is also likely to be a factor.

The value of credit card transactions rose from £16.2bn to £18.8bn, reflecting £1.6bn from a 9.9% increase in the number of transactions to 321m plus £1.0bn from a 6.0% increase in the average value of each transaction to £58.58.

The largest component of credit card transactions were purchases, which increased from £14.6bn to £17.1bn, up £1.4bn from a 9.9% increase in the volume of purchases to 319m, and £1.1bn from a 6.7% increase in the average value of each purchase to £53.60. Cash advances increased from £187m to £207m (from a 6.6% increase in the number of cash advances to 1.5m and a 3.6% increase in average advance to £135), while balance transfers increased from £1.4bn to £1.5bn (from a 4.0% increase in the number of balance transfers to 0.7m and a 4.9% increase in average transfer to £2,133).

Similar to debit cards, the decline in the average value of each credit card purchase after inflation is likely to be affected by the ongoing switch from cards to cash, as well as a scaling back of purchases by some consumers. There may also have been a shift in purchasing patterns for some households, from fewer larger purchases to more frequent smaller ones.

Not shown in the chart is the amount owed by credit card holders, which was 9.1% higher at £60bn at the end of January 2023 compared with £55bn a year previously. This is lower than the £61.3bn owed at the end of December 2022 as the £20.1bn repaid (just under a third of the total) exceeded the £18.8bn added. According to UK Finance, 51.3% of credit card balances attract interest, with the remainder primarily comprising those who pay their balances in full each month and those on interest-free balance transfers.

Debit and card usage is expected to continue to rise, with UK Finance previously forecasting that cash usage will fall from around 15% of all retail purchases in 2021 to around 6% by 2030. Others have suggested that physical cash could be eliminated altogether, saving the exchequer and businesses from the costs of creating, handling and disposing of cash.

For many, transitioning to a cashless society will be welcome – heralding the end of the need of jingling coins and purses and wallets bulging with banknotes. For others, including the million or so consumers who prefer or are reliant on cash for most of their day-to-day shopping, this may not be so positive.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.