Is the US fiscal stimulus working?

One of the problems of economics is that reality rarely works out like theory. Indeed it is rather like the military dictum that tells us that a battle plan rarely survives first contact with the enemy. However we are currently seeing the world’s largest economy giving us a worked example of the policy being pushed by central bankers. Indeed it rushed to do so as we look back to the Jackson Hole symposium in the summer of 2017.

With tight constraints on central banks, one may expect—or maybe hope for—a more active response of fiscal policy when the next recession arrives.

Back on August 29th of that year I noted a paper presented by Alan Auerbach and Yuriy Gorodnichenko which went on to tell us this.

We find that in our sample expansionary government spending shocks have not been followed by persistent increases in debt-to-GDP ratios or borrowing costs (interest rates, CDS spreads). This result obtains especially when the economy is weak. In fact, a fiscal stimulus in a weak economy may help improve fiscal sustainability along the metrics we study.

Since then those two voices have of course been joined by something of a chorus line of central bankers and their ilk. But there was somebody listening or having the same idea as in short order Donald John Trump announced his tax cuts moving us from theory to practice.

Where are we now?

Led me hand you over to CNBC from two days ago.

The U.S. fiscal deficit topped $1 trillion in 2019, the first time it has passed that level in a calendar year since 2012, according to Treasury Department figures released Monday.

The budget shortfall hit $1.02 trillion for the January-to-December period, a 17.1% increase from 2018, which itself had seen a 28.2% jump from the previous year.

There is a sort of back to the future feel about that as the US returns to levels seen as an initial result of the credit crunch. If we look at the US Treasury website it needs a slight update but gives us an overall picture.

Year-end data from the September 2019 Monthly Treasury Statement of Receipts and Outlays of the United States Government show that the deficit for FY 2019 was $984 billion, $205 billion higher than the prior year’s deficit[3]. As a percentage of GDP, the deficit was 4.6 percent, an increase from 3.8 percent in FY 2018.

So the out-turn was slightly higher but we see something a little awkward. If the US economy was booming as the Donald likes to tell us why was their a deficit in the first place and why is it rising?

We see that on the good side revenues are rising.

Governmental receipts totaled $3,462 billion in FY 2019. This was $133 billion higher than in FY 2018, an increase of 4.0 percent,

But outlays have surged.

Outlays were $4,447 billion, $339 billion above those in FY 2018, an 8.2 percent increase.

Economic Growth

Three, that’s the Magic Number
Yes, it is, it’s the magic number
Somewhere in this hip-hop soul community
Was born three: Mase, Dove and me
And that’s the magic number

It turns out that inadvertently De La Soul were on the ball about the economic growth required to make fiscal policy look successful. So there was method in the apparent madness of President Trump proclaiming that the US economy would grow at an annual rate of 3% or more. In doing so he was mimicking the numbers used in the UK,for example, after the credit crunch to flatter the fiscal outlook. Or a lot more bizarrely ( the UK does at least occasionally grow by 3%) by the current coalition government in Italy.

Switching now to looking at what did happen then as 2018 progressed things looked okay until the last quarter when the annualised growth rate barely scraped above 1%. A brief rally back to target in the opening quarter of last year was followed by this.

Real gross domestic product (GDP) increased at an annual rate of 2.1 percent in the third quarter of 2019 (table 1), according to the “third” estimate released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. In the second quarter, real GDP increased 2.0 percent. ( US BEA )

If we now move forwards there is this.

The New York Fed Staff Nowcast stands at 1.1% for 2019:Q4 and 1.2% for 2020:Q1.

News from this week’s data releases decreased the nowcast for 2019:Q4 by 0.1 percentage point and left the nowcast for 2020:Q1 broadly unchanged.

Negative news from international trade data accounted for most of the decrease.

Should this turn out to be accurate then it will be damaging for the deficit because the revenue growth we observed earlier ( 4%) will fade. There is a risk of the deficit ballooning should things weaken further and outlays rise to to social spending and the like if the labour market should turn.So far it has only signalled a slowing of real wage growth.

Cost of the debt

A rising fiscal deficit means that the national debt will grow.

As deficits have swelled, so has the national debt, which is now at $23.2 trillion. ( CNBC )

Or as the Congressional Budget Office puts it.

Debt. As a result of those deficits, federal debt held by the public is projected to grow steadily, from 79 percent of GDP in 2019 to 95 percent in 2029—its highest level since just after World War II. ( care is needed here as it only counts debt held by the public not the total)

But as I pointed out back in August 2017 the baying pack of bond vigilantes seem soundly muzzled these days.

 So we have seen central banks intervening in fiscal policy via a reduction in bond yields something which government’s try to keep quiet. We have individual instances of bond yield soaring such as Venezuela but the last few years have seen central banking victories and defeats for the vigilantes.

So as a consequence we find ourselves in an era of “Not QE” asset purchases and more importantly for today’s purposes a long bond ( 30 year) yield of 2.25% or less than half of what it was at times in 2011. So the debt has grown but each unit is cheap.

The government’s net interest costs are also anticipated to
grow in 2019, increasing by $47 billion (or 14 percent),
to $372 billion.

This means that the total costs are much lower than would have been expected back in the day.

Comment

Has it worked? Party so far in that the economic outcome in the US was better than that in the UK, Europe and Japan. But the “winning” as President Trump likes to put it faded and now we see that economic growth at an expected just over 1% is rather similar to the rest of us except the fiscal deficit and national debt are higher. So whilst it was nice now we look ahead to a situation where it could become a problem. I do not mean in the old-fashioned way of rising bond yields because let’s face it “Not QE” would become “Not bond buying” to get them back lower.

But if you keep raising the debt you need economic growth and should the present malaise continue then the US will underperform the CBO forecasts which expect this.

After 2019, consumer spending and purchases of goods and services by federal, state, and local governments
are projected to grow at a slower pace, and annual output growth is projected to slow—averaging
1.8 percent over the 2020–2023 period—as real output returns to its historical relationship with
potential output.

There is also another problem which the CBO has inadvertently revealed showing that the certainty with which some speak is always wrong.

The largest factor contributing to that change
is that CBO revised its forecast of interest rates downward, which lowered its projections of net interest
outlays by $1.4 trillion.

So the fiscal stimulus has helped so far but now the hard yards begin and they will get a lot harder in any further slow down. In the end it is all about the economic growth.

The Investing Channel

 

 

The Italian crisis continues to deepen

Sometimes financial life comes at your quickly and at others it feels like it takes an age. The current Italian crisis has managed in typically Italian style to have covered nearly all bases as we note the main driver simply being lack of economic growth meaning on a per head basis economic output is lower than when the Euro began, But if we move to the current there was a development yesterday, and context can be provided by statements from the new government that economic growth of 3% per annum is possible. From Italian statistics.

In 2018, GDP is expected to increase by 1.1 percent in real terms.The domestic demand will provide a contribution of 1.3 percentage points while foreign demand will account for a negative 0.2 percentage point and inventories will provide a null contribution. In 2019, GDP is estimated to increase by 1.3 percent in real terms driven by the contribution of domestic demand (1.3 percentage points)
associated to a null contribution of the foreign demand and inventories.

The initial response was surprise that Istat had held the previous forecast at 1.4% for so long. After all the Italian economy had been slowing for a while in quarterly terms from the peak of 0.5% and as it had been following a Noah’s Ark two-by-two style policy might have been expected to be 0.2% this time around, Except of course it was 0% reducing the annual rate to 0.8% which is below the current forecast.

If we look at the detail we see that such as it is there seems to be a reliance on consumption.

In 2018, exports will increase by 1.6 percent and imports will grow by 2.6 percent, both are expected
to accelerate in 2019 (3.2% and 3.5% respectively). Residential households consumption expenditure
is expected to grow by 0.9 percent in 2018 accelerating in 2019 (1.2%). The stabilisation in employment and the wages increase will support households purchasing power. Investment are expected to progressively decelerate both in 2018 (+3.9) and in 2019 (+3.2%).

In itself the trade decline is not a big deal as Italy has a strong trade position but it does subtract from GDP. It also poses a question for the Euro area “internal devaluation” model. Also it is hard not to question where that investment is going? After all in collective terms the economy is not growing. So we are left with domestic consumption relying on this.

Labour market conditions will improve over the forecasting period. Employment growth is expected to stabilise at 0,9 percent in 2018 and in 2019. At the same time, the rate of unemployment will decrease at 10.5 percent in the current year and at 10.2 percent in 2019.

Will the labour market continue to improve with economic growth slowing and maybe stopping completely? Frankly the only reason to forecast a better 2019 is the planned fiscal stimulus which of course is where the whole issue comes in.

Along the way we can get a new perspective from the fact that if we put 2010 at 100 the Italian economy peaked above 102 in early 2008 and has now recovered to just above 97.

Excessive Deficit Procedure

In essence the Euro area is stalling on the application of the EDP as it is hoping there might be a change of tack. Also I would imagine that it does not want to prod the Italian crisis with Brexit also up in the air. But there is something quite revealing in yesterday’s documentation from the European Commission.

Italy made a sizeable fiscal effort between 2010 and 2013, raising the primary surplus to over 2% of GDP and exiting the excessive deficit procedure in 2013 by keeping its headline deficit at a level not above 3% of GDP as of 2012 (down from more than 5% in 2009).

The reality if we look at the pattern of GDP was that returning to 2010 as our benchmark Italian GDP which was recovering from the initial credit crunch shock and rallying from ~94 to ~97 turned south from early 2011 and fell to below 93. Back then the EC and its acolytes were claiming that this was an expansionary fiscal contraction whereas if we allow for the lags it hit the Italian economy hard. There have been various mea culpas ( IMF mostly) and redactions of history since. But not only did Italy struggle to recover as even now we are only back to the 97 level where in GDP terms it started from of course it was then benefiting from both fiscal and monetary policy. Or as Mario Draghi likes to put it.

an ongoing broad-based economic expansion

If we look back to my article from the 26th of October Italy is now being told that fiscal policy cannot help and may make things worse too. So Italians may reasonably be annoyed and sing along with All Time Low.

‘Cause I’m damned if I do ya, damned if I don’t

Things that will not improve their humour is that it is the same Olivier Blanchard pushing this who was in the van of arguing that a fiscal contraction would boost the economy. Also that Euro area rhetoric is making the situation of their bond market worse.

Bond Market

Back on the 2nd of October I noted that the benchmark ten-year yield for Italy had risen to 3.4% but that such things took time to have an impact on the real as opposed to financial economy. Well it is 3.47% as I type this and I note that @liukzilla calculated that this phase of higher yields will cost Italy around 6.6 billion Euros in higher debt costs. Care is needed as it is not something to pay now but say over the next ten years as interest is paid. But a rising problem.

The new government suggested that retail investors might surge into the market but they have bought less than one billion Euro’s of this week’s offer which is at best a damp squib. Of course there are the banks…

Italian banks

Did somebody mention the banks? They are of course stuffed full of Italian government bonds and you can see the state of play courtesy of @LiveSquawk.

Italy’s 5 Star Movement Has Proposed Measures To Allow Unlisted Banks And Insurers Not To Mark To Market Gvt Bonds – RTRS Sources.

Yes that bad. But the circus for banks carries on regardless it would appear as we move to Reuters.

Carige said Italian banks had guaranteed they would buy bonds worth 320 million euros, with a further 80 million euros earmarked for private investors, possibly including existing shareholders.

So the tin can gets another kick as we note that this weakens the other banks which participate.

Comment

Let me add another dimension provided courtesy of the Financial Times Magazine and let us first set the scene.

Mafia syndicates in Italy have an estimated annual turnover of €150bn, according to a report by the anti-Mafia parliamentary committee in 2017.

They have moved into agriculture as it seems like easy money and the economic crisis gave them an opportunity as whilst conventional business struggled they had cash.

With margins as high as 700 per cent, profits from olive oil, for example, can be higher than those from cocaine — and with far less risk.

Also it gives you clean money to which Michael Corleone would nod approvingly. Here is one route.

A Mafia family could claim about €1m a year in EU subsidies on 1,000 hectares, while leasing it for as little as €37,000. “With profit margins as high as 2,000 per cent, with no risk, why sell drugs or carry out robberies when you can just wait for the cheque to arrive in the post?” he says by telephone from his home.

Here is an even more unpleasant one.

In February last year, 42 members of the Piromalli clan in Calabria were arrested and 40 farms seized in connection with the export of counterfeit oil to the US, sold as extra virgin, which retails for at least €7 a litre. A number of those arrested are now in prison awaiting trial. According to police, about 50 per cent of all extra-virgin olive oil sold in Italy is adulterated with cheap, poor-quality oil. Globally the proportion is even higher.

Makes me wonder about the bottle of olive oil in my kitchen and the “made in Italy” spaghetti. It is all nearly as bad as the video of Patrice Evra and the chicken or perhaps we should say salmonella.

 

 

 

 

The UK Public Finances hint at a strong underlying economy

Yesterday saw the IMF join the chorus expecting better economic times ahead.

The cyclical upswing underway since mid-2016 has continued to strengthen. Some 120 economies, accounting for three quarters of world GDP, have seen a pickup in growth in year-on-year terms in 2017, the broadest synchronized global growth upsurge since 2010…….Global growth for 2017 is now estimated at 3.7 percent, 0.1 percentage point higher than projected in the fall. The stronger momentum experienced in 2017 is expected to carry into 2018 and 2019, with global growth revised up to 3.9 percent for both years (0.2 percentage point higher relative to the fall forecasts).

Part of this was due to revising the US economy upwards( ~0.4%) due to the Trump tax cuts. This was obviously so painful to the IMF that it could only get some relief by revising the UK down a little in 2019. In reality the UK is likely to be pulled higher too by the global upswing as even Lord O’Neil formerly of the Vampire Squid now admits. From the BBC.

Britain should prepare for a much more economically optimistic 2018 because global growth is better than predicted.

That’s the argument of Lord Jim O’Neill, the former Conservative Treasury minister and Remain supporter.

He said Britain’s growth forecasts are likely to be upgraded as China, the US and Europe show increased activity.

Fair play to him for having the courage to correct past mistakes and the only worrying part of all this is that too many establishment groups and figures are telling us the future is bright! Just look at their track record……

PFI

Moving to the public finances there has been a fair bit of news on the Public Finance Initative or PFI front post the Carillion liquidation which I looked at on Monday last week.  The National Audit Office pointed out the scale of the issue late last week.

There are currently over 700 operational PFI and PF2 deals, with a capital value of around £60 billion and annual charges for these deals amounted to £10.3 billion in 2016-17. Even if no new deals are entered into, future charges which continue until the 2040s amount to £199 billion.

These schemes have brought some benefits but they have also brought problems mostly because the real rationale as I have pointed out many times was this.

However, most private finance debt is
off-balance sheet for National Accounts purposes.

The politicians doing this in effect get a benefit such as a new hospital but shift the burden of paying for it into the future and thus worsen the future public finances.

Unlike conventional procurement, debt raised to construct assets does not feature in government debt figures, and the capital investment is not recorded as public spending even though it is for the public sector.

In essence the projects are driven by the rules of our national accounts ( more specifically avoiding being measured….) rather than any economic gain.

PFI can be attractive to government as recorded levels of debt will be lower over the short to medium term (five years ahead) even if it costs significantly more over the full term of a 25–30 year contract.

You don’t say!

Today’s Data

The news opened in positive fashion.

Public sector net borrowing (excluding public sector banks) decreased by £2.5 billion to £2.6 billion in December 2017, compared with December 2016.

There were strong performances on the receipts side with Income Tax receipts up by £700 million and VAT ( a sales tax) up by £600 million. There are hints there of underlying economic strength and of course the higher VAT receipts give a rather different picture to what we were told by the retail sales numbers. On the expenditure side there was something to give a wry smile in the circumstances.

In December 2017, the UK’s net contribution to the European Union (EU) was £1.2 billion lower than in December 2016.

Okay why?

December can see atypical payments between member states and the EU. December 2017 saw a credit to the UK of £1.2 billion following the adoption of agreed amendments to the 2017 EU budget which reduced the size of the 2017 budget and adjusted member states’ contributions to reflect updated economic forecasts.

Or maybe someone has a sense of humour as it will all come out in the wash anyway. Also we need to note that a regular feature was still there as debt costs were higher by some £500 million which will be mostly driven by higher payments on index-linked Gilts affected by the fact that the Retail Prices Index has pushed over a 4% annual rate of growth.

Perspective

This too as you might imagine was given a boost by the December data.

Public sector net borrowing (excluding public sector banks) decreased by £6.6 billion to £50.0 billion in the current financial year-to-date (April 2017 to December 2017), compared with the same period in 2016.

This means that the first rule of OBR Club had yet another good year in 2017 as you will note from its November review of the state of play. The emphasis is mine.

That said, the public finances have performed better than expected. The ONS has revised borrowing in 2016-17 sharply lower, relative to its initial estimate and our March forecast. And the deficit has continued to fall in the first half of 2017-18. We have revised borrowing down by £8.4 billion to £49.9 billion for the full year,

Thus the OBR is left in the awkward situation of hoping that the UK Self-Assessment season for Income Tax is a poor one. Such a view will not be helped by the December data being good although the data can be erratic.

Here is a breakdown of both sides of the ledger.

In the current financial year-to-date, central government received £504.0 billion in income, including £376.8 billion in taxes. This was around 4% more than in the same period in the previous financial year.

Over the same period, central government spent £538.9 billion, around 3% more than in the same period in the previous financial year.

As some of the expenditure increase is caused by the rise in inflation via its impact on index linked Gilts then we do indeed have austerity if you define it as expenditure rising by less than the rate of inflation.

What about the National Debt?

We come into the real lies, damned lies and statistics section here. But let me try and shin a little light. Over the past year it has risen but mostly that has been due to some credit easing ( Term Funding Scheme) by the Bank of England. Over the past year it has raised the National Debt by £89.1 billion and as you can see below this makes a difference to whether it is going up or down.

Public sector net debt (excluding both public sector banks and Bank of England) was £1,591.4 billion at the end of December 2017, equivalent to 77.2% of GDP, a decrease of £26.8 billion (or 3.6 percentage points as a ratio of GDP) on December 2016.

Sadly there is still a lot of manipulation and misrepresentation going on as the main cause of the fall is what happened to the Housing Associations.

As of the end of October 2017, English HAs’ net debt amounted to £65.5 billion, which from November 2017 is no longer to be counted as public sector debt.

It is rarely reported that we use a completely different system to that used by the ratings agencies and the Maastricht criteria so here is the latter.

general government gross debt was £1,720.0 billion at the end of March 2017, equivalent to 86.7% of gross domestic product (GDP); an increase of £68.1 billion on March 2016…general government deficit (or net borrowing) was £46.9 billion in the financial year ending March 2017 (April 2016 to March 2017), equivalent to 2.4% of GDP; a decrease of £29.0 billion on March 2016.

It is like a numerical equivalent of alphabetti spaghetti isn’t it?

Comment

As we try to peer through all the attempts to deceive us about the UK public finances then we get a perspective on this announcement from the UK government. From The Times.

Theresa May is set to authorise the creation of a rapid response unit to stop fake news spreading online.

The team, which will be based in the Cabinet Office, will be tasked with monitoring social media to identify and challenge disinformation.

Time for some Depeche Mode.

It’s too late to change events
It’s time to face the consequence
For delivering the proof
In the policy of truth

Never again
Is what you swore
The time before
Never again
Is what you swore
The time before

The reality is that things are getting better albeit we are still a fair way away from the “promised land” of a surplus which we should be used to by now. As ever it is just around the corner. As to the underlying economy even the CBI seems optimistic looking ahead.

The survey of 369 manufacturers revealed that optimism about both business conditions and export prospects improved at an above-average pace.

A better year for the UK Public Finances ends with a disappointing March

Today we move onto the UK Public Finances but before we do so it is time for some perspective and as so often these days it is Greece that provides it. Let me explain with this from the Financial Times.

Greece’s primary budget surplus – which measures the country’s public finances when excluding debt repayments – hit 4.2 per cent last year, swinging dramatically from a deficit and far outperforming a creditor target of 0.5 per cent for 2016.

This provides two issues of which the first is the way that such data is manipulated, all our finances would be in great shape if we could exclude major repayments and outgoings! If we move to the total numbers we see how misleading this is and on the way learn how much Greece pays on its debt.

Separate figures from Eurostat today showed Greece’s overall public finances were also in healthy shape, boasting a surplus of 0.7 per cent.

My point is that the number above poses a challenge to the view that surpluses on public finances are unreservedly a good thing. On their own they are often a good sign but we need to look at other signals such as the cost.

an economy which has shrunk more than 25 per cent since 2008.

The latest improvement in the public finances that the Institutions are so keen on has come at this price as the Greek statistics agency tells us.

The available seasonally adjusted data1 indicate that in the 4th quarter of 2016 the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in volume terms decreased by 1.2% in comparison with the 3rd quarter of 2016,

The basic lesson of Euro area austerity and the drive for a series of budget surpluses is that it led to a collapse of the economy that is ongoing. A sign of that is the way that the national debt to GDP ( Gross Domestic Product) ratio had risen to 179% at the end of 2016. Indeed if we return to the FT nothing appears to have been learnt.

As it stands, Greece is committed to hit a 3 per cent surplus target for a decade after the end of its rescue in 2018.

A perspective on the UK

A major difference in the UK experience has been that we have seen economic growth. Yes quarterly economic output was initially hit hard as quarterly GDP fell from a pre credit crunch peak of £433.7 billion to £406.3 billion but it has risen since to £470.5 billion. Whilst we saw out budget finances plunge into a substantial deficit the growth has helped us reduce that and in a type of timing irony we reduced it to the Maastricht Treaty maximum of 3% of GDP in 2016. This led to us finally having a smaller deficit than France which was driven by our better economic growth performance. Moving onto our national debt it was at 89.2% of GDP using the European measuring rod.

So the overall experience has been of an improvement except of course it has been much slower than that promised as we were supposed to have a budget surplus by now. Much of that was caused by the fact that the 2 UK governments back then ( Labour and then the Coalition) lived in a fantasy world where the UK economy would grow at 3% per annum whereas 2011 and 12 for example were well below that. Remember the phase when there were concerns about a “triple dip”? Added to that whilst there have been cuts and people affected overall UK austerity has meant more of a reduction in the rate of growth of government spending as opposed to outright cuts.

The fiscal year to 2017

This morning’s update confirms much of the above and let me jump to a signal which we look at as a measure of economic growth.

In the latest full financial year, central government received £674.1 billion in income; including £507.0 billion in taxes. This was around 6% more than in the previous financial year.

So we see that the situation here indicates economic growth although we need to subtract a bit over 1% for the pension related changes to some National Insurance contributions rates. So far so good.

If we move to expenditure then as we note that year started with very little inflation there were increases in real terms.

Over the same period, central government spent £698.6 billion; around 2% more than in the previous financial year.

The combination of the two led to better news for the UK as shown below.

This meant it had to borrow £52.0 billion; £20.0 billion less than in the previous financial year (April 2015 to March 2016).

Meaning that we are now comfortably within the Maastricht criteria for this.

Initial estimates indicate that in the financial year ending March 2017 (April 2016 to March 2017), the public sector borrowed £52.0 billion or 2.6% of gross domestic product (GDP).

Let me present the improvement in a way that is against one of the media themes of these times. The theme that we do not tax companies faces a reality that half of the annual improvement came from higher Corporation Tax revenue. Of course there are tax dodging companies around…….

What about March itself?

The latest monthly data was more of a disappointment.

Public sector net borrowing (excluding public sector banks) increased by £0.8 billion to £5.1 billion in March 2017, compared with March 2016;

There were several factors at play here and let me start with one which will be in the back ground as we see inflation rise. That is that debt costs in March rose by £700 million due presumably to higher RPI ( Retail Price Index) based repayments. In addition to this Income Tax revenues fell and VAT receipts only nudged higher.

Care is needed on the monthly data but we may be seeing another sign of UK economic growth fading a bit here. This is of course consistent with other data such as the way that annual retail sales growth fell to 1.7% in March.

National Debt

The UK uses its own measure of this which in an episode of the television series, Surprise! Surprise! gives an answer lower than the international standard.

Public sector net debt (excluding public sector banks) was £1,729.5 billion at the end of March 2017, equivalent to 86.6% of gross domestic product (GDP); an increase of £123.5 billion (or 3.0 percentage points as a ratio of GDP) on March 2016.

On its measure the Bank of England with its bank friendly policies is responsible for a debt burden of some 5.9% of GDP.

Comment

This has been a long journey for the UK economy and we have already travelled beyond the promised end point which was a budget surplus. On this road we have seen economic growth but also rises in our national debt. Whilst the establishment talk has been of headwinds there is very little talk of the role played but the very low-level of government bond yields which have been reinforced by £435 billion of purchases by the Bank of England. This was reinforced in 2015/16 by the lower rate of inflation which kept our index/inflation linked debt costs low. The inflation gains are currently being reversed.

As to the position now we face the probability of growth fading a bit in 2017 as real incomes are hit by higher inflation. This will slow any further improvement in the public finances which is a shame after a relatively good year. Let me finish by putting our national debt in perspective because is we use the official number it is some 2.6 years of tax revenue.

 

 

The UK Public Finances are another source of embarrassment for Mark Carney

Today sees the latest data on the UK Public Finances which so far have meandered on in the same not entirely merry way as before the EU leave vote. This is in stark contrast to the modeling provided by HM Treasury.

In the ‘shock scenario’ presented in the short-term analysis, in 2017-18, real GDP would be 2.9% lower than baseline, but potential GDP would have declined by 2.1% compared to the baseline.

Believe it or not this was the more moderate scenario and as we have not entered that fiscal year it could of course happen but so far we have seen nothing like that.Of course we should have done as the UK economy was supposed to immediately shrink by up to 1%. The consequence was that the fiscal or budget deficit would rise by £24 billion in 2017/18 and the more extreme “severe shock” would see it rise by £39 billion.

There is a particularly worrying postscript to this in that it was personally signed off by former Bank of England Deputy Governor Professor Sir Charles Bean who of course made a right charlie of himself. Well he is now at the Office of Budget Responsibility producing more growth and borrowing forecasts. There is a particular irony in the lack of responsibility and indeed the rewards for failure on display here.

The Financial Times brings up forecasts of a dire future almost as quickly as it has to offer mea culpae for the previous ones being wrong.

The EU’s Brexit negotiators expect to spend until Christmas solely discussing Britain’s divorce from the bloc, denying London any trade talks until progress is made on a €60bn exit bill and the rights of expatriate citizens.

The Bank of England

The Governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney is of course familiar with the concept of providing “alternative facts” and he was on that road at this month’s Inflation Report.

First, the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement eased fiscal policy over the coming years. This explains about half of our forecast upgrade.

Actually there was an announced change but of course that relies on you believing the forecasts of George Osborne. For example the UK budget was originally supposed to be in surplus right now which of course faded not to the grey of Visage but remained solidly in red ink. So it was the sort of claimed change which probably ends up at the same destination. The flight boards may say a diversion Helsinki but somehow the flight lands at the original destination Copenhagen. At the time of typing this Andrew Tyrie of the Treasury Select Committee is really skewering the Bank of England Chief Economist Andy Haldane on this subject by pointing out that this stimulus is apparently much more stimulative than others of the same size and asking why?

Of course Governor Carney is on the road to changing the UK public finances for the worse in two respects. As we move forwards the inflation he is so keen on “looking through” will raise the cost of financing index-linked bonds. As these are linked to the Retail Price Index which is rising at an annual rate of 2.6% the bill is on its way. Also part of the “Sledgehammer” of policy action last August was the Term Funding Scheme which has raised the national debt which shows a clear lack of forethought. You need to make your way to Appendix 9 but there it is some £31.37 billion of additional debt so that the Bank of England can subsidise the banks yet again.

Today’s data

We open with the traditional January surplus.

Public sector net borrowing (excluding public sector banks) was in surplus by £9.4 billion in January 2017, a £0.3 billion larger surplus than in January 2016; this is the highest January surplus since 2000.

There was some good news in the receipts column.

Self-assessed Income Tax and Capital Gains Tax receipts increased by £2.0 billion to £19.8 billion in January 2017 compared with January 2016; this is the highest January on record (monthly recording of self-assessed tax receipts began in April 1999).

Of course it should be the best on record as it is inflated by economic growth and of course inflation over time. However the rises in the tax-free Personal Allowance over the past 2 government’s will have dampened this somewhat.

Something familiar

This is the ongoing issue of ch-ch-changes to the methodology stirring up all the grit from the bottom of the pot so that the water goes from clear to murky.

In this month’s bulletin we have introduced a new methodology for the recording of Corporation Tax and Bank Corporation Tax Surcharge receipts.

It is hard not to groan a little although of course it is badged as an improvement.

Previously, we have used cash receipts for these taxes as a proxy for accrued revenue. An improved methodology derives accrued revenue figures by adjusting cash receipts to more accurately reflect the time at which the economic activity relating to the tax receipts took place.

It is in fact a type of seasonal adjustment.

The impact of introducing the new methodology is to distribute the tax revenue more evenly over individual months in the year.

Actually it also makes the amount in recent years higher. Do they not know how much was collected?

A deeper perspective

This is provided by the financial year so far.

Public sector net borrowing (excluding public sector banks) decreased by £13.6 billion to £49.3 billion in the current financial year-to-date (April 2016 to January 2017), compared with the same period in the previous financial year;

This is essentially because of a good performance on the revenue front.

In the current financial year-to-date, central government received £553.7 billion in income; including £416.8 billion in taxes. This was around 5% more than in the previous financial year-to-date.

Also contrary to the hints of a fiscal boost we received last autumn and still be trumpeted by the Bank of England this morning there has been some restraint in public expenditure.

Over the same period, central government spent £581.2 billion; around 2% more than in the previous financial year-to-date.

Care is needed here but this is quite close to the current official inflation measure ( CPI 1.8%), the same as what next month will be the new measure at the top of the release ( CPIH 2%), and below the number used for index-linking for that sector of the UK Gilt market ( RPI 2.6%). Of course much of the period here was  where inflation was lower but its rise may well tighten policy in real terms. This would be consistent with what we are hearing from the NHS and councils although the former always needs more money.

The National Debt

If he was still Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne would be shouting this from the rooftops.

Public sector net debt (excluding both public sector banks and Bank of England) was £1,589.2 billion at the end of January 2017, equivalent to 80.5% of gross domestic product (GDP); an increase of £43.6 billion (or a decrease of 0.6 % points as a ratio of GDP) since January 2016.

He was so keen to be able to declare the latter part of that quote but sadly for him he was the past before it arrived. Poor George, although if we look at his fees for speeches maybe not so poor George. The more eagle-eyed amongst you will have spotted the “improvement” which helped.

Public sector net debt (excluding public sector banks) was £1,682.8 billion at the end of January 2017, equivalent to 85.3% of gross domestic product (GDP); an increase of £91.7 billion (or 1.9 % points as a ratio of GDP) since January 2016.

Actually the internationally comparable figure was 87.6% of GDP as of last March.

Comment

As ever much is going on. If we start with the Bank of England then it has not so much moved the goalposts as built its Ivory Tower on the wrong pitch. As the Ivory Tower is fixed in the ground then reality has to change so it has spent so much of this morning talking about a theoretical concept called U* unemployment which does some of the trick. They were discomfited trouble when Andrew Tyrie simply asked them when this had happened before? I did not expect Mark Carney to know as of course the UK did not exist before June 2013 but the blank embarrassed faces of the others were a sight to behold. Sadly nobody asked about why so many female members were leaving the Monetary Policy Committee this year?

The public finances continue to improve albeit more slowly than we would have hoped. There are dangers ahead from the cost of index-linked Gilts as inflation continues to rise and the impact of this inflation on the wider economy. But there are other issues as for example an area near to me in Battersea Park often becomes a trailer park in the search for more revenue, although sadly I understand that the benefit goes more to a private company ( Enable ) than the council itself.

 

 

 

 

 

The UK Public Finances are an ongoing problem

One of the features of the UK economy since the credit crunch has been the change in the Public Finances. The initial decision to bail out the banks made the national debt shoot so high that the establishment introduced plan A which is to produce figures without that. Problem solved! However as well as the explicit change there were more implicit ones such as the consequences of the 6.3% contraction in the UK economy which boosted government spending and cut revenues. Fiscal deficits were run and the national debt rose, actually the latter is still ongoing in spite of efforts by Chancellor Osborne to manipulate and adjust the data via sales of bank shares.

In a way the problems of the latter effort, highlighted in a sense by the downgrade of Deutsche Bank to Baa2 by Moodys last night, show a link with the banks one more time. As they have failed to recover ( more bad figures from RBS and Co-op Bank this year) so have the public finances. An odd link in some ways although of course there are direct links such as the continuing staff cuts and deleveraging that is going on. But if we look at the period of recovery in UK economic growth and GDP levels the truth is that the change in the public finances has under performed and been disappointing. Indeed there is one number which provides quite a critique of the progress made.

The employment rate (the proportion of people aged from 16 to 64 who were in work) was 74.2%, the highest since comparable records began in 1971……There were 31.58 million people in work, 44,000 more than for October to December 2015 and 409,000 more than for a year earlier.

Under the economic models of the establishment we would now be surging into a land of milk and honey for the public finances. We have been hearing a lot from these same models over the past week or so and there seems to be a lack of humble pie there and instead a lot of certainty.

The Office of Budget Responsibility

Back in June 2010 they made some forecasts about the UK public finances.

public sector net borrowing (PSNB) to fall from 11.0 per cent of GDP in 2009-10 to 1.1 per cent in 2015-16;

public sector net debt (PSND) to increase from 53.5 per cent of GDP in 2009-10 to a peak of 70.3 per cent in 2013-14, falling to 69.4 per cent in 2014-15 and 67.4 per cent in 2015-16;

Actually the new OBR went further.

there is a greater than 50 per cent chance of this target being met in 2015- 16. There is also a greater than 50 per cent chance of it being met a year early, in 2014-15.

If we now leave the TARDIS of Doctor Who we can go to the front page of its website and see what happened in those years.

Today’s release provides the first provisional outturn estimate for the full 2015-16 financial year. Public sector net borrowing (PSNB) was £74.0 billion,

So if we show some mercy and cast a veil over 2014-15 we see that the last fiscal year bore no resemblance at all to what they thought. Indeed they were wrong only a month before.

The provisional estimate for net borrowing in 2015-16 is slightly higher than our March forecast,

This is all in spite of the employment situation being extremely favourable as described above. But the OBR did make a fatal error via the flawed “output gap” theory the establishment loves so much they ignore that it has had something of its own lost decade.

Wages and salaries growth rises gradually throughout the forecast, reaching 5½ percent in 2014.

If only!

An extraordinary windfall

This is something that gets very little exposure and if it was a piece of music it would get very little airplay. Indeed the UK has seen two large windfalls and a readjustment. The main one has been the fall in bond or Gilt yields which has made debt so much cheaper to issue. The OBR thought they would average 5.1% now whereas they are below 2%. As this has come at a time when we have not only a lot of debt to issue but also even more maturities to refinance this has given the numbers quite a boost.

Added to this has come the fall in inflation as measured by the RPI which means that index-linked Gilts which are around 22% of UK bonds have been cheaper to finance as well. Between the two an extraordinary windfall has been provided which is mostly silent because of course credit is only for politicians!

Oh and there is the financial reshuffle in the way that the Bank of England still holds some £375 billion of UK Gilts. We pay it debt interest and it gives it back saving politicians a small fortune and in that concept alone meaning it will be with us for a very long time.

What about now?

The problem we currently face is that there have been more than a few signs that the economic recovery phase is mature and may be fading. Not every signal has gone this way as for example last week’s retail sales numbers were refreshing and better. But after economic growth in the first quarter of 2016 we see the NIESR suggesting this has dipped to 0.3% and the Purchasing Manager’s Indices hinting at a further fall to 0.1%.

It is hard not to smile at the UK establishment forecasting a 12 month recession for maybe the first time ever. There were a few replies about 2008 on Twitter until I pointed out that this was post changes not ahead of events. Any such scenario would put a hole in the public finances and let me give you another thought which is a theme of these times. There are many calls for fiscal action around with the most public recently being from Japan at the G7. Well with a fiscal deficit of £76 billion in the last fiscal year – yes the OBR was even more wrong – we see that we have continued to have a fiscal stimulus and if you think that you have to face the troubling issue that it may not be working. Of course the easier approach is simply to cry “More! More” like Agent Smith in the Matrix series of films.

Oh and yes fiscal stimulus is in my financial lexicon for these times.

Today’s numbers

The headline is both good and bad.

Public sector net borrowing excluding public sector banks decreased by £0.3 billion to £7.2 billion in April 2016 compared with April 2015.

Good that it is lower but bad when you note that in spite of the economic growth we apparently have the progress on the deficit is yet again only minor. If we look back over a longer period we see the revenue growth has been solid.

In the financial year ending March 2016 (April 2015 to March 2016), central government received £633.6 billion in income. This was around 3% higher than in the previous financial year, largely due to receiving more Income Tax, and National Insurance contributions,

In April itself there was a boost from one area presumably due to the changes made to rates there.

social (National Insurance) contributions increased by £0.9 billion, or 9.4%, to £10.0 billion

As well as a consequence of the Buy To Let boom just seen.

Stamp Duty on land and property increased by £0.4 billion, or 46.6%, to £1.3 billion

But this reminds us that the story continues to disappoint as revenue growth seems to affect the overall position by less than we would hope as spending which we might hope would fall in fact has been pretty much constant.

Central government expenditure (current and capital) for the financial year ending March 2016 (April 2015 to March 2016) was £685.6 billion, an increase of £0.4 billion, or 0.1%, compared with the previous financial year.

It would be possible to write a book as to whether that is austerity or not. But perhaps that is as good a performance as we can put up. At the moment the figures are also real figures at least according to the official measure of Consumer inflation called CPI.

Comment

The saga of the UK public finances has seen a lot of misrepresentation over the credit crunch era. For example the way that the net debt of the Royal Mail pension fund was booked as a credit and there is the ongoing issue of Bank of England QE. That theme is ongoing and in a way that is perhaps the biggest critique of all as it happens because the UK establishment needs it to. If we were doing well such manipulations and misrepresentations would not be necessary.

Also the forecasts have been hopeless. As the physicist Niles Bohr reminded us.

Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.

Let me serve myself a slice of humble pie as back in 2010 I certainly would not have forecast Gilt yields to be here. Except unlike the establishment I take such things with a fair splash of salt whereas they plough on before exclaiming “surprise” later on. Meanwhile the public finances are struggling in spite of the windfalls I have described earlier.

Here is another example of the attempted manipulations as I provide the headline and what you might call world standard for the national debt.

Public sector net debt excluding public sector banks at the end of April 2016 was £1,596.0 billion, equivalent to 83.3% of gross domestic product (GDP)

general government gross debt (Maastricht debt) at the end of March 2015 was £1,601.3 billion, equivalent to 87.4% of GDP

I note you have to look a long way down the release to see the latter larger number! That resonates with me because you see it was put on the front page around a couple of years ago on my advice. So it would appear that someone did not approve of that…..