Today brings into focus an area that has brought good news for the UK over the past couple of years. This has been the improvement in the public finances which rather curiously lagged the period where the economy recorded its fastest economic growth by around 2 years. Also some of the detail along the way has hinted at a better economic situation than that suggested by economic growth measured by Gross Domestic Product or GDP data. This swings both ways in my view as what were called the bond vigilantes will be happier with the state of play. But also those on the other side of the coin who would like more government spending and/or lower taxes would have fiscal room to do so.
This has been a matter of debate for some time and let me start by saying there are several ways of looking at this. The harshest would be to actually cut government spending which we have not seen in the UK. Let me add more detail by pointing out that some areas clearly have but overall the story has nor been that as other areas spent more. The more realistic version seems to be restricting government spending in real terms which we have seen some of overall. If we look at it in terms of years then we have recorded on here two main phases firstly from around 2010 when the brakes were applied and from 2012/13 when the pressure on the spending brakes was loosened.
Also there was some tightening on the other side of the fiscal ledger of which the standout was the rise in Value Added Tax or VAT. There was a relatively brief cut from 17.5% to 15% but then a rise to 20% where in spite of the claims of a return to normal it is still at the supposedly emergency rate.
Having established some perspective let us look at this from the IPPR which compared us to these countries “This comprises Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Spain and Sweden.”.
We find that on average these countries spend 48.9 per cent of GDP on public spending, compared to just 40.8 per cent in the UK. Furthermore, whilst the UK’s spending has fallen by 7 percentage points – from around 47 per cent of GDP to 40 per cent of GDP – since the onset of austerity, the comparable fall across these countries is just 3 percentage points. Moreover, if the UK were to match their current levels of spending tomorrow it would be worth £2,500 per person per year, of which £1,800 would go towards social spending; meaning health, education and social security.
Okay if we break this down we see that the picture is more complex. Let me show you this by looking at the Euro area in total for 2018 for which we got figures yesterday. There the fiscal deficit was a mere 0.5% of GDP with spending at 46.8% and revenue at 46.3%. Furthermore many of the countries in the IPPR list ran fiscal surpluses in 2018
Germany (+1.7%), the Netherlands (+1.5%), Sweden (both +0.9%), Denmark (+0.5%). Austria (+0.1%).
So on that measure they are more fiscally austere than the UK which ran a deficit. As you can see things are more complex than they argue which is hinted at by the way they use tax revenue as a benchmark rather than total revenues which changes the numbers quite a bit. We have numbers for different periods but my 46.3% for the Euro area is rather different to the 41.1% for their sample and looks a swinging rather than a straight ball to me.
Of course spending is not a free good either. Could we match the spending tomorrow? Yes we could if we wished and for a while with bond yields where they are it would at first be no big deal, but even the IPPR realises it would have to come with this.
But in the UK, as IPPR has previously recommended, significant additional revenue could be raised through increasing the rate of corporation tax in line with the European average, reforming income tax but in a way that protects those on low and middle incomes, and changes to the way in which we tax wealth.
As to Corporation Tax I am dubious as one thing we have learned in the credit crunch era is the way multinationals pretty much choose where they pay tax or if you want the issue in one word, Ireland.
Moving on we see this and again the catch is that in the credit crunch era such Ivory Tower calculations are fine up in the clouds but down here at ground level they have often crumbled.
They find that the cumulative effect of austerity has been to shrink the economy by £100bn today compared to what it would have been without the cuts: that is worth around £3,600 per family in 2019/20 alone.
The overall picture presented continues to be a strong one.
In the latest full financial year (April 2018 to March 2019), central government received £739.4 billion in income, including £558.6 billion in taxes. This was 5% more than in the previous financial year.
This again hints that the economy has been stronger than the GDP data suggests and follows the labour market theme of rising employment and higher real wages.
On the other side of the ledger the throwing around of the word austerity makes me uncomfortable when we are increasing spending in real terms.
Over the same period, central government spent £741.5 billion, an increase of around 3%.
Well unless you use the RPI as your inflation measure but even then it is roughly flat.
The combination meant this.
Borrowing in the latest full financial year (April 2018 to March 2019) was £24.7 billion, £17.2 billion less than in the previous financial year; the lowest financial year borrowing for 17 years.
Or if you prefer our credit crunch era journey can be put like this.
In the latest full financial year (April 2018 to March 2019), the £24.7 billion (or 1.2% of gross domestic product (GDP)) borrowed by the public sector was less than one-fifth (16.1%) of the amount seen in the FYE March 2010, when borrowing was £153.1 billion (or 9.9% of GDP).
As a single month March was not one for austerity as it looks like departments made sure that they spent their annual budgets so if some potholes were filled in around your locale that is why.
while total central government expenditure increased by 5.7% (or £3.5 billion) to £65.7 billion.
The explanation is rather bare but if we look at the ledger we see spending on goods and services was up by £1.9 billion. So maybe there was some Brexit stockpiling too.
The last decade has seen a lot of debate over the concept of austerity involving quite a lot of goalpost moving, so much so that it is fortunate designers give them wheels these days. Whereas we do know what real austerity has been as @fwred made clear yesterday,
Today’s craziest chart goes to Greece, with a primary surplus of 4.4% of GDP in 2018, beating an already insane target of 3.5%. Jaw-dropping for those of us old enough to remember the whole story.
Or as The Nutty Boys put it.
Madness, madness, they call it madness
Madness, madness, they call it madness
I’m about to explain
A-That someone is losing their brain
Hey, madness, madness, I call it gladness, yee-ha-ha-ha
We have seen nothing like that but now face choices ahead as do we copy the Germand and go for a surplus? Or do we now pick out areas where we can spend more? With borrowing so cheap with our ten-year Gilt yield at 1.2% it is not expensive. As ever some care is needed as we have spent in some areas as I note in the IPPR paper than at 7.4% of GDP we spend the same on health as the countries they compare us too which completes something I recall Tony Blair aiming at back in the day.
Meanwhile this has hit the news. I have floated two candidates in Andrew Sentance and Ann Pettifor, but who would you suggest?
Although if Yes Prime Minister has its usual accuracy the choice has already been made and this is just for show