The UK Public finances have sometimes believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.

As we await the UK Budget which of course is showing all the signs of being a leaky vessel if not a sieve a lot is going on in the background. What I mean by this is that the goal posts are moving back and forth so much that the grounds(wo)man must be grateful they have wheels on them these days. Let me give you the first example which I mentioned last week. From the Financial Times.

Chancellor Philip Hammond is planning to shift the goalposts on the government’s borrowing limits in a move that will flatter the public finances and provide up to £5bn a year in additional public spending in the Budget on Wednesday. He will use a technical change in the accounting status of housing associations to reduce headline borrowing figures but will not make a corresponding change to his deficit targets in the Budget.

What the FT omitted to point out was the full-scale of the mess here. You see it was only a couple of years ago the housing associations were included in the national debt and now they are not. So overall we have not really gained anything it just looks like we have! Along the way the credibility of the numbers has been reduced again.

The danger for a Chancellor with an apparent windfall is that somebody spends it before he can and marathon man Mark Carney sprinted to the front of the queue to help his banking friends.

Consistent with this, I am requesting that you authorise an increase in the total size of the APF of £25bn to £585bn, in order to accommodate expected usage of the TFS by the end of the drawdown period.

What is happening here is that the Bank of England has got permission to increase the size of its bank subsidy called the Term Funding Scheme by another £25 billion to £140 billion. This is where banks get the ability to borrow from the Bank of England at or close to Bank Rate which is bad news for depositors as it means the banks are less interested in them. This has three consequences, Firstly as we are looking at the public finances today if this £25 billion is used then it raises the national debt by the same amount. Then there is an odd link because if things are going well why do we need to add an extra £40 billion ( there was an extra £15 billion in August) to this?

With the stronger economy and lending growth, TFS drawings reached a total of £91 bn at mid-November 2017.

We are in a pretty pickle if banks need subsidies in the good times. Sadly the mostly supine media are unlikely to ask this question or to wonder how all the downbeat forecasts and Brexit worries have suddenly morphed into a “stronger economy”. The next issue is where will the money turn up? It could be funds to give the car loans sector one last hurrah but as housing appears to be top of the list right now it seems more likely that the Chancellor would prefer another £25 billion to subsidise mortgage rates even further.

Rates on new and existing loans fell after the TFS was launched and have remained low by historical standards

If we move to Bank of England policy it has raised interest-rates on the wider economy but now plans to expand its subsidies to “the precious”. Frankly its opus operandi could not be much more transparent.

Number Crunching

Part one

Firstly there is the FT on the Office for Budget Responsibility or OBR.

But the mood has improved since then after the OBR made clear it would offset some of the “significant” productivity downgrade with more optimistic employment forecasts.

So much for being “independent” and please remember tomorrow when the media are treating its pronouncements with respect and grandeur which is that the first rule of OBR club is that it is always wrong. Unless of course wage growth and gilt yields actually are 5% right now.

Part two

Then there is the possible/probable Brexit bill which is being reported as rising from £20 billion to £40 billion by places which told us it would be either £60 billion or £100 billion. So is that up or down? You choose.

Part three

I am sad that what was once a proud national broadcaster has sunk to this but this is finance from the BBC.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-politics-42059439/loadsamoney-norman-smith-on-the-brexit-divorce-bill

Today’s data

The news did not give any great reasons to be cheerful.

Public sector net borrowing (excluding public sector banks) increased by £0.5 billion to £8.0 billion in October 2017, compared with October 2016.

The driver here was increased debt costs as the interest bill rose from £4.8 billion last October to £6 billion this. As conventional Gilt yields are broadly similar then most if not all of this has been caused by higher inflation as measured by the Retail Prices Index. The actual amount varies as they pay on a lagged inflation basis which is not always the same but as a rule of thumb the measure has been ~2% per annum higher this year.

Looking beyond that there is a little more optimism to be seen as revenues are not to bad if we switch to the fiscal year to date numbers.

In the current financial year-to-date, central government received £394.3 billion in income, including £292.7 billion in taxes. This was around 4% more than in the same period in the previous financial year.

This means that we are doing a little better than last year.

Public sector net borrowing (excluding public sector banks) decreased by £4.1 billion to £38.5 billion in the current financial year-to-date (April 2017 to October 2017), compared with the same period in 2016; this is the lowest year-to-date net borrowing since 2007.

There has been a trend for a while for the numbers to be revised favourably as time passes so even including the debt interest rises we are edging forwards. As the inflation peak passes that will be less of an influence. The next major factor will be the self-assessment season in January and February when we will find out how much last years numbers were flattered by efforts to avoid the rise in dividend taxation.

National Debt

On the theme of moving goal posts we produce quite a lot of numbers on this front and here is the headline.

Public sector net debt (excluding public sector banks) was £1,790.4 billion at the end of October 2017, equivalent to 87.2% of gross domestic product (GDP), an increase of £147.8 billion (or 4.5 percentage points as a ratio of GDP) on October 2016.

Most of the rise in the last year can be attributed to Mark Carney and his colleagues at the Bank of England.

Of this £147.8 billion, £101.7 billion is attributable to debt accumulated within the Bank of England. Nearly all of it is in the Asset Purchase Facility, including £89.9 billion from the Term Funding Scheme (TFS).

By chance our headline number is quite close to international standards as Eurostat has our national debt at this.

general government gross debt was £1,720.0 billion at the end of March 2017, equivalent to 86.8% of gross domestic product (GDP); an increase of £68.1 billion on March 2016.

Comment

The accident of timing that brings our public finance data up to date a bit over 24 hours before the Budget gives us some perspective. Firstly if you recall some of the numbers from yesterday how wrong the OBR has been which never seems to bother the media along the lines of Alice through the looking-glass.

‘I could tell you my adventures–beginning from this morning,’ said Alice a little timidly: ‘but it’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.’

Let me offer a policy prescription for the OBR

The mad Queen said, “Off with his head! Off with his head! Off with his head!” Well… that’s too bad… no more heads to cut.”

As to the Budget it would seem it is arriving with a housing obsession. Even the Governor of the Bank of England has got in on the act with yet another banking subsidy to reduce mortgage rates. The way we are told that was ending but in fact is being expanded feels like something out of Alice In Wonderland. Perhaps we will seem some more bribes in addition to the cheap railcards for millenials also.

As to the public finances if we skip the incompetent blunderings of the Bank of England which surely could have designed a scheme which did not raise the national debt we see a situation which is slowly improving. It is not impossible once the inflation peak passes that our debt to GDP ratio could fall but care is needed as you see the only question in the number crunching here is are there only 6?

Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

What is austerity and how much of it have we seen?

The subject of austerity is something which has accompanied the lifespan of this blog so 7 years now. The cause of its rise to prominence was of course the onset of the credit crunch which led to higher fiscal deficits and then national debts via two routes. The first was the economic recession ( for example in the UK GDP fell by approximately 6% as an initial response) leading to a fall in tax revenue and a rise in social security payments. The next factor was the banking bailouts which added to national debts of which the extreme case was Ireland where the national debt to GDP ratio rose from as low as 24% in 2006 to 120% in 2012.  It was a rarely challenged feature of the time that the banks had to be bailed out as they were treated like “the precious” in the Lord of the Rings and there was no Frodo to throw them into the fires of Mount Doom.

It was considered that there had to be a change in economic policy in response to the weaker economic situation and higher public-sector deficits and debts. This was supported on the theoretical side by this summarised by the LSE.

The Reinhart-Rogoff research is best known for its result that, across a broad range of countries and historical periods, economic growth declines dramatically when a country’s level of public debt exceeds 90% of gross domestic product……… they report that average (i.e. the mean figure in formal statistical terms) annual GDP growth ranges between about 3% and 4% when the ratio of public debt to GDP is below 90%. But they claimed that average growth collapses to -0.1% when the ratio rises above a 90% threshold.

The work of Reinhart and Rogoff was later pulled apart due to mistakes in it but by then it was too late to initial policy. It was also apparently too late to reverse the perception amongst some that Kenneth Rogoff who these days spend much of his time trying to get cash money banned is a genius. That moniker seems to have arrived via telling the establishment what it wants to hear.

The current situation

The UK Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell wrote an op-ed in the Financial Times ahead of Wednesday’s UK Budget stating this.

The chancellor should use this moment to lift his sights, address the immediate crisis in Britain’s public services that his party created, and change course from the past seven disastrous years of austerity.

If we ignore the politics the issue of austerity is in the headlines again but what it is has changed over time. Before I move on it seems that both our Chancellor who seemed to think there were no unemployed at one point over the weekend and the Shadow Chancellor was seems to be unaware the UK economy has been growing for around 5 years seem equally out of touch.

Original Austerity

This involved cutting back government expenditure and raising taxation to reduce the fiscal deficits which has risen for the reasons explained earlier. Furthermore it was claimed that such policies would stop rises in the national debt and in some extreme examples reduce it. The extreme hardcore example of this was the Euro area austerity imposed on Greece as summarised in May 2010 by the IMF.

First, the government’s finances must be sustainable. That requires reducing the fiscal deficit and placing the debt-to-GDP ratio on a downward trajectory……With the budget deficit at 13.6 percent of GDP and public debt at 115 percent in 2009, adjustment is a matter of extreme urgency to avoid the debt spiraling further out of control.

A savage version of austerity was begun which frankly looked more like a punishment beating than an economic policy.

The authorities have already begun fiscal consolidation equivalent to 5 percent of GDP.

But the Managing Director of the IMF Dominique Strauss-Khan was apparently confident that austerity in this form would lead to economic growth.

we are confident that the economy will emerge more dynamic and robust from this crisis—and able to deliver the growth, jobs and prosperity that the country needs for the future.

Maybe one day it will but so far there has been very little recovery from the economic depression inflicted on Greece by the policy prescription. This has meant that the national debt to GDP ratio has risen to 175% in spite of the fact that there was the “PSI” partial default in 2012. It is hard to think of a clearer case of an economic policy disaster than this form of disaster as for example my suggestion that you needed  a currency devaluation to kick-start growth in such a situation was ignored.

A gentler variation

This came from the UK where the coalition government announced this in the summer of 2010.

a policy decision to reduce total spending by an additional £32 billion a year by 2014-15, including debt interest savings;

In addition there were tax rises of which the headline was the rise in the expenditure tax VAT from 17.5% to 20%. These were supposed to lead to this.

Public sector net borrowing falls from 11.0 per cent of GDP in 2009-10 to 1.1 per cent in 2015-16. Public sector net debt is forecast to rise to a peak of 70.3 per cent of GDP in 2013-14, before falling to 67.4 per cent in 2015-16.

As Fleetwood Mac would put it “Oh Well”. In fact the deficit was 3.8% of GDP in the year in question and the national debt continued to rise to 83.8% of GDP. So we have a mixed scorecard where the idea of a surplus was a mirage but the deficit did fall but not fast enough to prevent the national debt from rising. Much of the positive news though comes from the fact that the UK economy began a period of sustained economic growth in 2012.

Economic growth

We have already seen the impact of economic growth via having some (  UK) and seeing none and indeed continued contractions ( Greece). But the classic case of the impact of it on the public finances is Ireland where the national debt to GDP ratio os now reported as being 72.8%.

Sadly the Irish figures rely on you believing that nominal GDP rose by 68 billion Euros or 36.8% in 2015 which frankly brings the numbers into disrepute.

Comment

The textbook definitions of austerity used to involved bringing public sector deficits into surplus and cutting the national debt. These days this has been watered down and may for example involve reducing expenditure as a percentage of the economy which may mean it still grows as long as the economy grows faster! The FT defines it thus.

Austerity measures refer to official actions taken by the government, during a period of adverse economic conditions, to reduce its budget deficit using a combination of spending cuts or tax rises.

So are we always in “adverse economic conditions” in the UK now? After all we still have austerity after 5 years of official economic growth.

What we have discovered is that expenditure cuts are hard to achieve and in fact have often been transfers. For example benefits have been squeezed but the basic state pension has benefited from the triple lock. Also if last years shambles over National Insurance is any guide we are finding it increasingly hard to raise taxes. Not impossible as Stamp Duty receipts have surged for example but they may well be eroded on Wednesday.

Also something unexpected, indeed for governments “something wonderful” happened which was the general reduction in the cost of debt via lower bond yields. Some of that was a result of long-term planning as the rise of “independent” central banks allowed them to indulge in bond buying on an extraordinary scale and some as Prince would say is a Sign O’The Times. As we stand the new lower bond yield environment has shifted the goal posts to some extent in my opinion. The only issue is whether we will take advantage of it or blow it? Also if we had the bond yields we might have expected with the current situation would public finances have improved much?

Meanwhile let me wonder if a subsection of austerity was always a bad idea? This is from DW in August.

Germany’s federal budget  surplus hit a record 18.3 billion euros ($21.6 billion) for the first half of 2017.

With its role in the Euro area should a country with its trade surpluses be aiming at a fiscal surplus too or should it be more expansionary to help reduce both and thus help others?

 

 

The problems of the Private Finance Initiative mount

The crossover and interrelationship between the private and public-sectors is a big economic issue. I was reminded of it on Saturday evening as I watched the excellent fireworks display in Battersea Park but from outside the park itself. The reason for this is that it used to be council run and free albeit partly funded by sponsors such as Heart Radio if I recall correctly. But these days like so much in Battersea Park it is run by a company called Enable who charge between £6 and £10 depending on how early you pay. You may note that GDP or Gross Domestic Product will be boosted but the event is the same. However there is a difference as the charge means that extra security is required and the park is fenced in with barriers. I often wonder how much of the charges collected pays for the staff and infrastructure to collect the charge?! There is definitely a loss to public utility as the park sees more and more fences go up in the run-up to the event and I often wonder about how the blind gentlemen who I see regularly in the park with his stick copes.

Private Finance Initiative

Elements of the fireworks changes apply here as PFI is a way of reducing both the current fiscal deficit and the national debt as HM Parliament explains here.

National Accounts use the European System of accounts (ESA) to distinguish between on and off balance sheet debt. If the risks and reward of a project is believed to be passed to the private sector, it is not recorded in the government borrowing figures, and remains off balance sheet. Approximately 90% of all PFI investment is off balance sheet, and is not recorded in National Accounts. Public
spending statistics, such as the Public Sector Net Debt, also follow ESA.

I like the phrase “believed to be” about risk being passed to the private-sector as we mull how much risk there actually is in building a hospital for the NHS which will then pay you a fee for 25/30 years? However we see why governments like this as what would otherwise be state spending on a new hospital or prison that would add to that year’s expenditure and fiscal deficit/national debt suddenly disappears from the national accounts. Perfect for a politician who can take the credit with no apparent cost.

Problems

The magic trick for the public finances does not last however as each year a lease payment is made. So there is a switch from current spending to future spending which of course is the main reason why politician’s like the scheme. However the claim that the scheme’s offer value for money gets rather hard when you see numbers like this from a Freedom of Information reply last month.

The Calderdale and Huddersfield Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust entered into a PFI with a company called Calderdale Hospitals SPC Ltd. Prior to May 2002, the all in interest rate in respect of bank loans that the company had
taken from its bankers was 7.955% per annum. After May 2002, when the PFI Company refinanced its loan, it was 6.700% per annum.

As you can see the politicians at that time in effect took a large interest-rate or more specifically Gilt yield punt and got is spectacularly wrong. Even with the refinancing the 6.7% looks dreadful especially as we note that we are now a bit beyond the average term for a UK Gilt. So if a Gilt had been issued back then on average it would be being refinanced now at say 1.5%. Care is needed as of course politicians back then had no idea about what was going to happen in the credit crunch but on the other hand I suspect some would be around saying how clever they were is yields were now 15%! On that note let me apologise to younger readers who in many cases will simply not understand such an interest-rate, unless of course they venture into the world of sub-prime finance or get a student loan.

In terms of pounds,shillings and pence here is the data as of 2015.

The total annual unitary charge across all PFI projects active in 2013/14 was £10bn. The cumulative unitary charge payments sum to £310bn: of this £88 billion has been paid (up to and including 2014/15) and £222 billion is outstanding. The unitary charge figures will peak at
0.5% of GDP in 2017/18.

Inflexibility

This is not only an issue on the finance side it is often difficult for the contracts to be changed as the world moves on. Or as HM Parliament puts it.

It can be difficult to make alterations to projects, and take into account changes in the public sector’s service requirements.

Are supporters losing faith?

Today the Financial Times is reporting this.

Olivier Brousse, chief executive of John Laing, which invests in and manages PFI hospitals, schools, and prisons, said PFI had lost “public goodwill” and needs “reinventing” with providers subject to a “payment by results” mechanism where money is clawed back for missed targets.

That is true although he then moves onto what looks like special pleading.

“The market in the UK is going away so we need to get back around the table and agree something acceptable,” said Mr Brousse. “The UK’s need for new infrastructure is significant and urgent. The private sector stands ready to deliver this . . . If the current PFI framework isn’t fit for purpose — then let’s completely rethink it to make it work.”

Indeed we then seem to move onto the rather bizarre.

“The problem with PFI isn’t transparency. It is outcomes,” he said. “I’m a citizen and if a school is built under PFI I also want it to commit to reducing bullying and violence.”

Surely the school should be run by the Governors rather than the company that built it? Perhaps he is trying to sneak in an increase in his company’s role.

There were also mentions of this which as I note the comments to the article seems set to be an ongoing problem whether it s in the public or private sectors.

In August John Laing agreed to hand back a lossmaking £3.8bn 25-year PFI waste project in Greater Manchester for an undisclosed sum. One of Britain’s biggest PFIs, the Greater Manchester waste disposal authority bin clearance, recycling, incinerator and green power station project had struggled to remain profitable. Manchester council said it would save £20m a year immediately from access to cheaper loans and £37m a year from April 2019.

Comment

To my mind the concept of PFI conflated two different things. The fact that private businesses can run things more efficiently than the public-sector which is often but not always true. For that to be true you need a clear objective which is something which is difficult in more than a few areas. The two main dangers are of missing things which turn out to be important as time passes and over regulation and complexity which may arrive together. Then we had the issue that whilst it was convenient for the political class to kick expenditure like a can into the future this meant a larger bill would eventually be paid by taxpayers. Even worse they have ended up trapping taxpayers into deals at what now seem usurious rates of interest.

Pretty much all big contracts with the private-sector seem to hit trouble as this from the National Audit Office on the Hinkley Point nuclear power project points out.

The Department has committed electricity consumers and taxpayers to a high cost and risky deal in a changing energy marketplace. We cannot say the Department has maximised the chances that it will achieve value for money.

There is of course the ever more expensive HS2 railway plan to add to the mix.

Thus we see that some of the trouble faced by UK PFI is true of many infrastructure projects. Yet some of it is specific to them and frankly it is hard to make a case for it right now because of some of the consequences of the credit crunch era. Firstly governments are able to borrow very cheaply by historical standards and secondly because adding to the national debt bothers debt investors much less than it once did especially if it is also simply a different form of accounting for an unaltered reality.

One of the arguments of my late father was that the UK needed an infrastructure plan set for obvious reasons a long way ahead. In many ways now would be a good time because the finance would be cheap but sadly we just seem to play a game of tennis as the ball gets hit from the private side of the net to the public side and back again.

 

 

 

 

 

Are improving UK Public Finances a sign of austerity or stimulus?

One of the features of the credit crunch era is that it brought the public finances into the news headlines. There were two main reasons for this and the first was the economic slow down leading to fiscal stabilisers coming into effect as tax revenues dropped. The second was the cost of the bank bailouts as privatisation of profits turned into socialisation of losses. The latter also had the feature that establishments did everything they could to keep the bailouts out of the official records. For example my country the UK put them at the back of the statistical bulletin hoping ( successfully) that the vast majority would not bother to read that far. My subject of earlier this week Portugal always says the bailout is excluded before a year or so later Eurostat corrects this.

The next tactic was to forecast that the future would be bright and in the UK that involved a fiscal surplus that has never turned up! It is now rather late and seems to have been abandoned but under the previous Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne it was always around 3/4 years away. This meant that we have had a sort of stimulus austerity where we know that some people and at times many people have been affected and experienced cuts but somehow the aggregate number does not shrink by much if at all.

If we move to the economy then there have been developments to boost revenue and we got a clear example of this yesterday. Here is the official retail sales update.

Compared with August 2016, the quantity bought increased by 2.4%; the 52nd consecutive month of year-on-year increase in retail sales.

As you can see we have seen quite a long spell of rising retail volumes providing upward momentum for indirect taxes of which the flagship in the UK is Value Added Tax which was increased to 20% in response to the credit crunch. Actually as it is levied on price increases too the development below will boost VAT as well.

Store prices increased across all store types on the year, with non-food stores and non-store retailing recording their highest year-on-year price growth since March 1992, at 3.2% and 3.3% respectively.

There is one cautionary note is that clothing prices ( 4.2%) are a factor and we are at a time of year where the UK’s statisticians have got themselves into a mess on this front. In fact much of the recent debate over inflation measurement was initially triggered by the 2010 debacle on this front.

Public Sector Pay

One area of austerity was/is the public-sector pay cap where rises were limited to 1% per annum, although we should say 1% per annum for most as we saw that some seemed to be exempt. However this seems to be ending as we start to see deals that break it. In terms of the public finances the Financial Times has published this.

 

The IFS has estimated that it would cost £4.1bn a year by 2019-20 if pay across the public sector were increased in line with inflation from next year rather than capped at 1 per cent……….Figures published in March by the Office for Budget Responsibility, the fiscal watchdog, suggest that if a 2 per cent pay rise were offered to all public sector workers rather than the planned 1 per cent cap, employee numbers would need to be reduced by about 50,000 to stay within current budgets.

Today’s Data

The UK data this week has been like a bit of late summer sun.

Public sector net borrowing (excluding public sector banks) decreased by £1.3 billion to £5.7 billion in August 2017, compared with August 2016; this is the lowest August net borrowing since 2007.

This combined with a further upgrade revision for July meant that we are now slightly ahead on a year on year basis.

Public sector net borrowing (excluding public sector banks) decreased by £0.2 billion to £28.3 billion in the current financial year-to-date (April 2017 to August 2017), compared with the same period in 2016; this is the lowest year-to-date net borrowing since 2007.

Revenue

There was good news on the income tax front as the self-assessment season was completed.

This month, receipts from self-assessed Income Tax were £1.3 billion, taking the combined total of July and August 2017 to £9.4 billion; an increase of £0.4 billion compared with the same period in 2016. This is the highest level of combined July and August self-assessed Income Tax receipts on record (records began in 1999).

So we had an increase of over 4% on a year on year basis. This seems to be the state of play across overall revenues.

In the current financial year-to-date, central government received £280.4 billion in income; including £209.4 billion in taxes. This was around 4% more than in the same period in the previous financial year.

There is one area which continues to stand out and in spite of the talk and comment about slow downs it remains Stamp Duty on land and property. So far this financial year it has raised some £5.9 billion which is up £0.9 billion on the same period in 2016. A factor in the increase will be the rise in Stamp Duty rates for buy-to lets.

Expenditure

This rose at a slower rate which depending on the measure you use close to or blow the inflation rate.

Over the same period, central government spent £302.7 billion; around 3% more than in the same period in the previous financial year.

The subject of inflation remains a topic in another form as the UK’s inflation or index linked debt is getting expensive. This is due to the rises in the Retail Price Index which will be the major factor in UK debt interest rising by £3.8 billion to £26.3 billion in the financial year so far. So much so there is an official explainer.

Both the uplift on coupon payments and the uplift on the redemption value are recorded as debt interest paid by the government, so month-on-month there can be sizeable movements in payable government debt interest as a result of movements in the RPI.

The next area where there has been something of a surge raises a wry smile. Contributions to the European Union have risen by £1 billion to £4.6 billion this financial year so far.

Comment 

We can see the UK’s journey below.

Current estimates indicate that in the full financial year ending March 2017 (April 2016 to March 2017), the public sector borrowed £45.6 billion, or 2.3% of gross domestic product (GDP). This was £27.6 billion lower than in the previous full financial year and around one-third of that borrowed in the financial year ending March 2010, when borrowing was £152.5 billion or 10.0% of GDP.

We seem so far this year to be borrowing at the same rate as last year. So you could easily argue we have had a long period of stimulus ( fiscal deficits). Yet only an hour after today’s numbers have been released we seem to have moved on.

Chancellor should have room to ease austerity in November Budget, says John Hawksworth

Oh and remember the first rule of OBR ( Office of Budget Responsibility) Club? From the Guardian.

Back in March, the OBR forecast that the budget deficit would rise to around £58 billion this year, but the latest data suggest that it may be similar to the £46 billion outturn for 2016/17.

So let us enjoy a week where the data has been better as we mull the likely consequences of a minority government for public spending. Meanwhile here are the national debt numbers and as I pointed out earlier they omit £300 billion ( RBS).

Public sector net debt (excluding public sector banks) was £1,773.3 billion at the end of August 2017, equivalent to 88.0% of gross domestic product (GDP), an increase of £150.9 billion (or 4.8 percentage points as a ratio of GDP) on August 2016.

Oh and £108.8 billion of the increase is the “Sledgehammer” QE of Mark Carney and the Bank of England. On that subject here is Depeche Mode.

Enjoy the silence

Me on Core Finance TV

http://www.corelondon.tv/central-banks-infinity-beyond/

.

UK Public Finances see a fiscal stimulus for bond holders and the EU

Today we advance on the latest data for the UK Public Finances. This adds to a week where they have already been in the news. After all they will be affected by the HS2 railway project especially if its costs overrun as we looked at on Tuesday. It is tempting to suggest it will take place in a time way beyond how far ahead politicians think but of course the raising of the state pension age to 68 beginning in 2037 was badged as saving this according to BBC News.

The government said the new rules would save the taxpayer £74bn by 2045/46. While it had been due to spend 6.5% of GDP on the state pension by 2039/40, this change will reduce that figure to 6.1% of GDP.

If you look at the state pension system it appears that you can take away jam tomorrow but not jam today. Only yesterday I looked at this and the pension prospects for millennials who will ( rightly in my view) fear further rises in the state pension age.

The better economic news this week on inflation and retail sales will help a little in the short-term but the truth was that after the EU leave vote 2017 was always going to be more of an economic challenge due to a lower value for the UK Pound £ leading to higher inflation and lower real wages. We have some economic growth but not much.

Looking ahead

A week ago the Office for Budget Responsibility looked at the UK public finances and attempted to forecast years and indeed decades ahead. For perspective let me remind you that the first rule of OBR club is that the OBR is always wrong! However there are a few issues to look at and this summary of our current position is a start.

But the budget is still in deficit by 2 to 3 per cent of GDP – as it was on the eve of the crisis – and net debt is more than double its pre-crisis share of GDP and not yet falling. As a result, the public finances are much more sensitive to interest rate and inflation surprises than they were.

That latter sentence suggests they have been reading the discussions on here. I remember a comment pointing out that the UK would struggle if gilt yields rose above 3% and I have pointed out the impact of this year’s rise in inflation on the debt costs of index-linked Gilts. On that subject the economics editor of the Financial Times has written another piece of propaganda about the Retail Price Index saying it gives much to high a number. You may note he uses clothing prices as apparent proof but the vastly more important housing market somehow gets forgotten. Mind you if I had been a vocal supporter of putting imputed rents into the botched CPIH maybe I would suffer from selective amnesia as well.

 I keep forgettin’ things will never be the same again
I keep forgettin’ how you made that so clear
I keep forgettin’ it all ( Michael McDonald )

Still my rule that forecasts will tell us the public finances will be fine in four years time continues to be in play.

Our March forecast showed it on course to reduce the deficit to 0.7 per cent of GDP by 2021-22, but predicated on plans for a further significant cut in real public services spending per person.

Today’s data

Some of the cheer from this week’s UK economic data disappeared as these numbers were released.

Public sector net borrowing (excluding public sector banks) increased by £2.0 billion to £6.9 billion in June 2017, compared with June 2016………….Public sector net borrowing (excluding public sector banks) increased by £1.9 billion to £22.8 billion in the current financial year-to-date (April 2017 to June 2017), compared with the same period in 2016.

So we see that the financial year so far has deteriorated and the cause was June. If we drill into the detail we see that my point about the cost of inflation is in play as debt interest costs rose from £3.7 billion to £4.9 billion. This has to be the cost of our index linked Gilts rising as the RPI does ( currently 3.5% annually ). So far this financial year we have paid an extra £3.3 billion and whilst there may be a small cost from conventional Gilts the may player again will be higher inflation.

Also there was something which Britney Spears would describe as a combination of toxic and hit me baby one more time.

In June 2017, the UK paid £1,249 million to the EU budget through GNI and VAT based contributions, which are made net of the UK rebate. This payment consisted of our standard monthly VAT and GNI based contribution of £991 million, along with a £258 million payment adjustment covering earlier years.

That was some £700 million higher than last year.

If we switch to the broad picture then the revenue situation looks pretty good and makes us mull economic growth.

In the current financial year-to-date, central government received £164.2 billion in income; including £119.6 billion in taxes. This was around 5% more than in the same period in the previous financial year.

But we have spent more and it can hardly be called austerity can it?

Over the same period, central government spent £185.7 billion; around 5% more than in the same period in the previous financial year

Oh and rather curiously Stamp Duty receipts are up from £3 billion to £3.4 billion so far this financial year.

The Bank of England and the national debt

At first the rise of the UK national debt looks troubling.

This £1.8 trillion (or £1,753.5 billion) debt at the end of June 2017 represents an increase of £128.5 billion since the end of June 2016.

It has the feel of surging until we note the impact of the Bank of England’s Sledgehammer so beloved of Mark Carney and Andy Haldane.

Of this £128.5 billion, £86.6 billion is attributable to debt accumulated within the Bank of England, nearly all of it in the Asset Purchase Facility. Of this £86.6 billion, £69.3 billion relates to the Term Funding Scheme (TFS).

So our national debt rises so they can subsidise the banks yet again!

Comment

Depending on your perspective you can argue that the UK has seen austerity in the credit crunch era as the annual deficits have shrunk or stimulus as each year has seen a deficit. Actually we have seen a hybrid where some have experienced austerity but others such as beneficiaries of the triple-lock on the basic state pension have gained. The “Forward Guidance” is that the deficit will be gone in around 4 years time but that remains true at whatever point in time you choose to pick.

Meanwhile June has seen a fiscal stimulus except there are two catches. Firstly the main component has gone to the holders of RPI linked Gilts which means their credit crunch has been a stormer. I wish I had continued to hold some as whilst it went very well I did not realise that even more was on its way. Let us hope they spend/invest the money in the UK. Of course it will be party time at the pension fund of the Bank of England. The other catch is more toxic as the fiscal stimulus goes to the European Union of which we will only get some back. Ouch!

Meanwhile do we have another potential signal for the state of play in the UK economy? From the BBC.

Air traffic controllers are warning that UK skies are running out of room amid a record number of flights.

Friday is likely to be the busiest day of the year, with air traffic controllers expecting to handle more than 8,800 flights – a record number.

Me on Core Finance

http://www.corelondon.tv/leaky-cpi-effects/

 

 

 

Of UK Austerity and the Queen’s Speech

Today in a happy coincidence we get both the future plans of the current government in the Queen’s Speech as well as the latest public finances data. It looks as though the atmosphere is for this at least according to the Financial Times.

But he (the Chancellor) is coming under growing pressure from some Tory MPs — who are reeling from the loss of the party’s majority in the House of Commons at the June 8 election — to learn lessons and increase public spending.

Why? Well this happened.

The opposition Labour party pulled off surprise gains in the UK general election by offering voters a vision of higher public spending funded by increased taxes on companies and the rich.

So there is likely to be pressure on this front especially as we will have a government that at best will only have a small majority.

Mansion House

The Chancellor Phillip Hammond also spoke at Mansion House yesterday and told us this.

And higher discretionary borrowing to fund current consumption is simply asking the next generation to pay for something that we want to consume, but are not prepared to pay for ourselves, so we will remain committed to the fiscal rules set out at the Autumn Statement which will guide us, via interim targets in 2020, to a balanced budget by the middle of the next decade.

Is that an official denial? Because we know what to do with those! But in fact setting a target of the middle of the next decade (so 2025) gives enormous freedom of movement in practical terms. You could forecast pretty much anything for then and the Office for Budget Responsibility or OBR probably has. If we look back over its lifespan we see that one error which is that forecasting wage inflation now would be 5% per annum as opposed to the current 2% has had enormous implications. Also we only need to look back to the 3rd of October to see the Chancellor giving himself some freedom of manoeuvre.

“As we go into a period where inevitably there will be more uncertainty in the economy, we need the space to be able to support the economy through that period,” he said. “If we don’t do something, if we don’t intervene to counteract that effect, in time it would have an impact on jobs and growth.”

As later today the media will no doubt be using OBR forecasts as if they are some form of Holy Grail lets is remind ourselves of the first rule of OBR club. That is that the OBR is always wrong.

A 100 Year Gilt

You might think that with all the political uncertainty and weakness from the UK Pound that the Gilt market would be under pressure. My favourite comedy series Yes Minister invariably had the two falling together. But nothing is perfect as that relationship is not currently true. It raises a wry smile each time I type it but the UK 10 year Gilt yield is blow 1% ( 0.98%) as I type this. In terms of recent moves the market was boosted yesterday by the words of Bank of England Governor Mark Carney who with his £435 billion of holding’s is by far its largest investor. In essence the likelihood of more purchases of that sort nudged higher yesterday and thus the market rallied and yields fell.

Also we live in a world summarised by this from Lisa Abramowicz of Bloomberg.

Argentina has defaulted on its external debt seven times in the past 200 years. It just sold 100-year bonds.

Actually it was oversubscribed I believe and I will let readers decide if they think a yield of 7.9% was enough. The UK however could borrow much more cheaply than that as according to the Debt Management Office the yield on our longest Gilt (2068) is 1.52%. Actually as we move from the 2040s to the 2060s the yield gets lower but I will not extend that and simply suggest we might be able to borrow for 100 years at 1.5% which seems an opportunity.

Actually quite a historical opportunity and we could go further as this from the Economist from 2005 ( h/t @RSR108 ) hints.

In 1751 Henry Pelham’s Whig government pulled together the lessons learnt on bonds to create the security of the century: the 3% consol. This took its name from the fact that it paid 3% on a £100 par value and consolidated the terms of a variety of previous issues. The consols had no maturity; in theory they would keep paying £3 a year forever.

I have a friend who has always wanted to own a piece of Consols to put the certificate on his wall so he would be pleased. Assuming of course they still do certificates…..

Today’s data

It was almost a type of Groundhog Day.

Public sector net borrowing (excluding public sector banks) decreased by £0.1 billion to £16.1 billion in the current financial year-to-date (April 2017 to May 2017), compared with the same period in 2016; this is the lowest year-to-date net borrowing since 2008.

So the financial year so far looks rather like its predecessor. Although below the surface there were some changes as for example it is hard to put a label of austerity on this.

Over the same period, central government spent £123.5 billion; around 4% more than in the same period in the previous financial year.

In case you were wondering on what? Here it is.

Of this amount, just below two-thirds was spent by central government departments (such as health, education and defence), around one-third on social benefits (such as pensions, unemployment payments, Child Benefit and Maternity Pay)

This meant that tax revenue had to be pretty good.

In the current financial year-to-date, central government received £110.2 billion in income; including £79.1 billion in taxes. This was around 5% more than in the same period in the previous financial year.

In case you are wondering about the gap some £20 billion or so is National Insurance which is not counted as a tax.

How much debt?

The amount of money owed by the public sector to the private sector stood at just above £1.7 trillion at the end of May 2017, which equates to 86.5% of the value of all the goods and services currently produced by the UK economy in a year (or gross domestic product (GDP)).

Actually some of this is due to the Bank of England something which we did not hear about yesterday from Governor Carney.

£86.8 billion is attributable to debt accumulated within the Bank of England, nearly all of it in the Asset Purchase Facility. Of this £86.8 billion, £63.3 billion relates to the Term Funding Scheme (TFS).

Comment

There is much to consider about austerity UK style. Ironically in the circumstances we would qualify under one part of the Euro area rules as our deficit is less than 3% of GDP. But of course that is a long way short of the horizon of surpluses we were promised back in the day. Please remember that later today as all sorts of forecasts appear, as the George Osborne surplus remained 3/4 years away regardless of what point in time you were at. As we have run consistent deficits is that austerity? For quite a few people the answer is yes as some have lost jobs or seen very low pay rises as we note it represented a switch. The switch concept starts to get awkward if we look at the Triple Lock for the basic state pension for example.

Moving onto other matters it was only yesterday that Governor Carney was boasting about the credit boom and I pointed out the unsecured portion. Well already the news has not gone well for him.

Provident Financial said recent collections performance had “deteriorated”, particularly in May. ( New York Times)

Presumably they mean the month and not Theresa. Also there was this in the Agents Report about the car market.

Increases in the sterling cost of new cars and decreases in the expected future residual values of many used cars had put some upward pressure on monthly finance payments on Personal Contract Purchase (PCP) plans.

If there was a canary in this coal mine well look at this.

Car companies had sought to offset this in a
number of ways, including increasing the length of PCP
contracts.

As the can gets solidly kicked yet again we wait to see if finance in this area is as “secured” as Governor Carney has assured us.

The Longest Day

The good news for us in the Northern Hemisphere is that this is the longest day although the sweltering heat in London it felt like a long night! So enjoy as for us it is all downhill now if not for those reading this Down Under. I gather it is also the Day of Rage apparently which may be evidenced when the Donald spots this.

Ford Motor Co (F.N) said on Tuesday it will move some production of its Focus small car to China and import the vehicles to the United States ( Reuters )

The General Election and its impact on the UK Public Finances

Firstly let me start today by expressing my deepest sympathies to those affected by last night’s dreadful attack at Manchester Arena. I do understand some of the feelings of those affected as I was just around the corner from the IRA Bishopgate bomb in the City many years ago. This time around though things are even worse with the apparent targeting of children at a music concert.

Today I wish to do a different form of travelling in time as it will be helpful to remind ourselves of the state of play some 7 years ago as we approached a General Election. From April 29th 2010.

If you look at the three published manifestoes there is a hole in each of them of a similar size, £30 billion. So in truth none of them are being transparent and honest in their spending pledges. So the answer to the question what are they not telling us? Is in economic terms £30 billion. This is just over 2% of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Put another way it is around a quarter of the annual cost of the National Health Service.

So is the standard of debate, manifesto and honesty any better this time around? In terms of scale maybe a little as we see the woeful efforts from back then.

The worst offender is the Liberal Democrats who have not explained where they will find £79 billion of spending cuts which is 5.4% of national income.The Conservatives plan spending cuts but have not explained where they will find £71 billion of them which is 4.8% of national income. Labour plan spending cuts but have not explained. Labour have £59 billion of spending cuts which they have not explained which is 4.1% of national income.

What about now?

We can permit ourselves an opening sigh of relief as the numbers are much lower now as this is what we thought was the situation back then.

Our fiscal deficit for the last year was £163 billion which is 11.6% of our economic output (Gross Domestic Product or GDP).

That compares with £48.7 billion last year. So we have in fact made quite a lot of progress although much more slowly than promised as we were supposed to be in surplus by now. Oh and in a sign of how reality changes over time we now think we borrowed £151 billion in the peak year.

As to the situation post election there is more smoke than clarity but I think whoever wins the Institute of Fiscal Studies have this right.

A balanced budget can apparently now wait until the middle of the next decade.

In political terms that is beyond the furthest star! As to the detail here is the IFS again.

Labour promised £75 billion a year in additional spending and £50 billion of additional taxes. The Liberal Democrats are also aiming for tens of billions of pounds in extra spending partially funded by more tax. Yesterday’s Conservative manifesto was much more, well, conservative………The Conservatives do not appear to have felt the need to spell out much detail. But they have left themselves room for manoeuvre.

The “room for manoeuvre” has been at least partly used over the issue of social care and what has become called the Dementia Tax.Which is currently unchanged or very changed and was always intended to have a cap or has a new one depending on your point of view. Personally I think the official denials of any change are the clearest guide. As to Labour there are clear plans to spend more of which an example from its Manifesto is below.

we will establish a National Investment Bank that will bring in private capital finance to deliver £250 billion of lending power.

This sounds rather like the Juncker Plan from the Euro area but we do not know how much public borrowing there will be or why private sector capital is not supporting such investment already? There are also plans for rail and water nationalisation which as the Guardian points out would work if the UK was/is a hedge fund.

At Severn Trent, for example, the dividend yield is 3.4% at the current share price. Borrowing at 1.5% to buy an asset yielding 3.4% is not the worst trade in the world. And the state, if it wanted to act like a supercharged private equity house, would be able to juice up returns by refinancing the companies’ debt at a lower rate.

In case some of you read the piece the author was somewhat confused about UK Gilt yields but somehow ended up near the right answer. We can presently borrow at 1.6% for fifty years ( for some reason they looked at 10 years) so the doubt in the issue is whether the public sector could get the same rate of return as the private sector. But the elephant in the room is the £60 billion or so required to buy the companies in the first place. They could of course just take them but that would presumably scupper the private capital for the National Investment Bank.

As to the NHS then there seems to be little variety about.

While precise comparisons are hard, there is strikingly little difference between Labour and the Conservatives in their funding promises for the NHS.

The Conservatives are promising a real increase of £8 billion over the next five years. That sounds like a lot but it won’t go far. Nor will Labour’s only slightly less modest offering.

Although the Liberal Democrats do offer something of an alternative.

Increasing spending on the NHS and social care, using the proceeds of a 1p rise in Income Tax.

Actually in a groundhog style way the latter part of that sentence does take us back our 7 years again as the musical theme for whoever is in government next comes from the Beatles.

If you drive a car, I’ll tax the street
If you try to sit, I’ll tax your seat
If you get too cold I’ll tax the heat
If you take a walk, I’ll tax your feet

Today’s data

Let us open with the good news.

Since the previous bulletin, the provisional estimate of central government net borrowing for the full financial year ending March 2017 has been revised down by £3.5 billion

Much of this was from higher tax receipts which particularly in the case of VAT may hint we did a little better than previously thought.

current receipts were revised upwards by £2.4 billion; VAT receipts were revised up by £1.7 billion between January and March 2017, largely due to higher than forecast cash receipts in April 2017; and Income Tax and National insurance contributions received in March were revised upwards by £0.5 billion and £0.3 billion respectively

As to April itself it was not so good.

Public sector net borrowing (excluding public sector banks) increased by £1.2 billion to £10.4 billion in April 2017, compared with April 2016;

Tax receipts were higher but in a potentially worrying signal it was debt costs which moved the numbers as we spent an extra £2.1 billion in this area this April. We are not told why but I expect it to be the rise in inflation and in particular the rise in index or inflation linked Gilts driving this especially as they are linked to the Retail Price Index.

Comment

As we look back that is much that is familiar about the UK Public Finances in a General Election campaign. The reality is that our politicians do not think we are not capable of accepting or dealing with the truth so we get presented with what they think we will take rather than what they think might happen. There are more holes in the various manifestoes than in a Swiss cheese!

However since the 2010 election we have made a fair bit of progress in reducing the level of annual borrowing although the concept of balance or a surplus was a mirage at best. This means that you might like to sit down as you read the change in another set of numbers. First back then it was £1.03 trillion or 65.7% of GDP. And now.

The amount of money owed by the public sector to the private sector stood at just above £1.7 trillion at the end of April 2017, which equates to 86.0% of the value of all the goods & services currently produced by the UK economy in a year (or gross domestic product (GDP)).

We should be grateful that the cost of borrowing is so low as this has provided an enormous windfall over the period to our public finances. Odd that the Bank of England does not explicitly present that as a gain from its £435 billion of Gilt purchases is it not?