UK Retail Sales growth has been boosted by the large fiscal stimulus

As we look at the UK economy some numbers are drivers and others are followers. Or as the Frenchman puts it in the Matrix series of films there is the concept of “cause and effect”.So let us look at the UK retail sales and public finances data released today in the manner. In which case we start with these two numbers.

Public sector net borrowing (excluding public sector banks, PSNB ex) is estimated to have been £34.1 billion in December 2020, £28.2 billion more than in December 2019, which is both the highest December borrowing and the third-highest borrowing in any month since monthly records began in 1993.

As you can see December saw an extraordinary fiscal stimulus which continued what has been happening since last spring.

Public sector net borrowing (PSNB ex) in the first nine months of this financial year (April to December 2020) is estimated to have been £270.8 billion, £212.7 billion more than in the same period last year and the highest public sector borrowing in any April to December period since records began in 1993.

So our story starts with what has been what one day will be in the economics text books as an example of fiscal policy. That is our first link into the retail sales numbers as it creates a more positive foundation for them than otherwise. The main schemes are listed below.

  • COVID-19 Corporate Financing Facility
  • Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS)
  • Self-employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS)
  • Eat Out to Help Out
  • miscellaneous subsidies paid out to businesses

Of these the first does not involve the public finances at this stage as the Bank of England has lent some £12.3 billion in the CFF. It may appear if there are losses on the scheme but as we stand we see simply some implicit support for retail sales.

The next two categories will have been a direct support for retail sales and the latest estimates are below. I say estimates because they are particularly exposed to the prospect of revision so it is best to take them as a broad brush.

Of this additional expenditure, £67.6 billion was paid as a part of the job furlough schemes, with £48.8 billion on the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) and £18.8 billion on the Self Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS).

Far from ever penny will have gone into retail sales but clearly they have been quite a support. If we look at Eat Out To Help Out it will have provided a boost but that is now over as for a start the places it helped are presently mostly shut, to sit-down business anyway.

UK Retail Sales

It is in the light of all of the above that we see this.

In December 2020, retail sales volumes increased by 0.3% when compared with November 2020, resulting in an increase of 2.7% when compared with February’s pre-lockdown level.

So we saw growth in December which helped numbers to be higher than pre pandemic and in a more conventional metric higher than a year before.

The year-on-year growth rate in the volume of retail sales increased by 2.9% when compared with December 2019; non-store retailers reported the largest year-on-year growth at 43.5% while food stores also saw strong annual growth of 4.4%.

The detail from the numbers above also puts us on notice that there have been plenty of changes. The growth in food store sales for example has no doubt been at least partly in response to the restrictions on the restaurant sector. Indeed as we look further some of the exchanges and changes have been like a rally in a game of tennis.

Clothing retailers saw the largest monthly growth in December 2020 of 21.5%, rebounding from the monthly fall of 19.6% reported in November where the sector was affected by widespread store closures. Food stores reported a monthly fall of 3.4% in December, which can be partly be attributed to a fall back from the 2.8% growth in November. In November, supermarkets benefitted from the closure of the hospitality industries and other non-essential retail sectors in some parts of the country.

Clothing

We can learn more in several respects from looking at the clothing sector. It has been the sector affected the most by the pandemic in terms of numbers and sadly in terms of impact on the high street both now and in any likely future.

The clothing sector has been one of the worst affected by the restrictions to non-essential retail during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic period. Sales declined rapidly in March and April 2020, with consecutive monthly falls of 35.7% and 49.3% before the first signs of a recovery began in May with a monthly growth of 17.5%.

The swings became much smaller with this before lockdown 2.0 in November.

There then followed four months of continuous growth before a small decline of 1.2% in October 2020,

However the overall picture for this sector is grim.

Despite the monthly recovery, sales in the sector are still 14.2% lower than December 2019 and continue to remain at a lower level than before the pandemic struck.

If we stay with the swings it must be very difficult for out statisticians trying to deal with these swings. This relates to an area I have been dealing with since 2012 ( Eeek!), which has as a sub component the problems of fashion clothing where values change quickly with fashion. A dress for £50 if it goes out of fashion may be cleared for £25 say. But whilst it is objectively the same dress subjectively it is not. Sadly the Office for National Statistics has turned its blind eye to this issue and never produced the research which was done which leads me to conclude it favoured the Retail Price Index. But the inflation issue is for another day except we have an area where out official statistics office has a disappointing track record.

Annual Figures

I have seen these reported without context so let me show them and then give the context.

In 2020 as a whole, estimates of the quantity bought decreased by 1.9% when compared with 2019, the largest year-on-year fall on record.

One context is the swings between sectors which we have been looking at today.

Clothing stores (negative 25.1%), fuel stores (negative 22.2%), “other stores” (negative 11.6%) and department stores (negative 5.2%) all recorded record annual declines in sales volumes in 2020 when compared with 2019, non-store retailing, however, saw a record annual increase of 32.0% for 2020.

Another is that we are essentially reporting again the falls in March and April. They mattered at the time but now matter as a overall concept for 2020, but also tell us nothing about where we are now and little or nothing about prospects for 2021.

Comment

The simple view of the UK retail sales data is that it is an extraordinary amount of growth in the circumstances. Not many depression sized falls in economic output lead to higher retail sales! But as we have already noted today there has been a large fiscal stimulus which has both directly and indirectly boosted the retail sales numbers. To that extent the fiscal stimulus has been a success although it does pose questions.

Another factor is that gross numbers for the whole economy hide groups affected in the opposite direction. A clear example of that came yesterday. Up to now we have seen savings surged which has been confirmed by the rises in bank deposits in the money supply data. But that gross figure hides this.

By December 2020, nearly 9 million people had to borrow more money than usual, with the proportion borrowing £1,000 or more increasing since June 2020…….At the end of June 2020, 10.8% of adults reported borrowing money, rising to 17.4% in December 2020. Of those, the proportion borrowing more than £1,000 increased from 34.7% to 45.1% in the same period.

So it has been a success but a nuanced success.

Number Crunching

We have noted the way that changes in the numbers have led to it being reported that the UK has a national debt or more than 100% of GDP. So with us again borrowing around £30 billion it must be more right? Er no….

 Public sector net debt (excluding public sector banks) at the end of December 2020 was equivalent to 99.4% of GDP.

This number will bounce around like a rubber ball if you use monthly GDP. In addition some of it is not debt because some Bank of England activities are counted as debt when they are not. Rather bizarrely that includes recorded profits on its QE bond purchases.

If we were to remove the temporary debt impact of these schemes along with the other transactions relating to the normal operations of the BoE, public sector net debt excluding public sector banks (PSND ex) at the end of December 2020 would reduce by £231.8 billion (or 10.8 percentage points of GDP) to £1,900.0 billion (or 88.6% of GDP).

The UK plans to Spend! Spend! Spend!

There is something of an irony today as the UK faces a Spending Review which is not called a Budget but is set to be more significant than nearly all of the latter. Also we are reminded that previous to this phase we were in uncertain times but that has been squared or even cubed this year. Perhaps the biggest example of that affecting the public finances came with Lockdown 2.0 as the government announced this on Bonfire Night.

Today, we are extending the CJRS until the end of March for all parts of the UK. We will review the policy
in January to decide whether economic circumstances are improving enough to ask employers to
contribute more. The Job Support Scheme is postponed.
Eligible employees will receive 80% of their usual salary for hours not worked, up to a maximum of £2,500
per month.

Interestingly they switched to telling us the cost when the scheme for the self-employed was announced at the same time.

This is £7.3 billion of support to the self-employed through November to January alone, with a further
grant to follow covering February to April. This comes on top of £13.7 billion of support for self-employed
people so far, one of the most comprehensive and generous support packages for the self-employed
anywhere in the world.

The Resolution Foundation has calculated the costs this year as this.

The largest AME components of these increases are the estimated £56 billion spent on the Job Retention Scheme (JRS) and £23 billion on the Self-Employed Income Support
Scheme.

Having checked the numbers on Friday which covered the period until October some £61 billion or so has already been spent to the danger in those numbers looks set to be from the upside. In terms of a total they think this.

We estimate that in the region of £250 billion of additional Covid-related spending will take place in 2020-21. This, and the much smaller economy, combine to mean that the
size of the state relative to GDP is set to sky-rocket this year, from 40 per cent of GDP to around 60 per cent of GDP.

So there is an element of today being a bit after the Lord Mayor’s Party so let me lighten the atmosphere with some examples of the first rule of OBR Club.

GDP growth in the third quarter of 2020: the level of GDP was 7 per cent higher than the OBR had expected in July

That is a pretty spectacular fail and there is another.

Since that forecast, unemployment has risen
only slightly, as shown in Figure 4: unemployment in 2020 Q3 was 4.8 per cent, less than half that expected in the OBR’s central scenario.

There are two issues here which in my opinion the Resolution Foundation miss. They treat OBR forecasts seriously and hang their view on the future off them when as you can see the future is very unlikely to be as forecast. Also the unemployment definition has failed us and we should be looking at underemployment measures such as hours worked to get a much better view of the state of play.

What about today?

The Financial Times gives us an example of government by leak.

Rishi Sunak will on Wednesday set out a £4.3bn plan to tackle the threat of mass unemployment as the chancellor braces Britain for the brutal economic fallout from the coronavirus crisis. Mr Sunak will tell MPs in his spending review that his “number one priority is to protect jobs and livelihoods”.

What does this mean in practice?

Mr Sunak will announce £2.9bn of spending over three years on a “Restart” programme to help Britons find jobs, plus £1.4bn of new funding to increase the capacity of the Jobcentre Plus network to help more people back to work. The Restart scheme, offering regular and intensive “tailored” job support, is particularly aimed at older workers who are most likely to be left facing “the scarring effects” of long-term unemployment.

Let us hope that this works although it relies on there being jobs to go to. The Jobcentre Plus scheme has seen famine after 2015 but now is back to feast so I wonder how effectively it can be expanded? Sadly the FT continues the media obsession with the fairly useless unemployment numbers.

The latest official statistics show that an estimated 1.6m people were unemployed in the three months to September — 318,000 more than a year earlier. The unemployment rate stands at 4.8 per cent of the workforce.  With many companies pressing ahead with redundancy plans, unemployment is set to rise further in the coming months.

The BBC takes a wider view including other measures some of which have already been announced.

These include an extra £3bn for the NHS in England to help tackle the backlog of operations delayed due to Covid, an increase in defence spending and a £4.6bn package to help the unemployed back to work.

So whoever leaked this to the BBC has added some £300 million to the unemployment plan compared to the leak to the FT. Also there is something of a difference into the issue of future austerity. The FT suggests it is a can to be kicked into the future wheres the BBC gives examples of it already beginning.

The government is expected to announce a cut in the UK’s overseas aid budget to 0.5% of national income, down from the legally binding target of 0.7%……There have also been reports that the chancellor is considering a pay freeze for all public sector workers except frontline NHS staff.

There are even reports that this will extend to Members of Parliament.

Comment

The main issue here I think is what is the role of government? I am not particularly thinking of the size of it here. What I mean is what can it do about employment and unemployment? It can make a major difference if it can pock out which are the viable jobs that need support for say a year and can then thrive. We win out of that via future tax payments before we get to other issues. The problem is that the credit crunch was far from the best example of this as we ended up protecting the banks with a The Precious! The Precious perspective only for them to then retrench anyway and have a zombie business model. Along the way inflating the housing market was a consequence too, although that has become an international game.

The S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller U.S. National Home Price NSA Index, covering all nine U.S. census divisions, reported a 7.0% annual gain in September, up from 5.8% in the previous month.

As to whether we can afford it then as I pointed out as recently as Monday we can borrow very cheaply. We are paid to borrow at the shorter end and even the fifty-year yield is a mere 0.73%. So it has completely ignored the expected spending increases. That requires a so far,as back in the Gordon Brown days it used to wait until late afternoon on the day. Our reputation may be damaged by the announcement on the RPI that I reported on last week.

Massive day for the UK index-linked gilt market. Today we get the government’s response to the RPI Reform Consultation: likely that RPI will be aligned to CPIH from 2030, with no compensation for investors. Some even think this might be moved forward to 2025. ( @bondvigilantes )

If I was in charge I would scrap that plan and I would look to strengthen our position by issuing some one hundred year bonds. As Steve Winwood so aptly put it.

While you see a chance
Take it

 

UK sees a worrying rise in inflation and record borrowing

Today has brought quite a panoply of UK economic data some of it which is hardly a surprise, but there is a section which is rather eye-catching and provides food for thought. It will only be revealed at the Bank of England morning meeting if someone has the career equivalent of a death wish.

The annual rate for CPI excluding indirect taxes, CPIY, is 2.2%, up from 1.8% last month……The annual rate for CPI at constant tax rates, CPI-CT, is 2.2%, up from 1.8% last month.

The pattern for these numbers has been for a rise as CPI-CT initially dipped in response to the Covid-19 pandemic and fell to 0.4% in May. But since then has gone 0.5%,1%,1.8% and now 2.2%.

The sector driving the change has been the services sector which has seen quite a lift-off. If we look back we see that it has been regularly above 2% per annum but after a brief dip to 1.7% in June it has gone 2.1%, 4.1% and now 5%. Something that the Bank of England should be investigating as these seems to be quite an inflationary surge going on here. It is so strong that it has overpowered the good section ( -0.4% and the energy one ( -8.5%) both of which are seeing disinflation.

Nothing to see here, move along now please

Of course the official Bank of England view will be based on this number.

The Consumer Prices Index (CPI) 12-month rate was 0.5% in September 2020, up from 0.2% in August.

On that road they can vote for more QE bond buying next month ( another £100 billion seems likely) and if one policymaker is any guide they are looking ever more at further interest-rate cuts.

There is some debate about the scale of the stimulus that negative rates have imparted on these economies, but the growing empirical literature finds that the effect has
generally been positive, i.e. negative rates have not been counterproductive to the aims of monetary policy.

That is hardly a ringing endorsement but there is more.

My own view is that the risk that negative rates end up being counterproductive to the aims of monetary
policy is low. Since it has not been tried in the UK, there is uncertainty about this judgement, and the MPC is
not at a point yet when it can reach a conclusion on this issue. But given how low short term and long term
interest rates already are, headroom for monetary policy is limited, and we must consider ways to extend that
headroom.

So should there be a vote on this subject he will vote yes to negative interest-rates.

Returning to inflation measurement there has been something of a misfire. In fact in terms of the establishment’s objective it has been a disaster.

The Consumer Prices Index including owner occupiers’ housing costs (CPIH) 12-month inflation rate was 0.7% in September 2020, up from 0.5% in August 2020.

The issue here is that the measure which was designed to give a lower inflation reading is giving a higher one than its predecessor CPI. Even worse the factor that was introduced to further weaken the measure is the one to blame.

The OOH component annual rate is 1.2%, up from 1.1% last month.

OOH is Owner Occupied Housing and is mostly composed of rents which are never paid as it assumes that if you own your own home you pay yourself a rent. That is a complete fantasy as the two major payments are in fact the sale price and for many the mortgage costs and rent is not paid. This is quite different to those who do rent and for them it is included. But there is another swerve here which is that the inflation report today is for September but the rent figures are not. They are “smoothed” in technical terms which means they are a composition of rents over the past 16 months or so, or if you prefer they represent the picture around the turn of the year. Yes we have pre pandemic numbers for rent rises ( there were some then) covering a period where there seem to be quite a lot of rent falls.

Returning to the inflation numbers the much maligned Retail Prices Index or RPI continues to put in a better performance than its replacements.

The all items RPI annual rate is 1.1%, up from 0.5% last month.The annual rate for RPIX, the all items RPI excluding mortgage interest payments (MIPs), is 1.4%, up from 0.8% last month.

They still have mortgage payments reducing inflation which if the latest rises for low deposit mortgages are any guide will be reversing soon.

As to this month’s inflation rise then a major factor was the end of the Eat Out To Help Out Scheme.

Transport costs, and restaurant and café prices, following the end of the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, made the largest upward contributions (of 0.23 and 0.21 percentage points, respectively) to the change in the CPIH 12-month inflation rate between August and September 2020.

Borrowing Has Surged

The theme here will not surprise regular readers although the exact amount was uncertain.

Borrowing (PSNB ex) in the first six months of this financial year (April to September 2020) is estimated to have been £208.5 billion, £174.5 billion more than in the same period last year and the highest borrowing in any April to September period since records began in 1993; each of the six months from April to September 2020 were also records.

We looked a few days ago at a suggestion by the Institute for Fiscal Studies what we might borrow £350 billion or so this fiscal year and we are on that sort of road. As to the state of play we can compare this to what the Bank of England has bought via its QE operations. Sadly our official statisticians have used the wrong number.

At the end of September 2020, the gilt holdings of the APF were £569.2 billion (at nominal value), an increase of £12.2 billion compared with a month earlier. Over the same period, the net gilt issuance by the DMO was £22.7 billion, which implies that gilt holdings by bodies other than the APF have grown by £10.5 billion since July 2020.

That will be especially out for longer-dated Gilts which are being purchased for more than twice their nominal value on occassion. The value of the APF at the end of September was £674 billion. Looking at the calendar the Bank of England bought around £21 billion of UK Gilts or bonds in September meaning it bought nearly all those offered in net terms ( it does not buy new Gilts but by buying older ones pushes others into buying newer ones).

National Debt

The total here is misleading ironically because if the numbers above. Let me explain why.

At the end of September 2020, the amount of money owed by the public sector to the private sector was approximately £2.1 trillion (or £2,059.7 billion), which equates to 103.5% of gross domestic product (GDP).

That seems simple but a reasonable chunk of that is not debt at all and it relates to the Bank of England.

The estimated impact of the APF’s gilt holdings on PSND ex currently stands at £105.6 billion, the difference between the nominal value of its gilt holdings and the market value it paid at the time of purchase. The final debt impact of the APF depends on the disposal of these financial instruments at the end of the scheme.

Further, the APF holds £19.7 billion in corporate bonds, adding an equivalent amount to the level of public sector net debt.

If we just consider the latter point no allowance at all is made for the value of the corporate bonds. In fact we can also throw in the Term Funding Scheme for good luck and end up with a total of £225 billion. Thus allowing for all that this is where we are.

public sector net debt excluding public sector banks (PSND ex) at the end of September 2020 would reduce by £225.6 billion (or 11.4 percentage points of GDP) to £1,834.1 billion (or 92.1% of GDP).

Comment

Some of the numbers come under the category described by the apocryphal civil servant Sir Humphrey Appleby as a clarification. By that he does not mean something that is clearer he means you issue it to obscure the truth. We have seen this consistently in the area of inflation measurement where the last decade has seen a litany of increasingly desperate official attempts to miss measure it. It is also hard not to have a wry smile at one inflation measure rising about the target as the Bank of England is often keen on emphasising such breakdowns. But a suspect a rise will get ignored on the grounds it is inconvenient.

Switching to the UK public finances we see that there is a lot of uncertainty as many tax receipt numbers are estimated. In normal times that is a relatively minor matter but at a time like this will be much more material. Also government expenditure is more uncertain that you might think or frankly in an IT era it should be. The national debt is also much more debatable that you might think especially with the Bank of England chomping on it like this.

Come back stronger than a powered-up Pacman ( Kaiser Chiefs )
Oh well.

 

 

 

Greece rearms but what about the economy?

These times does have historical echoes but in the main we can at least reassure ourselves that one at least is not in play. However Greece is finding itself in a situation where in an echo of the past it is now boosting its military. From Neoskosmos last month.

Greece’s new arms procurement program features:

  • A squadron 18 Rafale fighter jets to replace the older Mirage 2000 warplanes
  • Four Multi-Role frigates, along with the refurbishment of four existing ones
  • Four Romeo navy helicopters
  • New anti-tank weapons for the Army
  • New torpedoes for the Navy
  • New guided missiles for its Air Force

The Greek PM also announced the recruitment of a total of 15,000 soldier personnel over the next five years, while the Defence industry and the country’s Armed Forces are set for an overhaul, with modernisation initiatives and strengthening of cyberattack protection systems respectively.

Some of this will provide a domestic economic boost with the extra 15,000 soldiers and some of the frigate work. Much will go abroad with President Macron no doubt pleased with the orders for French aircraft as he was calling for more of this not so long ago. As a major defence producer France often benefits from higher defence spending. That scenario has echoes in the beginnings of the Greek crisis as the economy collapsed and people noted the relatively strong Greek military which had bought French equipment. Actually a different purchase became quite a scandal as bribery and corruption allegations came to light. The German Type 214 submarines had a host of problems too as the contract became a disaster in pretty much every respect.

The driving force behind this is highlighted by Kathimerini below.

Turkey’s seismic survey vessel, Oruc Reis, was sailing 18 nautical miles off the Greek island of Kastellorizo on Tuesday morning. The vessel, which had its transmitter off, was heading northeast and, assuming it continues its course at its current speed, it was expected to reach a point 12 nautical miles off Kastellorizo by around noon.

The catch is that many of the defence plans above take many years to come to fruition and Greece is under pressure from Turkey in the present.

The Economy

At the end of June the Bank of Greece told us this.

According to the Bank of Greece baseline scenario, economic activity in 2020 is expected to contract substantially, by 5.8%, and to recover in 2021, posting a growth rate of 5.6%, while in 2022 growth will be 3.7%. According to the mild scenario, which assumes a shorter period of transition to normality, GDP is projected to decline by 4.4% in 2020 and to increase by 5.8% and 3.8%, respectively, in 2021 and 2022. The adverse scenario, associated with a possible second wave of COVID-19, assumes a more severe and protracted impact of the pandemic and a slower recovery, with GDP falling by 9.4% in 2020, before rebounding to 5.7% in 2021 and 4.5% in 2022.

As it turns out it is the latter more pessimistic scenario which is in people’s minds this week. As I regularly point out the forecasts of rebounds in 2021 and 22 are pretty much for PR purposes as we do not even know how 2020 will end. This is even more exacerbated in Greece which has been forecast to grow by around 2% a year for the last decade whereas the reality has been of a severe economic depression.

The projection of a 9.4% decline would mean that we would then be looking at a decline of around 30% from the peak back in 2009. I am keeping this as a broad brush as so much is uncertain right now. But one thing we can be sure of is that historians will report this episode as a Great Depression.

What about the public finances?

There is a multitude of issues here so let us start with the latest numbers.

In January-September 2020, the central government cash balance recorded a deficit of €12,860 million, compared to a deficit of €1,243 million in the same period of 2019. During this period, ordinary budget revenue amounted to €30,312 million, compared to €35,279 million in the corresponding period of last year. Ordinary budget expenditure amounted to €41,332 million, from €37,879 million in January-September 2019.

Looking at the detail for September there was quite a plunge in revenue from 5.2 billion Euros last year to 3.8 billion this. Monthly figures can be erratic and there have been tax deferrals but that poses a question about further economic weakness?

If we try to look at how 2020 will pan out then last week the International Monetary Fund suggested this.

The Fund further anticipates the budget deficit this year to come to 9% of GDP, matching the global average rate, while the draft budget provides for 8.6% of GDP. In 2021 the deficit is expected to return to 3% of GDP rate, as allowed for by the general Stability Pact rules of the European Union, the IMF says, bettering the government’s forecast for 3.7% of GDP. ( Kathimerini)

As an aside I do like the idea that the Growth and Stability Pact still exists! That is a bit like the line from Hotel California.

“Relax”, said the night man
“We are programmed to receive
You can check out any time you like
But you can never leave”

Actually it has only ever applied when it suited and I doubt it is going to suit for years. Anyway we can now shift our perspective to the national debt.

However, on the matter of the national debt, the government appears far more optimistic than the IMF. The Fund sees Greek debt soaring to 205.2% of GDP this year, from 180.9% in 2019, just as the Finance Ministry sees it contained at 197.4%. ( Kathimerini)

I do like the idea of it being “contained” at 197.4% don’t you? George Orwell would be very proud. So we can expect of the order of 200%. Looking ahead we see a familiar refrain.

For 2021 the government anticipates a reduction of the debt to 184.7% of GDP, compared to 200.5% that the IMF projects before easing to 187.3% in 2022 and to 177% in 2023. ( Kathimerini)

This is a by now familiar feature of official forecasts in this area which have sung along with the Beatles.

It’s getting better all the time

Meanwhile each time we look again the numbers are larger.

Debt Costs

This has been a rocky road from the initial days of punishing Greece to the ESM ( European Stability Mechanism) telling us how much it has saved Greece via Euro area “solidarity”

Conditions on the loans from the EFSF and ESM are much more favourable than those in the market. This saves Greeces around €12 billion every year, or 6.7 percent of its economy: a substantial form of solidarity.

These days the European Central Bank is also in the game with Greece now part of its QE bond buying programme. So its ten-year yield is a mere 0.83% and costs of new debt are low.

Comment

I have several issues with all of this. Let me start with the basic one which is that the shambles of a “rescue” that collapsed the economy was always vulnerable to the next downturn.I do not just mean the size of the economic depression which is frankly bad enough but how long it is lasted. I still recall the official claims that alternative views such as mine ( default and devalue) would collapse the economy. The reality is that the “rescue” has collapsed it and people may live their lives without Greece getting back to where it was.

Next comes the associated swerve in fiscal policy where Greece was supposed to be running a primary surplus for years. This ran the same risk of being vulnerable to the economic cycle who has now hit. We are now told to “Spend! Spend! Spend!” in a breathtaking U-Turn. Looking back some of this was real fantasy stuff.

 In 2032, they will review whether additional debt measures are needed to keep Greece’s gross financing needs below the agreed thresholds ( ESM)

Mind you the ESM still has this on its webpage.

Now, these programmes have started to bear fruit. The economy is growing again, and unemployment is falling. After many years of painful reforms, Greece’s citizens are seeing more jobs opening up, and standards of living are expected to rise.

Shifting back to defence we see that another burden is being placed on the Greek people in what seems a Merry Go Round. Reality seldom seems to intervene much here but let me leave you with a last thought. What sort of state must the Greek banks be in?

 

 

The UK National Debt is growing whilst the cost of it falls

The last 24 hours or so have brought a barrage of information on the UK public finances. As the new restrictions on activity began we have a background where economic activity will be lower meaning lower tax revenue and likely higher government spending. Next came the Chancellor’s Winter Economic Plan with the job support element looking like it will cost around £1.2 billion a month although of course that depends on the size of the take-up. The continuation of this will also have an impact on tax revenues.

The chancellor has announced the extension of a VAT cut for the hospitality and tourism sectors – some of the worst-hit by the pandemic.

Rishi Sunak said that the temporary reduction of VAT rates from 20% to 5% would remain in place until 31 March 2021, rather than 13 January. ( BBC ).

Indeed according to the Office for National Statistics the hospitality sector was seeing a reverse before the new announcements anyway.

The percentage of adults that left their home to eat or drink at a restaurant, café, bar or pub decreased for the second week in a row, following continued increases since early July. This week, less than one in three adults (29%) said they had done so, compared with 30% last week and 38% at the end of August (26 to 30 August) when the Eat Out to Help Out scheme ended.

Next we can move onto the actual figures for August as we note the cost of the response to the Covid-19 pandemic

Today’s Figures

We saw a reversal of the recent trend which had been for lower borrowing. Up until now we saw a peak of £49.1 billion in April which had declined to £15.4 billion in July.

Public sector net borrowing (excluding public sector banks, PSNB ex) is estimated to have been £35.9 billion in August 2020, £30.5 billion more than in August 2019 and the third highest borrowing in any month since records began in 1993.

July is a major tax collecting month ( such as it was this year) so maybe a better comparison is with June but even so it is up on the £28.9 billion then so let us investigate.

The first factor is that tax revenues have fallen heavily and part of that is a deliberate policy ( the VAT cut for some sectors I have already noted).

In August 2020, central government receipts are estimated to have fallen by 14.3% compared with August 2019 to £51.0 billion. Of this £51.0 billion, tax receipts were £37.3 billion, £7.5 billion less than in August 2019, with Value Added Tax (VAT), Corporation Tax and Income Tax receipts falling considerably.

Next expenditure is much higher this year.

In August 2020, central government bodies spent £82.4 billion, an increase of 34.7% on August 2019.

Of this, £78.5 billion was spent on its day-to-day activities (often referred to as current expenditure)……The remaining £3.9 billion was spent on capital investment such as infrastructure.

Of this the job scheme that is about to be replaced cost this.

In August 2020, central government subsidy expenditure was £14.0 billion, of which £6.1 billion were CJRS payments and £4.7 billion were SEISS payments.

The Fiscal Year

We can get more of a perspective from this.

In the current financial year-to-date (April to August 2020), the public sector borrowed £173.7 billion, £146.9 billion more than in the same period last year. This unprecedented increase largely reflects the impact of the pandemic on the public finances, with the furlough schemes (CJRS and SEISS) alone adding £56.0 billion to borrowing as subsidies paid by central government.

The change is mostly one of spending which has risen by £105.7 billion and the tax decline is a much smaller influence at £36.7 billion. The numbers do not add to the change because I am looking at the main factors and ignoring local government for example. Although there is something odd regarding local government which we keep being told is spending more but in fact has spent £1.5 billion less.

Switching to taxes the biggest faller is VAT which is some £13.5 billion lower. However in percentage terms we see that Stamp Duty on properties has fallen by £2.2 billion to £3 billion on the year so far as first the lockdown crunched activity and now we have the Stamp Duty cut. Also fuel duty has been hit hard being some £3.9 billion lower at £7.8 billion.

National Debt

I would call this a curate’s egg but these days it is more like Churchill’s description of Russia.

 “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,”

Let me explain why starting with the official numbers.

At the end of August 2020, the amount of money owed by the public sector to the private sector was approximately £2.0 trillion (or £2,023.9 billion), which equates to 101.9% of gross domestic product (GDP).

However that includes things which are not in fact debt relating to the activities of the Bank of England. The most bizarre part is where marked to market profits are counted as debt.

The BoE’s contribution to debt is largely a result of its quantitative easing activities via the BoE Asset Purchase Facility Fund (APF) and Term Funding Scheme (TFS).

If we were to remove the temporary debt impact of these schemes along with the other transactions relating to the normal operations of BoE, public sector net debt excluding public sector banks (PSND ex) at the end of August 2020 would reduce by £218.0 billion (or 11.0 percentage points of GDP) to £1,805.9 billion (or 90.9% of GDP).

There could be some losses from the Term Funding Scheme so lets allow £18 billion for that to give us a round number of £200 billion. So if we keep this in round numbers the national debt is £1.8 trillion.

It really is something that feels like it should be in Alice through the Looking Glass as I note this. The Bank of England has driven Gilt prices higher meaning on a marked to (its) market basis it has a notional profit of £93.4 billion which is then added to the national debt. Each time I go through that I feel that I too have consumed from a bottle marked Drink Me.

Debt Costs

These are the dog which has not barked. Didn’t such a thing allow Sherlock Holmes to solve a case? For our purposes we see that the impact of all the Bank of England bond buying ( £672 billion at the time of writing) is that the government can borrow at ultra cheap levels and at some maturities be paid to do so. Putting it another way bond yields have been reduced by so much they have offset the cost of the extra debt.

Interest payments on the government’s outstanding debt in August 2020 were £3.6 billion, a £0.2 billion decrease compared with August 2019.

There is as well a bonus from lower recorded inflation on index-linked debt meaning that at £17.1 billion debt costs are some £8 billion lower than last year.

Comment

We find ourselves in extraordinary times and the public finances are under pressure in many ways. We will see much higher borrowing persist until the end of the year now as the economy gets squeezed again and public expenditure falls by less than we previously thought. How much is very uncertain but we can have a wry smile at this.

Figures published in the Office for Budget Responsibility’s (OBR’s) Fiscal Sustainability Report and summer economic update monthly profiles – 21 August 2020 (XLS, 201KB) suggest that borrowing in the current financial year (April 2020 to March 2021) could reach £372.2 billion, around seven times the amount borrowed in the financial year ending (FYE) March 2020.

Yes neither the Financial Times nor the Office for National Statistics have spotted that the OBR is always wrong. Curious when you note that so far this fiscal year it has been wrong by some £50 billion at £223.5 billion. Even in these inflated times this is a lot. The OECD has missed it as well.

According to the OECD external review the OBR has established itself as a fixed part of the UK’s institutional landscape, delivering high quality publications, reducing bias in official forecasts and bringing greater transparency to the public finances during its first decade.

I will have to update my definition of being wrong in my financial lexicon for these times to include being “high quality ” and “bringing greater transparency “. The first rule of OBR Club continues to be that it is always wrong!

The public finances themselves are suffering heavily right now due to their use of estimates which means they are a broad brush at a time of large change. I think that the August numbers overstate the deficit trend but only time will tell. As to the debt we are now dependent on continued purchases by the Bank of England to keep costs low which means that it is for all the protestations QE to infinity.

Number Crunching

I thought I would add this as it shows the numbers are very unreliable tight now.

This month, we have reduced our previous estimate of borrowing in the financial year-to-July 2020 by £12.7 billion, largely because of a reduction in previous estimates of central government procurement combined with a smaller increase in the previous estimate of central government tax receipts.

Some welcome good economic news for the UK

Today is proving to be something of a rarity in the current Covid-19 pandemic as it has brought some better and indeed good economic news. It is for the UK but let us hope that such trends will be repeated elsewhere. It is also in an area that can operate as a leading indicator.

In July 2020, retail sales volumes increased by 3.6% when compared with June, and are 3.0% above pre-pandemic levels in February 2020.

As you can see not only did July improve on June but it took the UK above its pre pandemic levels. If we look at the breakdown we see that quite a lot was going on in the detail.

In July, the volume of food store sales and non-store retailing remained at high sales levels, despite monthly contractions in these sectors at negative 3.1% and 2.1% respectively.

In July, fuel sales continued to recover from low sales levels but were still 11.7% lower than February; recent analysis shows that car road traffic in July was around 17 percentage points lower compared with the first week in February, according to data from the Department for Transport.

As you can see food sales dipped ( probably good for our waistlines) as did non store retailing but the recovery in fuel sales from the nadir when so few were driving was a stronger influence. I suspect the fuel sales issue is likely to continue this month based on the new establishment passion for people diving their cars to work. That of course clashes with their past enthusiasm for the now rather empty looking public transport ( the famous double-decker red buses of London are now limited to a mere 30 passengers and the ones passing me these days rarely seem anywhere near that). Actually it also collides with the recent public works for creating cycle lanes out of is not nowhere restricted space in London which has had me scratching my head and I am a regular Boris Bike user.

As we look further I thought that I was clearly not typical as what I bought was clothing but then I noted the stores bit.

Clothing store sales were the worst hit during the pandemic and volume sales in July remained 25.7% lower than February, even with a July 2020 monthly increase of 11.9% in this sector.

Online retail sales fell by 7.0% in July when compared with June, but the strong growth experienced over the pandemic has meant that sales are still 50.4% higher than February’s pre-pandemic levels.

In fact the only downbeat part of today;s report was the implication that the decline of the high street has been given another shove by the current pandemic. On the upside we are seeing innovation and change. Also if we look for some perspective we see quite a switch on terms of trend.

When compared with the previous three months, a stronger rate of growth is seen in the three months to July, at 5.1% and 6.1% for value and volume sales respectively. This was following eight consecutive months of decline in the three-month on three-month growth rate.

It is easy to forget in the melee of news but UK Retail Sales growth had been slip-sliding away and now we find ourselves recording what is a V-Shaped recovery in its purest form.

There is another undercut to this which feeds into a theme I first established on the 29th of January 2015 which is like Kryptonite for central bankers and their lust for inflation. If we look at the value and volume figures we see that prices have fallen and they have led to a higher volume of sales.I doubt that will feature in any Bank of England Working Paper.

Purchasing Manager’s Indices

These do not have the street credibility they once did. However the UK numbers covering August also provided some good news today.

August’s data illustrates that the recovery has gained speed
across both the manufacturing and service sectors since July. The combined expansion of UK private sector output was the fastest for almost seven years, following sharp improvements in business and consumer spending from the lows seen in April.

Public-Sector Finances

This is an example of a number which is both good and bad at the same time.

Borrowing (public sector net borrowing excluding public sector banks, PSNB ex) in July 2020 is estimated to have been £26.7 billion, £28.3 billion more than in July 2019 and the fourth highest borrowing in any month on record (records began in 1993).

That is because we did need support for the economy ( how much is of course debateable) and even so the monthly numbers are falling especially if we note this as well.

Borrowing estimates are subject to greater than usual uncertainty; borrowing in June 2020 was revised down by £6.0 billion to £29.5 billion, largely because of stronger than previously estimated tax receipts and National Insurance contributions.

We can now switch to describing the position as the good the bad and the ugly.

Borrowing in the first four months of this financial year (April to July 2020) is estimated to have been £150.5 billion, £128.4 billion more than in the same period last year and the highest borrowing in any April to July period on record (records began in 1993), with each of the months from April to July being records.

The size of the debt is a combination of ugly and bad but we see that the numbers look like they are falling quite quickly now. Indeed if we allow for the effect of the economy picking up that impact should be reinforced especially if we allow for this.

Self-assessed Income Tax receipts were £4.8 billion in July 2020, £4.5 billion less than in July 2019, because of the government’s deferral policy;

National Debt

There has been some shocking reporting of this today which basically involves copy and pasting this.

Debt (public sector net debt excluding public sector banks, PSND ex) has exceeded £2 trillion for the first time; at the end of July 2020, debt was £2,004.0 billion, £227.6 billion more than at the same point last year.

It is a nice click bait headline but if you read the full document you will spot this.

The Bank of England’s (BoE’s) contribution to debt is largely a result of its quantitative easing activities via the Bank of England Asset Purchase Facility Fund (APF), Term Funding Schemes (TFS) and Covid Corporate Financing Facility Fund (CCFF).

If we were to remove the temporary debt impact of these schemes along with the other transactions relating to the normal operations of BoE, PSND ex at the end of July 2020 would reduce by £194.8 billion (or 9.8 percentage points of GDP) to £1,809.3 billion (or 90.7% of GDP).

Regular readers may be having a wry smile at me finally being nice to the Term Funding Scheme! But its total should not be added to the national debt and nor should profits from the Bank of England QE holdings. Apparently profit is now debt or something like that.

As a result of these gilt holdings, the impact of the APF on public sector net debt stands at £115.8 billion, the difference between the nominal value of its gilt holdings and the market value it paid at the time of purchase.

Comment

It is nice to report some better news for the economy and let us hope it will continue until we arrive at the next information point which is how the economy responds to the end of the furlough scheme in October. As to the Public Finances I have avoided any references to the Office for Budget Responsibility until now as they have managed to limbo under their own usual low standards. Accordingly even my first rule of OBR Club that the OBR is always wrong may need an upwards revision.

Let me now take you away from the fantasy that the Bank of England has taken UK debt above £2 trillion and return to an Earth where it is implicitly financing the debt. Here is the Resolution Foundation.

These high fiscal costs of lockdown look to be manageable, though. 1) The @UK_DMO   has raised over £243bn since mid-March. 2) While debt is going up, the costs are still going down. Interest payments were £2.4bn in July 2020, a £2bn fall compared with July 2019.

That shows how much debt we have issued but how can it be cheaper? This is because the Bank of England has turned up as a buyer of first resort. At the peak it was buying some £13,5 billion of UK bonds a week and whilst the weekly pace has now dropped to £4.4 billion you can see that it has been like a powered up Pac-Man. Or if you prefer buying some £657 billion of something does tend to move the price and yield especially if we compare it to the total market.

Gilts make up the largest component of debt. At the end of July 2020 there were £1,681.2 billion of central government gilts in circulation.

Finally the UK Retail Prices Index consultation closes tonight and please feel free to contact HM Treasury to ask why they are trying to neuter out best inflation measure?

 

 

How much do the rising national debts matter?

Quote

A symptom of the economic response to the Covid-19 virus pandemic is more government borrowing. This flows naturally into higher government debt levels and as we are also seeing shrinking economies that means the ratio between the two will be moved significantly. I see that yesterday this triggered the IMF (International Monetary Fund) Klaxon.

This crisis will also generate medium-term challenges. Public debt is projected to reach this year the highest level in recorded history in relation to GDP, in both advanced and emerging market and developing economies.

Firstly we need to take this as a broad-brush situation as we note yet another IMF forecast that was wrong, confirming another of our themes.

Compared to our April World Economic Outlook forecast, we are now projecting a deeper recession in 2020 and a slower recovery in 2021. Global output is projected to decline by 4.9 percent in 2020, 1.9 percentage points below our April forecast, followed by a partial recovery, with growth at 5.4 percent in 2021.

It is hard not to laugh. At the moment things are so uncertain that we should expect errors but the issue here is that the media treat IMF forecasts as something of note when they are regularly wrong. Be that as it may they do give us two interesting comparisons.

These projections imply a cumulative loss to the global economy over two years (2020–21) of over $12 trillion from this crisis………Global fiscal support now stands at over $10 trillion and monetary policy has eased dramatically through interest rate cuts, liquidity injections, and asset purchases.

Being the IMF we do not get any analysis on why we always seem to need economic support.

What do they suggest?

Here come’s the IMF playbook.

Policy support should also gradually shift from being targeted to being more broad-based. Where fiscal space permits, countries should undertake green public investment to accelerate the recovery and support longer-term climate goals. To protect the most vulnerable, expanded social safety net spending will be needed for some time.

Readers will have differing views on the green washing but that is simply an attempt at populism which once can understand. After all if you has made such a hash of the situation in Argentina and Greece you would want some PR too. That leads me to the last sentence, were the poor protected in Greece and Argentina under the IMF? No.

The IMF has another go.

Countries will need sound fiscal frameworks for medium-term consolidation, through cutting back on wasteful spending, widening the tax base, minimizing tax avoidance, and greater progressivity in taxation in some countries.

Would the “wasteful spending” include the part of this below that props up Zombie companies?

and impacted firms should be supported via tax deferrals, loans, credit guarantees, and grants.

Now I know it is an extreme case but this piece of news makes me think.

BERLIN (Reuters) – German payments company Wirecard said on Thursday it was filing to open insolvency proceedings after disclosing a $2.1 billion financial hole in its accounts.

You see the regulator was on the case but….

German financial watchdog #Bafin last year banned short selling in its shares, and filed a criminal complaint against FT journalists who had written critical pieces. .. ( @BoersenDE)

Whereas now it says this.

The head of Germany’s financial watchdog says the Wirecard situations is “a disaster” and “a shame”. He accepts there have been failings at his own institution. “I salute” those journalists and short-sellers who were digging out inconsistencies on it , he says. ( MAmdorsky )

As you can see the establishment has a shocking record in this area and I have personal experience of it blaming those reporting financial crime rather than the criminals. I raise the issue on two counts. Firstly I am expecting a raft of fraud in the aid schemes and secondly I would point out that short-selling has a role in revealing financial crime. Whereas the media often lazily depict it as being a plaything of rich financiers and hedge funds. Returning directly to today’s theme the fraud will be a wastage in terms of debt being acquired but with no positive economic impulse afterwards.

Still I am sure the Bank of England is not trying to have its cake and eat it.

Join us on 30 June for an interactive webinar with restaurateur, chef and The Great British Bake Off judge, @PrueLeith . Find out more and register for your place here: b-o-e.uk/2CsGokX

Debt is cheap

The IMF does touch on this although not directly.

monetary policy has eased dramatically through interest rate cuts, liquidity injections, and asset purchases.

It does not have time for the next step, although it does have time for some rhetoric.

In many countries, these measures have succeeded in supporting livelihoods and prevented large-scale bankruptcies, thus helping to reduce lasting scars and aiding a recovery.

Then it tip-toes around the subject in a “look at the wealth effects” sort of way.

This exceptional support, particularly by major central banks, has also driven a strong recovery in financial conditions despite grim real outcomes. Equity prices have rebounded, credit spreads have narrowed, portfolio flows to emerging market and developing economies have stabilized, and currencies that sharply depreciated have strengthened.

Let me now give you some actual figures and I am deliberately choosing longer-dated bonds as the extra debt will need to be dealt with over quite a period of time. In the US the long bond ( 30 years) yields 1.42%, in the UK the fifty-year Gilt yields 0.43%, in Japan the thirty-year yield is 0.56% and in Germany it is -0.01%. Even Italy which is doing its best to look rather insolvent only has a fifty-year yield of 2.45%

I know that it is an extreme case due to its negative bond yields but Germany is paying less and less in debt interest per year. According to Eurostat it was 23.1 billion in 2017 but was only 18.5 billion in May of this year. Care is needed because most countries pay a yield on their debt but presently the central banks have made sure that the cost is very low. Something that the IMF analysis ( deliberately ) omits.

Comment

So we are going to see lots more national debt. However the old style analysis presented by the IMF has a few holes in it. For a start they are comparing a stock (debt) with an annual flow (GDP). For the next few years the real issue is whether it can be afforded and it seems that central banks are determined to make it so. Here is yet another example.

Brazil may experiment with negative interest rates to combat a historic recession, says a former central bank chief who presided over some of the highest borrowing costs in the country’s recent history ( @economics)

That is really rather mindboggling! Brazil with negative interest-rates? Anyway even the present 2.25% is I think a record low.

If we go back to debt costs then we can look at the Euro area where they were 2.1% of GDP in 2017 but are expected to be 1.7% over the next year. Now that does not allow for the raft of debt that will be issued but of course a few countries will be paid to issue ( thank you ECB!). The outlier will be Italy.

Looking further ahead there is the capital issue as this builds up. I do not mean in terms of repayment as not even the Germans are thinking of that presently. I mean that as it builds up it does have a psychological effect which is depressing on economic activity as we learnt from Greece. Which leads onto the final point which is that in the end we need economic growth, yes the same economic growth which even before the pandemic crisis was in short supply.

 

The UK is being paid to borrow just as it borrows record amounts

Sometimes even when you expect something it still creates something of a shockwave. We knew that UK public spending was on speed and that tax receipts were going to be like one of those cartoon characters running off the edge of a cliff. But even so this had an impact.

Borrowing (public sector net borrowing excluding public sector banks, PSNB ex) in April 2020 is estimated to have been £62.1 billion, £51.1 billion more than in April 2019; the highest borrowing in any month on record (records began in January 1993).

Boom Boom Pow as the Black Eyed Peas would say. As we break it down we see it is a central government game as it also is pouring money into local authorities as we noted last time.

In April 2020, central government borrowed £66.2 billion, while local government was in surplus by £7.3 billion. This local government surplus partially reflects the increase in current transfers from central government to fund its COVID-19 measures.

If we look at spending we see this.

In April 2020, central government spent £109.3 billion, an increase of 38.3% on April 2019.

There was an increase of £1.6 billion in social benefits which ordinarily would be a big deal but this time gets swamped as the “other” category rises by £36.1 billion. We can start to break that down.

This month we have recorded the expenditure associated with the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) for the first time. CJRS is a temporary scheme designed to help employers pay wages and salaries to those employees who would otherwise be made redundant……..In April 2020, central government subsidy expenditure was £16.3 billion, of which £14.0 billion were CJRS payments.

A fair bit of the amount below would have gone on the NHS.

Departmental expenditure on goods and services in April 2020 increased by £7.1 billion compared with April 2019, including a £1.2 billion increase in expenditure on staff costs and a £5.7 billion increase in the purchase of goods and services.

Also I did say they were pouring money into local government.

Central government grants to local authorities in April 2020 increased by £14.2 billion compared with April 2019, mainly to fund additional support because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The only gain was from lower inflation

Interest payments on the government’s outstanding debt in April 2020 were £5.0 billion, a £1.2 billion decrease compared with April 2019. Changes in debt interest are largely a result of movements in the Retail Prices Index (RPI) to which index-linked bonds are pegged.

Tax Receipts

This is an awkward category as it relies on past patterns and well you can guess the rest. But they have tried to come up with some suggestions.

In April 2020, central government receipts fell by £16.4 billion compared with April 2019 to £45.6 billion, including £29.6 billion in tax revenue.

They have tried to allow for the lower level of activity although sadly the numbers they have used have come from the Office for Budget Responsibility or OBR. For newer readers the first rule of OBR Club is that it is always wrong.

We do get some further clues from the Retail Sales numbers also released earlier.

The volume of retail sales in April 2020 fell by a record 18.1%, following the strong monthly fall of 5.2% in March 2020.

As you can see VAT receipts will be hit as will income tax payments from many shop workers. Also we got evidence that there was a lot of panic buying of food when the pandemic hit.

The fall of 4.1% for food stores was mainly due to a fall back from the strong growth of 10.1% in March 2020. Retailers provided feedback of panic buying in March, which caused a sales spike.

Also I hope that you are all sober when you are reading this.

In April, 13.6% of alcohol and tobacco stores reported having zero turnover, however, the volume of sales for these stores increased by 2.3%; a further rise from the strong growth of 23.9% in March.

As you can imagine a trend we have been noting for some years got another boost.

Online sales as a proportion of all retailing reached a record high of 30.7% in April 2020, exceeding the original record reported last month of 22.4%. All sectors reached their highest-recorded proportions except non-store retailing, which reached record proportions in February and March 2020, both at 83.2%.

As well as being sober I hope you are dressed reading this.

The sharp decline in April 2020 has resulted in the lowest levels seen in the volume of textile, clothing and footwear sales since the beginning of the series, when March 1988 was at a similar level.

Last Month

The uncertainty about the amount of tax receipts is highlighted by what has just happened to the March data.

Borrowing in March 2020 was revised up by £11.7 billion to £14.7 billion, largely due to a reduction in the previous estimate of tax receipts and National Insurance contributions and the recording of expenditure associated with the Coronavirus Job Retention scheme.

The main player here was this.

Additionally, the subsidies paid by central government in March 2020 have been increased by £7.0 billion to reflect the additional CJRS payments not previously recorded.

National Debt

This comes with some caveats but the ONS has tried to allow for an expected lower level of economic activity here so fair play.

The Bank of England’s contribution to debt is largely a result of its quantitative easing activities via the Bank of England Asset Purchase Facility Fund and Term Funding Schemes.

If we were to remove these temporary effects, debt at the end of April 2020 would reduce by £184.5 billion (or 9.6% percentage points of GDP) to £1,703.1 billion (or 88.1% of GDP).

Of course we know about the word “temporary” as regards Bank of England activities! However I have always thought it odd ( and frankly a bad design) where the Term Funding Scheme ended up inflating the national debt. Losses on it should be counted but there is collateral held so any net impact should be far lower than the gross.

The only flaw here is the use of an OBR scenario as I have explained above, but it is a worthy attempt none the less.

Comment

I thought I would now spin things around a little because if this was a film there would be no demand for any with titles like “Revenge of the Bond Vigilante’s”. Over the past week or two the UK has in fact increasingly been paid to borrow, so in fact we now inhabit a sort of anti matter driven Bond Vigilante universe. I have been noting for a while that the two-year UK Gilt yield has been on the edge and it has been slip-sliding away this week to -0.07%. It has been joined by the five-year which is now -0.02%.

Now let me shift to the causes of this as at first the Bond Vigilantes will be revving up on the start line.

In April 2020, the Debt Management Office (DMO) issued £51.7 billion in gilts at nominal value, raising £58.5 billion in cash. This represents an unprecedented increase in gilts issuance (at nominal value) compared with March 2020.

But the Bank of England has stepped in with its QE purchases.

At the end of April 2020, the gilt holdings of the APF have increased by £43.7 billion (at nominal value) compared with the end of March 2020,

As you can see this effectively neuters a lot of it and let me bring you right up to date. This week the UK debt management office has been working hard and issued some £16.5 billion of UK Gilts but if it was a race the Bank of England has only been a few paces back as it bought some £13.5 billion. Also the Bank of England has been driving us into negative yields by for the first time buying them as it has done on at least 4 occasions this week.

So we borrow enormously and can do so at record low yields. So for now we are “lucky” according to the definition provided by Napoleon. On the pattern so far we may see our benchmark ten-year yield go negative as well ( currently 0.14%). One consequence of this is I expect cheaper fixed-rate mortgage deals as the five-year yield is my proxy for that and it has gone negative. If the banks are as “resilient” as we keep being told they will be slashing rates. Meanwhile back in the real world we may see some mortgage rates being trimmed.

Podcast

My thoughts on the IFS Green Budget for the UK

Today we find that the news flow has crossed one of the major themes that I have established on here. It is something we looked at yesterday as we mulled the debt and deficit issues in Japan where the new “consensus” on public finances has been met by Japan doing the reverse. So let me take you to the headlines from the Institute for Fiscal Studies for the UK.

A decade after the financial crisis, the deficit has been returned to normal levels, but debt is at a historical high. The latest estimate for borrowing in 2018–19, at 1.9%
of national income, is at its long-run historical average. However, higher borrowing during the crisis and since has left a mark on debt, which stood at 82% of national
income, more than twice its pre-crisis level.

There are several issues already of which the first is the use of “national income” as they switch to GDP later. Next concepts such as the one below are frankly quite meaningless in the credit crunch era as so much has changed.

at its long-run historical average

This issue gets worse if we switch from the numbers above which are a very UK style way oh looking at things and use more of an international standard.

general government deficit (or net borrowing) was £41.5 billion in the FYE March 2019, equivalent to 1.9% of GDP

general government gross debt was £1,821.9 billion at the end of the FYE March 2019, equivalent to 85.3% of GDP…  ( UK ONS)

As you can see the deficit is the same but the national debt is higher. In terms of the Maastricht Stability and Growth Pact we are within the fiscal deficit limit by 1.1% but 25.3% over the national debt to GDP target.

What will happen next?

The IFS thinks this.

Given welcome changes to student loan accounting, the spending increases announced at the September Spending Round, and a likely growth downgrade (even assuming a smooth Brexit), borrowing in 2019–20 could be around
£55 billion, and still at £52 billion next year. Those figures are respectively £26 billion and £31 billion more than the OBR’s March 2019 forecast. Both exceed 2% of national
income.

It is hard not to have a wry smile at the way my first rule of OBR ( Office for Budget Responsibility) Club which is that it is always wrong! You will not get that from the IFS which lives in an illusion where the forecasts are not unlike a Holy Grail. Next comes the way that the changes to student loans are used to raise the number. If we step back we are in fact acknowledging reality as there was an issue here all along it is just that we are measuring it now. So it is something we should welcome and not worry too much about. This year has seen growth downgrades in lots of countries and locales as we have seen this morning from the Bank of Italy but of course the IFS are entitled to their view on the consequences of any Brexit.

Next the IFS which has in general given the impression of being in favour of more government spending seems maybe not so sure.

A fiscal giveaway beyond the one announced in the September Spending Round could increase borrowing above its historical average over the next five years.
With a permanent fiscal giveaway of 1% of national income (£22 billion in today’s terms), borrowing would reach a peak of 2.8% of GDP in 2022–23 under a smooth-Brexit
scenario, and headline debt would no longer be falling.

Actually assuming they are correct which on the track record of such forecasts is unlikely then we would for example still be within the Maastricht rules albeit only just. You may note that a swerve has been slipped in which is this.

headline debt would no longer be falling

As an absolute amount it is not falling but relatively it has been as this from the latest official Public Finances bulletin tells us.

Debt (public sector net debt excluding public sector banks, PSND ex) at the end of August 2019 was £1,779.9 billion (or 80.9% of gross domestic product, GDP), an increase of £24.5 billion (or a decrease of 1.5 percentage points of GDP) on August 2018.

Next if we use the IFS view on Brexit then this is the view and I note we have switched away from GDP to national income as it continues a type of hokey-cokey in this area.

Even under a relatively orderly no-deal scenario, and with a permanent fiscal loosening of 1% of national income, the deficit would likely rise to over 4% of national income in 2021–22 and debt would climb to almost 90% of national income for the first time since the mid 1960s. Some fiscal tightening – that is, more austerity – would likely be required in subsequent years in order to keep debt on a sustainable path.

The keep debt on a sustainable path is at best a dubious statement so let me explain why.

It is so cheap to borrow

As we stand the UK fifty-year Gilt yield is 0.85% and the ten-year is 0.44% and in this “new world” the analysis above simply does not stand up. Actually if we go to page six of the report it does cover it.

Despite this doubling of net debt, the government’s debt interest bill has remained flat in real terms as the recorded cost of government borrowing has fallen. As shown in Figure 4.3, in 2018–19, when public sector net debt exceeded 80% of national income, spending on debt interest was 1.8% of national income, or £37.5 billion in nominal terms. Compare this with 2007–08, when public sector net debt was below 40% of national income but spending on debt interest was actually higher as a share of national income, at 2.0%.

As you can see we are in fact paying less as in spite of the higher volume of debt it is so cheap to run. Assuming Gilt yields stay at these sort of levels that trend will continue because as each Gilt matures it will be refinanced more cheaply. Let me give you an example of this as on the 7th of last month a UK Gilt worth just under £29 billion matured and it had a coupon or interest-rate of 3.5%. That will likely be replaced by something yielding more like 0.5% so in round numbers we save £870 million a year. A back of an envelope calculation but you get the idea of a process that has been happening for some years. It takes place in chunks as there was one in July but the next is not due until March.

The role of the Bank of England

Next comes the role of the Bank of England which has bought some £435 billion of UK debt which means as we stand it is effectively interest-free. To be more specific it gets paid the debt interest and later refunds it to HM Treasury. As the amount looks ever more permanent I think we need to look at an analysis of what difference that makes. Because as I look at the world the amount of QE bond buying only seems to increase as the one country that tried to reverse course the United States seems set to rub that out and the Euro area has announced a restart of it.

Indeed there are roads forwards where the Bank of England will engage in more QE and make that debt effectively free as well.

There are two nuances to this. If we start with the “QE to infinity” theme I do nor agree with it but it does look the most likely reality. Also the way this is expressed in the public finances is a shambles as only what is called “entrepreneurial income” is counted and those of you who recall my £2 billion challenge to the July numbers may like to know that our official statisticians have failed to come up with any answer to my enquiry.

Comment

I have covered a fair bit of ground today. But a fundamental point is that the way we look at the national debt needs to change with reality and not stay plugged in 2010. Do I think we can borrow for ever? No. But it is also true that with yields at such levels we can borrow very cheaply and if we look around the world seem set to do so. I have written before that we should be taking as much advantage of this as we can.

https://notayesmanseconomics.wordpress.com/2019/06/27/the-uk-should-issue-a-100-year-bond-gilt/

Gilt yields may get even lower and head to zero but I have seen them at 15% and compared to that we are far from the literal middle of the road but in line with their biggest hit.

Ooh wee, chirpy chirpy cheep cheep
Chirpy chirpy cheep cheep chirp

The caveat here is that I have ignored our index-linked borrowing but let me offer some advice on this too. At these levels for conventional yields I see little or no point in running the risk of issuing index-linked Gilts.

The UK public finances finally accept that many student loans will never be repaid

The present UK government seems to be much keener on public spending than its predecessor. From the Evening Standard.

Up to £1 billion of the aid budget will be made available to scientists inventing new technology to tackle the climate crisis in developing countries, Boris Johnson is to announce……..Putting an emphasis on technology’s potential to answer the climate emergency, he will also announce a further £220 million from the overseas aid budget to save endangered species from extinction.

Although of course as so often there is an element there of announcing spending which would have happened anyway. Also the government did avoid bailing out Thomas Cook which seems sensible as it looked completely insolvent by the end as Frances Coppola points out.

Dear@BBC

, you should not believe what you read in corporate press releases. The rescue plan for Thomas Cook was not £900m as the company said. It was £900m of new loans PLUS new equity of £450m PLUS conversion of £1.7bn of existing debt to equity (with a whopping haircut).

It is very sad for the customers and especially the workers. Well except for the board who have paid themselves large bonuses whilst ruining the company. Surely there must be some part of company law that applies here.

UK Public Finances

There have been a lot of significant methodological changes this month which need to be addressed. They add to the past moves on Housing Associations which had an impact on the National Debt of the order of £50 billion as they have been in and out of the numbers like in the Hokey Cokey song. Also there was the Royal Mail pension fund which was recorded as a credit when in fact it was a debit. Oh well as Fleetwood Mac would say.

Student Loans

For once the changes are in line with a view that I hold. Regular readers will be aware that much of the Student Loans in existence will not be repaid.

This new approach recognises that a significant proportion of student loan debt will never be repaid. We record government expenditure related to the expected cancellation of student loans in the period that loans are issued. Further, government revenue no longer includes interest accrued that will never be paid.

This brings us to what is the impact of this?

Improvements in the statistical treatment of student loans have added £12.4 billion to net borrowing in the financial year ending March 2019. Outlays are no longer all treated as conventional loans. Instead, we split lending into two components: a genuine loan to students and government spending.

Whether the £12.4 billion is accurate I do not know as some of it is unknowable but in principle I think that this is a step in the right direction.

Pensions

There are larger changes planned for next month but let me point out one that has taken place that will be impacted by Thomas Cook.

We now also include the Pension Protection Fund within the public sector boundary.

Other changes including a gross accounting method which means this in spite of the fact that the PPF above will raise the national debt or at least it should.

These changes have reduced public sector net debt at the end of March 2019 by £28.6 billion, reflecting the consolidation of gilts and recognition of liquid assets held by the public pension schemes.

I will delay an opinion on this until we get the full sequence of changes.

The Numbers

The August figures were better than last year’s

Borrowing (public sector net borrowing excluding public sector banks, PSNB ex) in August 2019 was £6.4 billion, £0.5 billion less than in August 2018.

There was a hint of better economic performance in the numbers too.

This month, receipts from self-assessed Income Tax were £1.7 billion, an increase of £0.4 billion on August 2018. This is the highest level of August self-assessed Income Tax receipts since 2009……..The combined self-assessed Income Tax receipts for both July and August 2019 together were £11.1 billion, an increase of £0.7 billion on the same period in 2018.

At first the numbers do not add up until you spot that the expenditure quoted is for central government which is flattered by a £900 million reduction in index-linked debt costs. Something which inflationoholics will no doubt ignore. Also local government borrowed £1 billion more. So I think there was some extra spending it is just that it was obscured by other developments in August.

In the same period, departmental expenditure on goods and services increased by £1.8 billion, compared with August 2018, including a £0.5 billion increase in expenditure on staff costs and a £0.9 billion increase in the purchase of goods and services.

If we switch to the fiscal year so far the picture looks broadly similar to what we have been seeing in previous months.

In the latest financial year-to-date, central government received £305.4 billion in receipts, including £226.0 billion in taxes. This was 2.1% more than in the same period last year……Over the same period, central government spent £325.1 billion, an increase of 4.1%.

The essential change here is that central government has spent an extra £9.1 billion on goods and services raising the amount spent to £121.5 billion in a clear fiscal boost.

The Past Is Not What We Thought It Was

Although it does not explicitly say it we were borrowing more than we thought we were, mostly due to the new view on student loans.

In the latest full financial year (April 2018 to March 2019), the £41.4 billion (or 1.9% of gross domestic product, GDP) borrowed by the public sector was around a quarter (26.1%) of the amount seen in the FYE March 2010, when borrowing was £158.3 billion (or 10.2% of GDP).

We know last year was affected by £12.4 billion but the effect is smaller the further we go back in time. For example on FYE March 2010 it was £1.5 billion.

The National Debt

This continues to grow in absolute terms but to shrink in relative terms.

Debt (public sector net debt excluding public sector banks, PSND ex) at the end of August 2019 was £1,779.9 billion (or 80.9% of gross domestic product, GDP), an increase of £24.5 billion (or a decrease of 1.5 percentage points of GDP) on August 2018.

However the Bank of England has had an impact here.

Debt at the end of August 2019 excluding the Bank of England (mainly quantitative easing) was £1,598.7 billion (or 72.7% of GDP); this is an increase of £37.4 billion (or a decrease of 0.6 percentage points of GDP) on August 2018.

For those of you wondering my £2 billion challenge to last month’s data on Bank of England transactions has not been resolved as this from Fraser Munroe of the Office for National Statistics from earlier highlights.

We should have some APF detail for you soon. Sorry for the delay.

Comment

We travel forwards although sometimes it feels as though we have just gone backwards. Although there is one constant which is the first rule of OBR club ( for newer readers it is always wrong).

These March 2019 OBR forecasts do not include estimates of the revisions made in September 2019 for student loans and pensions data. The OBR intends to reflect these changes in their next fiscal forecast.

In a way that is both harsh although they should have know of the plans and fair in that their whole process is always likely to be wrong and frankly misleading.

Next we are reminded that things we really should know in fact we do not.

The error mainly relates to the treatment of Corporation Tax credits, which are included within total Corporation Tax receipts as well as within total central government expenditure.

In terms of impact that peaked at £3.8 billion in 2017/18 declining to £1.9 billion in the last fiscal year. That is a lot in my opinion.

As to more fiscal spending well that just got harder as we conclude we were spending more anyway. But it remains very cheap to do so as the UK thirty-year Gilt yield is back below 1%.