The UK could borrow £25 billion or indeed more very cheaply if it wished

It would appear that one of the main features of the credit crunch era which has been turbo-charged in 2019 so far has escaped the chatting and think tank classes. This is the situation where the UK can borrow on extraordinarily cheap terms. As I type this the two-year and five-year Gilt yields are of the order of 0.46% and the benchmark ten-year is at 0.67%. The only other time we have ever seen yields down here is when Governor Mark Carney was cracking the whip over the Bank of England in late summer and autumn 2016 demanding that they buy Gilts at nearly any price. That kamikaze phase even pushed us briefly to negative yields as the market let him buy at eye watering prices.

This was on my mind as I read this from the Institute for Government which has written what it calls an explainer on whether the UK can do this.

During the election campaign, Johnson said that it “is certainly true is at the moment (that) there is cash available.  There’s headroom of about £22bn to £25bn at the moment.”

The whole concept is predicated on a complete fantasy.

This figure for headroom refers to the gap between the latest official forecast for borrowing in 2020/21 and the maximum amount that is consistent with meeting Philip Hammond’s fiscal mandate – that borrowing should be no more than 2% of GDP in 2020/21, after adjusting for the ups and downs of the economic cycle (which is typically referred to as “cyclically-adjusted” or “structural” borrowing).

Firstly no sniggering at the back please when you read “the latest official forecast for borrowing in 2020/21” as we recall that the first rule of OBR Club is that the OBR is always wrong! Next comes the “fiscal mandate” which in the ordinary course of events would have a half-life that would not reach 2021 which is of course even more likely now that the man called Spreadsheet Phil has fallen on his sword.

Oh and that is before we get to “structural” borrowing which means pretty much whatever you want it too. But finally we get a grain of truth.

Mr Hammond has bequeathed his successor a level of borrowing that is low by historical standards. The Office for Budget Responsibility’s March forecast suggested borrowing would be 0.9% of GDP (or £21bn) next year, virtually all of which would be structural.

The reliance on the number-crunching of the serially unreliable OBR is odd but there is a kernel of truth in there which is that we are currently not borrowing much. Last year it was 1.1% of GDP and the debt to GDP ratio has been falling as the economy has grown faster than the debt.

This brings me back to the piece de resistance which is that we can borrow incredibly cheaply and if we look at in terms of the infrastructure life cycle the thirty-year Gilt yield is a mere 1.33%. So we could if we chose borrow quite a large sum on very cheap terms. As to how much well into the tens of billions and maybe a hundred billion. Just in case readers think I am breaking my political neutrality I have made similar points to my friend Ann Pettifor who is an adviser to the Labour Party with the only difference being that markets would trust a Corbyn led government less. How much less is hard to say as we know that any yield ( the Greek ten-year is around 2%) tends to get hoovered up these days.

If we move to the other side of the coin which is how such funds would be spent the picture then sees some dark clouds. They are called Hinkley C, HS2 and the Smart Meter debacle although I think the latter was foisted onto out electricity bills.

Oh and before I move on real yields are much more complicated than often presented. After all none of us know what UK inflation will be over the next 30 years, but it seems more than likely that the yields above will not only be negative but significantly so.

Consumer Credit

We can continue our number crunching with this from the Bank of England this morning.

The annual growth rate of consumer credit continued to slow in June, falling to 5.5%. Annual growth has fallen steadily since its peak in late 2016, and particularly over the past year reflecting a fall in the average monthly net flow of consumer credit. Since July last year, the net flow has averaged £1.0 billion per month, compared with £1.5 billion per month in the year to June 2018.

Let me translate this a little. The annual rate of growth has fallen since they pumped it up with their “Sledgehammer QE” of August 2016. This was a change in claimed strategy as of course Governor Carney has regularly told us that “This is not a debt fueled recovery” ( BBC August 2015). Of course according to Governor Carney the August 2016 move saved around 250,000 jobs although even his biggest fans have to admit he has had a lot of problems in the area of unemployment forecasting.

Whilst 5.5% is slower than compares not only to an extraordinary surge but is for example nearly double wage growth, quadruple likely GDP growth and around five times real wage growth. Also the actual amount at £218.1 billion has grown considerably.

Mortgages

There seems to be a serious media effort going on to support the UK housing market. Here is @fastFT from earlier.

Rise in mortgage borrowing points to stabilisation in UK house market.

Does it? Here is the actual Bank of England data.

Net mortgage borrowing by households was £3.7 billion, close to the average of the previous three years. This followed a slightly weaker net flow of £2.9 billion in May. The annual growth rate of mortgage lending remained stable at 3.1%, around the level that it has been at since 2016.

The trouble for House price bulls is that those are the sort of levels which saw house price growth across the UK grind to a near halt. A similar situation exists for what seems to be coming down the chain.

Mortgage approvals for house purchase (an indicator of future lending) increased by around 800 in June to 66,400 and the number of approvals for remortgaging rose slightly to 47,000. Notwithstanding these small rises, mortgage approvals remained within the narrow ranges seen over the past three years.

Comment

I have looked at things in a different light today showing how numbers are twisted, manipulated and if that does not do the trick get simply ignored like the level of bond yields. Some of this sadly starts at the official level where we get what are in practice meaningless concepts like structural borrowing or this from Bank of England Governor Mark Carney in August 2015 via the BBC.

“The timing of a rise in interest rates is drawing nearer,” Bank of England governor Mark Carney says at the start of the Inflation Report press conference. He also says speculation about when interest rates begin to rise is a good thing and a sign of growing economic confidence.

Let me finish by referring to a campaign I have been running for seven years or so now which is over the impact of the Funding for Lending Scheme. Remember all the promises about small business lending?

and the growth of SME borrowing rose to 0.8%, its highest since August 2017.

Also as we note lending to SMEs at £167.8 billion has fallen far below unsecured credit is it rude to wonder how much of the £67.6 billion lent to the real estate sector ended up in the buy-to let bubble?

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UK Statistics are in quite a mess as the Public Finances highlight

Today we complete a week filled with UK economic data with the public finances and so far it has been a good week. Before we get to it there has been news about the state of UK statistics from the Public Affairs Committee or PAC of the House of Commons. As a major part of this has been the ongoing shambles over the Retail Price Index or RPI and I gave evidence to the PAC on this issue. So what do they think?

There has been much criticism of the position that UKSA ( UK Statistics Authority) has taken at many stages during the last nine years and the position is not resolved. The Economic Affairs Committee of the House of Lords was critical of UKSA’s failure to correct errors in RPI, stating that, “In publishing an index which it admits is flawed but refuses to fix, the Authority could be accused of failing in its statutory duties.” Evidence to this inquiry from the RPI CPI User Group was similarly critical, stating: “It is a measure of the UKSA failure as an independent regulator that such an inquiry was necessary in the first place and produced such a damning report.

It seems that much of my message has got through.

Concerns have been raised about the Treasury and the Bank of England’s influence over UKSA regarding inflation measures.

That’s polite for they dictate them. Also the designation merry-go-round has been a farce.

UKSA designated RPI as a National Statistic in 2010,286 but cancelled the designation in 2013…… Ed Humpherson later de-designated CPIH, ONS’s preferred measure, as a National Statistic……..CPIH was re-designated as a National Statistic in July 2017 following action by ONS.

As the PAC points out nothing ever seems to happen.

In evidence to our inquiry Sir David Norgrove stated that UKSA was planning to respond to the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee report in April 2019. This did not happen.

Sadly I can also vouch for this sort of thing as I wrote to the House of Lords on the 26th of February about this issue and if I ever get a formal reply I will let you know. Also I am awaiting a response from the ONS to the points I made at the Royal Statistical Society on the 13th of June last year. I think you get the message.

View

In general this is a good report which follows on from the report on the RPI by the Economic Affairs Committee and I welcome them both. However there have been nine years of failure here by the UK Statistics Authority where it has proven incapable of getting any sort of a grip. In fact it has made things worse. My experience of giving it evidence was that my time was wasted as it was going through the motions and ignored and or did not understand my points about the large revisions to the Imputed Rent numbers.

Also there is a danger that the establishment parrots the same old lines as for example this.

Chris Giles told us “Index-linked gilts, student loans and rail fares are all pegged to the RPI” and said that “the continued use of an index known to be wrong, takes money from recent graduates, commuters and taxpayers, and hands it as a windfall to longstanding owners of index-linked government bonds”.

Chris who is economics editor of the Financial Times has done some good work highlighting the failings of the UKSA. But it is also true that he has led a campaign against the RPI and previously ( now abandoned) in favour of CPIH. This means that the fact that CPI and CPIH are systemically wrong in the area of owner-occupied housing frequently gets ignored. It has also contributed to the wasted nine years as the establishment represented by HM Treasury were more than happy to get on board with a campaign to get lower inflation numbers otherwise known as CPIH.

After all HM Treasury could de-link student loans and rail fares from the RPI today if it wished. In my opinion they do not do so for two reasons the first is greed and the second is that they want the RPI to garner bad publicity.

Public Finances

There is a link here because over the years we have observed quite a few strategic issues with the UK Public Finances. Two large ones come to mind of which the biggest has been the hokey-cokey with the Housing Associations which have been excluded, included and the excluded again. This has had an impact on the National Debt of between £50 and £60 billion. Then there was the Royal Mail situation where a pensions liability of the order of £17 billion was initially recorded as a surplus of £10 billion.

Added to that I note that this is on the way.

While the change is mainly focused on presentation, we expect public sector net debt (PSND) at the end of March 2019 to decrease by £30.5 billion as a result of the consolidation of pension schemes’ gilt holdings and liquid assets.

On a stand alone basis that may be fair enough but the collective issue is of a large almost entirely ignored liability which increases the numbers here.

Today’s Data

We learnt that the run of better data had come to a close with some signs that the closing of Prime Minister May’s term of office has led to an opening of the spending taps.

Borrowing (public sector net borrowing excluding public sector banks) in June 2019 was £7.2 billion, £3.8 billion more than in June 2018; the highest June borrowing since 2015……..Borrowing in the current financial year-to-date (April 2019 to June 2019) was £17.9 billion, £4.5 billion more than in the same period last year; the financial year-to-date April 2018 to June 2018 remains the lowest borrowing for that period since 2007.

As to why there are several factors at play and in these times it is hard not to have a wry smile at this.

This reduction in credit accounts for around half of the observed £405 million year-on-year June increase in EU contributions.

There was something of a curiosity as well.

Interest payments on the government’s outstanding debt increased by £2.1 billion compared with June 2018, due largely to movements in the Retail Prices Index (RPI) to which index-linked bonds are pegged.

I have to confess that this development seems confusing. Because this time last year not only was the annual rate of RPI higher but the pattern was higher, so I will have to check how much the numbers are lagged by as this seems to be the factor at play.

Also there was some actual what we might call negative austerity.

Over the same period, there was a notable increase in expenditure on goods and services of £1.2 billion.

To that we can perhaps add this announcement via the BBC earlier.

Two million public sector workers are reportedly set to get a £2bn pay rise.

The Treasury will unveil the biggest public sector pay rise in six years as one of Theresa May’s final acts as prime minister,the Times reported.

Soldiers are set to get a 2.9% rise while teachers and other school staff will get 2.75%, police officers, dentists and consultants 2.5% and senior civil servants 2%.

This next bit seems to be unlikely though.

It is thought the money will come from existing budgets.

Comment

Today’s theme is one of reinforcing the Quis custodiet ipsos custodes line. Or if you prefer who guards the guardians? The UK Statistics Authority and Office for National Statistics regale us with rhetoric about “improvements” but misses the bigger issues and often makes them worse. Added to the problems I have highlighted earlier comes a click bait culture where it is increasingly hard to find the data you want. Also we get opinions on the data which is not the job of the ONS, as its role should be to provide the numbers. The situation with the UKSA is so bad I think it would be better to take the advice of Orange Juice.

Rip it up and start again
Rip it up and start again
I hope to God you’re not as dumb as you make out
I hope to God
I hope to God

Meanwhile I opened by saying so fat this week the economic data has been good but today we did get a possible flicker of a slowing from the tax data.

Central government receipts in June 2019 increased by £0.8 billion (or 1.5%) compared with June 2018, to £58.7 billion,

That night be a monthly quirk but it is lower than inflation.

 

 

 

 

 

Has the UK fixed its public finances?

Last night brought us the Mansion House speeches from the Chancellor of the Exchequer and Governor of the Bank of England. Whilst there was something of a ruckus as Greenpeace arrived my attention was on what the Chancellor would say about the UK public finances.

and we have fixed the public finances………In short, while we have repaired the public finances.

Some clear politics at play but elements of that are true. Then there was a reference to what has been called a “warchest” being available.

Because it doesn’t mean that there would be no extra money to spend.

As I said at the Spring Statement, if we leave the EU in a smooth and orderly way, the fiscal headroom I have built up means an incoming Prime Minister will have scope for additional spending or tax cuts.

“Gentleman Phil” then went on to list his achievements.

As the public finances have improved, I have committed over £150bn of new spending in the last 3 years…

…including an NHS settlement which is the single largest commitment ever made by a peacetime British Government.

Public capital investment is set to reach the highest sustained level in forty years…

…as we build the critical national infrastructure we need to raise our productivity;

I’ve committed £44bn to housing, delivering more new homes last year than in all but one of the last 30 years;

And I’ve cut taxes, with over 30 million people seeing their income tax cut this year;

288,000 people benefitting so far from the abolition of stamp duty for first time buyers;

And British businesses paying the lowest corporation tax rate in the G20.

Apologies for the fact that it is not possible to completely cut politics out of that. But it does give some sort of analysis of the situation. However though the big change I have been pointed out in 2019 does not get a mention.

Borrowing is very cheap

Politicians usually avoid mentioning the falling cost of borrowing because they like to take the credit themselves for the improved public finances. From time to time they may actually be responsible but the trend this year has been across much of the world as we see expectations of more central bank easing. On Tuesday the UK will take advantage of this as we borrow an extra £2.25 billion of this.

1¾% Treasury Gilt 2049

Actually even the 1 3/4% is behind the times because as I type this the UK thirty-year yield is 1.44%. Back in the day I recall it being more than ten times that. Continuing these theme the UK issued an extra £2.75 billion of our ten-year Gilt this Tuesday at a yield of 0.89%. These are practical examples of how lower bond yields feed their way into the public accounts and if we borrow as planned it will have this impact in the next year.

Gilt sales of £117.8 billion (cash) are planned in 2019-20 ( Debt Management Office )

Also there has been a windfall from the way that the rate of inflation has fallen as we move to the latest release.

Interest payments on the government’s outstanding debt decreased by £0.3 billion compared with May 2018, due largely to movements in the Retail Prices Index (RPI) to which index-linked bonds are pegged.

If we return to the broad sweep I described earlier then this from Bloomberg today highlights the ongoing trend.

The world now has $13 trillion of debt with below-zero yields.

Today’s Data

If we look at this in a thematic sense then there was food for thought for the austerity debate from this in May.

Over the same period, there was a notable increase in expenditure on goods and services of £1.9 billion.

So on the face of it the numbers do seem to back up what the Chancellor was saying last night. We do not get any breakdown of this and I have to confess I am wondering if this is a catching-up on expenditure for March 29th which was supposed to be Brexit Day? Only time will tell on that but for now we have spent more.

Switching to the revenue numbers then they were okay in May.

Central government receipts in May 2019 increased by £1.9 billion (or 3.5%) compared with May 2018, to £56.7 billion…..Much of this annual growth in central government receipts in May 2019 came from Income Tax-related revenue, with Income Tax and National Insurance contributions increasing by £0.6 billion and £0.7 billion respectively compared with May 2018.

So if they are any guide the economy continues to move ahead as one measure is tax revenue. But they were not enough to offset the additional expenditure.

Borrowing (public sector net borrowing excluding public sector banks) in May 2019 was £5.1 billion, £1.0 billion more than in May 2018;

Also the additional expenditure in May fed straight into the picture for the year to date.

Borrowing in the current financial year-to-date (April 2019 to May 2019) was £11.9 billion, £1.8 billion more than in the same period last year;

We do not get much extra perspective at this time of year as we have only had two months in the financial year. So we remain with the view that it looks like we are spending more. As to the overall picture it remains true that we are not borrowing very much and ironically in the circumstances would qualify for this part of the Maastricht criteria very comfortably.

Borrowing in the latest full financial year (April 2018 to March 2019) was £24.0 billion, £17.8 billion less than in the same period the previous year; the lowest financial year borrowing for 17 years.

What about the National Debt?

That continues to rise in absolute terms whilst falling in relative terms.

Debt (public sector net debt excluding public sector banks) at the end of May 2019 was £1,806.1 billion (or 82.9% of gross domestic product (GDP)); an increase of £25.0 billion (or a decrease of 1.4 percentage points of GDP) on May 2018.

We would fail the Maastricht criteria here as shown below.

equivalent to 86.7% of gross domestic product (GDP); 26.7 percentage points above the Maastricht reference.

It is also time for my regular reminder that some of the debt is due to yet another subsidy for our banking system.

The Bank of England’s (BoE) contribution to net debt is largely a product of their quantitative easing measures, namely the Bank of England Asset Purchase Facility Fund (APF) and the Term Funding Scheme (TFS). If we were to exclude BoE from our calculation of public sector net debt (excluding public sector banks), it would reduce by £183.9 billion.

Comment

If we look back to when the period of UK austerity started it is important to remember that it was not only a very different world but seemed a different world. The UK thought it had borrowed some 11% of GDP in a single year and was facing a ten-year Gilt yield of the order of 4%. Indeed the Office for Budget Responsibility was expecting the bond vigilante’s to turn up as it forecast that it would now be 5%. The combination of those two factors made the future public finances look dreadful.

Now we are in a completely different situation as we borrow a mere 1.5% of GDP and the ten-year UK Gilt yield is 0.84%. After all back then we were not yet fully aware of the first rule of OBR club ( for newer readers it is always wrong). The saddest part of this is that the political debate has ignored this. So for example when there were suggestions of tax cuts in the Conservative party leadership election we went back to the “can we afford it?” stage when he general we can, often easily. Whether they would be a good idea is an entirely different matter as for example abandoning VAT for a sales tax seemed curious at best.

Returning to the question in my title today then in isolation the answer is yes. The much deeper question comes from what we want the public finances to achieve as we also see examples of areas where cut backs have hurt people and sadly they are often those least able to do something about it.

 

UK Austerity and the next Governor of the Bank of England

Today brings into focus an area that has brought good news for the UK over the past couple of years. This has been the improvement in the public finances which rather curiously lagged the period where the economy recorded its fastest economic growth by around 2 years. Also some of the detail along the way has hinted at a better economic situation than that suggested by economic growth measured by Gross Domestic Product or GDP data. This swings both ways in my view as what were called the bond vigilantes will be happier with the state of play. But also those on the other side of the coin who would like more government spending and/or lower taxes would have fiscal room to do so.

Austerity

This has been a matter of debate for some time and let me start by saying there are several ways of looking at this. The harshest would be to actually cut government spending which we have not seen in the UK. Let me add more detail by pointing out that some areas clearly have but overall the story has nor been that as other areas spent more. The more realistic version seems to be restricting government spending in real terms which we have seen some of overall. If we look at it in terms of years then we have recorded on here two main phases firstly from around 2010 when the brakes were applied and from 2012/13 when the pressure on the spending brakes was loosened.

Also there was some tightening on the other side of the fiscal ledger of which the standout was the rise in Value Added Tax or VAT. There was a relatively brief cut from 17.5% to 15% but then a rise to 20% where in spite of the claims of a return to normal it is still at the supposedly emergency rate.

Having established some perspective let us look at this from the IPPR which compared us to these countries “This comprises Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Spain and Sweden.”.

We find that on average these countries spend 48.9 per cent of GDP on public spending, compared to just 40.8 per cent in the UK. Furthermore, whilst the UK’s spending has fallen by 7 percentage points – from around 47 per cent of GDP to 40 per cent of GDP – since the onset of austerity, the comparable fall across these countries is just 3 percentage points. Moreover, if the UK were to match their current levels of spending tomorrow it would be worth £2,500 per person per year, of which £1,800 would go towards social spending; meaning health, education and social security.

Okay if we break this down we see that the picture is more complex. Let me show you this by looking at the Euro area in total for 2018 for which we got figures yesterday. There the fiscal deficit was a mere 0.5% of GDP with spending at 46.8% and revenue at 46.3%. Furthermore many of the countries in the IPPR list ran fiscal surpluses in 2018

Germany (+1.7%), the Netherlands (+1.5%), Sweden (both +0.9%), Denmark (+0.5%). Austria (+0.1%).

So on that measure they are more fiscally austere than the UK which ran a deficit. As you can see things are more complex than they argue which is hinted at by the way they use tax revenue as a benchmark rather than total revenues which changes the numbers quite a bit. We have numbers for different periods but my 46.3% for the Euro area is rather different to the 41.1% for their sample and looks a swinging rather than a straight ball to me.

Of course spending is not a free good either. Could we match the spending tomorrow? Yes we could if we wished and for a while with bond yields where they are it would at first be no big deal, but even the IPPR realises it would have to come with this.

But in the UK, as IPPR has previously recommended, significant additional revenue could be raised through increasing the rate of corporation tax in line with the European average, reforming income tax but in a way that protects those on low and middle incomes, and changes to the way in which we tax wealth.

As to Corporation Tax I am dubious as one thing we have learned in the credit crunch era is the way multinationals pretty much choose where they pay tax or if you want the issue in one word, Ireland.

Moving on we see this and again the catch is that in the credit crunch era such Ivory Tower calculations are fine up in the clouds but down here at ground level they have often crumbled.

They find that the cumulative effect of austerity has been to shrink the economy by £100bn today compared to what it would have been without the cuts: that is worth around £3,600 per family in 2019/20 alone.

Today’s Data

The overall picture presented continues to be a strong one.

In the latest full financial year (April 2018 to March 2019), central government received £739.4 billion in income, including £558.6 billion in taxes. This was 5% more than in the previous financial year.

This again hints that the economy has been stronger than the GDP data suggests and follows the labour market theme of rising employment and higher real wages.

On the other side of the ledger the throwing around of the word austerity makes me uncomfortable when we are increasing spending in real terms.

Over the same period, central government spent £741.5 billion, an increase of around 3%.

Well unless you use the RPI as your inflation measure but even then it is roughly flat.

The combination meant this.

Borrowing in the latest full financial year (April 2018 to March 2019) was £24.7 billion, £17.2 billion less than in the previous financial year; the lowest financial year borrowing for 17 years.

Or if you prefer our credit crunch era journey can be put like this.

In the latest full financial year (April 2018 to March 2019), the £24.7 billion (or 1.2% of gross domestic product (GDP)) borrowed by the public sector was less than one-fifth (16.1%) of the amount seen in the FYE March 2010, when borrowing was £153.1 billion (or 9.9% of GDP).

As a single month March was not one for austerity as it looks like departments made sure that they spent their annual budgets so if some potholes were filled in around your locale that is why.

 while total central government expenditure increased by 5.7% (or £3.5 billion) to £65.7 billion.

The explanation is rather bare but if we look at the ledger we see spending on goods and services was up by £1.9 billion. So maybe there was some Brexit stockpiling too.

Comment

The last decade has seen a lot of debate over the concept of austerity involving quite a lot of goalpost moving, so much so that it is fortunate designers give them wheels these days. Whereas we do know what real austerity has been as @fwred made clear yesterday,

Today’s craziest chart goes to Greece, with a primary surplus of 4.4% of GDP in 2018, beating an already insane target of 3.5%. Jaw-dropping for those of us old enough to remember the whole story.

Or as The Nutty Boys put it.

Madness, madness, they call it madness
Madness, madness, they call it madness
I’m about to explain
A-That someone is losing their brain
Hey, madness, madness, I call it gladness, yee-ha-ha-ha

We have seen nothing like that but now face choices ahead as do we copy the Germand and go for a surplus? Or do we now pick out areas where we can spend more? With borrowing so cheap with our ten-year Gilt yield at 1.2% it is not expensive. As ever some care is needed as we have spent in some areas as I note in the IPPR paper than at 7.4% of GDP we spend the same on health as the countries they compare us too which completes something I recall Tony Blair aiming at back in the day.

Meanwhile this has hit the news. I have floated two candidates in Andrew Sentance and Ann Pettifor, but who would you suggest?

Although if Yes Prime Minister has its usual accuracy the choice has already been made and this is just for show

Public Finance and Retail Sales numbers are upbeat about UK economic prospects

Before we even got to the latest in the current round of UK economic data there has been something of a change in financial markets. So let us reflect this via a tweet from me as I am the only person pointing this out.

Simply extraordinary! The UK ten-year Gilt yield is a mere 1.1% and we can borrow very cheaply. A combination of this week’s £3.4 billion QE from the Bank of England and the US Fed folding last night.

I suppose it is my time in the Gilt Market which means I follow it but there has been quite a shift which is getting ignored. Let me shift to the economic implications of this of which the most obvious is that the UK government can borrow very cheaply. Even if we look at the thirty-year yield at 1.59% it is very low in historical terms and but for the fact we have seen negative yields elsewhere ( and very briefly here) I would call it ultra low. No doubt its move lower last night was influenced by the £3.4 billion of purchases by the Bank of England this week especially the £1.1 billion of our 2057 Gilt. Added to that was the way that as we expected here the US Federal Reserve folded like a deck chair last night as placed a Powell put option under the US stock market.

UK Public Finances

Another area where I have been on a lonely journey is this which I reflected on last week ahead of the Spring Statement in the UK.

 However it does provide an opportunity to make clear how much the UK public finances have improved in the last few years. This often gets ignored in the media maelstrom as the priority is more often to score a political point.

In fact the January figures had been really good but maybe a little too good to be true.

Whilst some tax may have been paid earlier this year and flattered the Income Tax self assessment season the direction of travel is and has been clear.

So let us now find out.

Borrowing (public sector net borrowing excluding public sector banks) in February 2019 was £0.2 billion, £1.0 billion less than in February 2018; this was the lowest February borrowing since 2017.

So that is hopeful as there was no reverse swing but as ever we need to take some perspective for a clearer picture.

Borrowing in the current financial year-to-date (April 2018 to February 2019) (YTD) was £23.1 billion, £18.0 billion less than in the same period last year; the lowest YTD borrowing for 17 years (April 2001 to February 2002).

We see that we have maintained the same trend as the difference between this and January is within the likely error at £500 million. Also the driving force here was as hoped a strong tax collecting season.

combined self-assessed Income Tax receipts were £18.7 billion, of which £14.7 billion was paid in January and £4.0 billion was paid in February; an increase of £1.7 billion compared with the same period in 2018…….Combined Capital Gains Tax receipts were £8.8 billion, of which £6.8 billion was paid in January and £2.0 billion was paid in February; an increase of £1.3 billion compared with the same period in 2018.

I have to confess I am a little surprised at the relative size of the capital gains take and can only think that higher asset prices have helped. Do readers have any insight on it?

This means that looked at in isolation the UK fiscal position now looks very strong and we may be approaching fiscal balance which has been 2/3  years away since about 2012! Of course it may be spent and if we widen our outlook there are plainly plenty of good causes out there such as the Universal Credit shambles and the police for starters.

The national debt position is more complex.

Debt (public sector net debt excluding public sector banks) at the end of February 2019 was £1,785.6 billion (or 82.8% of gross domestic product (GDP)); an increase of £22.7 billion (or a decrease of 1.4 percentage points of GDP) on February 2018.

As you can see the rate of rise has slowed very sharply and such that even the low rate of economic growth we have seen has exceeded it causing the debt to GDP ratio to fall. Now I was asked on here about the banks last week and replied with this.

But it misses out the banks which would add another £283 billion to this. So much less than they did but still there.

So if we put them back in then the debt to GDP ratio is more like 96% but as I then pointed out the poor design of the Bank of England Term Funding Scheme amongst other things means this happens too.

Also they impact in another way as the Bank of England adds £185 billion to the national debt mostly via help to the banks.

So if we knock that off then a more realistic ratio is perhaps 87%.

Retail Sales

These showed yet again that the UK consumer seems to have “spend,spend,spend” on the brain.

The monthly growth rate in the quantity bought in February 2019 increased by 0.4%, with a decline of 1.2% in food stores offset by growth in all other main sectors.

As an aside I have noticed more than a few articles in the media telling us that people are stockpiling food and someone posted a receipt on twitter for over £600 after doing exactly that. But if we move from the media world to the much wide real one we see this.

The monthly fall in food stores was the strongest decline since December 2016 at negative 1.5%, reversing the increase of 0.9% in January 2019, with food retailers suggesting that “getting back to normal” following the January sales had contributed to this fall.

If they stockpiled a few months ago I will only be eating tinned or frozen food at their place.

Moving to the annual picture tells us this.

Year-on-year growth in the quantity bought in February 2019 increased by 4.0%, with growth in all main sectors, while the only sub-sector to show a decline within non-food stores was household goods stores at negative 1.3%.

Those who follow my theme from January 2015 that lower inflation boosts retail sales may like to note that the figures below suggest that at 0.3% it has been at play again.

Both the amount spent and the quantity bought in the retail industry showed strong growth of 4.3% and 4.0% respectively in February 2019 when compared with a year earlier.

If we look at wage growth at over 3% we see that in terms of retail sales we are seeing substantial real wage growth if the official data is any guide.

Comment

We find that the UK economic news continues to be pretty good. There are good signs for consumption from retail sales and the strong public finances do relate to what is strong tax take.

In the current financial YTD (April 2018 to February 2019), central government received £674.9 billion in income, including £512.2 billion in taxes. This was 5% more than in the same period in 2017.

So these numbers suggest we are doing better than we would otherwise have thought and if we also factor in the real wage growth that they might continue. A little caution is required as the money supply data is weak but perhaps GDP growth could continue to bumble on at 0.3% per quarter or so. At the moment if we add in an international perspective that does not look too bad.

Meanwhile some things just cannot be avoided it would seem.

In February 2019, the UK’s GNI and VAT contribution to the European Union (EU) was £2.9 billion, £1.0 billion higher than in February 2018; the highest cash payment in any month on record (monthly records began in January 1993). This is due largely to the timing of payments made to the EU by all member states rather than a reflection of any budgetary increase.

Me on The Investing Channel

 

UK GDP and Public Finances look good but the detail is worrying

Today as is often the case the last full trading day before Christmas brings the latest official data for the UK Public Finances which have had a good year. My main theme today will be to look at the many varieties of statistical manipulation that have been happening or as Marvin Gaye so famously put it.

Oh, what’s going on
What’s going on
Yeah, what’s going on
Ah, what’s going on

We also get as is the new wont a further update on UK GDP which also has a statistical swerve as we note the day has begun badly for France on this front.

In Q3 2018, GDP in volume terms* accelerated slightly: +0.3% after +0.2%.

That is a downwards revision of 0.1% and with the current debate over future public finances there was also this.

In Q3 2018, general government net borrowing increased by 0.4 points: the public deficit stood at 3.1% of the GDP after 2.7%.

The national debt is edging towards 100% of GDP ( 99.3%).

UK Public Finances

On Monday the Office for National Statistics gave us an update on a regular theme on here which is the issue of student loans. This is what the position was.

The UK’s student loan system is based on the government giving loans to most students for their tuition fees and maintenance. Students then repay these loans from their pay packets once they have graduated. Currently, in the National Accounts, these loans are treated as government lending.

That matters because in terms of the deficit lending does not appear. But as I have often argued reality is rather different.

However, the design of the system means much of this student loan debt will never be repaid, and is therefore written off by the government. Because of this, many people, including Parliamentary committees, have asked whether this means some, or all, of the money should be treated as government spending rather than government lending.

So this is what they will do in future.

To ensure our treatment of student loans reflects the way the system works in practice we have decided to split the government’s student loan payments into a portion that is genuine government lending and a portion that is government spending. The lending element will be calculated based on expected future repayments. The remainder, which is not expected to be repaid, will be treated as government spending. This will be treated as capital spending

Fair enough in many ways and as to how much here are the initial estimates.

The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) has published some initial estimates for the impact on government deficit. According to these estimates, our new approach will lead to the deficit being increased by approximately 0.6 percentage points of GDP a year, which equates to around £12 billion in the current year.

Of course it is hard not to think of the first rule of OBR Club as we note the numbers ( for newer readers it is that the OBR is always wrong). But as a general direction of travel it looks sound and I welcome it/ The changes should begin in the autumn of next year. In a way it should not matter as reality is unchanged but we do know that changes in measurement do have an impact.

So if we look to the positive we may now see some reform of the failing UK student loan system.

Today’s Data

The news here was good yet again.

Borrowing (public sector net borrowing excluding public sector banks) in November 2018 was £7.2 billion, £0.9 billion less than in November 2017; this was the lowest November borrowing for 14 years (since 2004). Borrowing in the current financial year-to-date (YTD) was £32.8 billion, £13.6 billion less than in the same period in 2017; the lowest year-to-date for 16 years (since 2002).

If we take the broad sweep then revenue growth has been what has made the difference as well as some control over total spending.

In the current financial YTD, central government received £471.1 billion in income, including £353.5 billion in taxes. This was around 4% more than in the same period in 2017.

Over the same period, central government spent £491.9 billion, around 2% more than in the same period in 2017.

Some of this is a reflection of other factors in play as for example the cost of servicing the UK national debt is some £3 billion lower than last year. This is mostly driven by the fall in the annual rate of rise of the Retail Price Index or RPI which defines the UK index-linked Gilt sector.

One area which was a former milch cow is no longer helping as Stamp Duty revenue is £8.8 billion in the financial year so far as opposed to £9.4 billion in 2017.

Moving to the national debt I notice that something we have been looking at has been missed/ignored by financial social media. So here it is and some of you will spot it immediately.

Debt (public sector net debt excluding public sector banks) at the end of November 2018 was £1,795.1 billion (or 83.9% of gross domestic product (GDP)); an increase of £59.3 billion (unchanged at 83.9% of GDP) on November 2017.

Last month the annual increase was only £1.6 billion! The swerve is that the classification change for the UK Housing Associations which was worth circa £65 billion has exited the annual comparison. The numbers do not add up because there have been some genuine changes too.

UK GDP

On the surface nothing has changed and at a time of downwards revisions elsewhere that is good news.

UK gross domestic product (GDP) in volume terms was estimated to have increased by 0.6% between Quarter 2 (Apr to June) 2018 and Quarter 3 (July to Sept) 2018.

Indeed the past was better than we thought at the time.

GDP was estimated to have increased by 1.8% between 2016 and 2017, revised upwards by 0.1 percentage points from the previous estimate.

However the devil is in the detail as when the first estimate of UK GDP for the third quarter of 2018 was released we were told this.

Net trade contributed 0.8 percentage points to GDP growth in Quarter 3 2018, with a 2.7% rise in exports and flat growth in imports.

Whereas now we are told this.

various revisions to net trade estimates led to a widening of the trade balance,

And Boom!

The cumulative effect over this period has been for net trade to have contributed less than previously estimated, most notably in the latest quarter in which net trade is now estimated to have contributed 0.1 percentage points to GDP growth in Quarter 3 2018. This is revised down from 0.8 percentage points and mainly reflects updated estimates of unspecified goods (which contains NMG). ( NMG is Non Monetary Gold)

So there you have it we have a reduction in a component of GDP by 0.7% but  the final answer remains the same. Rather like we have seen at times for Imputed Rent ( when the deflator was changed on a grand scale) and the Diane Coyle critique of the measurement of the telecommunications sector which suggested the numbers were much too low. In each instance we get an acknowledgement and assurances of changes before the Four Tops fire up.

Now it’s the same old song
But with a different meaning
Since you been gone
It’s the same old song.

Comment

Today’s data releases are positive for the UK as headline GDP growth was relatively strong in the third quarter of this year and the public finances continue to improve. There is both a theme and an irony in my next point which it is very cheap for the UK government to borrow right now with the ten-year Gilt yield being a mere 1.29%. The theme is that there is a certain logic with that following better numbers although the major factor is the expected enthusiasm for the Bank of England Whale making further purchases. The irony is that we borrowed a lot when it was much more expensive and borrow much less when it is cheaper.

Meanwhile as I have illustrated today the numbers need to be taken not just with a pinch of salt but the whole cellar.

Let me finish by wishing you all a Merry Christmas although I have not quite finished as I will publish my weekly podcast later. I will be back in the New Year which looks like yet another one of ch-ch-changes before it has even got out of the starting blocks.

Podcast

 

 

 

Was October a sign of the end of austerity for the UK Public Finances?

A feature of the past few months or so is that much of the economic data for the UK has been good, at least for these times. This was repeated by the CBI Industrial Trends Survey yesterday.

Manufacturing output growth picked up in the quarter to November, and firms saw overall order books rebound from a fall in October, according to the latest monthly CBI Industrial Trends Survey.

If we look into the detail we see this.

35% of businesses said the volume of output over the past three months was up, and 17% said it was down, giving a balance of +18%. This was above the historic average (+4%) and a slight pick-up from October (+13%).

So in spite of the ongoing problems for the car sector the manufacturing sector has been growing and above trend. Of course the trend for growth has not been much meaning that over the past few decades it has shrunk as a percentage of our economy but at least it is in a better phase and orders look solid too.

29% of manufacturers reported total order books to be above normal, and 19% said they were below normal, giving a balance of +10%. This was above the long-run average (-13%) and followed a weakening in October (-6%).17% of firms said their export order books were above normal, and 17% said they were below normal, giving a normal balance (0) – above the long-run average of -17%, and marginally higher than October (-4%).

I am not quite sure how to treat the export order books as that implies they were always shrinking, but anyway in relative terms we are doing better than usual. Speaking of exports overall take a look at this I spotted the other day.

Will I have to change the theme of trade deficits that I have run with for over twenty years now? It is way to early to say anything like that because any good month seems quite often to be followed by a reversal. But overall there has been an improving trend in there.

Bank of England

Yesterday several policymakers including Governor Carney were called to give evidence to the Treasury Select Committee. I would like to use the written evidence of Michael Saunders to illustrate their thinking, as it should in my view be questioned much more than it is.

With economic growth having been above potential for six or seven years, the spare capacity created by the recession has now probably been used up.

Hands up anybody who thinks that the past six or seven years have been “above potential”? Also if it has been this is quite a downgrade on the past as whilst I am far from a fan of extrapolating the previous boom we are way below its trends and need to understand why. Whereas the policies that have got us here from the Bank of England have apparently been a triumph. This swerve from central bankers from we saved you to the future is grim does not get challenged anything like enough. I would argue that the many of the problems have been created by their policies.

He is at it again here.

In turn, underlying pay growth (measured by private sector average weekly earnings excluding
bonuses) has picked up from 2-2½% a year ago to about 3% in June-August. This is close to a target consistent
pace, given the subdued trend in productivity growth.

As ever we see a central banker cherry-picking the data to get the answer he wants but let;s be fair. After all with their performances they are unlikely to be keen on bonuses! But there is a suggestion here that 3% wages growth is as good as it gets. Yet the same models which via their output gap theories suggest we can’t grow very fast are the same ones which previously told us that wage growth would be 5% plus if we had an employment situation like we do now.

Also the two statements below need challenging.

Under-employment has fallen markedly over recent years, with the net balance of desired extra working hours now around zero.

Okay so traditional output gap and full employment theory. But how does it go with this?

Overall, a U6-type  underemployment measure (which combines unemployment, IVPTs and the marginally attached) has fallen to 11.8% of the workforce in June-August from 12.6% a year ago.

It seems that there is quite a gap here as we recall that the level we have been guided to for the unemployment rate has dropped from 7% to 4.25% over the past five years, again with much less challenge than should have happened.

Oh and if you are struggling with currency trends Governor Carney provided his thoughts on the matter. From Bloomberg.

“There will be events that move sterling up and events that move sterling down,” he said. “That will likely continue for the next little while.”

The Public Finances

The picture here has been set fair and to some extent that continued today in the official figures.

Borrowing in the current financial year-to-date (YTD) was £26.7 billion: £11.2 billion less than in the same period in 2017; the lowest year-to-date for 13 years (since 2005).

As you can see this picked up the pace on the previous year, and FYE stands for Financial Year Ending.

Borrowing in the FYE March 2018 was £40.1 billion: £5.5 billion less than in FYE March 2017; the lowest financial year for 11 years (since FYE 2007).

So we need to borrow less than we did which means that in relative terms the debt issue is fading as the economy has been growing.

Debt at the end of October 2018 excluding Bank of England (mainly quantitative easing) was £1,598.5 billion (or 75.0% of GDP); a decrease of £33.6 billion (or a decrease of 4.0 percentage points) on October 2017.

Oh and as a technical point it is not mainly QE it is mainly the Term Funding Scheme and if we put the Bank of England back in the ratio is falling more slowly and is 84% of GDP.

The end of austerity?

October itself had an interesting kicker which will be immediately apparent below.

Central government receipts in October 2018 increased by 1.2% compared with October 2017, to £59.9 billion; while total expenditure increased by 7.7% to £65.4 billion.

I have looked into the numbers and if we look just at taxes growth seems to have remained at around 4%. The extremely complicated business as to how we account for interest on the Bank of England’s QE holdings seems to have subtracted about £1 billion which makes up the difference.

Moving to expenditure the explanation is about as clear as mud.

This month, much of the increase in spending was in the current account, with notable growth in both the expenditure on goods and services as well as net social benefits. Over the same period, interest payments on the government’s outstanding debt have increased; due largely to movements in the Retail Prices Index to which index-linked bonds are pegged.

So we spent more because we spent more. As to the index-linked debt we will have to monitor that as overall the numbers are down this financial year and with the oil price now at US $64 that will help.

As ever it is complicated as you see last October we thought we borrowed £8 billion but the figures ( as happens often) have improved.

Borrowing (Public sector net borrowing excluding public sector banks) in October 2018 was £8.8 billion, £1.6 billion more than in October 2017;

Comment

So the overall good economic news has led to a number higher than before for the UK fiscal deficit! It is a reminder that these numbers are erratic as back in July we were noting harsh austerity and now October says “spend,spend,spend.” Whilst there may be some flickers of change in for example the £700 million extra for the troubled local authority sector we need to see more before there is a clear change of direction.

One thing we can be sure of however is the first rule of OBR Club, where OBR stands for the Office of Budget Responsibility. When I checked last October’s it had around half the year’s data but apparently had learnt nothing.

The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) forecast that public sector net borrowing (excluding public sector banks) will be £58.3 billion during the financial year ending March 2018, an increase of £12.5 billion on the outturn net borrowing in the financial year ending March 2017.

Up is always the new down for them. Well we should have realised October might be a dodgy month when the OBR released this on the 29th.

On 29 October 2018, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) revised their official forecast of borrowing for the financial year ending (FYE) March 2019 down by £11.6 billion to £25.5 billion.