As we await the UK Budget which of course is showing all the signs of being a leaky vessel if not a sieve a lot is going on in the background. What I mean by this is that the goal posts are moving back and forth so much that the grounds(wo)man must be grateful they have wheels on them these days. Let me give you the first example which I mentioned last week. From the Financial Times.
Chancellor Philip Hammond is planning to shift the goalposts on the government’s borrowing limits in a move that will flatter the public finances and provide up to £5bn a year in additional public spending in the Budget on Wednesday. He will use a technical change in the accounting status of housing associations to reduce headline borrowing figures but will not make a corresponding change to his deficit targets in the Budget.
What the FT omitted to point out was the full-scale of the mess here. You see it was only a couple of years ago the housing associations were included in the national debt and now they are not. So overall we have not really gained anything it just looks like we have! Along the way the credibility of the numbers has been reduced again.
The danger for a Chancellor with an apparent windfall is that somebody spends it before he can and marathon man Mark Carney sprinted to the front of the queue to help his banking friends.
Consistent with this, I am requesting that you authorise an increase in the total size of the APF of £25bn to £585bn, in order to accommodate expected usage of the TFS by the end of the drawdown period.
What is happening here is that the Bank of England has got permission to increase the size of its bank subsidy called the Term Funding Scheme by another £25 billion to £140 billion. This is where banks get the ability to borrow from the Bank of England at or close to Bank Rate which is bad news for depositors as it means the banks are less interested in them. This has three consequences, Firstly as we are looking at the public finances today if this £25 billion is used then it raises the national debt by the same amount. Then there is an odd link because if things are going well why do we need to add an extra £40 billion ( there was an extra £15 billion in August) to this?
With the stronger economy and lending growth, TFS drawings reached a total of £91 bn at mid-November 2017.
We are in a pretty pickle if banks need subsidies in the good times. Sadly the mostly supine media are unlikely to ask this question or to wonder how all the downbeat forecasts and Brexit worries have suddenly morphed into a “stronger economy”. The next issue is where will the money turn up? It could be funds to give the car loans sector one last hurrah but as housing appears to be top of the list right now it seems more likely that the Chancellor would prefer another £25 billion to subsidise mortgage rates even further.
Rates on new and existing loans fell after the TFS was launched and have remained low by historical standards
If we move to Bank of England policy it has raised interest-rates on the wider economy but now plans to expand its subsidies to “the precious”. Frankly its opus operandi could not be much more transparent.
Firstly there is the FT on the Office for Budget Responsibility or OBR.
But the mood has improved since then after the OBR made clear it would offset some of the “significant” productivity downgrade with more optimistic employment forecasts.
So much for being “independent” and please remember tomorrow when the media are treating its pronouncements with respect and grandeur which is that the first rule of OBR club is that it is always wrong. Unless of course wage growth and gilt yields actually are 5% right now.
Then there is the possible/probable Brexit bill which is being reported as rising from £20 billion to £40 billion by places which told us it would be either £60 billion or £100 billion. So is that up or down? You choose.
I am sad that what was once a proud national broadcaster has sunk to this but this is finance from the BBC.
The news did not give any great reasons to be cheerful.
Public sector net borrowing (excluding public sector banks) increased by £0.5 billion to £8.0 billion in October 2017, compared with October 2016.
The driver here was increased debt costs as the interest bill rose from £4.8 billion last October to £6 billion this. As conventional Gilt yields are broadly similar then most if not all of this has been caused by higher inflation as measured by the Retail Prices Index. The actual amount varies as they pay on a lagged inflation basis which is not always the same but as a rule of thumb the measure has been ~2% per annum higher this year.
Looking beyond that there is a little more optimism to be seen as revenues are not to bad if we switch to the fiscal year to date numbers.
In the current financial year-to-date, central government received £394.3 billion in income, including £292.7 billion in taxes. This was around 4% more than in the same period in the previous financial year.
This means that we are doing a little better than last year.
Public sector net borrowing (excluding public sector banks) decreased by £4.1 billion to £38.5 billion in the current financial year-to-date (April 2017 to October 2017), compared with the same period in 2016; this is the lowest year-to-date net borrowing since 2007.
There has been a trend for a while for the numbers to be revised favourably as time passes so even including the debt interest rises we are edging forwards. As the inflation peak passes that will be less of an influence. The next major factor will be the self-assessment season in January and February when we will find out how much last years numbers were flattered by efforts to avoid the rise in dividend taxation.
On the theme of moving goal posts we produce quite a lot of numbers on this front and here is the headline.
Public sector net debt (excluding public sector banks) was £1,790.4 billion at the end of October 2017, equivalent to 87.2% of gross domestic product (GDP), an increase of £147.8 billion (or 4.5 percentage points as a ratio of GDP) on October 2016.
Most of the rise in the last year can be attributed to Mark Carney and his colleagues at the Bank of England.
Of this £147.8 billion, £101.7 billion is attributable to debt accumulated within the Bank of England. Nearly all of it is in the Asset Purchase Facility, including £89.9 billion from the Term Funding Scheme (TFS).
By chance our headline number is quite close to international standards as Eurostat has our national debt at this.
general government gross debt was £1,720.0 billion at the end of March 2017, equivalent to 86.8% of gross domestic product (GDP); an increase of £68.1 billion on March 2016.
The accident of timing that brings our public finance data up to date a bit over 24 hours before the Budget gives us some perspective. Firstly if you recall some of the numbers from yesterday how wrong the OBR has been which never seems to bother the media along the lines of Alice through the looking-glass.
‘I could tell you my adventures–beginning from this morning,’ said Alice a little timidly: ‘but it’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.’
Let me offer a policy prescription for the OBR
The mad Queen said, “Off with his head! Off with his head! Off with his head!” Well… that’s too bad… no more heads to cut.”
As to the Budget it would seem it is arriving with a housing obsession. Even the Governor of the Bank of England has got in on the act with yet another banking subsidy to reduce mortgage rates. The way we are told that was ending but in fact is being expanded feels like something out of Alice In Wonderland. Perhaps we will seem some more bribes in addition to the cheap railcards for millenials also.
As to the public finances if we skip the incompetent blunderings of the Bank of England which surely could have designed a scheme which did not raise the national debt we see a situation which is slowly improving. It is not impossible once the inflation peak passes that our debt to GDP ratio could fall but care is needed as you see the only question in the number crunching here is are there only 6?
Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.