UK Retail Sales and Public-Sector Borrowing Surge

We were supposed to be receiving some grand news from the Bank of England this morning. But in fact we find ourselves simply noting a rather botched public relations spinning effort.

You spin me right round, baby
Right round like a record, baby
Right round round round ( Dead or Alive)

The main movement was in the value of the UK Pound £ which fell by around 1% so we saw using the old rule of thumb monetary easing equivalent to a 0.25% Bank Rate cut. How much of that was due to the PR shambles?

Anyway there was some good news in an implied better trajectory for the UK economy and that has been backed by the data this morning.

The monthly growth rate in May 2020 is strong because of a combination of recent increasingly rapid growth in non-store retailing and a pick-up for non-food stores from the lowest levels ever experienced.

Also let me give the Office for National Statistics credit for this.

Weights to total retail are calculated from the amount of money typically spent in each retail sector and used as a proportion to calculate growth contributions. For example, around 38.1 pence of every pound is typically spent in food stores, providing us with a weight of 38.1 to total retail. In May 2020, these proportions were recalculated to reflect the changes in spending during the pandemic. The amount of money spent in food stores increased to 51.4%,

In what are volatile and uncertain times one needs to keep on our toes and this example should be spread to the inflation numbers. The data should reflect as best we can what is happening not a world “far,far,away”. As you can see,doing so makes quite a difference. The number below gives a hint of how the inflation data would be affected and in my opinion it is a great shame that the Bank of England Minutes ignored this factor yesterday.

Fuel sales usually has a weight of just over 10.4% to total retail, but was at around 5.5% in May 2020, resulting in a positive contribution of 2.3 and 2.7 percentage points for value and volume sales respectively.

Actually the release even hints at this.

Fuel prices also continued to fall in May 2020………When compared with the same month a year earlier, fuel prices fell by 14.9%

However whilst the monthly improvement was very welcome and you might like to note was another example of the “expert” forecasters missing the dartboard as they were expecting more like 6% growth as opposed to 12% or so, we need a deeper perspective.

While we see some partial bounce back on the monthly growth rate in May 2020 at 12.0%, levels of sales do not recover from the strong falls seen in March and April 2020 and are still down by 13.1% on February 2020 before the impact of the corona virus pandemic.

Putting this another way the volume index was 93.7 in May if we set 2016 as the base level of 100. Previously the numbers were bouncing around 108.

I doubt any of you will be surprised by the shift to online retailing.

Online sales as a proportion of all retailing reached a record high of 33.4% in May 2020, exceeding the original record reported last month of 30.7%.

There was a larger uptake of online spending for food, which reached record proportions, from 9.3% in April to 11.3% in May.

Should consumers continue with this trend this is more bad news for the high street. Although as a counterpoint the mobs that descended on the shops which opened recently suggests there is some hope, although the health message sent from that was rather different.

Public Finances

Let me start with an apology as I was asked about this and thought it would probably take place in June.

Debt (public sector net debt excluding public sector banks, PSND ex) at the end of May 2020 was 100.9% of gross domestic product (GDP), the first time that debt as a percentage of GDP has exceeded 100% since the financial year ending March 1963.

There are a couple of factors in my defence however and one of them we have just been noting. That is a further hint that the economy is doing better than the consensus expectations. Oh and my first rule of OBR Club is likely to help me out.

 the current estimate of GDP used to calculate this ratio uses forecasts based on expectations published in the Office for Budget Responsibility’s (OBR’s) Coronavirus Reference Scenario.

They look well on their way to being wrong again. Also there is the large £13.9 billion revision to borrowing for April and we learn quite a bit from it. Take a look at this for example.

Central government tax receipts and National Insurance contributions for April 2020 have been increased by £5.4 billion and £2.4 billion respectively compared with those published in our previous bulletin (published 22 May 2020). Within tax receipts, Pay As You Earn income tax has been increased by £3.0 billion and Value Added Tax has been increased by £2.8 billion, both because of updated data.

As you can see there is another hint from the numbers that the economy was doing better than so far reported in April as we see upwards revisions to both income and expenditure taxes.Indeed the numbers have quite a conceptual problem as we mull whether imputation is like a pandemic?

In other words, we attempt to record receipts at the point where the liability arose, rather than when the tax is actually paid.

Oh and you can’t say I have not regularly warned you about the OBR!

On 4 June 2020, the OBR published an update to its Corona Virus analysis in which it reduced previous estimates of CJRS expenditure.


We can start with May.

Over this period, the public sector borrowed £55.2 billion, £49.6 billion more than it borrowed in May 2019.

But via the revisions noted above we have already seen how unreliable a single month is so we do a little better looking at this.

In the current financial year-to-date (April to May 2020), the public sector borrowed £103.7 billion, £87.0 billion more than in the same period last year.

Although we need to note that we will be lucky if it is accurate to the nearest £10 billion. Within the receipts numbers there are some points of note. The Retail Sales numbers with monthly rises of 30%,61% and now 3,6% for the category with includes alcohol sales meets alcohol duty receipts which have fallen from £2.1 billion to £1.6 billion. Perhaps a health kick has been going on as tobacco receipts fall by £400 million to £1 billion. Also a slowing in the housing market is kicking in as Stamp Duty receipts fall from £2 billion to £1.1 billion.

Switching to the national debt there is this.

Debt (PSND ex) at the end of May 2020 was £1,950.1 billion, an increase of £173.2 billion (or 20.5 percentage points) compared with May 2019, the largest year-on-year increase in debt as a percentage of GDP on record (monthly records began in March 1993).


We have some welcome news today on the economy but context is needed as we have still experienced quite a drop, simply one which is smaller than reported so far. There is an irony in the two numbers released as we see this being reported which gives a worse impression.

Just in: UK government debt exceeded the size of the country’s economy in May for the first time in more than 50 years, official data published on Friday showed, as borrowing surged to pay for coronavirus response measures ( Financial Times)

Having awarded myself a slice of humble pie let me move onto an issue that the more clickbaity reports have ignored.

If we were to remove the temporary debt impact of APF and TFS, public sector net debt (excluding public sector banks) at the end of May 2020 would reduce by £195.5 billion (or 10.1% percentage points of GDP) to £1,754.6 billion (or 90.8% of GDP).

That is the role of the Bank of England in raising the reported level of the national debt and frankly this bit below is one of the silliest inclusions.

As a result of these gilt holdings, the impact of the APF on public sector net debt stands at £95.7 billion, the difference between the nominal value of its gilt holdings and the market value it paid at the time of purchase. Note that the final debt impact of the APF depends on the disposal of the gilts at the end of the scheme.

Oh well. Let me end by bringing yesterday’s extra QE bond purchases and the borrowing together with these two numbers.

At the end of May 2020, the gilt holdings of the APF have increased by £46.7 billion (at nominal value) compared with the end of April 2020, to £475.1 billion in total. This increase is of a similar order of magnitude to the new issuance by the DMO in May 2020, which means that gilt holdings by units other than the APF have changed very little since April 2020.

As I have pointed out before if we take a broad brush the Bank of England is implicitly financing the government spending. That is why we can borrow so cheaply with some gilt yields negative and the fifty-year a mere 0.55%.