Could US fiscal expansionism lead us to QE4?

The credit crunch era has been one where monetary policy has taken centre stage. There are many ways of expressing this but one is that technocrats ( central bankers) have mostly run the economic show as elected politicians have chosen to retreat to the sidelines as much as possible. Whatever you may think of President Trump he is not someone who is happy to be on the sidelines as he has exhibited publicly once or twice with some pushing and shoving. But more importantly we are seeing something of a shift in the balance of US economic policy as the monetary weapon gets put away at least to some extent but the fiscal one seems to be undergoing a revival.

A relatively small reflection of this was last night’s budget deal. We have become used to talk of a US government shutdown followed by an eleventh hour deal and no doubt there is a fair bit of both ennui and cynicism about the process. But as the Washington Post notes as we as giving the national debt can another kick there was this in the detail.

According to outlines of the budget plan circulated by congressional aides, existing spending caps would be raised by a combined $296 billion through 2019. The agreement includes an additional $160 billion in uncapped funding for overseas military and State Department operations, and about $90 billion more would be spent on disaster aid for victims of recent hurricanes and wildfires.

An increase in military spending was a Trump campaign promise so it is no surprise but spending increases come on top of the tax cuts we saw at the end of last year.

The Trump Tax Changes

According to the US Committee for a Responsible Fiscal Budget there was much to consider.

The final conference committee agreement of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) would cost $1.46 trillion under conventional scoring and over $1 trillion on a dynamic basis over ten years, leading debt to rise to between 95 percent and 98 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by 2027 (compared to 91 percent under current law). However, the bill also includes a number of expirations and long-delayed tax hikes meant to reduce the official cost of the bill. These expirations and delays hide $570 billion to $725 billion of potential further costs, which could ultimately increase the cost of the bill to $2.0 trillion to$2.2 trillion (before interest) on a conventional basis or roughly $1.5 trillion to $1.7 trillion on a dynamic basis over a decade. As a result, debt would rise to between 98 percent and 100 percent of GDP by 2027.

This is a familiar political tactic the world over where the numbers depend on others taking the difficult decisions in the future! One rather sneaky move is the replacement in terms of income tax thresholds of inflation indexation by the US Consumer Price Index by the chained version which is usually lower. So jam today but more like dry toast tomorrow.

Won’t this boost the economy?

There are enough problems simply doing the direct mathematics of government spending and revenue but the next factor is how do they effect the economy? Well the US Congress has given it a go.

The Joint Committee staff estimates that this proposal would increase the average level of output (as measured by Gross Domestic Product (“GDP”) by about 0.7 percent relative to average level of output in the present law baseline over the 10-year budget window. That
increase in output would increase revenues, relative to the conventional estimate of a loss of $1,456 billion over that period by about $451 billion. This budget effect would be partially offset by an increase in interest payments on the Federal debt of about $66 billion over the budget
period.

The idea of tax cuts boosting the economy is a reasonable one but the idea you can measure it to around US $451 billion is pure fantasy. To be fair they say “about” but it should really be if you will forgive the capitals and emphasis “ABOUT“. Anyway for the moment let us move on noting that there is already a fair bit of doubt about the impact on the US deficit over time from US $1 trillion or so to a bit over US $2 trillion.

What is the deficit doing?

According to the US CBO ( Congressional Budget Office) it has been rising anyway in the Trump era.

The federal budget deficit was $174 billion for the first four months of fiscal year 2018, the Congressional
Budget Office estimates, $16 billion more than the shortfall recorded during the same period last year.
Revenues and outlays were higher, by 4 percent and 5 percent, respectively, than during the first four
months of fiscal year 2017.

As you can see revenues are doing pretty well and in fact are being led by taxes on income being up by 8%. However spending rose even faster at an annual rate of 5% which at a time of economic growth gives us food for thought. There was one curious detail and one familiar one in this.

Social Security benefits rose by $11 billion (or 4 percent) because of increases both in the number of beneficiaries and in the average benefit payment.

That seems odd at a time of economic growth but the next bit reminds us that the rise in inflation has a cost too due to index-linked bonds called TIPS.

Outlays for net interest on the public debt increased by $13 billion (or 14 percent), largely because of differences in the rate of inflation.

More Spending?

It looks as though we will find out more about the much promised infrastructure plan next week. From Bloomberg.

President Donald Trump expects to release on Monday his long-awaited plan to generate at least $1.5 trillion to upgrade U.S. roads, bridges, airports and other public works, according to a White House official.

How much of this will come from the government is open to debate. The modern methodology is to promise some spending ( in this case US $200 billion) and assume that the private-sector will do the rest. One of the more extraordinary efforts on this front was the Juncker Plan in the Euro era which assumed a multiplier of up to twenty times. But returning stateside we can see that there will be upwards pressure on spending but so far we are not sure how much.

Comment

In my opening I suggested that the United States was switching from monetary expansionism to fiscal expansionism. Let me now introduce the elephant in this particular room.  From the Atlanta Fed

The GDPNow model forecast for real GDP growth (seasonally adjusted annual rate) in the first quarter of 2018 is 4.0 percent on February 6, down from 5.4 percent on February 1.

They may well be somewhat excitable but if we look at the 3.2% predicted by the New York Fed the view is for pretty solid economic growth. So the fiscal position should be good especially if we add in the fact that for all the media hype treasury bond yields are historically still rather low. Yet none the less the fiscal pump is being primed. Or to put it more strictly after a period of pro-cyclical monetary policy we now seem set for pro-cyclical fiscal policy.

There are obvious implications for the bond market here as there will be increases in supply on their way. No doubt for example this has been a factor in pushing the thirty-year bond yield above 3%. You might have expected more of an impact but I am increasingly wondering about something I suggested some time ago that the path to higher interest-rates in the United States might be accompanied by QE4 or a return to bond buying by the US Federal Reserve. Should the economy slow at any point which would boost the deficit on its own then we could see it. Also this could be a factor in the weaker US Dollar as in is it falling to reflect the risks of a possible return to Quantitative Easing?

The deep question here is can we even get by these days without another shot of stimulus be it monetary,fiscal or both?

Me on Core Finance TV

 

 

 

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The UK Public Finances hint at a strong underlying economy

Yesterday saw the IMF join the chorus expecting better economic times ahead.

The cyclical upswing underway since mid-2016 has continued to strengthen. Some 120 economies, accounting for three quarters of world GDP, have seen a pickup in growth in year-on-year terms in 2017, the broadest synchronized global growth upsurge since 2010…….Global growth for 2017 is now estimated at 3.7 percent, 0.1 percentage point higher than projected in the fall. The stronger momentum experienced in 2017 is expected to carry into 2018 and 2019, with global growth revised up to 3.9 percent for both years (0.2 percentage point higher relative to the fall forecasts).

Part of this was due to revising the US economy upwards( ~0.4%) due to the Trump tax cuts. This was obviously so painful to the IMF that it could only get some relief by revising the UK down a little in 2019. In reality the UK is likely to be pulled higher too by the global upswing as even Lord O’Neil formerly of the Vampire Squid now admits. From the BBC.

Britain should prepare for a much more economically optimistic 2018 because global growth is better than predicted.

That’s the argument of Lord Jim O’Neill, the former Conservative Treasury minister and Remain supporter.

He said Britain’s growth forecasts are likely to be upgraded as China, the US and Europe show increased activity.

Fair play to him for having the courage to correct past mistakes and the only worrying part of all this is that too many establishment groups and figures are telling us the future is bright! Just look at their track record……

PFI

Moving to the public finances there has been a fair bit of news on the Public Finance Initative or PFI front post the Carillion liquidation which I looked at on Monday last week.  The National Audit Office pointed out the scale of the issue late last week.

There are currently over 700 operational PFI and PF2 deals, with a capital value of around £60 billion and annual charges for these deals amounted to £10.3 billion in 2016-17. Even if no new deals are entered into, future charges which continue until the 2040s amount to £199 billion.

These schemes have brought some benefits but they have also brought problems mostly because the real rationale as I have pointed out many times was this.

However, most private finance debt is
off-balance sheet for National Accounts purposes.

The politicians doing this in effect get a benefit such as a new hospital but shift the burden of paying for it into the future and thus worsen the future public finances.

Unlike conventional procurement, debt raised to construct assets does not feature in government debt figures, and the capital investment is not recorded as public spending even though it is for the public sector.

In essence the projects are driven by the rules of our national accounts ( more specifically avoiding being measured….) rather than any economic gain.

PFI can be attractive to government as recorded levels of debt will be lower over the short to medium term (five years ahead) even if it costs significantly more over the full term of a 25–30 year contract.

You don’t say!

Today’s Data

The news opened in positive fashion.

Public sector net borrowing (excluding public sector banks) decreased by £2.5 billion to £2.6 billion in December 2017, compared with December 2016.

There were strong performances on the receipts side with Income Tax receipts up by £700 million and VAT ( a sales tax) up by £600 million. There are hints there of underlying economic strength and of course the higher VAT receipts give a rather different picture to what we were told by the retail sales numbers. On the expenditure side there was something to give a wry smile in the circumstances.

In December 2017, the UK’s net contribution to the European Union (EU) was £1.2 billion lower than in December 2016.

Okay why?

December can see atypical payments between member states and the EU. December 2017 saw a credit to the UK of £1.2 billion following the adoption of agreed amendments to the 2017 EU budget which reduced the size of the 2017 budget and adjusted member states’ contributions to reflect updated economic forecasts.

Or maybe someone has a sense of humour as it will all come out in the wash anyway. Also we need to note that a regular feature was still there as debt costs were higher by some £500 million which will be mostly driven by higher payments on index-linked Gilts affected by the fact that the Retail Prices Index has pushed over a 4% annual rate of growth.

Perspective

This too as you might imagine was given a boost by the December data.

Public sector net borrowing (excluding public sector banks) decreased by £6.6 billion to £50.0 billion in the current financial year-to-date (April 2017 to December 2017), compared with the same period in 2016.

This means that the first rule of OBR Club had yet another good year in 2017 as you will note from its November review of the state of play. The emphasis is mine.

That said, the public finances have performed better than expected. The ONS has revised borrowing in 2016-17 sharply lower, relative to its initial estimate and our March forecast. And the deficit has continued to fall in the first half of 2017-18. We have revised borrowing down by £8.4 billion to £49.9 billion for the full year,

Thus the OBR is left in the awkward situation of hoping that the UK Self-Assessment season for Income Tax is a poor one. Such a view will not be helped by the December data being good although the data can be erratic.

Here is a breakdown of both sides of the ledger.

In the current financial year-to-date, central government received £504.0 billion in income, including £376.8 billion in taxes. This was around 4% more than in the same period in the previous financial year.

Over the same period, central government spent £538.9 billion, around 3% more than in the same period in the previous financial year.

As some of the expenditure increase is caused by the rise in inflation via its impact on index linked Gilts then we do indeed have austerity if you define it as expenditure rising by less than the rate of inflation.

What about the National Debt?

We come into the real lies, damned lies and statistics section here. But let me try and shin a little light. Over the past year it has risen but mostly that has been due to some credit easing ( Term Funding Scheme) by the Bank of England. Over the past year it has raised the National Debt by £89.1 billion and as you can see below this makes a difference to whether it is going up or down.

Public sector net debt (excluding both public sector banks and Bank of England) was £1,591.4 billion at the end of December 2017, equivalent to 77.2% of GDP, a decrease of £26.8 billion (or 3.6 percentage points as a ratio of GDP) on December 2016.

Sadly there is still a lot of manipulation and misrepresentation going on as the main cause of the fall is what happened to the Housing Associations.

As of the end of October 2017, English HAs’ net debt amounted to £65.5 billion, which from November 2017 is no longer to be counted as public sector debt.

It is rarely reported that we use a completely different system to that used by the ratings agencies and the Maastricht criteria so here is the latter.

general government gross debt was £1,720.0 billion at the end of March 2017, equivalent to 86.7% of gross domestic product (GDP); an increase of £68.1 billion on March 2016…general government deficit (or net borrowing) was £46.9 billion in the financial year ending March 2017 (April 2016 to March 2017), equivalent to 2.4% of GDP; a decrease of £29.0 billion on March 2016.

It is like a numerical equivalent of alphabetti spaghetti isn’t it?

Comment

As we try to peer through all the attempts to deceive us about the UK public finances then we get a perspective on this announcement from the UK government. From The Times.

Theresa May is set to authorise the creation of a rapid response unit to stop fake news spreading online.

The team, which will be based in the Cabinet Office, will be tasked with monitoring social media to identify and challenge disinformation.

Time for some Depeche Mode.

It’s too late to change events
It’s time to face the consequence
For delivering the proof
In the policy of truth

Never again
Is what you swore
The time before
Never again
Is what you swore
The time before

The reality is that things are getting better albeit we are still a fair way away from the “promised land” of a surplus which we should be used to by now. As ever it is just around the corner. As to the underlying economy even the CBI seems optimistic looking ahead.

The survey of 369 manufacturers revealed that optimism about both business conditions and export prospects improved at an above-average pace.

The UK Public Finances continue to see plenty of meddling

As we approach Christmas we find that the news flow on the UK economy has not abated and in particular factors which will impact the public finances. For example yesterday the Agents of the Bank of England reported this.

Pay growth had risen slightly. A significant number of contacts expected pay awards to increase towards 2½%–3½% over the next year, from 2%–3% in 2017. That uplift showed some signs of coming through for the minority making decisions in late 2017.

So perhaps an uptick in taxes on income especially if we note that a different view was expressed compared to last week’s employment data.

Employment intentions continued to point towards modest
headcount growth. Recruitment difficulties continued to intensify, becoming more broadly based across sectors and skill levels.

We will have to see if the dip in employment ( after a period of substantial growth) continues or as the Agents suggest reverses. If the Agents are correct then the yield from income tax should be rising in 2018. One noticeable factor here though is how much less impact on wages “recruitment difficulties” has compared to the past.

Continuing with the same theme the Agents are bullish for manufacturing prospects.

Domestic manufacturing output had continued to grow relatively strongly; export volumes had strengthened, supported by an improving global economic outlook.

This continues the positive view expressed by the Confederation of British Industry or CBI on Monday.

Manufacturing order books were close to a 30 year high in the three months to December, according to the latest monthly CBI industrial trends survey……..Output growth was steady at a brisk pace in the three months to December, at a rate that was far above the long-run average.

Mind you we often find that there is contradictory data and this morning we see that the “strong overall order books were driven by Motor Vehicles and Transport Equipment, and Mechanical Engineering sectors,” of the CBI has somehow morphed into this.

The number of cars made in British factories last month and destined for the UK market plunged 28% to 24,276 according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT)…….Overall, car production fell 4.6% in November, as 161,490 cars left UK factories.

Exports were in fact up a little as we are reminded again that we essentially export our car production. But we are also reminded that domestic car sales are weak although not as weak as directly implied as October saw some over production for the state of the market.

Retail Sales

This is a crucial area for indirect taxation but the mists are not cleared much by this weeks data which gives plenty of scope for the apocryphal two-handed economist to be at play. First the CBI from yesterday.

The survey of 109 firms, of which 56 were retailers, showed that in the year to December, retail sales and orders continued to rise, although both disappointed expectations of somewhat stronger growth.

However hot on its heels came this today from Gfk.

It has been a slipping and sliding year. The Overall Index Score has slipped from – 7 in January to -13 in December – and not a single positive score in between. In fact, we have not been in positive territory for nearly two years.

So on the one hand up and on the other down! The problem for Gfk is that their two years of declines includes last autumn which turned out to be a particular boom period for UK retail sales.

Debt Costs and QE

It is often forgotten what an extraordinary influence the QE ( Quantitative Easing) era has had on what it costs the UK to pay for its debt. Let me give you some numbers as an illustration. Earlier this month we issued some thirty-year debt for a yield of 1.8% whereas if we look back at old era thinking by places like the OBR we would have expected to pay some 3% more. So if conventional Gilt issuance is £90 billion this year the “saving” is £2.7 billion a year going forwards. Soon mounts up doesn’t it?

Actually the “saving” will be higher in 2019 and 20 not because we are about to borrow more but because there are larger Gilt redemptions and subsequent refinancing in those years.

Just to be clear this is a rule of thumb estimate as for example we may issue more or less index-linked stock which requires different calculations and was not included in the Bank of England QE purchases. Ironically the recent phase of higher inflation and specifically inflation as measured by the Retail Price Index has raised the cost of index-linked debt.

The IMF is downbeat

If we skip the politics in the IMF report of yesterday there is an acknowledgement of a future issue.

The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) projects that annual spending on healthcare, long-term care and pensions is projected to increase by 1 percent of GDP between 2020 and 2025, and by much more thereafter.

Whilst the first rule of OBR Club is likely to apply there are issues associated with an aging population which of course will affect pretty much every country. Also we get an estimate of economic growth on the public finances.

 each 1 percentage point decline in GDP is estimated to decrease net revenues by about 0.4 percent of GDP.

Today’s data

This can be regarded as steady but unspectacular.

Public sector net borrowing (excluding public sector banks) decreased by £0.2 billion to £8.7 billion in November 2017, compared with November 2016…….Public sector net borrowing (excluding public sector banks) decreased by £3.1 billion to £48.1 billion in the current financial year-to-date (April 2017 to November 2017), compared with the same period in 2016.

This is a better performance than you might think as there were factors which flattered 2016 and also meant that the first rule of OBR Club has applied yet again. Also the cost of our index-linked debt has risen due to the rise in inflation seen and this will be a major part of the £5.4 billion rise in debt costs so far this fiscal year.

Comment

I thought that today I would do it in number crunching style and if there is anything in theme with my reports on all my reports on the misrepresentations this is it.

As of the end of October 2017, English HAs’ net debt amounted to £65.5 billion, which from November 2017 will no longer be counted as public sector debt. Further, public sector net borrowing has fallen by around £0.3 billion a month as a result of this reclassification. ( HA = Housing Association)

At the stroke of a pen. But you see the Bank of England has been acting in the opposite direction particularly in the blundering way it tripped over the rules with its Term Financing Scheme.

Since November 2016, the debt associated with Bank of England increased by £95.7 billion to £160.3 billion. Nearly all of this growth is due to the activities of the Asset Purchase Facility, including £86.8 billion from the Term Funding Scheme (TFS).

It is a coincidence that they offset or at least I think so!

Meanwhile here is a candidate for not getting a job involving numbers.

This tax has been estimated as £7 million per month based on forecasts made by the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), with £56 billion recorded in the financial year-to-date.

Not even Bitcoin has managed that rate of growth.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

The current situation

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

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

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

Original Austerity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A gentler variation

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

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

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

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

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

Economic growth

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The problems of the Private Finance Initiative mount

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

Private Finance Initiative

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

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

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

Problems

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

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

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

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

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

Inflexibility

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

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

Are supporters losing faith?

Today the Financial Times is reporting this.

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

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

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

Indeed we then seem to move onto the rather bizarre.

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

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

The UK Public Finances conform to the first rule of OBR club yet again

Not so long ago the UK Public Finances were headline news as we faced the consequences of the recession caused by the credit crunch and the cost of the various banking bailouts. We were promised that by now the situation would be fixed as we would have a surplus it terms of our annual deficit before it transpired that our previous Chancellor George Osborne was of the “jam tomorrow” variety and specifically always promised that success was 3/4 years away from whatever point in time you were at! This meant that what we might call the ordinary national debt has steady risen as whilst much of the bank debt is off our books we have borrowed overall. If we go back to the 2010 Budget forecast we were told this by the Office of Budget Responsibility ( OBR).

public sector net debt (PSND) to increase from 53.5 per cent of GDP in • 2009-10 to a peak of 70.3 per cent in 2013-14, falling to 69.4 per cent in 2014-15 and 67.4 per cent in 2015-16;

So we might expect the national debt to be 63.4% of GDP now. How is that going?

In November we expected public sector net debt (PSND) to peak at 90.2 per cent of GDP in 2017-18, with the August 2016 monetary policy package raising debt significantly in 201617 and 2017-18. We continue to expect debt to peak as a share of GDP in 2017-18, but at a slightly lower 88.8 per cent. As in November, we expect it to fall each year thereafter.

This is one of the factors in my first rule of OBR club ( it is always wrong…) and in a way it is quite touching that they always think that the national debt is about to shrink relative to the size of our economy.

Current issues

The first is that economic growth in the UK has continued but has slowed so that revenue growth may be under pressure. This was highlighted to some extent by yesterday’s retail sales data.

The underlying pattern in the retail industry is one of growth; for the three-months on three-months measure, the quantity bought increased by 0.6%…….Year on year, the quantity bought in the retail sector increased by 1.2%, with non-food (household goods, clothing stores) and non-store retailing all providing growth.

That suggests there is a fading of the consumer sector with implications for revenue although of course Value Added Tax is on value and not volume so will get a boost from this.

Store prices continue to rise across all store types and are at their highest year-on-year price growth since March 2012 at 3.3% (non-seasonally adjusted).

The general picture was summed up in yesterday’s monthly economic review.

GDP growth has slowed in the first two quarters of 2017, while the economy has grown 1.5% compared with the same quarter a year ago – the slowest rate since Quarter 1 2013.

Also in a week where there has been a lot of news on problems with economic statistics there was this.

we will move to using the new GDP publishing model in 2018, with the first estimate of monthly GDP (for the reference month of May) being introduced in July 2018

I admire the ambition here but not the brains. I particularly wait to see how the quarterly services surveys will give monthly results! Ironically the same monthly review suggested grounds for caution.

The latest figures include significant revisions due to improvements in the measurement of dividend income, which have led to an upwards revision of the households and NPISH saving ratio by an average of 0.9 percentage points from 1997 to 2016, with a revised 2016 estimate of 7.1% (revised up from 5.2%).

So places like the OBR can produce reports sometimes  hundreds of pages long on the wrong numbers?

Inflation

This is proving expensive because the UK has a large amount of index-linked Gilts which are linked to the Retail Price Index which is currently growing at an annual rate of 3.9%. The effect is described below.

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

Today’s data

The deficit numbers were in fact rather good in the circumstances.

Public sector net borrowing (excluding public sector banks) decreased by £0.7 billion to £5.9 billion in September 2017, compared with September 2016…….Public sector net borrowing (excluding public sector banks) decreased by £2.5 billion to £32.5 billion in the current financial year-to-date (April 2017 to September 2017), compared with the same period in 2016.

The main factor in the improvement is that revenue growth continues to be pretty solid.

In the current financial year-to-date, central government received £334.5 billion in income; including £250.5 billion in taxes. This was around 4% more than in the same period in the previous financial year.

You may have already guessed the best performer which was Stamp Duty on property which has risen from £6 billion in the same period last year to £7 billion this. By contrast Corporation Tax has been a disappointment as it has only risen by £100 million to £29 billion on the same comparison.

The National Debt

Here it is.

The amount of money owed by the public sector to the private sector stood at nearly £1.8 trillion at the end of September 2017, which equates to 87.2% of the value of all the goods and services currently produced by the UK economy in a year (or gross domestic product (GDP)).

Oh and thanks Mark Carney and the Bank of England as yet another bank subsidy turns up in the figures.

£100.3 billion is attributable to debt accumulated within the Bank of England, nearly all of it in the Asset Purchase Facility; including £84.6 billion from the Term Funding Scheme (TFS).

Comment

We see that for all the many reports of woe the UK economy continues to bumble along albeit more slowly than before. We can bring in that theme and also the first rule of OBR club as I expect another wave in November.

The OBR is likely to revise down potential productivity growth in its November forecast, weakening the outlook for the public finances.

As they have been consistently wrong they are also likely to change course at the wrong point so this may be the best piece of news for UK productivity in a while! Actually I think a lot of the problem is in how you measure it at all in the services sector? In fact any resources the ONS has would be much more usefully spent in this area than producing a monthly GDP figure.

For those of you who measure the economy via the tax take then a 4% increase in the year so far is fairly solid. There will be a boost from inflation on indirect taxes but so far not so bad. Also we can look at revenue versus the National Debt where £726 billion last year compares with our national debt of about 1800 billion or around 40%

Meanwhile there was some good news for the UK economy from Gavin Jackson of the Financial Times.

The UK has 6.5 per cent of the global space economy!

Plenty of room for expansion (sorry). Intriguingly it may be led by Glasgow which would be a return to past triumphs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Public Sector Pay

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

 

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

Today’s Data

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

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

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

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

Revenue

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

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

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

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

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

Expenditure

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

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

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

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

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

Comment 

We can see the UK’s journey below.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enjoy the silence

Me on Core Finance TV

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

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