The UK shopper strikes yet again!

This morning has brought an example of something which is both remarkable and familiar. You might argue that you cannot use those two words together but 2020 is a year that continues to defy convention. What I am referring too is more good news for the UK economy from this sector.

In October 2020, retail sales volumes increased by 1.2% when compared with September; the sixth consecutive month of growth in the industry.

This means that the annual picture looks really rather rosy too.

In October, the year-on-year growth rate in the volume of retail sales saw a strong increase of 5.8%, with feedback from a range of businesses suggesting that consumers had started Christmas shopping earlier this year, further helped by early discounting from a range of stores.

In recent times the pattern has changed with for example Black Friday being in a week’s time and there is also Cyber Monday. Some Black Friday offers seem to have already started, if the advertising I see is any guide. So the structure underlying seasonal adjustment has been changing and maybe there has been another shift this year. Thus there may be a hangover from these numbers but we simply do not know how much it will be?

If we try to compare we the period pre the pandemic we see another strong recovery and then boom.

Looking at October’s total retail sales values (excluding fuel), which is a comparable measure to our online series, sales increased by 7.9% when compared with February; driven by a strong increase in sales online at 52.8% in comparison to reduced store sales at negative 3.3%.

From all the deliveries I see happening the online numbers are hardly a surprise, but with Lockdown 2.0 now adding to the problems I fear for quite a bit of the high street.

So we do have a V-shaped recovery for one part of our economy and I guess the orders for the economics text books are already on their way to the printers.

What this has done is out the switch to the online world on speed with food sales seeing a particular boom. That will be fed by the stories that Covid-19 is being spread by supermarket visits.

In October, we can see that online sales for all sectors increased when compared with February. Online food sales nearly doubled, with an increase of 99.2% in comparison with food store sales, which saw a fall of 2.1%. Overall, total food sales increased by 3.4% when compared with February.

Clothing stores, with an overall decline of 14.0% in value sales, increased their online sales by 17.1% but saw the biggest fall in store sales at negative 22.1%.

The area which has most struggled does not really have an option for online sales.

In October, fuel sales still remained 8.8% below February’s pre-lockdown level, while car road traffic reduced by an average 14.2%.

Looking at the overall picture it is also a case of Shaun 1 Bank of England 0 because my case that lower prices lead to growth has got another piece of evidence in its favour.

This was the sixth consecutive month of growth resulting in value and volume sales 5.2% and 6.7% higher respectively than in February 2020, before coronavirus (COVID-19) lockdown restrictions were applied in the UK.

With value growth or if you prefer expenditure in Pounds lower than volume growth there has been disinflation or price falls combined with volume growth. For newer readers I first made the point formally on here on the 29th of January 2015.

Looking ahead that boost may now fade as October gave a hint of a change of trend.

All measures in the total retail sales industry saw an increase in October 2020. The monthly growth rate for value sales was 1.4% and for volume sales 1.2%.

It may take a while to note anything like that as Lockdown 2.0 will affect the December and particularly the November numbers.

Public Finances

These too were numbers that the forecasters got wrong by quite a bit. So today was yet another failure as Retail Sales were supposed to flat line and borrowing be much higher.

Public sector net borrowing (excluding public sector banks, PSNB ex) is estimated to have been £22.3 billion in October 2020, £10.8 billion more than in October 2019, which is both the highest October borrowing and the sixth-highest borrowing in any month since monthly records began in 1993.

Of course, we are borrowing extraordinary amounts so this is relatively good news rather than being outright good. As you can see below a more than half of the rise is extra central government spending.

Central government bodies are estimated to have spent £71.3 billion on day-to-day activities (current expenditure) in October 2020, £6.4 billion more than in October 2019; this growth includes £1.3 billion in Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) and £0.3 billion in Self Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS) payments.

Also revenues have fallen and some of that is deliberate with the VAT and Stamp Duty cuts.

Central government tax receipts are estimated to have been £39.7 billion in October 2020 (on a national accounts basis), £2.7 billion less than in October 2019, with falls in Value Added Tax (VAT), Business Rates and Pay As You Earn (PAYE) income tax.

You might think that the balancing amount was local councils especially after the blow up in Croydon, which for those unaware is below.

Cash-strapped Labour-run Croydon Council has imposed emergency spending restrictions with “immediate effect”, the BBC has learned.

The Section 114 notice bans all new expenditure at Croydon Council, with the exception of statutory services for protecting vulnerable people.

A document seen by the BBC said “Croydon’s financial pressures are not all related to the pandemic”.

It is under a government review amid claims of “irresponsible spending”.

Section 114 notices are issued when a council cannot achieve a balanced budget. ( BBC News)

However the main other recorded component was the Bank of England at £2.8 billion. This is really rather awkward as it has not actually borrowed anything at all! But a Monty Python style method records it as such and it is the first time I can recall an issue I have regularly flagged about the national debt so explicitly affecting the deficit as well.

National Debt

So without further ado here is the misleading headline that much of the media has gone with today.

Public sector net debt (excluding public sector banks) rose by £276.3 billion in the first seven months of the financial year to reach £2,076.8 billion at the end of October 2020, £283.8 billion more than in October 2019.

This is misleading because it includes the activities of the Bank of England which are not debt. I am no great fan of the Term Funding Scheme but recording its £120 billion as all being debt is quite extraordinary and is a major factor leading to this.

If we were to remove the temporary debt impact of these schemes along with the other transactions relating to the normal operations of the BoE, public sector net debt excluding public sector banks (PSND ex) at the end of October 2020 would reduce by £232.9 billion (or 11.3 percentage points of GDP) to £1,843.9 billion (or 89.5% of GDP).

It makes quite a difference especially for fans of debt to GDP ratios as we go from 89.5% to “around 100.8% of gross domestic product” on this really rather odd road.

Comment

The continued growth of UK retail sales is good news as we see an area that has recovered strongly. This comes with two caveats. The first is that with out enthusiasm for imports it poses a danger for the trade figures. The second is that in a tear with so many changes I doubt any survey is completely reliable so we are more uncertain that usual.

Switching to the public finances and taking a deeper perspective we are posting some extraordinary numbers.

Public sector net borrowing (PSNB ex) in the first seven months of this financial year (April to October 2020) is estimated to have been £214.9 billion, £169.1 billion more than in the same period last year and the highest public sector borrowing in any April to October period since records began in 1993.

We seem set to keep spending more in some areas ( defence) but want to cut back in others ( public-sector pay) so all we can do at the moment is be grateful we can borrow so cheaply. Even the fifty-year Gilt yield is a mere 0.77% and as I have written before at these levels I would issue some one hundred year ones as the burdens are not going away anytime soon.

My theme that low inflation helps economies also gets support from the public finances.

Interest payments on the government’s outstanding debt were £2.0 billion in October 2020, £4.4 billion less than in October 2019. Changes in debt interest are largely a result of movements in the Retail Prices Index to which index-linked bonds are pegged.

The Bank of England never gets challenged as to why it keeps trying to raise our debt costs in this area. Also you see another reason why the establishment wants to neuter the Retail Prices Index ( RPI)

 

 

 

 

 

UK sees a worrying rise in inflation and record borrowing

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

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

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

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

Nothing to see here, move along now please

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

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

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

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

That is hardly a ringing endorsement but there is more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Borrowing Has Surged

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

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

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

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

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

National Debt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

 

 

 

Greece rearms but what about the economy?

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

Greece’s new arms procurement program features:

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

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

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

The driving force behind this is highlighted by Kathimerini below.

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

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

The Economy

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

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

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

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

What about the public finances?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s getting better all the time

Meanwhile each time we look again the numbers are larger.

Debt Costs

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

Mind you the ESM still has this on its webpage.

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

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

 

 

Do we face austerity and tax rises after the Covid-19 pandemic?

We have been in uncertain times for a while now and this has only been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. One particular area of concern are the public finances of nations who are copying the “Spend! Spend! Spend!” prescription of football pools winner Viv Nicholson. For younger readers the football pools were what people did before lotteries. Indeed if we note the latest IMF Fiscal Monitor there was an issue even before the new era.

Prior to the pandemic, public and private debt were
already high and rising in most countries, reaching
225 percent of GDP in 2019, 30 percentage points
above the level prevailing before the global financial
crisis. Global public debt rose faster over the period,
standing at 83 percent of GDP in 2019.

We get a pretty conventional response for the IMF which has this as a mantra.

And despite access to financing varying sharply across countries, medium- to long-term fiscal strategies were needed virtually everywhere.

There is a counterpoint here which is that the fiscal strategies approved by the IMF have been a disaster. There is of course Greece but in a way Japan is worse. Following IMF advice it began a policy of raising its Consumption Tax to reduce its fiscal deficit. It took five years for it to take the second step as the first in 2014 caused quite a dive in the economy. Then the second step last year saw Japan’s economy contract again, just in time to be on the back foot as the Covid-19 pandemic arrived.

The IMF is expecting to see quite a change this year.

In 2020, global general government debt is estimated to make an unprecedented jump up to almost 100 percent of GDP. The major increase in the primary deficit and the sharp contraction in economic activity of 4.7 percent projected in the latest World Economic Outlook, are the main drivers of this development.

Oh and where have we heard this before? The old this is “temporary” line.

But 2020 is an exceptional year in terms of
debt dynamics, and public debt is expected to stabilize
to about 100 percent of GDP until 2025, benefiting
from negative interest-growth differentials.

I make the point not because I have a crystal ball but because I know I do not. Right now the path to the end of this year looks extremely uncertain with for example France imposing a curfew on Paris and other major cities and Germany hinting at another lockdown. So we have little idea about 2021 let alone 2025.

The IMF is in favour of more spending this time around.

These high levels of public debt are hence not the
most immediate risk. The near-term priority is to
avoid premature withdrawal of fiscal support. Support
should persist, at least into 2021, to sustain the recovery and to limit long-term scarring. Health and education should be given prime consideration everywhere.

I would have more time for its view on wasteful spending and protection of the vulnerable if the places where it has intervened had actually seen much reform and protection.

Fiscally constrained economies should prioritize the
protection of the most vulnerable and eliminate
wasteful spending.

Economic Theory

The IMF view this time around is based on this view of public spending.

The Fiscal Monitor estimates that a 1 percent of
GDP increase in public investment, in advanced
economies and emerging markets, has the potential to push GDP up by 2.7 percent, private investment by
10 percent and, most importantly, to create between
20 and 33 million jobs, directly and indirectly. Investment in health and education and in digital and green
infrastructure can connect people, improve economy wide productivity, and improve resilience to climate
change and future pandemics.

If true we are saved! After all each £ or Euro or $ will become 2.7 of them and them 2.7 times that. But then we spot “has the potential” and it finishes with a sentence that reminds me of the  company for carrying on an undertaking of great advantage from the South Sea Bubble. For those unaware of the story it disappeared without trace but with investors money.

For newer readers this whole area has become a minefield for the IMF because it thought the fiscal multiplier for Greece would be 0.5 and got involved in imposing austerity on Greece. It then was forced into a U-Turn putting the multiplier above 1 as it was forced to do by the economic collapse which was by then visible to all.

Institute for Fiscal Studies

It has provided a British spin on these events although the theme is true pretty much everywhere we look.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the public health measures implemented to contain it will lead to a huge spike in government borrowing this year. We forecast the deficit to climb to £350 billion (17% of GDP) in 2020–21, more than six times the level forecast just seven months ago at the March Budget. Around two-thirds of this increase comes from the large packages of tax cuts and spending increases that the government has introduced in response to the pandemic. But underlying economic weakness will add close to £100 billion to the deficit this year – 1.7 times the total forecast for the deficit as of March.

I suggest you take these numbers as a broad brush as it will be a long economic journey to April exemplified by that fact that whilst I am typing this it has been announced that London will rise a tier in the UK Covid-19 restrictions from this weekend. I note they think that £250 billion of this is an active response and £100 billion is passive or a form of automatic stabiliser.

They follow the IMF line but with a kicker that it is understandably nervous about these days.

But, in the medium term, getting the public finances back on track will require decisive action from policymakers. The Chancellor should champion a general recognition that, once the economy has been restored to health, a fiscal tightening will follow.

They are much less optimistic than the IMF about the middle of this decade/

Under our central scenario, and assuming none of the temporary giveaways in 2020–21 are continued, borrowing in 2024–25 is forecast to be over £150 billion as a result of lower tax revenues and higher spending through the welfare system.

They do suggest future austerity.

Once the economy has recovered, policy action will be needed to prevent debt from continuing to rise as a share of national income. Even if the government were comfortable with stabilising debt at 100% of national income – its highest level since 1960 – it would still need a fiscal tightening worth 2.1% of national income, or £43 billion in today’s terms.

Comment

As you can see the mood music from the establishment and think tanks has changed somewhat since the early days of the credit crunch.Austerity was en vogue then but now we see that if at all it is a few years ahead. Let me now switch to the elephant in the room which has oiled this and it was my subject of yesterday, where the fall in bond yields means governments can borrow very cheaply and sometimes be paid to do it. That subject is hitting the newswires this morning.

The German 10-year bond yield declined to the lowest level in five months on Wednesday as coronavirus’s resurgence across the Eurozone strengthened the haven demand for the government debt. ( FXStreet)

It is -0.61% as I type this and even the thirty-year yield is now -0.22%. So all new German borrowing is better than free as it provides a return for taxpayers rather than investors. According to Aman Portugal is beginning to enjoy more of this as well.

According to the IGCP, which manages public debt, at the Bloomberg agency, €654 million were auctioned in bonds with a maturity of 17 October 2028 (about eight years) at an interest rate of -0.085%.

Although for our purposes we need to look at longer-term borrowing so the thirty-year issue at 0.47% is more relevant. But in the circumstances that is amazingly cheap.

In essence this is what is different this time around and it is one arm of government helping another as the enormous pile of bonds purchased by central banks continue to grow. The Bank of England bought another £4.4 billion this week. So we have a window where this matters much less than before. It does not mean we can borrow whatever we like it does mean that old levels of debt to GDP such as 90% ( remember it?) and 100% and even 120% are different now.

In the end the game changer is economic growth which in itself posts something of a warning as pre pandemic we had issues with it. Rather awkward that coincides with the QE era doesn’t it as we mull the way it gives with one hand but takes away with another?

UK National Grid

It was only last week I warned about this.

National Grid warns of short supply of electricity over next few days ( The Guardian)

Good job it has not got especially cold yet.

The UK will continue to see quite a surge in the national debt

Today I thought it was time to take stock of the UK economic situation. This is because we find ourselves experiencing a sort of second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Official figures show the UK has recorded a further 22,961 cases of COVID-19 after Public Health England announced it has identified 15,841 cases that were not included in previous cases between 25 September and 2 October due to a technical issue. ( Sky News )

Those numbers are something of a shambles and as a TalkTalk customer it does seem to have similarities to when Baroness Harding was in charge of it. Fortunately we are not experiencing a similar rise in deaths ( 33) as we try to allow for the lags in this process. But however you look at the numbers economic restrictions look set to remain and maybe increased as we note what is about to take place in Paris.

Paris and neighbouring suburbs have been placed on maximum coronavirus alert on Monday, the prime minister’s office announced on Sunday, with the city’s iconic bars closing, as alarming Covid-19 infection numbers appeared to leave the French government little choice. Mayor Anne Hidalgo is to outline further specific measures Monday morning. ( France24)

We have already seen more restrictions for Madrid. So the overall picture is not a good one for those who have asserted the likelihood of a V-Shaped economic recovery.Some area yes but others not and on a purely personal level passing bars and pubs in South-West London trade looks thin. All of this is also before we see the end of the furlough scheme at the end of the month.

Car Registrations

This morning’s update showed an area which is still in trouble.

The UK new car market declined -4.4% in September, according to figures published today by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT). The sector recorded 328,041 new registrations in the month – the weakest September since the introduction of the dual number plate system in 1999 and some -15.8% lower than the 10-year average of around 390,000 units for the month.

There are quite a few factors at play here. The car industry had its issues pre the pandemic. But added to it was the lockdown earlier this year followed by several U-Turns. People were encouraged to drive to work as the previous official view of encouraging public transport changed. But in London this was accompanied by the sprouting of cycle lanes in many places that looked rather bizarre to even a Boris Biker like me. This was not helped by problems with a couple of bridges and now official policy is for people to work from home again.

There is the ongoing background as to what cars we should buy? The internal combustion engine is out of favour but there are plenty of issues with batteries made out of toxic elements. The net effect of all the factors is this.

 With little realistic prospect of recovering the 615,000 registrations lost so far in 2020, the sector now expects an overall -30.6% market decline by the end of the year, equivalent to some £21.2 billion2 in lost sales.

Business Surveys

This was more optimistic this morning as Markit released the main PMI data.

The UK service sector showed encouraging resilience in
September, with business activity continuing to grow solidly despite the government’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme being withdrawn……….However, growth across the services sector was uneven with gains principally focussed on areas such as business-to-business services. Those sub-sectors more exposed to social contact such as Hotels, Restaurants & Catering reported a downturn in business during the month,

The better news for the large services sector fed straight into the wider measure.

The UK Composite Output Index….. recorded 56.5 to
signal a third month of growth.

This continues a welcome trend and was much better than the Euro area which recorded 50.4. However there are contexts to this which include the fact that the UK economy contracted more in the second quarter so we would expect a stronger bounce back. Also these numbers have proved unreliable so we should take them as a broad brush.

Also even with the furlough scheme the jobs situation looks weak.

Less positive, however, was on the jobs front, with private
sector employment continuing to fall at a steep rate.
September marked a seventh successive month of job
losses, with the greater decline again seen in services.
Cost considerations amid an uncertain near-term outlook
continued to weigh on the labour market.

National Debt

This has been an extraordinary year for UK debt markets which began like this.

The Net Financing Requirement (NFR) for the DMO in 2020-21 is forecast to be £156.1 billion; this will be financed exclusively by gilt sales.

Looking back to March we see that some £97.6 billion was due to redemptions of existing bonds. So we were planning to raise £58.5 billion of new debt. Also you might like to note that back then National Savings and Investments were expected to raise £6 billion this financial year.

If we press the fast forward button we now see this.

The UK Debt Management Office (DMO) is today publishing a further revision to its 2020-21 financing remit covering the period to end-November 2020. In line with the
update on the government’s financing needs announced by HM Treasury today, the DMO is planning to raise a minimum of £385 billion during the period April to November 2020 (inclusive) through the issuance of conventional and index-linked gilts.

So an just under an extra £229 billion and that is only until the end of next month. As of the beginning of this month we have issued in total some £330.5 billion or more than double what we planned for the whole financial year.

Bank of England

I am including it because the numbers above have been reduced in net terms by its purchases. So far it has bought an extra £241 billion. That number does not strictly match the numbers above as it began in late March but it does give an idea of the flows involved here.

That will continue this week with the Bank of England buying another £4.4 billion of UK bonds or Gilts and the Debt Management Office issuing another £8.5 billion.

Comment

We see a situation where we have seen a welcome bounce in UK economic activity but it still has quite a distance to travel. Sadly some areas look likely to be hit again. There must be a subliminal influence on going out and more restrictions seem probable. Thus the rate of recovery will slow and moving onto my next theme the size of the national debt and the fiscal deficit will grow. As to its size there are different ways of measuring it but here is the Office for National Statistics version.

At the end of August 2020, there was £1,718.0 billion of central government gilts in circulation (including those held by the Bank of England (BoE) Asset Purchase Facility Fund).

That will continue to grow pretty rapidly but there are a couple of reasons why we should not be immediately concerned. The average yield at the end of June was 0.29% so it is not costing much and the average maturity if we include index-linked Gilts was a bit over 18 years.

One way of measuring the surge in bond prices is to note that the market value then was some £2,659 billion so some have made large profits. This does not get much publicity. One area which has been affected is index-linked Gilts which if you allow for inflation were worth some £441.5 billion but had a market value of £805.2 billion. Why? Well they do offer a yield that is much higher than elsewhere as we see another casualty of all the QE bond purchases as they are at the wrong price and could manage to fall in price if inflation rises. Or their “yield” is -2.5%.

Imagine being a pension fund manager and having to match an inflation liability with that! It is a much larger issue than the debates over the Retail Price Index but strangely barely gets a flicker of a mention.

Podcast

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today’s Figures

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

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

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

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

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

Next expenditure is much higher this year.

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

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

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

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

The Fiscal Year

We can get more of a perspective from this.

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

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

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

National Debt

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

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

Let me explain why starting with the official numbers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Debt Costs

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

Number Crunching

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

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

France decides to Spend! Spend! Spend!

Yesterday brought something that was both new and familiar from France. The new part is a substantial extra fiscal stimulus. The familiar is that France as regular readers will be aware had been pushing the boundaries of the Euro area fiscal rules anyway, This is something which has led to friction with Italy which has come under fire for its fiscal position. Whereas France pretty much escaped it in spite of having its nose pressed against the Growth and Stability Pact limit of 3% of Gross Domestic Product for the fiscal deficit. Actually that Pact already feels as if it is from a lifetime ago although those who have argued that it gets abandoned when it suits France and Germany are no doubt having a wry smile.

The Details

Here is a translation of President Macron’s words.

We are now entering a new phase: that of recovery and reconstruction. To overcome the most important in our modern history, to prevent the cancer of mass unemployment from setting in, which unfortunately our country has suffered too long, today we decide to invest massively. 100 billion, of which 40 billion comes from financing obtained hard from the European Union, will thus be injected into the economy in the coming months. It is an unprecedented amount which, in relation to our national wealth, makes the French plan one of the most ambitious.

So the headline is 100 billion Euros which is a tidy sum even in these inflated times for such matters. Also you will no doubt have spotted that he is trying to present something of a windfall from the European Union which is nothing of the sort. The money will simply be borrowed collectively rather than individually. So it is something of a sleight of hand. One thing we can agree on is the French enthusiasm for fiscal policy, although of course they have been rather less enthusiatic in the past about such policies from some of their Euro area partners.

There are three components to this.

Out of 100 billion euros, 30 billion are intended to finance the ecological transition.

As well as a green agenda there is a plan to boost business which involves 35 billion Euros of which the main component is below.

As part of the recovery plan, production taxes will be reduced by € 10bn from January 1, 2021, and by sustainable way. It is therefore € 20bn in tax cuts of production over 2021–2022.

That is an interesting strategy at a time of a soaring fiscal deficit to day the least. So far we have ecology and competitiveness which seems to favour big business. Those who have followed French history may enjoy this reference from Le Monde.

With an approach that smacks of industrial Colbertism

The remaining 35 billion Euros is to go into what is described as public cohesion which is supporting jobs and health. In fact the jobs target is ambitious.

According to the French government, the plan will help the economy make up for the coronavirus-related loss of GDP by the end of 2022, and help create 160,000 new jobs next year.  ( MarketWatch)

Is it necessary?

PARIS (Reuters) – French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire believes that the French economy could perform better than currently forecast this year, he said on Friday.

“I think we will do better in 2020 than the 11% recession forecast at the moment,” Le Maire told BFM TV.

I suspect Monsieur Le Maire is a Beatles fan and of this in particular.

It’s getting better
Since you’ve been mine
Getting so much better all the time!

Of course things have got worse as he has told us they have got better. Something he may have repeated this morning.

August PMI® data pointed to the sharpest contraction in French construction activity for three months……….At the sub-sector level, the decrease in activity was broad based. Work undertaken on commercial projects fell at the
quickest pace since May, and there was a fresh decline in civil engineering activity after signs of recovery in June and July. Home building activity contracted for the sixth month running, although the rate of decrease was softer than in July. ( Markit)

We have lost a lot of faith in PMi numbers but even so there is an issue as I do not know if there is a French equivalent of “shovel ready”? But construction is a tap that fiscal policy can influence relatively quickly and there seems to be no sign of that at all.

Indeed the total PMI picture was disappointing.

“The latest PMI data came as a disappointment
following the sharp rise in private sector activity seen
during July, which had spurred hopes that the French
economy could undergo a swift recovery towards precoronavirus levels of output. However, with activity
growth easing considerably in the latest survey period,
those hopes have been dashed…”

So the data seems to be more in line with the view expressed below.

It is designed to try to “avoid an economic collapse,” French Prime Minister Jean Castex said on Thursday. ( MarketWatch)

Where are the Public Finances?

According to the Trading Economics this is this mornings update.

France’s government budget deficit widened to EUR 151 billion in the first seven months of 2020 from EUR 109.7 billion a year earlier, amid efforts to support the economy hit by the coronavirus crisis. Government spending jumped 10.4 percent from a year earlier to EUR 269.3 billion, while revenues went down 6.3 percent to EUR 142.25 billion

I think their definition of spending has missed out debt costs.

As of the end of June the public debt was 1.992 trillion Euros.

Comment

I have avoided being to specific about the size of the contraction of the economy and hence numbers like debt to GDP. There are several reasons for this. One is simply that we do not know them and also we do not know how much of the contraction will be temporary and how much permanent? We return to part of yesterday’s post and France will be saying Merci Madame Lagarde with passion. The various QE bond purchase programmes mean that France has a benchmark ten-year yield of -0.18% and even long-term borrowing is cheap as it estimates it will pay 0.57% for some 40 year debt on Monday. That’s what you get when you buy 473 billion Euros of something and that is just the original emergency programme or PSPP and not the new emergency programme or PEPP. On that road the European Union fund is pure PR as it ends up at the ECB anyway.

The Bank of France has looked at the chances of a rebound and if we look at unemployment and it looks rather ominous.

However, the speed of the recovery in the coming months and years is more uncertain, as is the peak in the unemployment rate, which the Banque de France forecasts at 11.8% in mid-2021 for France……….Chart 1 shows that in France, Germany, Italy, and the United States, once the unemployment rate peaked, it fell at a rate that was fairly similar from one crisis to the next: on average 0.55 percentage point (pp) per year in France and Italy, 0.7 pp in Germany, and 0.63 pp in the United States.

There is not much cheer there and they seem to have overlooked that unemployment rates have been much higher in the Euro area than the US. But we can see how this might have triggered the French fiscal response especially at these bond yields.

But Giulia Sestieri is likely to find that her conclusion about fiscal policy is likely to see the Bank of France croissant and espresso trolley also contain the finest brandy as it arrives at her desk.

Ceteris paribus, the lessons of economic literature suggest potentially large fiscal multipliers during the post-Covid19 recovery phase

Mind you that is a lot of caveats for one solitary sentence.

Some welcome good economic news for the UK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Purchasing Manager’s Indices

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

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

Public-Sector Finances

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

National Debt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Today’s surveys show that any economic recovery in France remains distant

Today out focus shifts to the second largest economy in the Euro area as La Belle France takes centre stage. Let us open with the thoughts of the finance minister on the economic state of play.

PARIS (Reuters) – Recent economic indicators for France are satisfactory but too fragile to change the forecast for an 11% economic contraction this year, Bruno Le Maire said Thursday.

The Minister of the Economy, speaking to the National Assembly for the debate on the orientation of public finances for 2021, said he expected economic growth of 8% for France next year and expressed the will that the in 2022, activity returns to its levels preceding the crisis linked to the new coronavirus.

Only a politician could use the words “satisfactory” and “too fragile” in the same sentence and it is a grim one of a 11% decline in GDP ( Gross Domestic Product) for this year. This means that the expectations for France are worse than those for the Euro area as a whole.

The expectations of SPF respondents for euro area real GDP growth averaged -8.3%, 5.7% and 2.4% for 2020, 2021 and 2022, respectively. ( ECB 16th July)

So around 3% worse which is interesting and I note that there is a similar pattern of predicting most but far from all of it returning in 2021. That is what you call making a forecast that is like an each-way bet where if you do recover no-one will care and if you do worse than that you highlight you did not expect a full recovery. The truth is that none of us know how 2020 will finish let alone what will happen next year. Maybe the quote below suffers from translation from French but “expressed the will?”

expressed the will that the in 2022, activity returns to its levels preceding the crisis

What does that mean? So let us move on knowing 2020 will be bad with a likely double-digit fall in economic output.

Right Here, Right Now

This morning has brought the latest in the long-running official survey on the economy.

In July 2020, the business climate has continued its recovery started in May. The indicator that synthesizes it, calculated from the responses of business managers from the main market sectors, has gained 7 points. At 85, the business climate is however still significantly below its long-term average (100), and a fortiori below its relatively high pre-lockdown level (105).

The ending of the lockdown has seen a welcome rally of 7 points but sadly only to 85% of the long-term average. If we look back though I note it was recording a relatively high 105 which makes me mull this.

In Q1 2020, real gross domestic product (GDP)* fell sharply: -5.3% after -0.1% in Q4 2019, thus a revision of +0.5% compared with the first estimate published in April.

I think the relevant number is the contraction in the last quarter of 2019 and how does that relate to a relatively high reading. As the fall is only 0.1% we could argue the economy was flat lining but we still have a measure recording growth when there wasn’t any.

Going back to the survey we see a similar pattern but weaker number for employment.

In July 2020, the employment climate has continued to recover sharply from the April low. At 77, it has gained 10 points compared to June, but it still remains far below its pre-lockdown level.

Manufacturing

The position here is particularly bad.

According to the business managers surveyed in July 2020, the business climate in industry has continued to improve. The composite indicator has gained 4 points compared to June, after losing 30 points in April due to the health crisis. However, at 82, it remains far below its long term average (100).

Looking ahead the order book does not look exactly auspicious either.

In July 2020, slightly fewer industrialists than in June have declared their order books to be below normal. The balances of opinion on total and foreign order books have very slightly recovered. Both stand at very low levels although slightly higher than in 2009.

If we look back this measure had a recent peak around 112 as 2018 began. This represented quite a rally compared to the dips below 90 seen at times in 2012 and 13. But after that peak it began slip-sliding away to around 100 and now well you can see above.

Saving

Whilst debt hits the headlines the breakdown of the GDP data shows that it is not the only thing going on.

At the same time, household consumption fell (-5.6% after +0.3%), resulting in a sharp rise of the saving rate to 19.6% after 15.1% in Q4 2019.

The pandemic has seen higher levels of saving which has two drivers I think. Firstly many simply could not spend their money as so many outlets closed. Next those who can look like they have been indulging in some precautionary saving which is something of a disaster for supporters of negative interest-rates.

National Debt

Having just looked at ying here is part of the yang.

In Q1 2020 the public deficit increased by 1.1 points: 4.8% of GDP after 3.7% in Q4 2019.

So we see that pandemic France was borrowing more and regular readers will have noted this from past articles. For the year as a whole France had its nose pressed against the Growth and Stability Pact threshold of 3% of GDP. I know some of you measure an economy by tax receipts so they were 1.275 trillion in 2019.

Moving to the national debt we see this.

At the end of Q1 2020, Maastricht’s debt reached €2,438.5 billion, a €58.4 billion increase in comparison to Q4 2019. It accounted for 101.2% of gross domestic product (GDP), 3.1 points higher than last quarter, the highest increase since Q2 2019.

Looking ahead this is the view of the Bank of France.

As a result of the wider deficit and the fall in GDP, government debt should rise substantially to 119% of GDP in 2020, from 98.1% in 2019, and should scarcely decline over the rest of the projection horizon. The average debt-to-GDP ratio for the euro area should also increase in parallel, but to a more limited extent (to 101% of GDP in 2022, easing to 100% by end-2022).

Comment

There are some familiar patterns of a sharp drop in economic output followed by plenty of rhetoric about a sharp recovery next year. However the surveys we have looked at show a very partial recovery so far so that the “V-shaped” hopium users find themselves singing along with Bonnie Tyler.

I was lost in France
In the fields the birds were singing
I was lost in France
And the day was just beginning

Switching to the mounting debt burden it is a clear issue in terms of capital and if you like the weight of the debt. Also estimates of economies at around 120% of GDP went spectacularly wrong in the Euro area crisis. But in terms of debt costs then with a ten-year yield of -0.19% France is often being paid to issue debt. Although care is needed because the ECB does not buy ultra long bonds ( 30 years is its limit) meaning that France has a fifty-year bond yield of 0,58%. We should not forget that even the latter is very cheap, especially in these circumstances.

Also there is this from the head of the ECB Christine Lagarde.

In my interview with @IgnatiusPost

, I explained that price stability and climate change are closely related. Consequently, we must take climate-related risks into account in our central banking activities.

 

 

 

UK Public-Sector Borrowing starts to improve

Today has brought the UK public-sector finances into focus and we find some better news which is very welcome in these times. I was going to type good but as you will soon see the numbers remain somewhat eye-watering. Let me illustrate with the opening paragraph from this morning’s release.

Borrowing (public sector net borrowing excluding public sector banks, PSNB ex) in June 2020 is estimated to have been £35.5 billion, roughly five times (or £28.3 billion more) that in June 2019 and the third highest borrowing in any month on record (records began in 1993).

We can’t call that good when we were pre pandemic thinking of borrowing that sort of amount in the whole year. But it represents a slowing on the pandemic trend which is reinforced by this from May.

Borrowing estimates are subject to greater than usual uncertainty; borrowing in May 2020 was revised down by £9.8 billion to £45.5 billion, largely because of stronger than previously estimated tax receipts and National Insurance contributions

The better news theme continues with two nuances. The first is simply welcoming a lower number and the second is the strong hint that the economy was doing better than so far thought via stronger tax receipts. So I dug a little deeper.

Central government tax receipts and NICs for May 2020 have been increased by £6.6 billion and £2.3 billion respectively compared with those published in our previous bulletin (published 19 June 2020). Previous estimates of Pay As You Earn (PAYE) Income Tax increased by £4.2 billion and Value Added Tax (VAT) increased by £2.3 billion, both because of updated data.

This is outright good news as we see that both income taxes and expenditure or consumption taxes are better than previously thought. For overseas readers National Insurance Contributions can be confusing as they are presented as everything they are not. For example they hint they are for pensions and the like when in fact they just go in a common pot, and they give the impression they are not income taxes when they are.

Oh and something else we have been noting was in play.

Alcohol duty collected in May has increased by £0.5 billion (on a national accounts basis) compared with our previous estimate. A large proportion of this additional revenue relates to repayment of arrears of duty payments (or debt) from February, March and April 2020.

Perhaps whoever was collecting those numbers had been having a drink themselves….

Tax Receipts

This pandemic has reminded us that they are not what you might expect.

To estimate borrowing, tax receipts and NICs are recorded on an accrued (or national accounts) rather than on a cash receipt basis. In other words, we attempt to record receipts at the point where the liability arose, rather than when the tax is actually paid.

In a modern online IT area that seems poor to me. But it gets worse as we note my first rule of OBR club which for newer readers is that it is always wrong.

This process means many receipts are provisional for the latest period(s) as they depend on both actual cash payments and on projections of future tax receipts (currently based on the Office for Budget Responsibility’s (OBR’s) Coronavirus Reference Scenario ( 14 May 2020) , which are “accrued” (or time adjusted) back to the current month(s)).

So as usual we see that in May the OBR was wrong.

June

After noting the above please take this with a pinch of salt.

In June 2020, central government receipts are estimated to have fallen by 16.5% compared with June 2019 to £49.4 billion, including £35.0 billion in taxes…..This month, tax revenue on a national accounts basis fell by 20.1% compared with June last year, with Value Added Tax (VAT), Corporation Tax and Pay As You Earn (PAYE) Income Tax receipts falling by 45.1%, 19.2% and 1.6% respectively.

Hopefully they have learned something from the May experience. There is some hope from this although surely it should also apply to NICs?

However, we have applied an additional adjustment to PAYE Income Tax and Air Passenger Duty (APD).

There are a couple of extra points to note from the detail. For example they expect Stamp Duty on property to be £600 million as opposed to £900 million last June which gives us some more data on the property market. Also in the light of the upwards revision to alcohol duty I am a bit surprised they expect less this June ( £200 million lower) but £100 million more from tobacco.

We are spending much more.

In June 2020, central government spent £80.5 billion, an increase of 24.8% on June 2019.

There was also quite a win from reporting lower inflation levels.

Interest payments on the government’s outstanding debt in June 2020 were £2.7 billion, a £4.6 billion decrease compared with June 2019. Changes in debt interest are largely a result of movements in the Retail Prices Index to which index-linked bonds are pegged.

Perspective

We get some from this.

Borrowing in the first quarter of this financial year is estimated to have been £127.9 billion, £103.9 billion more than in the same period last year and the highest borrowing in any April to June period on record (records began in 1993), with each of the months from April to June being records.

We only get some written detail.

This unprecedented increase largely reflects the impact of the pandemic on the public finances, with the furlough schemes (CJRS and SEISS) adding £37.6 billion in borrowing alone as subsidies paid by central government to the private sector.

So let me help out a bit. Income taxes are only a little bit down on last year but VAT receipts are £10.8 billion lower which means there has been some saving going on. Fuel Duty is unsurprisingly some £3.2 billion lower and Stamp Duty some £1.2 billion lower.

One matter I would note is that expenditure on debt is down substantially by some £5.6 billion and I would caution about putting it all down to lower inflation and inflation ( RPI) linked Gilts. We have begun to issue the occasional Gilt at negative yields and others for little or nothing which will add to this. It is a development which I think only  we have had on our radar which is that whilst we are issuing so much debt it is at only a small annual cost. By the way this is another area which the OBR has got spectacularly wrong and confirmed my first rule about them one more time.

Comment

So we learn that the UK economy has been doing better than previously reported as one of the signals is tax receipts. However, that is relative and one could easily type less badly. Moving onto the National Debt I have to confess I had a wry smile.

At the end of June 2020, the amount of money owed by the public sector to the private sector was just under £2.0 trillion (or £1,983.8 billion), which equates to 99.6% of gross domestic product (GDP).

So I was both right and wrong in awarding myself a slice of humble pie last month. Right in that unless you can prove the numbers are wrong you take it on the chin. But on the other side I was in fact more accurate than the Office for National Statistics in expecting the breaching of the 100% threshold to take longer. Also my first rule of OBR Club won again. Oh well! As Fleetwood Mac sang.

Another matter of note is how the Bank of England is affecting these numbers which is two ways. It has inflated how we record the debt.

If we were to remove the temporary debt impact of APF and Term Funding Scheme, public sector net debt excluding public sector banks (PSND ex) at the end of June 2020 would reduce by £192.9 billion (or 9.7% percentage points of GDP) to £1,790.9 billion (or 89.9% of GDP).

However all its purchases ( another £3.45 billion today) mean that we are borrowing very cheaply with some bond yields negative ( out to 6/7 years) and even the fifty-year being only 0.53%.