Austerity is improving the UK Public Finances

As we head towards the weekend we have the opportunity to not only look at an area  where there has been good news but also inject a little humour. The latter was unintentionally provided by the OBR or Office for Budget Responsibility earlier this week.

second, we look at the potential fiscal impact of future government activity, by making 50-year projections of all public spending, revenues and significant financial
transactions, such as government loans to students.

No your eyes do not deceive you it really has forecast our fiscal future out towards 2068. This is from an organisation that in its eight years of existence has shown amazing consistency in being wrong. Sometimes it has been wrong pretty much immediately and at other times we have has to wait but usually not for too long. If we look back to its early days then let me give you two examples of its forecasting arrows not only missing the target but soaring out of the stadium with the crowd ducking for cover. Wage growth was forecast to be around 4.5% now and that is being nice to them as you see they got unemployment wrong too and so if we apply their “output gap” style analysis they would have wage growth at 5% or more. Also they would have Gilt yields up towards 5% as well whereas all are below 2% and the ten-year yield is 1.24%.

For newer readers that is the road which led to this.

The first rule of OBR Club is that the OBR is always wrong.

Putting it another way here is how something which is very good what is called the Whole of Government Accounts which as you can see below is sadly converted into laughing-stock status.

The net present value of future public service pension payments arising from past employment was £1,835 billion or 92 per cent of GDP. This is £410 billion higher than a year earlier, with the rise more than explained by the use of a lower discount rate to convert the projected flow of future payments into a one-off net present value and by other changes to assumptions underpinning the value of the liabilities.

The saga starts really well as I regularly get asked for an estimate of the UK’s pension liabilities but as you can see an enormous change has happened due to “a lower discount rate” . So the interest-rate or more specifically yield has been changed by an establishment that has consistently got yields not only wrong but very wrong. This also happened in the insurance world where this sort of blundering in the dark caused a lot of changes and costs.

The NHS

The OBR weighed in on this subject earlier this week and as a reminder this is the issue as described by the BBC.

Last month, the Prime Minister announced that the NHS in England would get an extra £20bn a year by 2023.

The £114bn budget will rise by an average of 3.4% annually.

In itself this is simple as government’s plan to spend more all the time and actually the OBR feels it needs to do so as the demographics of an ageing population bites. Yet we ended up with more heat than light and I could write a whole post on the “Brexit Dividend” so let us instead look at the overall position. There are three ways this can be paid for.

The easiest is that the economy grows by enough to finance it via higher taxes and lower social spending. After all we live in an era of Black Swan events but even in these days they happen only from time to time so the other choices are higher taxes or borrowing more. As you are about to see the public finances data have been pretty good over the past 18 months or so ( something else the OBR got wrong as it predicted a pretty substantial rise for the fiscal year just gone). So as we stand we could borrow the money quite easily and as I explained earlier we can do so cheaply in fact extremely cheaply in historical terms. Just for clarity as these issues get heated I am not advocating such a move simply saying that as we stand we could and probably quite easily. That seems to have got lost as at least some of the media looks for examples of higher taxes in response to the extra spending.

This whole issue makes me look back over the last issue and something stands out so let me put it in italics.

Over the credit crunch era we have borrowed a lot when it has been (relatively) expensive and not it is cheaper we are borrowing much less.

Some of that was forced on us but not all of it.

Today’s data

This continues to be good.

Public sector net borrowing (excluding public sector banks) decreased by £0.8 billion to £5.4 billion in June 2018, compared with June 2017;

As is the picture with a little more perspective

Public sector net borrowing (excluding public sector banks) in the current financial year-to-date (April 2018 to June 2018) was £16.8 billion; that is, £5.4 billion less than in the same period in 2017; this is the lowest year-to-date (April to June) net borrowing since 2007.

So we are back to pre credit crunch levels in this regard and the trajectory is lower. If we look into the detail then we see this about revenues.

In the current financial year-to-date, central government received £169.4 billion in income, including £125.0 billion in taxes. This was around 3% more than in the same period in 2017.

Looked at like that we get a confirmation of the slowing of the housing market as Stamp Duty revenues have fallen by £300 million to £3.1 billion and the QE operations of the Bank of England contributed £600 million less.

But on the other side of the ledger we do for once see some outright austerity.

Over the same period, central government spent £184.2 billion, around 1% less than in the same period in 2017.

Before we get too excited debt interest fell by £2.2 billion which will be mostly if not entirely the impact of lower ( RPI ) inflation on index-linked Gilts. Also the numbers for local councils have swung too so allowing for that we do not have outright austerity but we do on the measure compared with inflation.

National Debt

There is good news here too at least in relative terms.

Public sector net debt (excluding public sector banks) was £1,792.3 billion at the end of June 2018, equivalent to 85.2% of gross domestic product (GDP), an increase of £33.0 billion (or a decrease of 1.0 percentage points as a ratio of GDP) on June 2017.

There are also numbers excluding the Bank of England but sadly the numbers published are inconsistent. This happened a few months ago as well, There are also wider numbers for what previously I would have said was something of a gold standard but after the pension revision we looked at above I will merely say they are worth a look.

The overall net liability in the WGA was £2,421 billion or 122 per cent of GDP at the end of March 2017, up £435 billion on the previous year’s restated results ( OBR)

Comment

We have been on quite a journey with the UK public finances and to some extent it has been this sort of Journey.

It goes on and on and on and on

We have also seen that

Some will win some will lose

Because until this phase a lot of the austerity has been from one group to another as for example comparing the Triple Lock for the Basic State Pension with its 2.5% minimum with the 1% per annum for other social benefits and pay rises. But with the better news can we say this?

Don’t stop believing
Hold on to that feeling

We can to some extent but that does not mean the sky is pure blue. The clouds come from all the efforts to manipulate the numbers which would take an article in their own right and also the way the national debt has risen. Which allows me one more example of OBR Club unless of course we find an alternative universe where the national debt peaked at below 70% of GDP and then fell primarily due to us being in surplus for the last couple of years……

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Greece is still in an economic depression meaning the debt remains

This morning the Greek Prime Minister flies to the UK for an official visit so let us welcome him, According to Alexis Tsipras it comes at a significant time.

After eight years, we managed to solve the problem of Greek debt. A debt that we did not create. A debt we inherited from the forces of the old regime. From the old Greece of oligarchy, corruption, interdependence, and offsets of power.

The debt is solved? But wait there is more.

With an honest and prudent fiscal policy that will respect our commitments, but at the same time put an end to the austerity and to all that we have experienced, to the injustices we have experienced in the past.

Austerity is over? Well that lasts two short paragraphs.

the fact that the primary surplus will remain at 3.5% for those years, ie from 2019 to 2022.

There is one more issue at hand.

With his Eurogroup decision yesterday, he creates new data for the day after, as Greek debt, Greek public debt, is at last sustainable.

As to the issue of austerity that does not appear to be going so well according to developments this morning.

Members of the union of Greek hospital workers, POEDIN, on Monday morning blocked the entrance to the Finance Ministry on Nikis Street near Syntagma Square, protesting austerity with a black banner bedecked with ties. ( Kathimerini)

What about the debt?

My long-running theme that this will be a case of “To Infinity! And Beyond” can take a bow as it gets ten years nearer. From the Eurogroup.

Further extension of the grace period for the loans of the European Financial Stability Facility (some 100 billion euros) by 10 years and an extension of the average maturing period by a decade.

This is more significant than it might seem as this particular can had already taken quite a bit kicking. But even that has turned out not to be enough. Let us remind ourselves that back at the time of the original “Shock and Awe” bailout the target for this was 120% of GDP ( Gross Domestic Product). Whereas now the latest public debt bulletin tells us the debt is not only 343.7 billion Euros but it rose by 15 billion Euros in the first quarter of this year. That being so we are looking at 187% now.

Next there was some good news but you may note it is being handed out in packets presumably in return for the correct behaviour.

Return to the Greek coffers of the profits that national central banks in the eurozone have from Greek bonds (ANFAs and SMPs), currently amounting to some 4 billion euros. This money will be returned to Athens in two equal tranches every year, starting in December 2018 up to June 2022

Whilst I am no great fan of these bailouts the paragraph above does allow me to point out some Fake News championed by former Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis earlier this month.

It is now official: The only euro area country that will NOT benefit even by a single euro from the ECB’s 2.4tr QE program designed to defeat deflation will be the one country that suffered the worst deflation by far: Greece! The waterboarding never ends!

He was so incompetent that it is not impossible he is unaware that the ECB holds quite a bit Greek debt still and much of the rest of it is owned by the ESM/EFSF. So Greece had its own earlier equivalent of QE which regular readers will know was called the Securities Markets Programme or SMP. As of the end of last year it still held some 9.5 billion Euros of Greek debt. Then there are the two SPVs which sadly are not Spectrum Pursuit Vehicles from Captain Scarlet.

We have seen disbursements of €245 billion, when I add up the Greek Loan Facility, EFSF and ESM loans.

I am amazed that Yanis still gets so much airtime.

One way that this particular show is managing to stay on the road is this.

The ESM is prepared to disburse €15 billion to Greece after national procedures have been completed. €9.5 billion will go into a dedicated account for the cash buffer, and this will cover post-programme financing needs, until the year 2020. The remaining €5.5 billion will go to the segregated account to cover immediate debt servicing needs.

As you can see the wheels are being oiled so that the show can stay on the road for the next couple of years which is about how it goes, Triumph is proclaimed and then we go through it all again a couple of years later which of course is another triumph. Sadly that cycle has yet to end.

Meanwhile there is always European Commisioner Pierre Moscovici.

But I am also proud to have always been with the Greek people over the years, against austerity and Grexit.

He of course missed the soup kitchens bit and does he mean breath-taking rather than breathe below?

Like Ulysses back to Ithaca, Greece is finally reaching its destination today, ten years after the beginning of a long recession. She can finally breathe, look at the path she has traveled and contemplate again the future with confidence.

Of course it wouldn’t be Pierre without this.

The greatest danger of this odyssey has been the monster called Grexit!

Comment

Let me now introduce the most damning statistic of the so-called triumphs and it is provided by the Greek statistical agency. The pre credit crunch peak for Greece was the exactly 65 billion Euros of GDP ( 2010 prices) produced in the third quarter of 2007. This was replaced by just under 50 billion Euros a decade later and the third quarter last year remains the best since in total unadjusted GDP.  So a lost decade where there has been a great depression wiping out some 23% of output which of course has been the real “monster” which is why Commisioner Moscovici is so keen to create fake ones.

The consequences of this can be seen in many areas.

The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in March 2018 was 20.1% compared to the 22.1% in March 2017 and the downward revised 20.6% in February 2018.

This compares with between 8% and 10% pre credit crunch. The youth (15-24) unemployment rate is 43.2% reminding us of how many must reach 24 having never had a job and even worse never had any hope of one. Another consequence is this.

According to the results of the 2017 Survey on Income and Living Conditions, persons at risk of poverty or social exclusion represent 34.8% of the total population (3,701,800 persons), recording a decrease compared to the previous year (3,789,300 persons representing 35,6% of
the total population).

Even worse that survey looks as though it is looking a relative poverty and of course the situation has shifted lower. In fact last week was a grim week at the statistics office.

Material deprivation for children aged up to 17 years, in 2017 amounts to 23.8%, in comparison with 11.9% in
2009.

The minor improvement needs to be set against the 11% for the measure below in 2009.

In 2017, 22.1% of the population aged 18-64 years was in severe material deprivation with
a decrease of 1.6 percentage points compared to 2016

Looking ahead even the rose-tinted spectacles of the European Commission are not especially upbeat.

Real GDP is now forecast to grow by 1.9% in
2018 and 2.3% in 2019, revised down compared to
the 2018 winter forecast.

This is a bigger issue than you might immediately think as following such a depression Greece should be having a “V” shaped recovery but instead has an “L” shaped one. The next bit really is from an Ivory Tower high in the clouds.

suggests that households may be more financially
stretched than previously assumed

For what it is worth ( they are in a bad run) the Markit PMI thinks that manufacturing is in a bad run. Next we have the issue of how much the ongoing Euro area slow down will affect things in Greece. We have seen the numbers fall apart before.

Let me finish by wishing Greece well and some ying and yang. First the extraordinary from Vicky Pryce.

Long-suffering Greek friends here in Athens puzzled by UK complacency about brexit economic hit

But next a reminder of the glorious beauty to be found there.

https://twitter.com/search?q=greece&src=typd

The UK Public Finances are improving fast

A feature of the credit crunch era is the way that the same or similar stories get recycled and this is what I was thinking of when the proposed NHS ( National Health Service) spending boost was announced by Theresa May at the weekend.

There has been a change of Chancellor as George Osborne was removed and replaced with Phillip Hammond and it looks as though the new government will be fiscally looser.

That was from October 3rd 2016 and you may recall it was in tune with the mood music as even the IMF which had helped impose so much austerity on Greece had come out in favour of fiscal stimuli. However like with so much about the current government it never really happened on any scale. In fact if we look at the numbers I quoted then we see that the UK has continued to reduce its deficit and as ever confound the forecasts of the Office of Budget Responsibility or OBR.

In the financial year ending March 2016 (April 2015 to March 2016), the public sector borrowed £76.5 billion. This was £18.9 billion lower than in the previous financial year and less than half of that in the financial year ending March 2010 (both in terms of £ billion and percentage of GDP).

That was the picture then and it has been replaced by a deficit more like £40 billion in the fiscal year just completed. So whilst there has been an ongoing stimulus as we have had a persistent deficit the annual amount has been reduced partly due to growth in the economy which has made the national debt situation look more contained and to some extent better.

Public sector net debt (excluding public sector banks) was £1,777.3 billion at the end of April 2018, equivalent to 85.1% of gross domestic product (GDP), an increase of £56.8 billion (or 0.3 percentage points as a ratio of gross domestic product (GDP)) on April 2017.

As you can see it is rising in amount but the growth in the economy means that relatively it has changed much less.

Today’s data

This morning has brought borrowing figures which are very good.

Public sector net borrowing (excluding public sector banks) decreased by £2.0 billion to £5.0 billion in May 2018, compared with May 2017; this is the lowest May net borrowing since 2005.

Of course monthly data can be erratic but the fiscal year so far seems set fair as well.

Public sector net borrowing (excluding public sector banks) in the current financial year-to-date (April 2018 to May 2018) was £11.8 billion; that is, £4.1 billion less than in the same period in 2017; this is the lowest year-to-date (April to May) net borrowing since 2007.

Should we continue on anything like such a trajectory this year will see a solid fall in the fiscal deficit.

The NHS Proposal

If we skip the foaming at the mouth over the phrase “Brexit Dividend” it was reported like this by the Financial Times.

The NHS financial settlement — which could be unveiled as soon as next week, ahead of the taxpayer-financed system’s 70th anniversary — is expected to provide increases to the £150bn UK health budget of at least 3 per cent above inflation every year.

As you can see implementing such a policy would be a boost in real terms as at least 3% is circa £5 billion a year. The Institute for Fiscal Studies puts it like this.

Yesterday’s announcement implies that day-to-day spending by NHS England will increase by £16 billion in real terms between now and 2022–23 (with a further £4 billion in 2023–24).

Paying for it

There are three routes. One is simply higher economic growth which in the short-term is problematic as we are in a soft patch which the monetary numbers are signalling will remain through the autumn. Taxes could rise but this government ha shad trouble with that as the debacle over national insurance for the self-employed showed. This leaves borrowing more which in the circumstances seems feasible.

In terms of amount we are borrowing less as discussed above and the cost of our borrowing remains cheap. The UK ten-year Gilt yield is a mere 1.3% and the more relevant for these purposes thirty-year yield is 1.77% . This is of course more expensive than in the late summer of 2016 when Bank of England Governor Mark Carney spent £60 billion on in this respect kamikaze style purchases driving the market to all-time price highs and yield lows including in the madness some negative ones. But it is in terms of the thirty-years I have been following this market certainly low and in fact ultra low.

The Institute of Fiscal Studies is rather dismissive of this route.

But a significant increase in forecast borrowing would mean that the government was not taking its stated commitment to eliminate the deficit by the mid-2020s seriously. The deficit is already forecast to be £21 billion in 2022–23, implying further consolidation measures – in the form of tax rises or spending cuts –would need to be implemented.  The Government could decide to abandon its fiscal objective, as its predecessors have frequently done in the past.

Actually the recent fiscal data suggests that they probably would not have to do that as we see yet another Ivory Tower lost in the clouds of its own rhetoric.

What has today’s data told us?

For all the talk of a fiscal stimulus something of a squeeze has been going on.

In the latest financial year-to-date, central government received £112.9 billion in income, including £82.6 billion in taxes. This was around 3% more than in the same period in 2017.

Over the same period, central government spent £123.6 billion, roughly equal to that spent in the same period in 2017.

In terms of controlling public spending we have come to learn that this is about as good as it gets. We are mostly incapable of reducing it in nominal terms but we do have phases of reducing it in real terms.

Also the receipts data hint at the economy having been stronger than we thought. What I mean by this is that income tax receipts have risen by £2,5 billion to £25,5 billion in the latest couple of months. Indeed even the much maligned retail sector may be getting some support as VAT ( Value Added Tax) receipts rose by £1.1 billion to £23.2 billion. In case this seems like over explaining the rise the numbers are influenced by Bank of England QE from which dividend or coupon payments are taken as receipts and that was a -£0.9 billion influence.

Oh and the spending numbers have been boosted by a fall in debt costs as the rise in ( RPI) inflation washes out of the system.

Comment

There is a lot to consider here so let us start with the UK public finances. Back in October 2016 they were disappointing in the circumstances and now they are good in the circumstances. As some tax receipts represent past activity there may be at least some logic at play as it takes time for the numbers to reflect it. If the data carries on like this then those who use tax receipts as a measure of the economy may feel it is out performing what the GDP data tells us and fits the employment numbers.

The catch is the current slow down and the one we expect from the money supply data which will weaken the above trends. However we find yet another situation where the first rule of OBR Club has hit the cricket ball for six.

 and £5.7 billion less than official (Office for Budget Responsibility) expectations;

So as we stand the UK Public Finances might shrug off a fiscal boost for the NHS although as ever recession would change that. As to how much of a good idea it is remains open to question. On a personal level Frimley Park Hospital gave good care to my father and on less serious matters my mother and I am grateful to Chelsea and Westminster for the work on my knee. Yet there is also an institutional problem.

An expert on hospital mortality data has said scandals such as the deaths at Gosport War Memorial Hospital could be being replicated elsewhere in the NHS.

Prof Sir Brian Jarman told the Today Programme he thinks “it is likely” similar situations are happening in other hospitals.

An inquiry found doctors at the hospital gave patients “dangerous” amounts of powerful painkillers.

More than 450 older patients’ lives were shortened as a result. ( BBC)

 

The UK Public Finances give the UK economy a positive message

The focus returns to the UK economy today and as the sunshine pours through my windows let us remind ourselves of one of its strengths. From the BBC.

Ed Sheeran was the big winner at this year’s Billboard Awards, held in Las Vegas.

The singer took home four awards: top artist, top radio songs artist, top song sales artist and top hot 100.

Yes it was overall a good weekend for those of the ginger persuasion as we got a reminder of a successful part of our economy. From the UK Music website.

The UK music industry grew by 6% in 2016 to contribute £4.4 billion to the economy, a major new report reveals today…….Successful British acts including Ed Sheeran, Adele, Coldplay, Skepta and the Rolling Stones helped exports of UK music soar in 2016 by 13% to £2.5 billion.

Millions of fans who poured into concerts ranging from giant festivals like Glastonbury to small bars and clubs pushed the contribution of live music to the UK’s economy up by 14% in 2016 to £1 billion.

There was a time that the success of the industry was frittered away by the use of Columbian marching powder but of course in a masterstroke that is now added to the GDP numbers. Although exactly how to measure this is a mystery to me and when I have checked appears to be something of a mystery to our statisticians too. As Fleetwood Mac would put it “Oh Well!”

Bank of England

No doubt Governor Mark Carney will be cheered by this week;s headlines assuming of course he has spotted them. From Graeme Wearden of the Guardian

FTSE 100 hits record high as US and China call a trade war truce 🇺🇸🇨🇳

Perhaps he will take the opportunity when he gives evidence to Parliament today to claim yet more wealth effects from higher asset prices as following that headline yesterday the FTSE 100 has pushed even higher to 7868 this morning. This would be in not dissimilar fashion to the way that the Bank of England has done so with house prices after it made a policy switch back in the summer of 2012 to explicitly boost them with the Funding for Lending Scheme. Of course a full exposition of the state of play in the equity market would need to allow for dividends and inflation.

Meanwhile the last week has seen the Bank of England and Mark Carney hit troubled water again on this issue of what we might call “woman overboard”. This is where the intelligent one ( Kristin Forbes) did not want a second term and the much less intelligent one ( Minouche Shafik)  had to be made a Dame to cover up her early departure. That is before we get to this. From the BBC

Charlotte Hogg has spoken of learning lessons after the “mistake” that ended her career at the Bank of England.

A former deputy governor – and tipped to take the top job – she says in her first interview that the experience made her a “different kind of leader”.

Somehow the BBC economics editor Kamal Ahmed seems to have forgotten the way she broke the rules she had set and the implied effort to in essence ride it out in a manner suggesting such rules were not for “one of us”. Also it is hard to know where to start with this.

Since her resignation in March 2017, Ms Hogg has remained out of the public eye.

It is a lesson in the way the UK establishment operates as I note the daughter of a baroness and a Viscount has the chutzpah to tell us this.

As a leader of Visa, I want it to be a more diverse organisation.

This was combined with an even more important issue that her lack of knowledge about monetary policy was no barrier to being appointed to the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) for what Sir Humphrey Appleby would no doubt call “One of Us”.

As to Governor Carney I do hope that the Treasury Select Committee will grill him on his Forward Guidance. Here he is from August 2013 on the BBC.

So that people watching this at home, so that people running businesses here across the United Kingdom can make decisions about whether they are investing or spending with greater certainty about what’s going to happen with interest-rates.

What this has meant in practice is that the Unreliable Boyfriend has regularly promised interest-rate rises but these have not turned up.However when the opportunity came to cut interest-rates he did so immediately. Even that went wrong and had to be reversed after long enough had been left to try to avoid it looking too embarrassing.

Oh and they could also ask how he seems so often to talk for the whole MPC when the other eight members are supposed to be of independent mind especially the four external members?

Public Finances

These have been performing pretty well recently and this morning’s data continued on this happier theme.

Public sector net borrowing (excluding public sector banks) decreased by £1.6 billion to £7.8 billion in April 2018, compared with April 2017; this is the lowest April net borrowing since 2008.

The last bit is of course going to be true every time now until the next downturn but behind it has been a consistent stream of improvements  which have contradicted some of the other data which have been weaker. For example receipts from Income Tax were strong rising from £11.4 billion last year to £12.8 billion this. Even VAT rose a little from £11.2 billion to £11.5 billion which may suggest that the more apocalyptic surveys on retail sales have been exaggerated. Also debt costs fell which seems likely to reflect the fading of the rate of inflation as the main player here will be the impact of the Retail Price Index on index-linked debt costs.

The good news continued if we look back for some more perspective although you may note not very everyone as my first rule of OBR club hits another winner.

Public sector net borrowing (excluding public sector banks) in the latest full financial year (April 2017 and March 2018) was £40.5 billion; that is, £5.7 billion less than in the previous financial year (April 2016 to March 2017) and £4.7 billion less than official (OBR) expectations; this is the lowest net borrowing since the financial year ending March 2007.

So we have passed the time which regular readers will recall saw the economy apparently improve but the public finances struggle to one where the tables have been reversed. If April was any guide then the Income Tax data suggests a better economic situation than we have seen elsewhere and was quite an improvement on 2017/18 when it struggled. But of course one month;s figures are unreliable.

More problems for the Bank of England

The 2017/18 financial year saw a rise in UK debt costs of £5.9 billion which will essentially be the rise in inflation ( RPI) triggered by the fall in the UK Pound £ after the EU leave vote. This is an actual cost often ignored of the Bank of England not only “looking through” the likely inflation rise but adding to it with its Bank Rate cut and Sledgehammer QE of August 2016.

Also there is something rather embarassing in terms of number-crunching.

n compiling debt estimates for March 2018, there was an error in the treatment of data for the Asset Purchase Facility (APF), which incorrectly recorded the data relating to two events in the compilation process:the closure of the Term Funding Scheme in February 2018….the maturation of a tranche of gilts held by the APF.

Okay so what?

However, correcting this error has reduced PSND ex as at the end of March 2018 by £11.0 billion, equivalent to 0.5 percentage points as a ratio of GDP.

Comment

The news from the UK Public Finances is good and was particularly so in April. In addition we were told that the last financial year was around £2 billion better than we had previously calculated. So we now qualify for the Stability and Growth Pact in something of an irony and face the issue of what happens next? We have seen economic stimulus via the ongoing deficits but also austerity for many as funds have been switched between areas and different groups sometimes hurting the poorest. Of course we are several years already behind the planned surplus.

Maybe the numbers tell us we are doing better economically than some of the others although there is a catch and that is the way the numbers have been manipulated. Many of you will recall the Royal Mail pension fund saga where adding future liabilities supposedly improved the public finances and the housing associations who have blown into and then out of the numbers like tumbleweed in the wild west. More recently there is the issue of Bank of England involvement.

Public sector net debt (excluding both public sector banks and Bank of England) was £1,583.2 billion at the end of April 2018, equivalent to 75.8% of GDP, a decrease of £10.5 billion (or 2.8 percentage points as a ratio of GDP) on April 2017.

Meanwhile over at the Treasury Select Committee

 

 

 

Will Italy get a 250 billion Euro debt write-off from the ECB?

Up until now financial markets have been very sanguine about the coalition talks and arrangements in Italy. I thought it was something of calm before the storm especially as these days something which was a key metric or measure – bond yields – has been given a good dose of morphine by the QE purchases of the European Central Bank. However here is a  tweet from Ferdinando Guigliano  based on information from the Huffington Post which caught everyone’s attention.

1) Five Star and the League expect the to forgive 250 billion euros in Italian bonds bought via quantitative easing, in order to bring down Italy’s debt.

My first thought is that is a bit small as whilst that is a lot of money Italy has a national debt of 2263 billion Euros or 131.8% of its GDP or Gross Domestic Product according to Eurostat. So afterwards it would be some 2213 billion or 117% of GDP which does not seem an enormous difference. Yes it does bring it below the original 120% of GDP target that the Euro area opened its crisis management with but seems hardly likely to be an objective now as frankly that sank without trace. Perhaps they have thoughts for spending that sort of amount and that has driven the number chosen.

Could this happen?

As a matter of mathematics yes because the ECB via the Bank of Italy holds some 368 billion Euros and rising of Italian government bonds and of course rising. However this crosses a monetary policy Rubicon as this would be what is called monetary financing and that is against the rules and as we are regularly told by Mario Draghi the ECB is a “rules based organisation”. Here is Article 123 of the Lisbon Treaty and the emphasis is mine.

Overdraft facilities or any other type of credit facility with the European Central Bank or with the central banks of the Member States (hereinafter referred to as ‘national central banks’) in favour of Union institutions, bodies, offices or agencies, central governments, regional, local or other public authorities, other bodies governed by public law, or public undertakings of Member States shall be prohibited, as shall the purchase directly from them by the European Central Bank or national central banks of debt instruments.

Now we hit what Paul Simon would call “troubled water” as the ECB has of course been very close to the highlighted part. The argument for QE purchases rested on the argument that buying in the secondary market was indirect and not direct or as the ECB puts it.

There will be no primary market purchases under the PSPP, regardless of the type of security, as such purchases are not allowed under Article 123 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.

It is a bit unclear as to when they become available but if I recall correctly as an example the Bank of England limit is one week.

The reason for this is to stop a national government issuing debt and the central bank immediately buying it would be a clear example of round-tripping. The immediate implication would be a higher money supply raising domestic inflation dangers  although there would be an initial boost to the economy. We did look at an example of this a couple of years ago in the case of Ghana and whilst we never get a test tube example in economics the Cedi then fell a substantial amount and inflation rose . Thus the two worrying implications are inflation and a currency plunge on a scale to cause an economic crisis.

Would this happen in the case of Italy? That depends on how it plays out. Inside the boundaries of the Euro maybe not to a  great extent initially but as it played out there would be an effect as Italy would not doubt be back for “More,More,More” once Pandora’s Box was open and of course others would want to get their fingers in the cookie jar.

Oh and if we go back to the concept of the ECB being a “rules based organisation” that is something that is until it breaks them as we have learnt over time.

Fiscal Policy

You will not be surprised to learn that they wish to take advantage of the windfall. Back to the tweets of Ferdinando Guigliano

5) The draft agreement would see the Italian government spend 17 billion euros a year on a “citizens’ income”. The European Commission would contribute spending 20% of the European Social Fund

That raises a wry smile as we mull the idea of them trying to get the European Commission to pay for at least some of this. Perhaps they are thinking of the example of Donald Trump and his wall although so far that has been more of a case of a “Mexicant” than a “Mexican.”

Next came this.

According to , the 5 Star/League draft document says there would be a “flat tax”… but with several tax rates and deductions

So flat but not flat well this is Italy! Also we see what has become a more popular refrain in this era of austerity.

Italy’s pension reform would be dismantled: workers would be able to retire when the sum of their retirement age and years of contribution is at least 100.

Over time this would be the most damaging factor as we get a drip feed that builds and builds especially at a time of demographic problems such as an aging population.

So a fiscal relaxation which would require some changes in the rules of the European Union.

The two parties want to re-open European Treaties and to “radically reform” the stability and growth pact. The coalition would also want to reconsider Italy’s contribution to the EU budget.

Market Response

That has since reduced partly because the German bond market has rallied. Partly that is luck but there is an odd factor at play here. You might think that as the likely paymaster of all this Germany would see its bonds hit but the reality is that it is seen as something of a safe haven which outplays the former factor. On that road it issued some two-year debt yesterday with investors paying it around 0.5% per annum. Also I think there is such a shock factor here that it takes a while for the human mind to take it in especially after all the QE anaesthetic.

The Euro has pretty much ignored all of this as I use the rate against the Yen as a benchmark and it has basically gone “m’eh” as has most of the others so far.

Comment

There are quite a few factors at play here and no doubt there will be ch-ch-changes along the way. But the rhetoric at least has been raised a notch this morning.

We are in favor of a consultative referendum on the euro. It might be a good idea to have two euros, for two more homogeneous economical regions. One for northern Europe and one for southern Europe. ( Beppe Grillo in Newsweek)

I do not that the BBC and Bloomberg have gone into overdrive with the use of the word “populists” as I mull how you win an election otherwise? If we stick to our economics beat this is plainly a response of sorts to the ongoing economic depression in Italy in the Euro era. Also it was only on Monday when the Italian head of the ECB was asking for supra national fiscal policy. For whom exactly? Now we see Italy pushing for what we might call more fiscal space.

Meanwhile if we look wider we see yet more evidence of an economic slow down in 2018 so far.

Japan GDP suffers first contraction since 2015

Very painful for the Japanese owned Financial Times to print that although just as a reminder Japan is one of the worst at producing preliminary numbers.

The economy of Italy continues to struggle

It is past time for us to revisit the economy of Italy which will no doubt be grimly mulling the warnings of a Euro area slow down from ECB ( European Central Bank) President Draghi and Italians will be hoping that their countryman was not referring to them.

When we look at the indicators that showed significant, sharp declines, we see that, first of all, the fact that all countries reported means that this loss of momentum is pretty broad across countries. It’s also broad across sectors because when we look at the indicators, it’s both hard and soft survey-based indicators.

We know that Bank of Italy Governor Visco will have given his views but at this stage we have no detail on this.

 All Governing Council members reported on the situation of their own countries.

This particularly matters for Italy because its economic record in the Euro era has been poor. One different way of describing those has been released this morning by the Italian statistical office.

In March 2018, 23.134 million persons were employed, +0.3% over February. Unemployed were 2.865 million, +0.7% over the previous month.

Employment rate was 58.3%, +0.2 percentage points over the previous month, unemployment rate was 11.0%, steady over February 2018 and inactivity rate was 34.3%, -0.3 percentage points in a month.

Youth unemployment rate (aged 15-24) was 31.7%, -0.9 percentage points over the previous month and youth unemployment ratio in the same age group was 8.3%, -0.3 percentage points over February 2018.

The long-term picture implied by an unemployment rate that is still 11% is not a good one as we note that even in the more recent better phase for Italy it has not broken below that level. Actually Italy has regularly reported that it has ( to 10.8% or 10.9%) but the number keeps being revised upwards. Now whether anyone really believed the promises of economic convergence given by the Euro founders I do not know but if we look at the unemployment rate released by Germany last week there have to be fears of divergence instead,

The adjusted unemployment rate was 3.4% in March 2018.

The database does not allow me to look back to the beginning of the Euro area but we can go back to January 2005. Since then employment in Italy has risen by 722,000 but unemployment has risen by 977,000 which speaks for itself.

If we look at the shorter-term it is hardly auspicious that unemployment rose in March although better news more in tune with GDP ( Gross Domestic Product) data in 2017 is the employment rise.

Manufacturing

The warning from ECB President Draghi contained this.

 Sharp declines were experienced by PMI, almost all sectors, in retail, sales, manufacturing, services, in construction.

We can say that this continued in the manufacturing sector according to the Markit PMI.

The recent growth slowdown of the Italian
manufacturing sector continued during April as
weaker domestic market conditions limited order
book and production gains. Business sentiment
softened to an eight-month low.

The actual number is below.

declined for a third successive month
in April to reach a level of 53.5 (from 55.1 in
March). The latest PMI reading was the lowest
recorded by the survey since January 2017.

So a fall to below the UK and one of Mario’s sharp declines which seems to be concentrated here.

The slowdown was centred on the intermediate
goods sector, which suffered a stagnation of output
and concurrent declines in both total new orders
and sales from abroad.

If we try to peer at the Italian economy on its own this is hardly reassuring.

There were widespread reports of a
softening of domestic market conditions which
weighed on total order book gains.

Also it seems a bit early for supply side constraints to bite especially if we look at Italy’s track record.

“On the contrary, anecdotal evidence in recent
months has pointed to global supply-side
constraints as a factor limiting growth, and these
issues in April were exacerbated by increased
weakness in domestic market conditions

GDP

This morning’s official release is a bit of a curate’s egg so let us go straight to it.

In the first quarter of 2018 the seasonally and calendar adjusted, chained volume measure of Gross
Domestic Product (GDP) increased by 0.3 per cent with respect to the fourth quarter of 2017 and by 1.4 per
cent in comparison with the first quarter of 2017.

So the good news is that the last actual quarterly contraction was in the spring of 2014 and since then there has been growth. But the problem is something we have seen play out many times. From February 12th 2016.

The ‘good’ news is that this is above ‘s trend growth rate of zero

It is also better than this from the same article.

The number below was one of the reasons why the former editor of the Economist magazine Bill Emmott described it as like a “girlfriend in a coma”.

between 2001 and 2013 GDP shrank by 0.2%. (The Economist)

So better than that but the recent experience in what has been called the Euroboom brings us back to my point that Italy has struggled to maintain an annual economic growth rate above 1%. The latest numbers bring that to mind as the annual rate of GDP growth has gone 1.8%, 1.6% and now 1.4%. The quarterly numbers have followed something of a Noah’s Ark pattern as two quarters of 0.5% has been followed by two of 0.4% and now two of 0.3%. Neither of those patterns holds any reassurance in fact quite the reverse.

Why might this be?

There are many arguments over the causes of the problems with productivity post credit crunch but in Italy it has been a case of Taylor Swift style “trouble,trouble,trouble” for some time now. From the Bank of Italy in January and the emphasis is mine.

Over the period 1995-2016 the performance of the Italian
economy was poor not only in historical terms but also and more importantly as compared with its
main euro-area partners. Italy’s GDP growth – equal to 0.5 per cent on an average yearly basis against
1.3 in Germany, 1.5 in France and 2.1 in Spain – was supported by population dynamics, entirely due to
immigration, and the increase in the employment rate, while labor productivity and in particular TFP
gave a zero (even slightly negative) contribution,

Comment

The main issue is that the economy of Italy has barely grown in the credit crunch era. If we use 2010 as our benchmark for prices then the 1.5 trillion Euros of 1999 was replaced by only 1.594 trillion in 2017. So it is a little higher now but the next issue is the decline in GDP per capita or person from its peak. One way of looking at it was that it was the same in 2017 as it was in 1999 another is that the 28700 Euros per person of 2007 has been replaced by 26,338 in 2017 or what is clearly an economic depression at the individual level.

It is this lack of growth that has led to the rise and rise of the national debt which is now 131.8% of annual GDP. It is not that Italy is fiscally irresponsible as its annual deficits are small it is that it has lacked economic growth as a denominator to the ratio. Thus it is now rather dependent on the QE bond purchases of the ECB to keep the issue subdued. Of course the best cure would be a burst of economic growth but that seems to be a perennial hope.

Looking ahead deomgraphics are a developing issue for Italy. From The Local in March.

Thanks to the low number of births, the ‘natural increase’ (the difference between total numbers of births and deaths) was calculated at -134,000. This was the second greatest year-on-year drop ever recorded.

On this road a good thing which is rising life expectancy also poses future problems.

As to the banking system well we have a familiar expert to guide us. So far he has had an accuracy rate of the order of -100%!

 

 

 

Better news for the UK Public Finances but at what social cost?

Last week some new data emerged which gave us a slightly different perspective on the UK government finances.

General government deficit (or net borrowing) was £39.4 billion in 2017, a decrease of £19.0 billion compared with 2016; this is equivalent to 1.9% of GDP, 1.1 percentage points below the reference value of 3.0% set out in the Protocol on the Excessive Deficit Procedure.

We look regularly for a deeper perspective and those numbers reveal several realities. Firstly the simple fact that the number is much lower at just over £39 billion and secondly that relative to our annual economic output it is now a small amount. In fact so small we pass one of the Maastricht criteria.

This is the first time the government deficit has been below the 3.0% Maastricht reference value since 2007, when it was 2.6% of GDP.

The latter quote provides some food for thought as we see that in annual fiscal terms we are now better off than in 2007. Also these are numbers we can compare internationally as for example the French fiscal deficit was 2.6% of GDP and the Spanish one was 3.1%. Spain is an interesting example as it has of course seen strong economic growth over the past couple of years or so but still has such a deficit leading us to mull whether Euro area austerity was followed or whether more realistically in my opinion it has oiled the economic wheels with a fiscal stimulus? Especially if we note to continue the same analogy that the fiscal wheels themselves have been oiled by the bond buying of the European Central Bank or ECB which now totals some 238.5 billion Euros of Spanish government bonds and rising. This means that Spain has a ten-year bond yield of a mere 1.31% a far cry from the heady days of the Euro area crisis.

However the lost decade in fiscal terms for the UK has led to this.

General government gross debt was £1,786.3 billion at the end of December 2017, equivalent to 87.7% of gross domestic product (GDP), 27.7 percentage points above the reference value of 60% set out in the Protocol on the Excessive Deficit Procedure.

So we find that the national debt has increased considerably as a result of the ongoing fiscal deficits. We were supposed under the original Coalition government plan to reach a balance and head into surplus around 2016 albeit under a dubious current expenditure definition but instead we still have a deficit. However we are doing better than France ( 97%) and Spain ( 98.3%). Let me throw in something rarely raised, is this the real reason for all the QE bond buying we have seen? To make the national debts and fiscal deficits more affordable via lower bond yields?

Gilt Yields

These are as discussed above something which have boosted the UK fiscal numbers. It is not possible to say exactly how much they have helped by but we do know that without £435 billion of purchases by the Bank of England the ten-year Gilt yield would be a fair bit higher than the present 1.51%. I still recall when hitting 2% was considered extremely low and of course the panic-stricken Sledgehammer QE purchases of late summer 2016 drove it down to 0.5% as the market picked them off. Interestingly some numbers have been calculated for Germany but I would take them as a broad sweep rather than precise.

Latest data suggest Germany has saved €162bn in government interest expenditure since the start of the crisis, thanks to the ECB. ( @fwred )

As to the annual cost we see that in the last fiscal year UK debt costs were up by £6 billion to £54.7 billion mostly driven I would think by the higher costs of our RPI linked debt.

Today’s data

They opened with some good news. From the Office for National Statistics.

Public sector net borrowing (excluding public sector banks) decreased by £0.8 billion to £1.3 billion in March 2018, compared with March 2017; this is the lowest March net borrowing since 2004.

Looking into the detail adds more smoke than insight because we had better taxes from income plus a fall in debt costs that was not offset by higher spending. So let us move to the figures for the latest fiscal year for a better perspective.

Public sector net borrowing (excluding public sector banks) decreased by £3.5 billion to £42.6 billion in the latest financial year (April 2017 to March 2018), compared with the previous financial year; this is the lowest net borrowing since the financial year ending March 2007.

Thus we see better news again and the size of the reduction is likely to increase as revisions are made if last year was any guide.

 the estimate has been revised downward by £5.8 billion, from £52.0 billion to £46.2 billion.

As ever my first rule of OBR club has worked a treat. From a year ago.

The deficit is now forecast to come in at £51.7 billion this year, down from the £68.2 billion we forecast in November (Chart 1.1). We now expect the deficit to increase by £6.5 billion next year rather than shrinking by £7.2 billion (adjusted for a change in how the ONS records corporate taxes).

Even by their low standards this is an especially poor effort. Time for a few more Knighthoods I think to restore at least a veneer of respectability.For newer readers my first rule of OBR club is that it is always wrong. On that basis you may like to know that it forecasts next years deficit at £37.1 billion.

Ch-ch-changes

If we look at the numbers we see that broadly we improved even allowing for the fact we spent an extra £6 billion on debt interest-rate and that VAT receipts only increased by 2.4%. The latter does not really even match the inflation we have seen. If you wished to pin it to one factor the amount collected from National Insurance rose by 5.4%.

Oh and there is another area where the government has reason to be grateful to the Bank of England. Stamp Duty receipts from property transactions rose by just under 10% to £13.6 billion.

Comment

This has been a long slow grind and we are already two years or so late on the original plans. But there is good news in the continuing improvement albeit that as ever we see plenty of disinformation.

Of this £42.6 billion of public sector net borrowing excluding public sector banks (PSNB ex), £42.7 billion related to capital spending (or net investment) such as infrastructure, while the cost of the “day-to-day” activities of the public sector (the current budget deficit) was in surplus by £0.1 billion. This current budget deficit surplus is the first annual surplus since the financial year ending March 2002.

Those who have followed my analysis will no doubt already be thinking that there is a world of difference between the way the numbers were calculated in 2002 and now. I would also love to see how they define and calculate investment.

The real issues are whether we can continue to grow as economic growth is always the main player here in the long run? On that front there has been another hint of a slowing in the German economy this morning. Next is the recurring issue of whether this has been stimulus or austerity or even more confusingly both? A pointer towards austerity can be seen from this earlier.

Between 1st April 2017 and 31st March 2018, The Trussell Trust’s foodbank network distributed 1,332,952 three-day emergency food supplies to people in crisis, a 13% increase on the previous year. 484,026 of these went to children.

Perhaps the main government change has been a redistribution which if we add in the shift towards the asset rich driven by the Bank of England suddenly puts a dark cloud over the data.