The UK is being paid to borrow just as it borrows record amounts

Sometimes even when you expect something it still creates something of a shockwave. We knew that UK public spending was on speed and that tax receipts were going to be like one of those cartoon characters running off the edge of a cliff. But even so this had an impact.

Borrowing (public sector net borrowing excluding public sector banks, PSNB ex) in April 2020 is estimated to have been £62.1 billion, £51.1 billion more than in April 2019; the highest borrowing in any month on record (records began in January 1993).

Boom Boom Pow as the Black Eyed Peas would say. As we break it down we see it is a central government game as it also is pouring money into local authorities as we noted last time.

In April 2020, central government borrowed £66.2 billion, while local government was in surplus by £7.3 billion. This local government surplus partially reflects the increase in current transfers from central government to fund its COVID-19 measures.

If we look at spending we see this.

In April 2020, central government spent £109.3 billion, an increase of 38.3% on April 2019.

There was an increase of £1.6 billion in social benefits which ordinarily would be a big deal but this time gets swamped as the “other” category rises by £36.1 billion. We can start to break that down.

This month we have recorded the expenditure associated with the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) for the first time. CJRS is a temporary scheme designed to help employers pay wages and salaries to those employees who would otherwise be made redundant……..In April 2020, central government subsidy expenditure was £16.3 billion, of which £14.0 billion were CJRS payments.

A fair bit of the amount below would have gone on the NHS.

Departmental expenditure on goods and services in April 2020 increased by £7.1 billion compared with April 2019, including a £1.2 billion increase in expenditure on staff costs and a £5.7 billion increase in the purchase of goods and services.

Also I did say they were pouring money into local government.

Central government grants to local authorities in April 2020 increased by £14.2 billion compared with April 2019, mainly to fund additional support because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The only gain was from lower inflation

Interest payments on the government’s outstanding debt in April 2020 were £5.0 billion, a £1.2 billion decrease compared with April 2019. Changes in debt interest are largely a result of movements in the Retail Prices Index (RPI) to which index-linked bonds are pegged.

Tax Receipts

This is an awkward category as it relies on past patterns and well you can guess the rest. But they have tried to come up with some suggestions.

In April 2020, central government receipts fell by £16.4 billion compared with April 2019 to £45.6 billion, including £29.6 billion in tax revenue.

They have tried to allow for the lower level of activity although sadly the numbers they have used have come from the Office for Budget Responsibility or OBR. For newer readers the first rule of OBR Club is that it is always wrong.

We do get some further clues from the Retail Sales numbers also released earlier.

The volume of retail sales in April 2020 fell by a record 18.1%, following the strong monthly fall of 5.2% in March 2020.

As you can see VAT receipts will be hit as will income tax payments from many shop workers. Also we got evidence that there was a lot of panic buying of food when the pandemic hit.

The fall of 4.1% for food stores was mainly due to a fall back from the strong growth of 10.1% in March 2020. Retailers provided feedback of panic buying in March, which caused a sales spike.

Also I hope that you are all sober when you are reading this.

In April, 13.6% of alcohol and tobacco stores reported having zero turnover, however, the volume of sales for these stores increased by 2.3%; a further rise from the strong growth of 23.9% in March.

As you can imagine a trend we have been noting for some years got another boost.

Online sales as a proportion of all retailing reached a record high of 30.7% in April 2020, exceeding the original record reported last month of 22.4%. All sectors reached their highest-recorded proportions except non-store retailing, which reached record proportions in February and March 2020, both at 83.2%.

As well as being sober I hope you are dressed reading this.

The sharp decline in April 2020 has resulted in the lowest levels seen in the volume of textile, clothing and footwear sales since the beginning of the series, when March 1988 was at a similar level.

Last Month

The uncertainty about the amount of tax receipts is highlighted by what has just happened to the March data.

Borrowing in March 2020 was revised up by £11.7 billion to £14.7 billion, largely due to a reduction in the previous estimate of tax receipts and National Insurance contributions and the recording of expenditure associated with the Coronavirus Job Retention scheme.

The main player here was this.

Additionally, the subsidies paid by central government in March 2020 have been increased by £7.0 billion to reflect the additional CJRS payments not previously recorded.

National Debt

This comes with some caveats but the ONS has tried to allow for an expected lower level of economic activity here so fair play.

The Bank of England’s contribution to debt is largely a result of its quantitative easing activities via the Bank of England Asset Purchase Facility Fund and Term Funding Schemes.

If we were to remove these temporary effects, debt at the end of April 2020 would reduce by £184.5 billion (or 9.6% percentage points of GDP) to £1,703.1 billion (or 88.1% of GDP).

Of course we know about the word “temporary” as regards Bank of England activities! However I have always thought it odd ( and frankly a bad design) where the Term Funding Scheme ended up inflating the national debt. Losses on it should be counted but there is collateral held so any net impact should be far lower than the gross.

The only flaw here is the use of an OBR scenario as I have explained above, but it is a worthy attempt none the less.

Comment

I thought I would now spin things around a little because if this was a film there would be no demand for any with titles like “Revenge of the Bond Vigilante’s”. Over the past week or two the UK has in fact increasingly been paid to borrow, so in fact we now inhabit a sort of anti matter driven Bond Vigilante universe. I have been noting for a while that the two-year UK Gilt yield has been on the edge and it has been slip-sliding away this week to -0.07%. It has been joined by the five-year which is now -0.02%.

Now let me shift to the causes of this as at first the Bond Vigilantes will be revving up on the start line.

In April 2020, the Debt Management Office (DMO) issued £51.7 billion in gilts at nominal value, raising £58.5 billion in cash. This represents an unprecedented increase in gilts issuance (at nominal value) compared with March 2020.

But the Bank of England has stepped in with its QE purchases.

At the end of April 2020, the gilt holdings of the APF have increased by £43.7 billion (at nominal value) compared with the end of March 2020,

As you can see this effectively neuters a lot of it and let me bring you right up to date. This week the UK debt management office has been working hard and issued some £16.5 billion of UK Gilts but if it was a race the Bank of England has only been a few paces back as it bought some £13.5 billion. Also the Bank of England has been driving us into negative yields by for the first time buying them as it has done on at least 4 occasions this week.

So we borrow enormously and can do so at record low yields. So for now we are “lucky” according to the definition provided by Napoleon. On the pattern so far we may see our benchmark ten-year yield go negative as well ( currently 0.14%). One consequence of this is I expect cheaper fixed-rate mortgage deals as the five-year yield is my proxy for that and it has gone negative. If the banks are as “resilient” as we keep being told they will be slashing rates. Meanwhile back in the real world we may see some mortgage rates being trimmed.

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