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%.

 

 

The UK is beginning to see its fiscal boost take shape

The mood music has discernably changed for fiscal policy. well apart from Greece which is being forced to run surpluses and to some extent Italy. Many establishments ( the European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund for example) have switched from pressing for austerity to almost begging for fiscal action. If we switch to the UK we see that the same forces at play with the addition of a government that looks like it wants to be fiscally active. Even the BBC has caught on although oddly the example on BBC Breakfast this morning showed the super sewer for London which was planned some years back. Although on the upside it does seem to be a positive example as it is progressing well and seems to be on budget.

UK Gilt Market

Developments here are a major factor in changing the consensus views above and can be taken as a guide to much of the word where Middle of the Road in the 1970s were prescient about future government borrowing.

Ooh wee, chirpy chirpy cheep cheep
Woke up this mornin’ and my momma was gone
Ooh wee, chirpy chirpy cheep cheep
Chirpy chirpy cheep cheep chirp

In terms of economic impact we look at the five-year yield which is 0.45% and the benchmark these days is the ten-year which is 0.57%.As you can see these are low levels and there is a hint in that they are below the Bank of England Bank Rate. Oh and for newer readers who are wondering why I pick out the five-year that is because it influences most of the mortgage market via its impact on foxed-rate ones. But for infrastructure projects for the long-term the relevant yield in my opinion is the fifty-year one which as I have been reporting for a while has been spending some time below 1% and is 0.9% as I type this.

As you can see it is not only historically low but outright low and this is confirmed if we subtract any likely level of inflation to get a real yield. Some of you may recall the economist Jonathan Portes came on here some years back to suggest we should borrow via index-linked Gilts whereas I argued for conventional ones. You know where you stand ( borrowing very cheaply) and do not run an inflation risk.

As you can see this does begin a case for infrastructure investment because the hurdle in terms of financing is low.

Today’s Data

Last month I pointed out that the revenue figures for the UK economy were more positive than the GDP ones and that theme continues.

self-assessed Income Tax receipts in January 2020 were £16.2 billion, an increase of £1.5 billion compared with January 2019; this is the highest January on record (records began in January 2000)

Care is needed as some payments for the income tax season are delayed into February but so far so good. Although it is also true that VAT receipts were flat so we apparently had more income but did not spend it. Also the numbers were boosted by a 991 million Euro fine for Airbus even though it will not be fully paid until 2023 in another example of these numbers being if we are polite, somewhat bizarre.

Switching now to expenditure and continuing the fiscal boost theme there was this.

Departmental expenditure on goods and services in January 2020 increased by £2.1 billion compared with January 2019, including a £0.8 billion increase in expenditure on staff costs and a £1.2 billion increase in the purchase of goods and services.

Also there was this.

The UK contributions to the European Union (EU) in January 2020 were £2.1 billion, an increase of £1.1 billion on January 2019. This increase is largely because of the profile of 2020 payments made to the EU by all member states rather than a reflection of any budgetary increase.

As you can see it will wash out as time passes but for now makes the numbers worse and in total we saw this.

Borrowing (public sector net borrowing excluding public sector banks, PSNB ex) in January 2020 was in surplus by £9.8 billion, £2.1 billion less of a surplus than in January 2019.

If we now switch to the trend we see this.

Borrowing in the current financial year-to-date (April 2019 to January 2020) was £44.8 billion, £5.8 billion more than in the same period the previous year.

Economic Growth

The number above gives us a flavour of the fiscal boost taking place in the UK but not the full flavour. This is because the improving economy will have meant that the number should be lower. Now we have not had much economic growth but we have seen employment and wages rise. Looking ahead that seems set to continue if this morning’s flash Markit PMI is any guide.

Flash UK Composite Output Index
Feb: 53.3, Unchanged (Jan final: 53.3)

Their view on this seems rather mean of 50 truly is the benchmark of no-growth.

“The recent return to growth signalled by the manufacturing and services PMIs provides a clear indication that the UK economy is no longer flat on its back, with our GDP nowcast pointing to 0.2% growth
through the first quarter of the year.

Also after what happened to the manufacturing PMI in Germany earlier ( a deterioration in supply times believe it or not boosted the index) we need to treat manufacturing PMIs with even more caution.

National Debt

The economic growth situation comes in here too as we look at the numbers.

At the end of January 2020, the amount of money owed by the public sector to the private sector stood at approximately £1.8 trillion (or £1,798.7 billion), which equates to 79.6% of gross domestic product (GDP) (the value of all the goods and services currently produced by the UK economy in a year).

In absolute terms we owe more but in relative terms we owe less.

Though debt has increased by £41.4 billion on January 2019, the ratio of debt to GDP has decreased by 0.7 percentage points, implying that UK GDP is currently growing at a faster rate than debt.

Comment

Today has brought more evidence of the fiscal boost being seen by the UK which is more than the headlines suggest because the deficit would have continued to fall otherwise. In terms of scale the Bank of England has estimated the impact of the boost to be around 0.4% of GDP or around half that deployed by France last year.

There are various contexts of which the first is that it is the QE era and its effect on government bond yields that makes this all look so affordable. That is another reason to match any infrastructure spending with very long-dated Gilts, as otherwise there is a risk should yields rise. Rather curiously some commentators seem to be expecting the return of the “bond vigilantes” in the UK. This would be curious because as a species they seem to be nearly extinct. After all their return would no doubt see even more Bank of England QE purchases. Perhaps these commentators are trying to justify their own past forecasts.

Another context is that the debt continues to pile up and in terms of a capital issue that does matter. For example I think Greece has been an example of this where the size of the debt has weighted down the economy in addition to the austerity. So even though annual costs are low, that is not the only metric we should watch.

 

 

UK tax receipts hint that economic growth is better than GDP tells us

Today the UK Public Finances are in the news and that is before we even get to the data release. This is because there has been a flurry of announcements on transport policy and the railways in particular. According to LBC we should soon get some clarity on out subject from a couple of days ago.

The Transport Secretary said he was making the biggest infrastructure decision taken in the UK in peacetime and promised it in “weeks rather than months”.

Mr Shapps told LBC: “We are nearing the conclusion. I am now in the final stages of gathering all the data together for HS2, so it’s a mega decision for this country.

“It’s maybe the biggest infrastructure project, certainly in Europe, and the biggest this country’s ever taken, certainly in peacetime. So we’ve got to get that right.

Bigger than when the Victorians built the railways? As opposed to one line! Also there were some announcements to help deal with what has been the headliner of the problems with UK railways.

Network Rail is being investigated over its poor service on routes used by troubled train operators Northern and TransPennine Express.

The government-owned firm has been put “on a warning” for routes in the North West and central region of England, the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) said.

The regulator said it was “not good enough” in those areas and was probing Network Rail’s contribution to delays.

Network Rail apologised for “very poor service” in the Midlands and the North. (BBC )

The solution to that problem according to the Transport Minister is to build a new railway for somewhere above £10 billion and in the meantime spend some £2.9 billion on improving the existing line. That is rather vague as it lacks timescales and will we be making improvements just in time to close them? But the issue here for the public finances is that the UK government is more willing to spend than it was. There is also an issue as to why if traffic on these railways has expanded so much why money has not been spent along the way to help it cope? That of course goes much wider as we note energy infrastructure where yet again we see an enormously expensive project after years and indeed decades of little action.

Today’s Data

We open with something against the recent trend.

Borrowing (public sector net borrowing excluding public sector banks, PSNB ex) in December 2019 was £4.8 billion, £0.2 billion less than in December 2018.

Maybe it is just a quirk that we borrowed less as the monthly numbers are volatile. But we do perhaps get a little more from this.

Central government receipts in December 2019 increased by £2.2 billion (or 3.7%) to £62.2 billion, compared with December 2018, while total central government expenditure increased by £1.7 billion (or 2.7%) to £63.9 billion.

As you can see the rise in receipts even if we use the highest inflation measure ( RPI) hints at a better growth rate than we are expecting from the GDP data. This does tie in with the employment and wages numbers we looked at yesterday. But only in a broad sweep because of this.

Central government receipts were boosted by increases in National Insurance contributions (NICs) of £0.5 billion, interest and dividends receipts of £0.3 billion, and across many of the taxes on production (such as Value Added Tax (VAT), tobacco duty and stamp duty) totalling £1.1 billion.

Taxes on income and wealth saw a small reduction (less than £0.0 billion), with an increase in petroleum revenue tax of £0.3 billion being offset by decreases in both Corporation Tax and Income Tax receipts of £0.3 billion and £0.1 billion respectively.

The highlighted part is because after yesterday’s data you might reasonably expect higher income tax payments and I was asked this question yesterday. Yet as you can see we got 0! It may be that due to the changes in the Personal Allowance that the National Insurance numbers are a better measure. So my answer goes from a no, to definitely,maybe.

There is also some awkwardness with the production receipts when we are being told production is struggling and in the latter part of 2019 retail moved from growth to decline. So let us note that these numbers hint at a stronger economy than we otherwise would have thought.

So far you might reasonably be wondering where the fiscal stimulus has gone? Well if you add the number below back in you can see that the deficit number was in fact driven by lower inflation rather than lower general government spending.

Interest payments on the government’s outstanding debt decreased by £1.1 billion, compared with December 2018.

Perspective

If we look back we see stronger signs of a fiscal boost than seen in December alone.

Borrowing in the current financial year-to-date (April 2019 to December 2019) was £54.6 billion, £4.0 billion more than in the same period last year.

Although care is needed as the numbers well they keep seeing ch-ch-changes.

ONS revisions again significantly lowered estimated borrowing in the earlier months of the
financial year. Last month, borrowing was revised down by £5.2 billion for earlier months while
this month’s release reduced borrowing by a further £1 billion.  The ONS has also revised down 2018-19 borrowing by £3.3 billion in this month’s release. ( OBR last month)

Assuming the numbers are accurate we see that the rise in borrowing so far this year has not only been caused by more spending but also by weakish receipts.

In the current financial year-to-date, central government receipts grew by 2.3% on the same period last year to £548.2 billion, including £402.7 billion in tax revenue.

On that road we see again a hint of a pick-up in the economy in December.

The National Debt

This turns out to be a complex issue and the simple version is this.

Debt (public sector net debt excluding public sector banks, PSND ex) at the end of December 2019 was £1,819.0 billion (or 80.8% of gross domestic product, GDP); this is an increase of £35.5 billion (or a decrease of 0.9 percentage points) on December 2018.

Actually the Bank of England managed to make things even more complex as one of its bank subsidies ended up boosting the national debt.

Debt at the end of December 2019 excluding the Bank of England (BoE) (mainly quantitative easing) was £1,644.2 billion (or 73.0% of GDP); this is an increase of £48.0 billion (or a decrease of 0.1 percentage points) on December 2018.

Actually it was the Term Funding Scheme which was badly designed rather than QE as the release seems to realise later.

The introduction of the Term Funding Scheme (TFS) in September 2016 led to an increase in public sector net debt (PSND), as the loans provided under the scheme were not liquid assets and therefore did not net off in PSND (against the liabilities incurred in providing the loans). The TFS closed for drawdowns of further loans on 28 February 2018 with a loan liability of £127.0 billion.

Unfortunately I seem to be the only person who ever calls out the Bank of England about this.

Comment

There are three lessons from today’s numbers. The first is that there is an ongoing fiscal boost especially if we allow for the impact of lower debt costs via lower inflation ( RPI). Next we again see a hint of the UK economy being stronger than indicated by economic output or GDP if December’s receipts data are to be relied upon. However and thank you to Fraser Munro of the Office for National Statistics for replying there is always doubt as the December income tax receipts are a forecast rather than a known number.

PAYE in December is based on HMRC’s cash forecast for January so we could see a revision next month.

So the truth is that the numbers are a rather broad brush and on that theme let me end with some national debt numbers which are internationally comparable.

General government gross debt was £1,821.9 billion at the end of the financial year ending March 2019, equivalent to 84.0% of gross domestic product (GDP) and 24.0 percentage points above the reference value of 60.0% set out in the protocol on the excessive deficit procedure.

Me on The Investing Channel