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

 

The UK has opened the fiscal taps and started a fiscal stimulus

The credit crunch era has seen some extraordinary changes in the establishment view of monetary policy. The latest is this from the Peterson Institute from earlier this month.

On October 1, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government raised the consumption tax from 8 percent to 10 percent. Our preference would have been that he not do it. We believe that, given the current Japanese economic situation, there is a strong case for continuing to run potentially large budget deficits, even if this implies, for the time being, little or no reduction in the ratio of debt to GDP.

Indeed they move on to make a point that we have been making for a year or two now.

Very low interest rates, current and prospective, imply that both the fiscal and economic costs of debt are low.

The authors then go further.

When the interest rate is lower than the growth rate—the situation in Japan since 2013—this conclusion no longer follows. Primary deficits do not need to be offset by primary surpluses later, and the government can run primary deficits forever while still keeping the debt-to-GDP ratio constant.

As they mean the nominal rate of growth of GDP that logic also applies to the UK as I have just checked the 50 year Gilt yield. Whilst UK yields are higher than Japan we also have (much) higher inflation rates and in general we face the same situation. As it happens the UK 50 year Gilt yield is not far off the annual rate of growth of real GDP at 1.17%.

They also repeat my infrastructure point.

To the extent that higher public spending is needed to sustain demand in the short run, it should be used to strengthen the supply side in the long run.

However there are problems with this as it comes from people who told us that monetary policy would save us.

Monetary policy has done everything it could, from QE to negative rates, but it turns out it is not enough.

Actually in some areas it has made things worse.One issue I think is that the Ivory Towers love phrases like “supply side” but in practice it does not always turn out to be like that. Also there is a problem with below as otherwise Japan would have been doing better than it is.

And the benefits of public deficits, namely higher activity, are high…….The benefits of budget deficits, both in sustaining demand in the short run and improving supply in the long run are substantial.

Are they? There are arguments against this as otherwise we would not be where we are. In addition it would be remiss of me not to point out that one of the authors is Olivier Blanchard who got his fiscal multipliers so dreadfully wrong in the Greek crisis.

UK Policy

If we look at the latest data for the UK we see that in the last fiscal year the UK was not applying the logic above. Here is the Maastricht friendly version.

In the financial year ending March 2019, the UK general government deficit was £41.5 billion, equivalent to 1.9% of gross domestic product (GDP) ; this is the lowest since the financial year ending March 2002 when it was 0.4%. This represents a decrease of £14.7 billion compared with the financial year ending March 2018.

In fact we were applying the reverse.

Fiscal Rules

The Resolution Foundation seems to have developed something of an obsession with fiscal rules which leads to a laugh out loud moment in the bit I emphasise below.

Some of the strengths of the UK’s approach have been the coverage of the entire public sector, the use of established statistical definitions, clear targets, a medium term outlook, and a supportive institutional framework. But persistent weaknesses remain, including the disregard for the value of public sector assets, reliance on rules which are too backward or forward looking, setting aside too little headroom to cope with forecast errors and economic shocks, and spending too little time building a broad social consensus for the rules.

Actually the “clear targets” bit is weak too as we see them manipulated and bent. But my biggest critique of their obsession is that they do not acknowledge the enormous change by the fall in UK Gilt yields which make it so much cheaper to borrow.

Today’s Data

That was then but this is now is the new theme.

Borrowing (public sector net borrowing excluding public sector banks) in September 2019 was £9.4 billion, £0.6 billion more than in September 2018; this is the first September year-on-year borrowing increase for five years.

Actually there was rather a lot going on as you can see from the detail below.

Central government receipts in September 2019 increased by £4.0 billion (or 6.9%) to £61.2 billion, compared with September 2018, while total central government expenditure increased by £4.3 billion (or 6.8%) to £67.6 billion.

As to the additional expenditure we find out more here.

In the same period, departmental expenditure on goods and services increased by £2.6 billion, compared with September 2018, including a £0.9 billion increase in expenditure on staff costs and a £1.6 billion increase in the purchase of goods and services.

The numbers were rounded out by a £1.6 billion increase in net investment which shows the government seems to have an infrastructure plan as well.

It is noticeable too that the tax receipt numbers were strong too as we saw this take place.

Income-related revenue increased by £1.7 billion, with self-assessed Income Tax and National Insurance contributions increasing by £1.1 billion and £0.6 billion respectively, compared with September 2018.

VAT receipts were solid too being up £500 million or 4%. But the numbers were also flattered by this.

Over the same period, interest and dividends receipts increased by £1.6 billion, largely as a result of a £1.1 billion dividend payment from the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS).

Stamp Duty

We get an insight into the UK housing market from the Stamp Duty position. September was slightly better than last year at £1.1 billion. But in the fiscal year so far ( since March) receipts are £200 million lower at £6.3 billion.

Comment

We find signs that of UK economic strength and extra government spending in September. They are unlikely to be related as the extra government spending will more likely be picked up in future months. If we step back for some perspective we see that the concept of the fiscal taps being released remains.

Over the same period, central government spent £392.4 billion, an increase of 4.5%.

The main shift has been in the goods and services section which has risen by £11.6 billion to £145.7 billion. Of this some £3.5 billion is extra staff costs. Some of this will no doubt be extra Brexit spending but we do not get a breakdown.

As to economic growth well the theme does continue but it also fades a bit.

In the latest financial year-to-date, central government received £366.5 billion in receipts, including £270.0 billion in taxes. This was 2.8% more than in the same period last year.

How strong you think that is depends on the inflation measure you use. It is curious that growth picked up in September. As to the total impact of the fiscal stimulus the Bank of England estimate is below.

The Government has announced a significant increase in departmental spending for 2020-21, which could raise GDP by around 0.4% over the MPC’s forecast period, all else equal.

If we move to accounting for the activities of the Bank of England then things get messy.

If we were to exclude the Bank of England from our calculation of PSND ex, it would reduce by £179.8 billion, from £1,790.9 billion to £1,611.1 billion, or from 80.3% of GDP to 72.2%.

Also it is time for a reminder that my £2 billion challenge to the impact of QE on the UK Public Finances in July has yet to be answered by the Office for National Statistics. Apparently other things are more of a priority.