Thanks to the policies of the last government, the UK entered this decade as one of the most heavily borrowed countries of all. Private sector borrowings peaked at more than 200% of GDP. The company sector has cuts its debts a bit in the last two years despite the lower levels of activity, and individuals have stopped their debts overall from going up any more. The public sector has debts of around 250% of GDP.
The last government claimed UK public debt was under 70% of GDP, as they just quoted the figures for state borrowings through the issue of bonds. This debt is now around £1 trillion. On top of this there are the debts of the banks where taxpayers have a stake. This adds £1.4 trillion to the total. There are then the unfunded public sector pension liabilities of £1.3 trillion. The new government has set all this out, to give a more honest account of the UK balance sheet.
Some say you should add in the future costs of the basic state retirement pension scheme. The government thinks this is balanced by future NI and Income tax revenues, and has always been a pay as you go scheme, so it has not chosen to do so. I have no disagreement with their approach, as you have to draw the line somewhere about how many items of future public spending you capitalise, and how many you treat as a call on future income.
The government, the Opposition and most commentators agree that the current levels of UK debt are too high, and need to be controlled, and eventually brought down. The argument is not over whether to do this, but how, and at what pace.
I think the government needs a strategy to tackle all three elements of the balance sheet weakness in the public sector. I think it needs to do it speedily, as the overall levels are far too high and far too risky for taxpayers. Cutting banking risk for taxpayers is to me an urgent priority. Governments are not well equipped to run banks. Taxpayers should not be standing behind the large position risks run in say the RBS investment bank, and subsidising the large salaries they still pay as if they were a profit making privately financed operation. Yesterday’s decision to sell Northern Rock at a loss was a welcome first step.
There is no point people tut tutting about losses on these holdings. The last government was wrong to buy these stakes at the prices they paid. We were bound to lose money on them. Recognising the loss is a necessary part of sorting them out and passing them on to owners who may be able to make them useful to our economy and turn a profit.Those profits can then be taxed. That was why I at the time recommended controlled administration.
I said they should only support the few bits that really mattered, and let the shareholders and bondholders take the hit on the investment and overseas banks and other non bank businesses. It was a policy recommendation which prefigured what are now call living wills. I am glad the policy has been adopted for the future. It is just a very epxensive pity they didn’t do it last time. There is little point in extend and pretend, trying to believe that the assets are worth what you want them to be worth instead of worth what the market now values them at.
Former Northern Rock shareholders feel badly treated. In the summer of 2007 I argued that the Bank of England and the government should have put more money into the wholesale markets. Had they done so I do not think Northern Rock would have gone bust . They put more than I suggested into the markets, but only after the troubles at the Rock. Timing is everything. Northern Rock started with a liquidity problem which the authorities refused to help sort out. It became a more fundamental problem, as the shortage of money brought on a drop in property values, which damaged a mortgage based bank. It was all predictable and avoidable. Becuase it was not avoided, shareholders have to accept that their bank did go under and so they lost their money.
The government is attempting to cut the unfunded costs of public sector pensions. We might well return to that in more detail at a later date.
Most of the attention is focused on the smallest of the three liabilities, the public debt proper. Labour is now arguing that the government will borrow £100 billion more than their original plan. I have made it clear for months that the government is bound to borrow more than the forecasts in June 2010. The government itself raised its estimate of the extra amount it would borrow over the five years by £34 billion in March 2011, so it’s not much of a surprise. The mainstream media ignored this change of forecast until this week, but are now taking it more seriously because Labour is highlighting it.
In previous pieces I have said I expect the government to forecast a further increase in the 5 year borrowing when they make their Autumn Statement at the end of this month. I estimated that they will probably say they need to borrow extra over the five year period, to allow for the slower growth they need to assume for this year and next. It is likely that the Bank of England’s lower forecast of growth, taking it down to 1% this year and1% next year, sets the tone for the official OBR forecast in the Autumn Statement. This compares with 1.7% and 2.5% in the March official forecast. Losing that amount of growth will lose more revenue on top of the £34 bn adjustment made in March. Labour has made claims that the extra adjustment in this Autumn Statement to the official borrowing figure will be much bigger than the March adjustment, which seems to me to be unlikely.
The government has rightly said it intends to remove the structural deficit over the lifetime of this Parliament. It has reaffirmed that it will do this despite the falling growth forecast.It can do so and should do so. The total borrowings over the period will however, be higher than the 2010 plans, as the cyclical deficit will be higher. This is all very old news to readers of this blog, as we have reworked the figures before. It is also common ground between Labour and the government that the best answer to get the deficit down more quickly is faster growth. The battle of the Autumn Statement will be about how you can do this.
In order to succeed in eliminating the structural deficit the government might be wise to have a freeze on current public spending for a period, instead of persisting with increases in cash spending. Over the last year,as most in the media refuse to acknowledge, real public spending increased, as the government’s own official figures for GDP make clear. Today’s news that the MOD has been spending £25o million a year on consultancies to help it buy things show there is still plenty of low hanging fruit for it to cut out. What is true of the MOD which is being asked to make real cuts, will be even more true of depertments allowed to increase their spending.