The UK plans to Spend! Spend! Spend!

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by Shaun Richards

There is something of an irony today as the UK faces a Spending Review which is not called a Budget but is set to be more significant than nearly all of the latter. Also we are reminded that previous to this phase we were in uncertain times but that has been squared or even cubed this year. Perhaps the biggest example of that affecting the public finances came with Lockdown 2.0 as the government announced this on Bonfire Night.

Today, we are extending the CJRS until the end of March for all parts of the UK. We will review the policy
in January to decide whether economic circumstances are improving enough to ask employers to
contribute more. The Job Support Scheme is postponed.
Eligible employees will receive 80% of their usual salary for hours not worked, up to a maximum of £2,500
per month.

Interestingly they switched to telling us the cost when the scheme for the self-employed was announced at the same time.

This is £7.3 billion of support to the self-employed through November to January alone, with a further
grant to follow covering February to April. This comes on top of £13.7 billion of support for self-employed
people so far, one of the most comprehensive and generous support packages for the self-employed
anywhere in the world.

The Resolution Foundation has calculated the costs this year as this.

The largest AME components of these increases are the estimated £56 billion spent on the Job Retention Scheme (JRS) and £23 billion on the Self-Employed Income Support
Scheme.

Having checked the numbers on Friday which covered the period until October some £61 billion or so has already been spent to the danger in those numbers looks set to be from the upside. In terms of a total they think this.

We estimate that in the region of £250 billion of additional Covid-related spending will take place in 2020-21. This, and the much smaller economy, combine to mean that the
size of the state relative to GDP is set to sky-rocket this year, from 40 per cent of GDP to around 60 per cent of GDP.

So there is an element of today being a bit after the Lord Mayor’s Party so let me lighten the atmosphere with some examples of the first rule of OBR Club.

GDP growth in the third quarter of 2020: the level of GDP was 7 per cent higher than the OBR had expected in July

That is a pretty spectacular fail and there is another.

Since that forecast, unemployment has risen
only slightly, as shown in Figure 4: unemployment in 2020 Q3 was 4.8 per cent, less than half that expected in the OBR’s central scenario.

There are two issues here which in my opinion the Resolution Foundation miss. They treat OBR forecasts seriously and hang their view on the future off them when as you can see the future is very unlikely to be as forecast. Also the unemployment definition has failed us and we should be looking at underemployment measures such as hours worked to get a much better view of the state of play.

What about today?

The Financial Times gives us an example of government by leak.

Rishi Sunak will on Wednesday set out a £4.3bn plan to tackle the threat of mass unemployment as the chancellor braces Britain for the brutal economic fallout from the coronavirus crisis. Mr Sunak will tell MPs in his spending review that his “number one priority is to protect jobs and livelihoods”.

What does this mean in practice?

Mr Sunak will announce £2.9bn of spending over three years on a “Restart” programme to help Britons find jobs, plus £1.4bn of new funding to increase the capacity of the Jobcentre Plus network to help more people back to work. The Restart scheme, offering regular and intensive “tailored” job support, is particularly aimed at older workers who are most likely to be left facing “the scarring effects” of long-term unemployment.

Let us hope that this works although it relies on there being jobs to go to. The Jobcentre Plus scheme has seen famine after 2015 but now is back to feast so I wonder how effectively it can be expanded? Sadly the FT continues the media obsession with the fairly useless unemployment numbers.

The latest official statistics show that an estimated 1.6m people were unemployed in the three months to September — 318,000 more than a year earlier. The unemployment rate stands at 4.8 per cent of the workforce.  With many companies pressing ahead with redundancy plans, unemployment is set to rise further in the coming months.

The BBC takes a wider view including other measures some of which have already been announced.

These include an extra £3bn for the NHS in England to help tackle the backlog of operations delayed due to Covid, an increase in defence spending and a £4.6bn package to help the unemployed back to work.

So whoever leaked this to the BBC has added some £300 million to the unemployment plan compared to the leak to the FT. Also there is something of a difference into the issue of future austerity. The FT suggests it is a can to be kicked into the future wheres the BBC gives examples of it already beginning.

The government is expected to announce a cut in the UK’s overseas aid budget to 0.5% of national income, down from the legally binding target of 0.7%……There have also been reports that the chancellor is considering a pay freeze for all public sector workers except frontline NHS staff.

There are even reports that this will extend to Members of Parliament.

Comment

The main issue here I think is what is the role of government? I am not particularly thinking of the size of it here. What I mean is what can it do about employment and unemployment? It can make a major difference if it can pock out which are the viable jobs that need support for say a year and can then thrive. We win out of that via future tax payments before we get to other issues. The problem is that the credit crunch was far from the best example of this as we ended up protecting the banks with a The Precious! The Precious perspective only for them to then retrench anyway and have a zombie business model. Along the way inflating the housing market was a consequence too, although that has become an international game.

The S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller U.S. National Home Price NSA Index, covering all nine U.S. census divisions, reported a 7.0% annual gain in September, up from 5.8% in the previous month.

As to whether we can afford it then as I pointed out as recently as Monday we can borrow very cheaply. We are paid to borrow at the shorter end and even the fifty-year yield is a mere 0.73%. So it has completely ignored the expected spending increases. That requires a so far,as back in the Gordon Brown days it used to wait until late afternoon on the day. Our reputation may be damaged by the announcement on the RPI that I reported on last week.

Massive day for the UK index-linked gilt market. Today we get the government’s response to the RPI Reform Consultation: likely that RPI will be aligned to CPIH from 2030, with no compensation for investors. Some even think this might be moved forward to 2025. ( @bondvigilantes )

If I was in charge I would scrap that plan and I would look to strengthen our position by issuing some one hundred year bonds. As Steve Winwood so aptly put it.

While you see a chance
Take it

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