UK GDP and Public Finances look good but the detail is worrying

by Shaun Richards

Today as is often the case the last full trading day before Christmas brings the latest official data for the UK Public Finances which have had a good year. My main theme today will be to look at the many varieties of statistical manipulation that have been happening or as Marvin Gaye so famously put it.

Oh, what’s going on
What’s going on
Yeah, what’s going on
Ah, what’s going on

We also get as is the new wont a further update on UK GDP which also has a statistical swerve as we note the day has begun badly for France on this front.

In Q3 2018, GDP in volume terms* accelerated slightly: +0.3% after +0.2%.

That is a downwards revision of 0.1% and with the current debate over future public finances there was also this.

In Q3 2018, general government net borrowing increased by 0.4 points: the public deficit stood at 3.1% of the GDP after 2.7%.

The national debt is edging towards 100% of GDP ( 99.3%).

UK Public Finances

On Monday the Office for National Statistics gave us an update on a regular theme on here which is the issue of student loans. This is what the position was.

The UK’s student loan system is based on the government giving loans to most students for their tuition fees and maintenance. Students then repay these loans from their pay packets once they have graduated. Currently, in the National Accounts, these loans are treated as government lending.

That matters because in terms of the deficit lending does not appear. But as I have often argued reality is rather different.

However, the design of the system means much of this student loan debt will never be repaid, and is therefore written off by the government. Because of this, many people, including Parliamentary committees, have asked whether this means some, or all, of the money should be treated as government spending rather than government lending.

So this is what they will do in future.

To ensure our treatment of student loans reflects the way the system works in practice we have decided to split the government’s student loan payments into a portion that is genuine government lending and a portion that is government spending. The lending element will be calculated based on expected future repayments. The remainder, which is not expected to be repaid, will be treated as government spending. This will be treated as capital spending

Fair enough in many ways and as to how much here are the initial estimates.

The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) has published some initial estimates for the impact on government deficit. According to these estimates, our new approach will lead to the deficit being increased by approximately 0.6 percentage points of GDP a year, which equates to around £12 billion in the current year.

Of course it is hard not to think of the first rule of OBR Club as we note the numbers ( for newer readers it is that the OBR is always wrong). But as a general direction of travel it looks sound and I welcome it/ The changes should begin in the autumn of next year. In a way it should not matter as reality is unchanged but we do know that changes in measurement do have an impact.

So if we look to the positive we may now see some reform of the failing UK student loan system.

Today’s Data

The news here was good yet again.

Borrowing (public sector net borrowing excluding public sector banks) in November 2018 was £7.2 billion, £0.9 billion less than in November 2017; this was the lowest November borrowing for 14 years (since 2004). Borrowing in the current financial year-to-date (YTD) was £32.8 billion, £13.6 billion less than in the same period in 2017; the lowest year-to-date for 16 years (since 2002).

If we take the broad sweep then revenue growth has been what has made the difference as well as some control over total spending.

In the current financial YTD, central government received £471.1 billion in income, including £353.5 billion in taxes. This was around 4% more than in the same period in 2017.

Over the same period, central government spent £491.9 billion, around 2% more than in the same period in 2017.

Some of this is a reflection of other factors in play as for example the cost of servicing the UK national debt is some £3 billion lower than last year. This is mostly driven by the fall in the annual rate of rise of the Retail Price Index or RPI which defines the UK index-linked Gilt sector.

One area which was a former milch cow is no longer helping as Stamp Duty revenue is £8.8 billion in the financial year so far as opposed to £9.4 billion in 2017.

Moving to the national debt I notice that something we have been looking at has been missed/ignored by financial social media. So here it is and some of you will spot it immediately.

Debt (public sector net debt excluding public sector banks) at the end of November 2018 was £1,795.1 billion (or 83.9% of gross domestic product (GDP)); an increase of £59.3 billion (unchanged at 83.9% of GDP) on November 2017.

Last month the annual increase was only £1.6 billion! The swerve is that the classification change for the UK Housing Associations which was worth circa £65 billion has exited the annual comparison. The numbers do not add up because there have been some genuine changes too.


On the surface nothing has changed and at a time of downwards revisions elsewhere that is good news.

UK gross domestic product (GDP) in volume terms was estimated to have increased by 0.6% between Quarter 2 (Apr to June) 2018 and Quarter 3 (July to Sept) 2018.

Indeed the past was better than we thought at the time.

GDP was estimated to have increased by 1.8% between 2016 and 2017, revised upwards by 0.1 percentage points from the previous estimate.

However the devil is in the detail as when the first estimate of UK GDP for the third quarter of 2018 was released we were told this.

Net trade contributed 0.8 percentage points to GDP growth in Quarter 3 2018, with a 2.7% rise in exports and flat growth in imports.

Whereas now we are told this.

various revisions to net trade estimates led to a widening of the trade balance,

And Boom!

The cumulative effect over this period has been for net trade to have contributed less than previously estimated, most notably in the latest quarter in which net trade is now estimated to have contributed 0.1 percentage points to GDP growth in Quarter 3 2018. This is revised down from 0.8 percentage points and mainly reflects updated estimates of unspecified goods (which contains NMG). ( NMG is Non Monetary Gold)

So there you have it we have a reduction in a component of GDP by 0.7% but  the final answer remains the same. Rather like we have seen at times for Imputed Rent ( when the deflator was changed on a grand scale) and the Diane Coyle critique of the measurement of the telecommunications sector which suggested the numbers were much too low. In each instance we get an acknowledgement and assurances of changes before the Four Tops fire up.

Now it’s the same old song
But with a different meaning
Since you been gone
It’s the same old song.


Today’s data releases are positive for the UK as headline GDP growth was relatively strong in the third quarter of this year and the public finances continue to improve. There is both a theme and an irony in my next point which it is very cheap for the UK government to borrow right now with the ten-year Gilt yield being a mere 1.29%. The theme is that there is a certain logic with that following better numbers although the major factor is the expected enthusiasm for the Bank of England Whale making further purchases. The irony is that we borrowed a lot when it was much more expensive and borrow much less when it is cheaper.

Meanwhile as I have illustrated today the numbers need to be taken not just with a pinch of salt but the whole cellar.

Let me finish by wishing you all a Merry Christmas although I have not quite finished as I will publish my weekly podcast later. I will be back in the New Year which looks like yet another one of ch-ch-changes before it has even got out of the starting blocks.


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