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By any yardstick, progress in reducing public sector borrowing so far this fiscal year has been poor. While the borrowing trend should improve in the final four months of this year--including December's figures, published Friday--the Chancellor has only a slim chance of meeting the forecasts set out in the Autumn Statement.
The stubbornly slow rate of decline of public borrowing casts doubt on whether the Chancellor will run a budget surplus before the end of this parliament, as his fiscal rule stipulates. But downward revisions to debt interest forecasts by the Office for Budget Responsibility are likely to absolve him again from intensifying the impending fiscal squeeze in the Budget on March 16.
The Chancellor must feel a sense of foreboding before his pre-Autumn Statement meetings with the Office for Budget Responsibility. Even minor revisions to the independent body's economic forecasts could shred into tatters his plans for a budget surplus by the end of the parliament, given the lack of wiggle room in the July Budget borrowing projections. The OBR won't present the Chancellor with disastrous news ahead of next Wednesday's Autumn Statement, but the already slim margin for error he has in meeting his surplus goal likely will be reduced.
Chancellor Hammond likely will broadly stick to the current plans for the fiscal consolidation to intensify next year when he delivers his second Budget on Thursday.
Many commentators have assumed that the new Chancellor's pledge to "reset" fiscal policy and to stop targeting a budget surplus in this parliament means that fiscal policy will support growth in economic activity next year.
The Chancellor kept his word and made only trivial policy changes in the Spring Statement, but he hinted at higher spending plans in the Autumn Budget.
The defeat in the House of Lords of the Government's plans to cut spending on tax credits by £4.4B next year is not a barrier to their implementation. But it has prompted speculation that the Chancellor will reduce the size of the fiscal consolidation planned for next year. The plans may be tweaked in the Autumn Statement on 25 November, but we think the economy will still endure a major fiscal tightening next year.
The Chancellor used the Autumn Statement to shift the composition of the fiscal consolidation slightly away from spending cuts and towards tax hikes. But in overall macroeconomic terms, he changed little. The fiscal stance is still set to be extremely tight in 2016 and 2017, ensuring that the economic recovery will lose more momentum.
April's public finances show that borrowing still is falling more slowly than the Chancellor had envisaged. This casts further doubt over whether he will be able to keep his pledge to run a budget surplus before the end of this parliament in 2020.
The Chancellor claims he can eliminate public borrowing without raising taxes. But the latest borrowing overshoot and the continual optimistic bias of the OBR's forecasts cast doubt on whether his approach will be sufficient to meet his self-imposed surplus target.
The CPIH--the controversial, modified version of the existing CPI that includes a measure of owner occupied housing, or OOH, costs--will become the headline measure of consumer price inflation when February's data are published on March 21.
The latest public finance figures continue to imply that the Chancellor will be able to change course later this year in the Autumn Budget so that fiscal policy doesn't drag on GDP growth next year.
The trend in public borrowing has improved significantly over recent months, but it is far too soon to conclude that the Chancellor is on track to meet his goal of running a budget surplus by the end of this decade. The recent economic slowdown has not impacted the public borrowing numbers, yet.
The Chancellor warned last week that he would hold an Emergency Budget shortly after a vote to leave the E.U. to address a £30B black hole in the public finances. The £30B--some 1.6% of GDP-- is the mid-point of the Institute for Fiscal Studies' estimates of the impact of Brexit on public borrowing in 2019/20, which were based on the GDP forecasts of a range of reports.
The public finances continue to heal rapidly, suggesting that the Chancellor should have scope to soften his fiscal plans substantially in the Autumn Budget.
Both the Prime Minister and Chancellor last week threatened to cut business taxes aggressively to persuade multinationals to remain in Britain in the event of hard Brexit. But these threats lack credibility, given the likely lingering weakness of the public finances by the time of the U.K.'s departure from the EU and the scale of demographic pressures set to weigh on public spending over the next decade.
In recent public appearances, the Chancellor has made a concerted effort to downplay expectations of fiscal loosening in Wednesday's Autumn statement. On Sunday, he labelled the deficit "eye-wateringly" large and he warned that he was "highly constrained".
Yesterday's public finance figures brought more good news for the Chancellor.
The Chancellor can go on his Christmas vacation content that the public finances have weathered the economy's slowdown relatively well this year.
The Chancellor hinted in the Autumn Statement that the fiscal consolidation might not be as severe as it appears on paper because he has built in some "fiscal headroom". By that, Mr. Hammond means that he could borrow more and still adhere to his new, self-imposed rules.
The Chancellor chose in his Budget to increase the total size of the forthcoming fiscal consolidation, to ensure that the Office for Budget Responsibility continues to forecast that a budget surplus will be obtained in 2019/20.
Expectations are running high that the Autumn Statement on November 23 will mark the beginning of a more active role for fiscal policy in stimulating the economy. The MPC's abandonment of its former easing bias earlier this month has put the stimulus ball firmly in the new Chancellor's court.
January's public finance data, released today, take on particular importance because they are the last to be published before the Chancellor delivers his first Budget on March 8. The public finances nearly always swing into surplus in January, primarily because the deadline for individuals to submit self-assessment--SA--tax returns for the previous fiscal year is at the end of the month. Firms also pay their third of four payments of corporation tax for their profits in the current fiscal year.
The Chancellor lived up to his reputation for fiscal conservatism yesterday and is pressing ahead with a tough fiscal tightening. He hopes that this will create scope to loosen policy if the economy struggles after the U.K. leaves the EU in 2019, but we remain concerned his "fiscal headroom" will be much smaller than he currently anticipates.
If the Chancellor is true to his word, Wednesday's Budget will be a pedestrian affair with few major policy changes designed to prevent the economy from slowing this year. In an article in The Sunday Times, Philip Hammond asserted that "we cannot take our foot off the pedal" in the mission to eliminate the budget deficit by the end of the next parliament.
Germans head to the polls on Sunday to elect representatives for the national parliament. The media has tried to keep investors on alert for a surprise, but polls indicate clearly that Angela Merkel will continue as Chancellor.
At next Wednesday's Budget, the Chancellor will have the rare pleasure of announcing lower-than- anticipated near-term borrowing forecasts. But hopes that he will prevent the fiscal tightening from intensifying when the new financial year begins in April look set to be dashed, just as they were at the Autumn Statement in November.
The Chancellor was bolder than widely expected yesterday and scaled back the fiscal consolidation planned for the next two years significantly, even though his borrowing forecast was boosted by the OBR's gloomier prognosis for the economy.
The Budget on March 16 is set to mark the end of Chancellor George Osborne's lucky streak. Without corrective action, his self-imposed debt rule-- one of the two specified in the 'legally-binding' Charter for Budget Responsibility--looks set to be breached.
The Chancellor's Budget today looks set to prioritise retaining scope to loosen policy if the economy struggles in future, rather than reducing the near-term fiscal tightening. In November, the OBR predicted that cyclically-adjusted borrowing would fall to 0.8% of GDP in 2019/20, comfortably below the 2% limit stipulated by the Chancellor's new fiscal rules.
The Chancellor is likely to announce plans for additional public sector asset sales in today's Autumn Statement, to help arrest the unanticipated rise in the debt-to-GDP ratio this year. But privatisations rarely improve the underlying health of the public finances, partly because assets seldom are sold for their full value. And the Chancellor is running out of viable assets to privatise; the low-hanging, juiciest fruits have already been plucked.
Public sector borrowing still is on course to greatly undershoot the March Budget forecasts this year, despite October's poor figures.
Yesterday's public finance figures showed that the public sector, excluding public sector banks, ran a surplus of £0.2B in July, a modest improvement on borrowing of £0.4B a year ago.
The recent revival in housing market activity reflects more than just a temporary boost provided by imminent tax changes. The current momentum in market activity and lending likely will fade later this year, but we think this will have more to do with looming interest rate rises than a lull in activity caused by a shift in the timing of home purchases.
Gilt yields slid to record lows at many maturities in mid-February, and while equity prices have since rebounded, gilt yields have remained anchored at rock-bottom levels. But with political risks rising and deficit reduction still very slow, gilt yields look primed to spring back soon.
The possibility of a Corbyn-led Labour Government has been highlighted by some analysts as a major economic risk. Mr. Corbyn, however, has little practical chance of being elected soon.
The economy slowed less than we expected in 2017.
Retail sales fell sharply in September, highlighting that consumers still are spending only cautiously amid high economic uncertainty and falling real wages.
Reforms to Stamp Duty Land Tax paid by first-time buyers likely will take centre stage in the Budget. At the Conservatives' party conference, Theresa May pledged another £10B to expand the Help to Buy Scheme, which helps first-time buyers obtain a mortgage which just a 5% deposit.
Gilt yields have shot up over the last couple of months, despite ongoing bond purchases authorised by the MPC in August. Ten-year yields closed last week at 1.47%, in line with the average in the first half of 2016.
The recent deceleration in households' real spending means that either business investment or net exports will have to pickup if the economy is to avoid a severe slowdown this year.
April's public finances indicate that the economy has remained weak in Q2, casting doubt on the suggestion from recent business surveys that the slowdown in Q1 was just a blip.
Last week's preliminary estimate of Q1 GDP has extinguished any lingering chance that the MPC might raise interest rates at its next meeting on May 10.
The preliminary estimate of Q4 GDP was unambiguously strong and has forced us to modify our view of the likely timing of the next interest rate increase.
Investors have concluded that Italy's political crisis will compel the U.K. MPC to increase interest rates even more gradually than they thought previously.
Markets still see a near-40% chance of the MPC raising Bank Rate by the end of this year--the same as at the start of this week--despite the notable absence of comments from the Committee yesterday aimed at preparing the ground for a near term hike.
Markets expect the MPC to shelve November's guidance--that interest rates need to rise only twice in the next three years--at today's meeting.
The resilience of the banking system will be in focus today when the results of this year's Bank of England stress test are published alongside its Financial Stability Report.
The minutes of the MPC's meeting in June indicated that several members' patience for tolerating for above-target inflation is wearing thin.
Public borrowing has continued to fall more rapidly than anticipated in the latest official plans.
December's retail sales figures, released today, likely will show that the surge in spending in November was driven merely by people undertaking Christmas shopping earlier than in past years, due to Black Friday.
Judging by the media coverage of the Europe's "migrant crisis", you would think that the number of North African asylum seekers arriving at EU's southern borders is soaring.
A tentative revival in mortgage lending is underway, following the lull in the four months after the MPC hiked interest rates in November.
Developments over the last month have heightened our concern about the near-term outlook for households' spending.
The main measure of public borrowing--PSNB excluding public sector banks--came in at £2.6B in December, well below the £5.1B in December 2016 and lower than in any other December since 2000.
The MPC was a little irked by the markets' reaction to its November meeting.
House prices are on course to rise only by around 2% this year, the smallest increase for five years.
Investors in the gilt market would be wise not to take the new official projections for borrowing and debt issuance at face value. The forecast for the Government's gross financing requirement between 2017/18 and 2021/22 was lowered to £625B in the Budget, from £646B in the Autumn Statement.
Investors likely will be caught out by the extent to which gilt yields rise this year. Forward rates imply that the 10-year spot rate will rise by a mere 20bp to just 1.45% by the end of 2018. By contrast, we see scope for 10-year yields to climb to 1.60% by the end of this year.
The MPC chose not to rock the boat yesterday, deferring any reappraisal of the economic outlook until its next meeting in early February.
Evidence that U.K. asset prices still are depressed by Brexit risk has become harder to find.
This week's key market event likely will be the Monetary Policy Committee's meeting on Thursday, rather than the Budget on Wednesday, which probably will see the Chancellor stick to his previous tough fiscal plans.
Emmanuel Macron's victory in France has lifted investors' hopes that the good times in the Eurozone economy and equity markets are here to stay. On the face of it, we share markets' optimism. Mr. Macron and his opposite number in Germany--our base case is that Ms. Merkel will remain Chancellor--will form a strong pro-EU axis in the core of the Eurozone.
Chancellor George Osborne has invested considerable personal capital in attaining a budget surplus by the end of this parliament, and he has passed a 'law' to ensure he and his successors achieve this goal. But the current fiscal plans, which will be reviewed in the Budget on March 16, make a series of optimistic assumptions on future tax revenues and spending savings.
Public borrowing was below consensus expectations in August, fuelling speculation that the Chancellor might pare back the remaining fiscal tightening in the Autumn Budget on November 22.
Media reports allege that the Chancellor's Budget pared back the fiscal squeeze planned for the next couple of years. The Director of the Office for Budget Responsibility, Robert Chote, even compared the Chancellor to Saint Augustine, who supposedly said "make me pure, but not yet."
The conventional wisdom that the U.K. economy will comfortably weather the coming fiscal squeeze is misplaced. The planned adjustment is large, designed to minimise its political, not economic, impact, and based on overly optimistic assumptions. What's more, the economy is in many respects less well-placed to cope with the tightening than when the previous government applied the fiscal brakes. And when the recovery slows, the Chancellor is less likely to change tack and ease the squeeze this time.
October's public finance data provided very little relief for the Chancellor ahead of today's Autumn Statement. One month of good borrowing figures do little to compensate for the poor trend in the first half of the fiscal year.
Former Chancellor George Osborne famously quipped after last year's general election that Theresa May was "a dead woman walking and the only question is how long she remains on death row".
The Chancellor has prepared the public and the markets for a ratcheting-up of the already severe austerity plans in the Budget on Wednesday. George Osborne warned on Sunday that he would announce "...additional savings, equivalent to 50p in every £100 the government spends by the end of the decade", raising an extra £4B a year.
The Chancellor's Autumn Statement dashed hopes that the fiscal consolidation will be paused while the economy struggles to adjust to the implications of Brexit. Admittedly, Mr. Hammond has another opportunity in the Spring Budget to reduce next year's fiscal tightening.
The Chancellor announced to great fanfare last July that a new National Living Wage-- NLW--would be introduced in April 2016 at 7.5% above the existing legal minimum for most workers. Companies can and will take a variety of actions to mitigate the impact on their costs.
Leaders of the major Eurozone economies were in no mood to give concessions as they met with outgoing U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron this week for the first time since the referendum. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that she sees "no way back from the Brexit vote." This followed comments that the U.K. couldn't be expected to "cherry-pick" the EU rules that it would like to follow after a new deal.
The day of reckoning in Greece has been continuously postponed in the past three months, but government officials told national TV yesterday that the country cannot meet its IMF payment of €300M June 5th, without a deal with the EU. The urgency was echoed by the joint statement earlier this week by German Chancellor Merkel and French President Hollande that Greece has until the end of this month to reach a deal.
In a letter earlier this month, Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras warned German chancellor Angela Merkel that failure to disburse additional bailout funds would lead to an imminent cash crunch. Last week's meeting with EU leaders and the ECB yielded no progress, intensifying the risk that Greece will literally run out of money within weeks.
The Chancellor indicated yesterday that the current fiscal plans--which set out a 1% of GDP reduction in the structural budget deficit this year--will remain in place until a new Prime Minister is chosen by September 2. So for now, the burden of leaning against the imminent downturn is on the MPC's shoulders.
The Chancellor argued in a speech on Thursday that the U.K.'s economic recovery is threatened by a "dangerous cocktail" of overseas risks, including slowing growth in the BRICs--Brazil, Russia, India, and China--and escalating tensions in the Middle East. Exports are set to struggle this year, but the strong pound, not weakness in emerging markets, will be the main drag.
December's public finance figures suggest that borrowing is on track to come in a bit below the forecasts set out in the Autumn Statement in November. But we caution against expecting the Chancellor to unveil a material reduction in the scale of the fiscal consolidation set to hit the economy in his Budget on 8th March.
Promises of new money to facilitate construction on public sector land from the Chancellor and the pick-up in the construction PMI have fostered optimism that the sector's downturn is over.
Chief U.K. Economist Samuel Tombs on the U.K Deficit
Chief U.K. Economist Samuel Tombs on UK Government Borrowing
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