October 21, 2016 / 8:33 AM / in a year

UK public finances worsen, adding to Hammond's headache

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain’s public finances showed a much bigger than expected deficit in September, a setback for Chancellor Philip Hammond as he prepares to deliver the country’s first budget plans since the Brexit vote.

Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond speaks at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham, Britain October 3, 2016. REUTERS/Toby Melville/File Photo

Investors are already nervous about the prospect of an acrimonious British departure from the European Union, and Friday’s figures may limit Hammond’s ability to cushion the blow of the referendum result via higher spending or tax cuts.

Britain ran a budget shortfall of 10.6 billion pounds last month, 14.5 percent higher than the deficit in the same month last year, the Office for National Statistics said.

The deficit, excluding state-owned banks, was above all forecasts in a Reuters poll of economists, which had produced a median projection of an 8.5 billion-pound shortfall.

Despite falling from more than 10 percent of economic output in 2010 to 4 percent in the last financial year, Britain’s deficit remains among the highest for any developed nation.

Hammond, responding to Friday’s figures, reiterated his message that he will bring down the budget deficit more slowly than his predecessor George Osborne had planned.

“We remain committed to fiscal discipline and will return the budget to balance over a sensible period of time, in a way that allows us the space to support the economy as needed,” he said in a statement.

But the slow improvement of the public finances in the year to date, combined with an expected slowdown in the economy next year that will hurt tax revenues, represents a constraint for Hammond as he prepares his Nov. 23 Autumn Statement.

He has said any extra spending on infrastructure projects was likely to be modest, disappointing some economists who said he could be bolder with government borrowing costs so low.

NO SPLURGE

The weak September figures took the deficit in the first half of the financial year to 45.5 billion pounds, down nearly 5 percent from the same period in the previous year but already close to the 55.5 billion pounds forecast for the 2016/17 tax year as a whole by Britain’s budget watchdog in March.

The Office for Budget Responsibility said it was clear that its March forecast was “very unlikely to be met” but said the size of the miss was likely to be reduced by one-off factors that weighed on borrowing in the first half of the year and an expected jump in income tax receipts later in the year.

The OBR said it was still too early to assess the impact of the Brexit vote on Britain’s public finances.

Samuel Tombs, an economist with Pantheon Macroeconomics, said Hammond would probably want to keep some room for a loosening of the purse strings once Britain actually leaves the EU which will probably be shortly before the next election.

“As a result, we think that the chancellor will scrap the 0.8 percent of GDP fiscal tightening planned for 2017, but will not set fiscal policy to boost growth and will ensure that the fiscal consolidation resumes thereafter,” Tombs said.

September’s weak performance was partly caused by a fall in receipts from corporation tax and property transactions. Growth in value-added tax receipts was slower than earlier in the year.

It was the first fall in corporation tax revenues for the month of September since 2009, the ONS said, adding that it was unable to provide a reason for the fall.

The growth in VAT receipts was the slowest for the month of September since 2012.

Writing by William Schomberg; Editing by Alison Williams

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