The Shadow Chancellor and the government’s debt interest payments

The following is a statement in response to recent media comment on the public finances, signed by 37 economists as at 30th November 2017.  It has been updated since first posted on 26th November (by then signed by 22) to include the further signatories.

It can be downloaded here as a pdf

Andrew Neil of the BBC Politics programme recently challenged the Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, on the likely cost in interest payments of additional public borrowing. Mr Neil suggested that current debt interest payments are estimated at £49 billion, and rising. His use of £49 billion was misleading, as it included £9 billion owed by the Treasury to the Bank of England (BoE).  Because the Bank is part of the public sector, £9 billion is in effect owed by government to itself, as the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR) explains. [1] The government’s debt interest payments are therefore £40 billion.

But the £40 billion is not meaningful in isolation. It is best understood as a share of the UK’s national income or GDP. This amounts to just 2% of GDP – a historically low share of the national ‘cake’. This is remarkably low, given the costs (debt) incurred by the government to bail out the private financial system after the 2007-9 global financial crisis, and given Britain’s falling wages which reduce government tax revenues. Above all, given the slowest economic recovery on record.

In 1987/88 when Conservative Chancellor Nigel Lawson was stoking an unsustainable boom, debt interest (see the OBR’s databank on public finances here) was at virtually the same level as the OBR estimates it is today - circa £40 billion (in 2016/17 constant prices). When the Tories left office in 1996/7 debt interest payments were again at the same level as estimated today –  £40 billion (also in 2016/17 constant prices).

But there is a stark difference between the period of Lawson’s boom, the Conservative government of 1996/ 1997 and Britain in 2017. Today the nation is struggling to recover from the devastating effects of a global financial crisis, and for ten years has suffered falling wages and incomes, the dismantling and defunding of vital public services and with it, the loss of the’ social wage’. And thanks to austerity, this has been the slowest economic recovery from a slump in history.

Chancellor Nigel Lawson and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher were relaxed about spending close to £40 billion on debt interest payments at a time of prosperity. Today we face ongoing economic weakness, the rise of populism and the possibility of a major economic shock posed by Brexit in 2019. In these circumstances, neither Labour (nor indeed the current government) should be deterred from borrowing for productive investment, especially at a time when interest rates are historically very low. [2]

Increased public investment in productive activity will expand our nation’s income and with it, government tax revenues.  By so doing public investment will enlarge the economic ‘cake’ and help bring down future debt interest payments as a share of GDP.

Signed by:

Professor John Weeks, coordinator Progressive Economists Group & SOAS, University of London
Professor Lord Meghnad Desai, London School of Economics
Professor Stephany Griffith-Jones, Columbia University New York
Professor Frances Stewart, Centre for Research on Inequality, Human Security and Ethnicity, Oxford University
Professor Özlem Onaran, Greenwich Political Economy Research Centre , University of Greenwich
Professor Daniela Gabor, University of the West of England, Bristol
Professor Trevor Evans, Berlin School of Economics and Law, Germany
Professor James K. Galbraith, University of Texas, Austin
Professor Prem Sikka, University of Essex Business School
Professor Malcolm Sawyer, Leeds University
Professor Susan Himmelweit, Open University
Professor Richard Murphy, City, University of London
Professor Pritam Singh, Oxford Brookes University
Professor Christopher Cramer, SOAS, University of London
Professor Bruce Cronin, Centre for Business Network Analysis, University of Greenwich
Professor Guy Standing, SOAS, University of London
Professor Geoffrey Harcourt, Emeritus Reader, Cambridge University
Yanis Varoufakis, economist
Dr Jo Michell, UWE, Bristol
Andy Ross FAcSS, Visiting Professor, Birkbeck University of London
Ann Pettifor, director Policy Research in Macroeconomics
Jeanette Findlay, Senior Lecturer in Economics, University of Glasgow
Alfredo Saad, SOAS, University of London
Marco Veronese Passarella, Economics Division, Leeds University Business School
Leslie Huckfield, Yunus Centre for Social Business & Health, Glasgow Caledonian University
Hassan Hakimian, SOAS, University of London
Dr Suzanne J Konzelmann, Birkbeck College, University of London
Howard Reed, Director, Landman Economics,
Guglielmo Forges Davanzati, Associate professor of Political Economy, University of Salento, Italy
Sara Maioli, Lecturer in Economics, Newcastle University
Stewart Lansley, City, University of London
Jeff Tan, Associate Professor, Aga Khan University
Carolina Alves, Cambridge University
Jeff Powell, Senior Lecturer in Economics, University of Greenwich
Carlos Oya, SOAS, University of London
Diego Sanchez-Ancochea, University of Oxford
Karen Hancock, former Chief Economist Department for Education  

Footnotes

[1]  See the Office for Budget Responsibility on Debt interest: “The Bank holds lots of gilts and is part of the public sector, so the interest paid by central government on those gilts does not actually leave the public sector.”

[2] For example, just over a week ago, on the 16th November 2017, sales of the 1.25% 10 year-gilt was over-subscribed 2.3 times. See DMO notice of that date.