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UK's Sunak Wrestles With Borrowing Splurge - Wealth Managers' Reactions

Tom Burroughes, Group Editor , London, 26 November 2020


The UK's main finance minister has - like many peers around the world - the unenviable job of trying to contain massive debt caused by governments' efforts to cope with COVID-19. Wealth managers and economists commented on his measures yesterday.

The UK government proposes to freeze public sector pay next year and cut overseas aid in measures to shore up public finances that have been hammered by lockdowns and employee furlough schemes enacted to cope with coronavirus. 

Rishi Sunak, Chancellor of the Exchequer, yesterday told fellow lawmakers in Parliament that official forecasts estimate that the UK economy will shrink by 11.3 per cent this year, and will not return to the pre-crisis level until the end of 2022. Government borrowing will rise to the highest level seen outside of wartime. Public sector net borrowing is expected to reach £393.5 billion ($525.3 billion) – or 19 per cent of gross domestic product in the current financial year. This is the highest level of borrowing since 1944/45. Borrowing is forecast to fall to £164.2 billion in the following year, and to £104.6 billion in the year after that.

The Chancellor proposes to freeze the pay of about 1.3 million public sector workers - excluding some health service workers and those earning less than £24,000. Sunak said that pay rises could not be justified when so many private sector employees had been hit and when business owners had been forced to close operations. 

Lockdowns to try and contain the virus, while they might have been necessary on medical grounds - a view that remains controversial - have crushed sectors such as hospitality, restaurants, cinemas and sectors where close in-person contact is unavoidable, often forcing small and medium-sized firms to close or go out of business. On the flipside, the pandemic has benefited sectors such as digital communications, certain logistics businesses and home entertainment. 

A concern for wealth managers recently has been whether Sunak will embrace calls to push up taxes, such as capital gains tax. Against that is the argument that the Chancellor needs to avoid big tax hikes in order to avoid threatening a recovery. 

His measures and comments drew mixed reactions. 

“The Chancellor's diagnosis was correct – and it is encouraging that he grasps the scale of the problem. The eye of the economic storm has yet to hit. The COVID contraction is more than double that of the Great Depression in 1931. Five years from now our economy will be smaller than it was at the start of 2020,” Mark Littlewood, director general at the Institute of Economic Affairs, said. "If the diagnosis is good, the medicine is inadequate. 'No return to austerity' is a good slogan, but austerity there will be – either in the public or the private sector. It is just a question of when, and the longer the delay the more austere it will be.”

Adrian Lowcock, head of Personal Investing at investment platform Willis Owen, said: “This crisis is fundamentally different and there are reasons for investors to hope for a swifter recovery. Through the crisis, government policy has specifically targeted cutting economic activity to contain the virus, and all the signs suggest that once the crisis has passed people and businesses will be keen to spend. In addition, the government has avoided following an austerity agenda and is willing to invest to stimulate growth. Finally, the financial system is far more robust which should help support an economic recovery.”

Some of the economic forecast, such as over borrowing and falls in GDP, had commentators reaching for their history books. 

“The spending review brought glum news of an 11.3 per cent drop in UK GDP this year - worse than the 1921 recession following World War 1 and the Spanish flu epidemic, and in fact the worst in over 300 years,” Jessica Jamieson, partner at law firm Cripps Pemberton Greenish, said.

“The message was clear: `our economic emergency has only just begun’. Whilst the spending review was never intended to give any detail on changes to tax rates, and did not do so, it is clear that such a gloomy forecast has laid the ground for tax rises in the future,” Jamieson continued. “A new points-based immigration system was also announced, to ensure the UK’s economy is ready to attract the ‘best and brightest’ from around the world. We await the detail of this to see how this may impact on individuals looking to come to the UK, and it remains to be seen whether this will have the hoped-for boost to UK businesses.”

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