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ONS confirms: loan sales now affect the deficit

September 25, 2019

Everyone’s attention was elsewhere yesterday, but ONS’s monthly release on public finances included its promised update on the inclusion of student loans in the national accounts.

Its new methodology had been confirmed in July, but the relevant statistics were only updated in the new release. In addition to retrospective revisions of Public Sector Net Borrowing (back to 1999/2000), ONS announced that on their new approach the two sales of income contingent repayment loans had “lost” £1.2billion and £1.5billion respectively and that these sums had also been added to the deficit for 2017/18 and 2018/19 respectively.

I use “lost”, but the ONS put it as follows:

Where we identify that the sale price was significantly different from the value recorded in the national accounts balance sheet, we record a capital transfer equal to the difference in value between the realised sale proceeds and our estimate of the corresponding loan asset’s value, which affects PSNB.

Our analysis of the pre-2012 loan sales that took place in December 2017 and December 2018 shows that the difference in value on those occasions was £1.2 billion in 2017 and £1.5 billion in 2018; we recorded capital transfers of those amounts for each of the loan sales. (my emphasis)

The point being that the loans were sold for less than ONS thought they were worth.

National accounts are UK-wide and work differently to departmental accounts. These points explain the discrepancy between the £2.7billion sum above and the £2billion loss recorded in the Department for Education’s accounts. DfE only has responsibility for “English” loans (loans made to English-domiciled students at UK universities and EU students at English universities). Either way, it’s a significant loss: over 50 Garden Bridges.

As a result of the classification changes to sales and general student loan accounting, the deficit for 2018/19 (year ending March 2019) was pushed up by £12.4billion. (The estimated loss on issuing loans is now counted as expenditure in the year that loans are issued, rather than in the year that they are written off and, as a corollary, the government is only allowed to count interest it expects to be paid as income – rather than all interest accruing).

The Office for Budgetary Responsibility has not yet incorporated the loan sale change into its projections for 2019/20 (presuming a third sale goes ahead), but it anticipates that the impact will be slightly higher. Student loans will anyway push up the projected deficit from under £30billion to over £40billion. Public Debt is unaffected by this change (there is still a fiscal illusion at work there insofar as student loans as an asset are excluded from the calculation).

Government had previously stated that a loan sale should have no negative impact on the deficit. And this was originally formalised as a criteria that any sale would have to meet. Now that sales do count, it is clearer that the programme is generating a loss. Sajid Javid may still push ahead after deciding that reducing the debt is more important. It is clear that the spending restrictions outlined in the Fiscal Mandate championed by the former chancellors, Hammond and Osborne, are falling by the wayside. See my recent piece for London Review of Books for more detail.

In general, we now have national accounts that better reflect the nature of student loans at the time the loans are issued and capture the impact of sales. The opportunism of previous administrations is now curtailed and we can be a little more assured that the presentational advantages of certain policies have diminished.

To speak from a personal perspective, we now have an approach to sales for which I argued back in 2017.  Sales are now being treated as “capital transfers”, rather than “revaluations”. And we have now resolved most of the issues I raised at the Treasury and Economic Affairs committees back then.

More concretely, these changes mean that alternative proposals such as Labour’s pledge to abolish tuition fees become easier to implement, given the manner in which questions of fiscal competence have become focused on the “deficit” as measured by PSNB. In particular, a costing similar to the one prepared for Labour’s 2017 manifesto now becomes easier, because things that weren’t counted as expenditure previously now are and so can be offset against replacement policies. I will talk about this in a subsequent blog in relation to the Institute for Fiscal Study’s annual education report, which was published last week.

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