United Kingdom national debt
The United Kingdom National Debt is the total quantity of money borrowed by the Government of the United Kingdom at any one time through the issue of securities by the British Treasury and other government agencies.
As of Q1 2013 UK government debt amounted to £1,377 billion, or 88.1% of total GDP, at which time the annual cost of servicing the public debt amounted to around £43bn, or roughly 3% of GDP. This is roughly the same size as the British defence budget. It was forecast to rise to 96% of total GDP in 2013, further rising to 99% of GDP in 2014. At the end of December 2013, public sector net debt (see government debt) in the UK was £1,254.3 billion or 75.7% of GDP.
Due to the Government's significant budget deficit, the national debt is increasing by approximately £121 billion per annum, or around £2.3 billion each week.
On 23 February 2013 Moody's downgraded UK credit rating from AAA to Aa1.
“National debt” refers to a specific measure which is arguably outdated in the United Kingdom. The reason the term “national debt” is less often used is because the definition is quite narrow. Firstly, national debt focuses on central government, and ignores the liabilities held in other parts of the public sector. Secondly, the definition includes liabilities to other parts of government, which consolidate (or become neutral) when a broader public sector view of debt is adopted. However, the term is still commonly used to refer to more up to date measures such as public sector net debt and public sector gross debt.
The public sector includes central and local government as well as public corporations in the UK. The UK debt (the term British debt is not commonly used) is the total quantity of money borrowed by the Government of the United Kingdom at any one time through the issue of securities by the British Treasury and other government agencies. Debt can be likened to the total amount outstanding on a credit card bill. The issuing of securities by government raises finance, but means that both interest and the value of the security will need to be paid to the holder of that security.
There are two ways of measuring public sector debt, on a gross or net basis. The “gross” definition means the total is all liabilities held by the government. The “net” definition means that most financial liabilities held by government are included but the liquid financial assets (e.g. bank deposits) are deducted from this total.
Debt versus deficit
The UK national debt is often confused (even by politicians) with the Government budget deficit (officially known as the Public Sector Net Cash Requirement), which is the rate at which the Government borrows money. The Prime Minister David Cameron was reprimanded in February 2013 by the UK Statistics Authority for creating confusion between the two, by stating in a political broadcast that his administration was "paying down Britain's debts". In fact, his administration has been attempting to reduce the deficit, not the overall debt. The latter will continue to rise even if the deficit shrinks.
The public debt increases or decreases as a result of the annual budget deficit or surplus. The British Government budget deficit or surplus is the cash difference between government receipts and spending, ignoring intra-governmental transfers. The British Government debt is rising due to a gap between revenue and expenditure. Total government revenue in the fiscal year 2011/12 was projected to be £589 billion, whereas total expenditure was estimated at £710 billion. Therefore the total deficit, was £121 billion. This represented a rate of borrowing of a little over £2 billion per week.
The British Government finances its debt by issuing Gilts, or Government securities. These securities are the simplest form of government bond and make up the largest share of British Government debt. A conventional gilt is a bond issued by the British Government which pays the holder a fixed cash payment (or coupon) every six months until maturity, at which point the holder receives their final coupon payment and the return of the principal.
Cost of servicing the debt
Distinct from both the national debt and the PSNCR is the interest that the Government must pay to service the existing national debt. In 2012, the annual cost of servicing the public debt amounted to around £43bn, or roughly 3% of GDP. This is roughly the same size as the British defence budget.
In 2012 the British population numbered around 64 million, and the debt therefore amounted to a little over £15,000 for each individual Briton, or around £33,000 per person in employment. Each household in Britain pays an average of around £2,000 per year in taxes to finance the interest.
However, by international standards Britain enjoys very low borrowing costs, largely because the British Government has never failed to repay its creditors.
Like other sovereign debt, the British national debt is rated by various ratings agencies. On 23 February 2013 it was reported that Moody's had downgraded UK debt from AAA to Aa1, the first time since 1978 that the country has not enjoyed a AAA credit rating.
This was described as a "humiliating blow" by Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls. Chancellor George Osborne said that it was "a stark reminder of the debt problems facing our country", adding that "we will go on delivering the plan that has cut the deficit by a quarter". Both France and the United States of America also lost their AAA credit status in 2012.
Remedies for indebtedness
All the main political parties in Britain agree that the national debt is too high, but there is disagreement as to the remedy. As of 2012 the national debt was forecast to approach 100% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), far above the government’s sustainable investment rule of a national debt no greater than 40% of GDP.
The size of the debt can be reduced in several ways:
- economic expansion, which tends to cause tax revenues to grow and also leads to lower spending on welfare benefits;
- cuts to public spending;
- tax increases, or increases in revenue collection
- inflation, which reduces the total value of the existing debt
- by encouraging the private sector to reduce their surplus by spending more and saving less. (Private Sector Surplus = Government Deficit – External Deficit)
Large scale cuts in public spending have the potential to significantly dampen consumer demand and, by reducing economic growth, slow the increase in tax revenues.
In Parliament, there continues to be disagreement between the political parties regarding the national debt, with Conservative Party politicians typically advocating a larger role for cuts to public spending. By contrast, the Labour Party tends to advocate fewer cuts and more emphasis on greater government spending in order to stimulate economic expansion.
The origins of the British national debt can be found during the reign of William III, who engaged a syndicate of City traders and merchants to offer for sale an issue of government debt. This syndicate soon evolved into the Bank of England, eventually financing the wars of the Duke of Marlborough and later Imperial conquests. The national debt increased dramatically during and after the Napoleonic Wars, rising to around 200% of GDP. Over the course of the 19th century the national debt gradually fell, only to see large increases again during World War I and World War II. After the war, the national debt once again slowly fell as a proportion of GDP.
In 1976 the British Government led by James Callaghan faced a Sterling crisis during which the value of the pound tumbled and the government found it difficult to raise sufficient funds to maintain its spending commitments. The Prime Minister was forced to apply to the International Monetary Fund for a £2.3 billion rescue package; the largest-ever call on IMF resources up to that point. In November 1976 the IMF announced its conditions for a loan, including deep cuts in public expenditure, in effect taking control of UK domestic policy. The crisis was seen as a national humiliation, with Callaghan being forced to go "cap in hand" to the IMF.
An alternative explanation of the 1976 crisis is that James Callaghan, and his economic advisors, were insufficiently experienced and unaware of how to correctly handle pressure from currency speculators on a floating currency. They were still thinking in terms of a Bretton Woods fixed exchange regime and tried to maintain the value of the pound sterling at close to US$2.00. This required the assistance of the IMF. Later governments appreciated that a better course of action was to allow a floating currency to do just that; the pound falling to a level of almost parity under Margaret Thatcher' government in 1984 
In the late 1990s and early 2000s the national debt dropped in relative terms, falling to 29% of GDP by 2002. In 1997 the Labour Government of Tony Blair had inherited a PSNCR of approximately £5 billion per annum, but by sticking to the parsimonious spending plans of the outgoing Conservative Government, this was gradually turned into a modest budget surplus. During the Spending Review of 2000 Labour began to pursue a looser fiscal policy, and by 2002 annual borrowing had reached £20 billion.
The PSNCR continued to increase, despite sustained economic growth, increasing to 37% of GDP in 2007. This was due to extra government borrowing, largely caused by increased spending on health, education, and social security benefits. Since 2008, when the British economy slowed sharply and fell into recession, the national debt has risen dramatically, mainly caused by increased spending on welfare benefits, bank bailouts, and a significant drop in receipts from stamp duty and income tax.
In the 20 year period from 1986/87 to 2006/07 government spending in the United Kingdom averaged around 40% of GDP. As a result of the 2007–2010 financial crisis and the late-2000s global recession government spending increased to a historically high level of 48 per cent of GDP in 2009–10, partly as a result of the cost of a series of bank bailouts. In July 2007, Britain had government debt at 35.5% of GDP. This figure rose to 56.8% of GDP by July 2009. As of June 2010 there were approximately 6,051,000 public sector employees in Britain (compared to approximately 23,107,000 private sector employees).
The national debt today
Official figures state that as of July 2011 the British national debt amounted to £940 billion, or 68% of total GDP. The annual amount that the government must borrow to plug the gap in its finances used to be known as the Public sector borrowing requirement, but is now called the Public Sector Net Cash Requirement (PSNCR).
As of Q1 2012 the national debt amounted to £1,278.2 billion, or 86.8% of total GDP. The PSNCR figure for 2010/11 was £143.2 billion, or 11.7% of GDP. Total British GDP in 2010/11 was estimated by the IMF at $2.25 trillion, or around £1.4 trillon.
By historic peacetime standards, the national debt is large and growing rapidly, but it is currently nowhere near its peak after WW2 when it reached over 180% of GDP.
Nick Silver of the Institute of Economic Affairs estimated the current British liabilities, including state & public pensions, as well as other commitments by the government, to be near £5 trillion, compared with the Government's estimate of £845 billion (as of 17/11/2010) These liabilities can be compared to total net assets (2010 figures) of £7.3 trillion, which equates to approximately a net worth of £120,000 per head of the population. 
The British Government's debt is owned by a wide variety of investors, most notably pension funds. These funds are on deposit, mainly in the form of Treasury bonds at the Bank of England. The pension funds, therefore, have an asset which has to be offset by a liability, or a debt, of the government. As of 2011 around 35% of the national debt was owed to overseas governments and investors.
In 2011 Britain's volume of debt was ranked 18th internationally according to the CIA World Factbook. Many other countries had larger debt burdens. For example, Japan had a National debt of around 194% of GDP, whilst that of Italy was more than 100%. The National debt of the United States reached 100% of GDP in November 2011.
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