"Fiscal cliff" could knock 6.5% off America's Q1 and Q2 annualised growth

"Taxmaggedon" would hit in January

The American Congressional Budget Office (the inspiration for our own Office of Budget Responsibility) has released a report warning that the impact of the upcoming "fiscal cliff" would be to wipe 4 per cent from GDP growth for 2013.

The fiscal cliff – a phrase coined by federal reserve chairman Ben Bernanke – is the result of a series of several major budget provisions all expiring at once, at the same time as some of the automatic cuts negotiated as part of the debt ceiling crisis last summer come into effect, and several tax cuts time out. More broadly, though, it is the result of America's frankly broken political system.

In March, Congress failed to pass two potential measures which would have ended the crisis:

The first, a bipartisan bill which has the most chance of passing in the Democrat-controlled Senate, was defeated 382-38; the second, the White House's preferred option, was unanimously rejected 414 to 0.

If something is not passed by the time the various provisions expire, on 31 December, then the CBO estimates that:

Those policies will reduce the federal budget deficit by $607 billion, or 4.0 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), between fiscal years 2012 and 2013. The resulting weakening of the economy will lower taxable incomes and raise unemployment, generating a reduction in tax revenues and an increase in spending on such items as unemployment insurance. With that economic feedback incorporated, the deficit will drop by $560 billion between fiscal years 2012 and 2013, CBO projects.

If all the fiscal blows are deflected, the economy should grow by 5.3 per cent (annualised) in the first half of next year. If they aren't, it will instead contract by 1.3 per cent.

The coming showdown has been compared by many to the debt ceiling crisis, when Congress hit deadlock last summer over a budgetary provision which would have caused America to default on its debt, but in many ways, it is more dangerous still. The debt ceiling itself will reenter the political battleground in spring of 2013, and the Republican leader John Boehner is signalling that he will play hardball over the issue. Then there's the fact that the deal will be happening shortly after the presidential election so there is no incentive for dealmaking to start until November; both parties' incentives will differ greatly depending on who will be inheriting the mess.

Related, Joe Weisenthal suggests the most apocalyptic scenario possible:

It's very easy to imagine Romney winning the popular vote and Barack Obama winning the electoral college. In fact, the electoral college map is VERY favorable to Obama. This scenario is definitely possible and it would be the fiscal cliff Black Swan.

If you thought Congressional Republicans were going to be intransigent on the debt ceiling, multiply that by 10x. Any goodwill would be dead as the Republicans would feel a mandate based on the desires of the majority of the people, and Obama would be weak.

It would be NUTS!

Republican Speaker John Boehner. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Getty
Show Hide image

I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.