"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 Images.
Show Hide image

How austere will Philip Hammond be?

The Chancellor must choose between softening or abandoning George Osborne's approach in his Autumn Statement. 

After becoming Chancellor, Philip Hammond was swift to confirm that George Osborne's budget surplus target would be abandoned. The move was hailed by some as the beginning of a new era of fiscal policy - but it was more modest than it appeared. Rather than a statement of principle, the abandonment of the 2019-20 target was merely an acceptance of reality. In the absence of additional spending cuts or tax rises, it would inevitably be missed (as Osborne himself recognised following the EU referendum). The decision did not represent, as some suggested, "the end of austerity".

Ahead of his first Autumn Statement on 23 November, the defining choice facing Hammond is whether to make a more radical break. As a new Resolution Foundation report notes, the Chancellor could either delay the surplus target (the conservative option) or embrace an alternative goal. Were he to seek a current budget suplus, rather than an overall one (as Labour pledged at the last general election), Hammond would avoid the need for further austerity and give himself up to £17bn of headroom. This would allow him to borrow for investment and to provide support for the "just managing" families (as Theresa May calls them) who will be squeezed by the continuing benefits freeze.

Alternatively, should Hammond merely delay Osborne's surplus target by a year (to 2020-21), he would be forced to impose an additional £9bn of tax rises or spending cuts. Were he to reject any further fiscal tightening, a surplus would not be achieved until 2023-24 - too late to be politically relevant. 

The most logical option, as the Resolution Foundation concludes, is for Hammond to target a current surplus. But since entering office, both he and May have emphasised their continuing commitment to fiscal conservatism ("He talks about austerity – I call it living within our means," the latter told Jeremy Corbyn at her first PMQs). For Hammond to abandon the goal of the UK's first budget surplus since 2001-02 would be a defining moment. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.