"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

Why relations between Theresa May and Philip Hammond became tense so quickly

The political imperative of controlling immigration is clashing with the economic imperative of maintaining growth. 

There is no relationship in government more important than that between the prime minister and the chancellor. When Theresa May entered No.10, she chose Philip Hammond, a dependable technocrat and long-standing ally who she had known since Oxford University. 

But relations between the pair have proved far tenser than anticipated. On Wednesday, Hammond suggested that students could be excluded from the net migration target. "We are having conversations within government about the most appropriate way to record and address net migration," he told the Treasury select committee. The Chancellor, in common with many others, has long regarded the inclusion of students as an obstacle to growth. 

The following day Hammond was publicly rebuked by No.10. "Our position on who is included in the figures has not changed, and we are categorically not reviewing whether or not students are included," a spokesman said (as I reported in advance, May believes that the public would see this move as "a fix"). 

This is not the only clash in May's first 100 days. Hammond was aggrieved by the Prime Minister's criticisms of loose monetary policy (which forced No.10 to state that it "respects the independence of the Bank of England") and is resisting tougher controls on foreign takeovers. The Chancellor has also struck a more sceptical tone on the UK's economic prospects. "It is clear to me that the British people did not vote on June 23 to become poorer," he declared in his conference speech, a signal that national prosperity must come before control of immigration. 

May and Hammond's relationship was never going to match the remarkable bond between David Cameron and George Osborne. But should relations worsen it risks becoming closer to that beween Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. Like Hammond, Darling entered the Treasury as a calm technocrat and an ally of the PM. But the extraordinary circumstances of the financial crisis transformed him into a far more assertive figure.

In times of turmoil, there is an inevitable clash between political and economic priorities. As prime minister, Brown resisted talk of cuts for fear of the electoral consequences. But as chancellor, Darling was more concerned with the bottom line (backing a rise in VAT). By analogy, May is focused on the political imperative of controlling immigration, while Hammond is focused on the economic imperative of maintaining growth. If their relationship is to endure far tougher times they will soon need to find a middle way. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.