A US government shutdown could crash the recovery

Red alert.

Relax: the Russians are not about to invade! Washington, however, is staring at collapse: in mid-October, the Treasury has announced that it will be down to its last $30bn which, believe it or not, will only pay for half-a-day’s Federal expenditure. Yes, it’s that time of year again, when Washington stares at its Fiscal Cliff, as Congress must vote through the budget and the increased Total Federal Debt Limit.

This used to be an automatic agreement, but now it’s become a partisan issue between the Republican and Democrat parties. The problem is that the man in the White House is a Democrat president and the men of the Tea Party Republicans don’t like this at all. In particular they don’t like Obamacare, the President’s flagship policy, which begins enrolling the uninsured next Tuesday, as the rich will have to pay far higher taxes to pay for this universal healthcare for all, but especially for the poor.

So the Republicans argue that if the president wanted to bring in this hugely costly measure at a time of global economic recession and banking crisis, he should have cut other expenditures to pay for it. The president saw it differently: he was looking at higher taxes. Last year they struck a deal, which finally ended up with the Republican $80bn sequestration, or expenditure cuts, which hit the military procurement budget hard.

This year, however, the hard men of the Republicans are in no mood to compromise. They perceive a lame duck president, who has just lost a one-armed wrestling match with Vlad the Bad Putin over Syria. They perceive a chance to kill off Obama, Obamacare and the Democrats all in one go. They can see Hillary in the wings getting ready to stand, and the thought of Bill "I didn’t inhale!" back in their White House is just too much for them. This, they perceive, is their last chance but one to prevent the loss of four elections in a row – a calamity for the ageing, predominantly white GOP.

Who will blink first this time? If no one blinks, the US Federal government is bust and out of business. Washington will close and go into shut-down mode by lunchtime. It cannot pay its debts and cannot incur any more debts it cannot pay. The vote on all this is on Sunday, and it looks like a total impasse as we head for the weekend, with a 21-hour filibuster taking up all of last Wednesday.

What happens in a shut-down, the last of which was in 1996? Schools are shut, pensions aren’t paid and thousands of suppliers have to wait for their money. More seriously, the chances are that one of the many expenditures to be cut will be interest on Treasury Bills, which could wreak global market havoc, send interest rates sharply up and kill off the recovery, and even trigger the next banking crisis and a global depression. This is nasty, and could get serious, fast.

Stephen Hill writes for Spear's Magazine

This piece first appeared here.

Photograph: Getty Images

This is a story from the team at Spears magazine.

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.