The "Fiscal Cliff" would drag America into certain recession

Congress must overcome its partisan rifts.

Irrespective of next week’s election, the fiscal challenges facing the next US government are vast. As the country races towards January’s “fiscal cliff”, the drumbeat warnings of recession have reached fever pitch, with partisan wrangling threatening to derail the sluggish US recovery.

Coming into effect at the dawn of 2013, the “fiscal cliff” represents the confluence of two events: a raft of spending cuts agreed as part of last year’s deal to raise the national debt ceiling and the expiration of Obama-backed extensions of tax breaks introduced in the Bush years.

The fiscal belt-tightening is expected to slash the deficit by almost $500bn – its steepest reduction since 1968. At 5.1 per cent, the rate is comparable to those experienced by Greece, Spain and Italy during their recent austerity drives.

Going over the cliff would almost surely plunge the US into recession, given the fragility of the economy. In May, the Congressional Budget Office warned of a 1.3 per cent contraction if action was not taken.  However, as the cliff looms, gloomier forecasts have predicted annual GDP contractions ranging from 3.6 per cent to 4 per cent.

According to a report issued by the National Association of Manufacturers (NAT), the fiscal shock would result in dramatic job losses of over 5 million by 2014, catapulting the rate of unemployment from the current rate of 7.8 per cent to 11 per cent by 2015.

Naturally, mass job losses and higher federal taxes would have severe effects on consumption. The report predicts that average disposable income is likely to fall annually by 8-10%, hitting the poorest hardest due to cuts in child tax credit and earned income tax credit.

Overall, mass unemployment, plummeting consumption and plaguing uncertainty is likely to weigh heavily on the US economy, stultifying its anaemic recovery unless drastic action is taken.

More pressingly, if Congress fails to raise the debt ceiling before the US hits its $16.4tn statutory debt limit – expected sometime between the election and the end of 2012 – the US would face default – a truly grim prospect. 

The NAT has reported that the approaching “fiscal cliff” has already shaved up to 0.6 per cent from US GDP this year alone, with the tense climate deterring businesses from investing and hiring.

As insecurity gathers momentum, an anti-debt lobby group “Campaign to Fix the Debt” has garnered the support of more than 80 CEOs – including figureheads from General Electric, Microsoft, UPS and JP Morgan – to pressure Congress into overcoming partisan deadlock to hammer out a solution.

But the prospect of this has so far looked bleak; both sides seek different solutions and both sides brook no argument over their staunch positions. One particular impasse stems from the Democrats’ drive to introduce tax cut extensions to all but the highest-earners, much to the chagrin of the Republican contingent. Likewise, Republicans want cuts to health and welfare, whilst Democrats are adverse to cuts in entitlement spending.

Just last summer, such “political brinkmanship” was cited by Standard and Poor’s in their downgrade of the US economy from AAA to AA+, as political wrangling overshadowed debate over the federal debt ceiling.

“We could have a recession in my view that is significantly greater than [anyone] is forecasting today, because it’s an indictment of our ability to govern”, said Dave Cote, leading member of Campaign to Fix the Debt.

Even the current political stalemate is conquered, extended tax cuts and deferred sequestration would hold their own economic perils. This path would only curtail the deficit by $90bn, contrary to the $500bn reduction if America does indeed “go over” the cliff.

Therein lies the trade-off: foster the recovery or confront the debt head-on. Most likely, following pleas from prominent economists such Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernake, Congress will pursue a medium-term plan that privileges the recovery whilst tackling the debt, but time will only tell.

Overall though, inaction is most certainly not an option. The sudden jolt of the “fiscal cliff” could shock the economy into freefall, dragging the global economy down with it.

As the US stares into the abyss, Congress must – and most probably will – overcome its partisan fissures for the sake of America’s economic future.

Thus is the exigency of the times.

Clouds gather over Capitol Hill. Photo: Getty

Alex Ward is a London-based freelance journalist who has previously worked for the Times & the Press Association. Twitter: @alexward3000

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.