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

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Leader: The unresolved Eurozone crisis

The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving.

The eurozone crisis was never resolved. It was merely conveniently forgotten. The vote for Brexit, the terrible war in Syria and Donald Trump’s election as US president all distracted from the single currency’s woes. Yet its contradictions endure, a permanent threat to continental European stability and the future cohesion of the European Union.

The resignation of the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, following defeat in a constitutional referendum on 4 December, was the moment at which some believed that Europe would be overwhelmed. Among the champions of the No campaign were the anti-euro Five Star Movement (which has led in some recent opinion polls) and the separatist Lega Nord. Opponents of the EU, such as Nigel Farage, hailed the result as a rejection of the single currency.

An Italian exit, if not unthinkable, is far from inevitable, however. The No campaign comprised not only Eurosceptics but pro-Europeans such as the former prime minister Mario Monti and members of Mr Renzi’s liberal-centrist Democratic Party. Few voters treated the referendum as a judgement on the monetary union.

To achieve withdrawal from the euro, the populist Five Star Movement would need first to form a government (no easy task under Italy’s complex multiparty system), then amend the constitution to allow a public vote on Italy’s membership of the currency. Opinion polls continue to show a majority opposed to the return of the lira.

But Europe faces far more immediate dangers. Italy’s fragile banking system has been imperilled by the referendum result and the accompanying fall in investor confidence. In the absence of state aid, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank, could soon face ruin. Italy’s national debt stands at 132 per cent of GDP, severely limiting its firepower, and its financial sector has amassed $360bn of bad loans. The risk is of a new financial crisis that spreads across the eurozone.

EU leaders’ record to date does not encourage optimism. Seven years after the Greek crisis began, the German government is continuing to advocate the failed path of austerity. On 4 December, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, declared that Greece must choose between unpopular “structural reforms” (a euphemism for austerity) or withdrawal from the euro. He insisted that debt relief “would not help” the immiserated country.

Yet the argument that austerity is unsustainable is now heard far beyond the Syriza government. The International Monetary Fund is among those that have demanded “unconditional” debt relief. Under the current bailout terms, Greece’s interest payments on its debt (roughly €330bn) will continually rise, consuming 60 per cent of its budget by 2060. The IMF has rightly proposed an extended repayment period and a fixed interest rate of 1.5 per cent. Faced with German intransigence, it is refusing to provide further funding.

Ever since the European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, declared in 2012 that he was prepared to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the single currency, EU member states have relied on monetary policy to contain the crisis. This complacent approach could unravel. From the euro’s inception, economists have warned of the dangers of a monetary union that is unmatched by fiscal and political union. The UK, partly for these reasons, wisely rejected membership, but other states have been condemned to stagnation. As Felix Martin writes on page 15, “Italy today is worse off than it was not just in 2007, but in 1997. National output per head has stagnated for 20 years – an astonishing . . . statistic.”

Germany’s refusal to support demand (having benefited from a fixed exchange rate) undermined the principles of European solidarity and shared prosperity. German unemployment has fallen to 4.1 per cent, the lowest level since 1981, but joblessness is at 23.4 per cent in Greece, 19 per cent in Spain and 11.6 per cent in Italy. The youngest have suffered most. Youth unemployment is 46.5 per cent in Greece, 42.6 per cent in Spain and 36.4 per cent in Italy. No social model should tolerate such waste.

“If the euro fails, then Europe fails,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has often asserted. Yet it does not follow that Europe will succeed if the euro survives. The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving. In these circumstances, the surprise has been not voters’ intemperance, but their patience.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump