dissecting the fiscal cliff

I’m back home, in the land of electric power and heat, but no internet or TV.  I’m using my phone as a mobile hot spot, but I can’t seem to get a look at the layout of this page.  Sory if the numbers below are hard to see.

Hurricane Sandy humor:

–a runaway Coca-Cola truck knocked down a utility pole on our street on Saturday, splaying live wires all over the place.  Luckily it wasn’t the more important one the big tree knocked down during the storm.  PSEG cleaned up in a matter of hours.

–I called/chatted with Comcast to find out about restoration of internet/TV service.  The two people I spoke with were very nice but said they had no idea.  Both confirmed that Comcast continues to charge customers for service even though there is none.  You have to call them and ask for a refund!!!  Why am I not surprised?

Today’s post:

“Economic Effects of Policies Contributing to Fiscal Tightening in 2013”

On November 8th, the Congressional Budget Office issued an update on its fiscal cliff analysis, titled “Economic Effects…”.  The report makes several points:

1.  “driving over” the fiscal cliff isn’t a good idea

The problem is the domestic economy is still very weak.

The CBO predicts that continuing Washington stalemate would cause a short but sharp recession in the US during the first half of next year.  Growth would resume from the crunch, but from a lower level, in the second half.  But this would be by a small enough amount that real GDP would still end up in the negative column for the full year.

More important, unemployment would spike upward to an estimated 9.1% a year from now, postponing the return to economic normality for the country (meaning reduction in the unemployment rate to 5.5%) until early in the next decade.

2.  the status quo isn’t so hot, either

Continuing the current situation where Washington continually spends more than it takes in will ultimately force interest rates in the US–both for the government and for private borrowers–higher than they would otherwise be.  Maybe a lot higher.  At some point we’ll have a repeat of 1987, when domestic lenders refused to buy any more government debt and the long bond spiked to 10%.  The CBO implies that this is only a remote possibility at present.  But as the debt grows the problem becomes progressively harder to solve.

3.  the long-term solution

(I haven’t seen anyone write about this.)  For the CBO, two moves are important.

–broaden the tax base, don’t raise rates.

–reduce entitlement spending.

4.  in the short term, however…

(short = the next two years)

…postpone part or all of the fiscal cliff elements.  Address the deficit issues in an aggressive way in 2015, when the economy will presumably be healthier and unemployment lower. That way, we have a much better chance to get chronic unemployment under control.  If so, we’re likely to reach full employment in 2018–a time when we can attack the government fiscal mess in a more serious way.

5.  components of the cliff

The numbers are the boosts to real GDP that each would likely provide:

extend expiring income tax provisions for everyone          +1.4%

do so, but omit high-income earners                        +1.3%

extend payroll tax reduction, emergency unemployment benefits             +.7%

eliminate defense spending cuts               +.4%

eliminate non-defense spending cuts          +.4%.

my take

–The CBO analysis doesn’t take anticipatory effects into account.  In other words, it doesn’t address the issue of whether the slowdown in growth we’re now seeing in the US is adjustment in advance to the worst-case (“driving over”) scenario.  If so, the positive economic effects of breaking the logjam in Washington could be greater than the CBO estimates.

We can certainly see effects in the number of M&A deals being done before yearend—DIS/Lucasfilms is a good example.  But there are lots of others.

–Whether income tax rates rise for high-income filers has very little economic significance.  +/- 0.1% in GDP growth amounts to a rounding error.

–From a stock market perspective, the Obama-proposed increase in the tax on dividends is the key possible change that I see.

–Generally, I’m skeptical about arguments that depend on “fairness,” because I think the concept is so perspectival.  In a lot of cases, “fair” equates to just “I get more and you get less.”  Having said that, I think one of the most un-fair things in the tax code is Romney-esque carried interest, whereby high net-worth financiers turn ordinary income into capital gains.  I wonder if that loophole will be closed.



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