Politics in the US is about to go from knife edge to cliff edge. The closely fought battle for the White House is over, but the battle to prevent the US economy from nosediving back into recession is about to begin.
US President Barack Obama has less than two months to broker a deal with Republicans on Capitol Hill to prevent budget cuts of US$607 billion of national output kicking in on Jan.1.
The “fiscal cliff” was barely mentioned during the presidential race, but the world is now going to hear about little else.
Why? Because jumping off the fiscal cliff is seen by Wall Street, the City of London and the IMF as the biggest threat to the global economy over the next year, dwarfing even the risk that a Greek exit from the eurozone would start the unraveling of monetary union in Europe.
The US, despite the rapid growth of China in the past two decades, remains the world’s biggest economy, accounting for just under 20 percent of global output. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) in Washington has estimated that the planned tax increases and spending cuts would reduce US GDP by 4 percent next year, dwarfing the scale of UK Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne’s austerity program, which has involved budget tightening of between 0.5 percent to 1 percent of GDP per year. To emulate in Britain what could be in store for the US, the chancellor would have to halve the NHS budget or put ￡0.10 on the basic rate of income tax.
Removing 4 percent of US GDP would have profound implications when the wounds from the deep downturn of 2008-2009 have yet to heal. The CBO believes it would wipe out forecast growth and result in the US economy contracting by 0.5 percent next year — although many economists say it would be far worse than that.
The fear is that demand in the US would collapse, unemployment would head back toward 10 percent and the tentative recovery in the housing market would be thrown into reverse. Global trade flows would dry up, already shaky banks would nurse bigger losses, there would be a more rapid cooling of the Chinese economy, and the chances of a fragmentation of the eurozone would massively increase.
These threats are so obvious and so imminent that economists expect Obama and Republicans on Capitol Hill to come to a settlement between now and the end of next month.
Although the relationship between the White House and Congress has been at best tetchy and at worse poisonous in the past four years, the expectation is that minds will now be concentrated.
“Although the economy is improving, it is too fragile to cope with such a shock. The likelihood is a compromise, extending some combination of the tax and spending programs. Although that would still not be constructive for growth, at least it would not as bad as the worst case,” Standard Chartered Bank’s chief economist Gerard Lyons said
“In addition, it would remove the uncertainty, although, as on previous occasions, we are likely to see some nervousness until the year-end about whether things will be agreed in time,” he added.
Two thirds of the planned budgetary tightening come from tax increases, something the Republican majority in the House of Representatives will find hard to accept.
The expiry of former US president George W. Bush’s tax cuts alone are expected to raise US$221 billion, with a further US$95 billion to come from the end of the payroll tax rebate. Tax rates will increase for those earning more than US$70,000 a year, with the top rate of income tax rising to 39.6 percent.