Friday, January 11, 2013

Question #1 for 2013: US Fiscal Policy

by Bill McBride on 1/11/2013 10:46:00 AM

Last year I posted Ten Economic Questions for 2013. Here are my thoughts on the #1 question - and what I consider the #1 downside risk to the US economy in 2013.

Note: Here is a review of my 2012 Forecasts

1) US Policy: This is probably the biggest downside risk for the US economy in 2013. I assume some sort of fiscal agreement will be reached soon, but how much austerity will be included? What will happen with the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT)? What about emergency unemployment benefits? What about extending the mortgage relief for debt forgiveness (important for short sales)?

And what about other policy in 2013 such as the "default ceiling" (aka debt ceiling)? In 2011, the threat of a US government default slowed the economy to almost a standstill for a month. Right now the White House is taking the Ronald Reagan approach (when the Democrats pulled a similar reckless stunt) and they are saying President Obama will only sign a clean debt ceiling bill. Good. Hopefully default is off the table, but you never know.

Comments: Since I posted this question, a fiscal agreement was reached to avert the "fiscal cliff". Although I would have structured the agreement differently, the key goal of reducing the amount of austerity in 2013 was achieved - unfortunately the media did a generally poor job of explaining the "fiscal cliff", and I suspect most people thought it was about reducing the deficit, when the main concern was reducing the deficit too quickly in 2013 and taking the economy back into recession.

As far as specifics that I mentioned in the question, the AMT was fixed long term, emergency unemployment benefits were extended, and the relief for mortgage debt forgiveness was extended for another year (important for short sales). These are all positives for the US economy.

Unfortunately there are still several fiscal issues remaining for this year. The "sequester" (automatic spending cuts) still needs to be resolved, the "debt ceiling" needs to be raised, and a “continuing resolution” needs to be passed or the government will be shut down.

The so-called "debt ceiling" is really just about paying the bills. Here are a few things to know:
1) The House will raise the debt ceiling before the deadline, and the US will pay the bills.

2) The House majority has no leverage on the "debt ceiling"; as I've noted before, the House majority holds a losing hand and everyone knows it. The sooner they fold (and raise the debt ceiling) the better for everyone. As we saw in 2011, there are real world consequences for waiting until the last minute.

3) Those thinking there are no consequences for missing the deadline, I suggest reading the new (January 7th) Debt Limit Analysis by analysts at the Bipartisan Policy Center. From a political perspective, missing the deadline will, in the words of Republican Senator Mitch McConnell, make the "Republican brand toxic".  It would be political suicide, so it will not happen.

Hopefully the House will fold their losing hand soon. If they are planning on taking the country to the brink, and betting voters will forget like after 2011, I think that is another losing bet.

Although the negotiations on the "sequester" will be tough, I suspect something will be worked out (remember the goal is to limit the amount of austerity in 2013).  The issue that might blow up is the “continuing resolution", and that might mean a partial shut down of the government.  This wouldn't be catastrophic (like the "debt ceiling"), but it would still cause problems for the economy and is a key downside risk.

And a final prediction: If we just stay on the current path - and the "debt ceiling" is raised, and a reasonable agreement is reached on the "sequester", and the “continuing resolution" is passed - I think the deficit will decline faster than most people expect over the next few years.  Eventually the deficit will start to increase again due to rising health care costs (this needs further attention), but that isn't a short term emergency.

Here are the ten questions for 2013 and a few predictions:
Question #1 for 2013: US Fiscal Policy
Question #2 for 2013: Will the U.S. economy grow in 2013?
Question #3 for 2013: How many payroll jobs will be added in 2013?
Question #4 for 2013: What will the unemployment rate be in December 2013?
Question #5 for 2013: Will the inflation rate rise or fall in 2013?
Question #6 for 2013: What will happen with Monetary Policy and QE3?
Question #7 for 2013: What will happen with house prices in 2013?
Question #8 for 2013: Will Housing inventory bottom in 2013?
Question #9 for 2013: How much will Residential Investment increase?
Question #10 for 2013: Europe and the Euro

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