Friday, 16 November 2012

Winning the election was the easy part…

In a presidential election which was more notably for the money spent (an estimated US$6 billion) than any notion of what each candidate would do in power, Barack Obama managed to pull off a relatively easy (but not emphatic) victory.  But now Obama faces a bigger challenge - the fiscal cliff.  The fiscal cliff refers to painful measures which will be implemented if Democrats and Republicans are unable to come up with a solution on how to deal with high government spending and low taxes.  But the political stalemate looks set to continue in the United States following an election which was supposed to help provide impetus for new policies but may instead result in further gridlock.

Improving the government finances was increasingly becoming a concern in the United States due to a large budget deficit of 7.8% of GDP in 2011 and rising government debt topping 100% of GDP in the same year.  Investors are still happy to buy government bonds as the United States is seen to have a more viable economy whereas similar levels of debt would cause panic among investors in Europe.  Yet, it is unclear how much longer investors will tolerate rising debt.  Politicians realise the necessity for action but are ideologically opposed to how to go about it – the Democrats want to see spending cuts accompanied with higher taxes on the wealthy whereas Republicans flatly refuse to even consider higher taxes. 

The origin of the fiscal cliff is an attempt by the two parties to force themselves into a compromise by upping the stakes.   Politicians passed the Budget Control Act of 2011 whereby, if an agreement on how to cut the deficit was not reached by the end of 2012, a range of deficit-reducing policies which are painful for both Democrats and Republicans (and the economy) would automatically kick in from the start of 2013.  Politicians have been too consumed with electioneering up until now for a deal to be struck and only have a short time left to figure out a compromise before US$600 billion of spending cuts and tax rises come into effect - the consequences of which is expected to push the United States economy into recession in 2013.

Just the possibility of recession as a result of these measures is already having an adverse effect on the economy.  The uncertainty created by the lack of a deal means that businesses are holding off from making new investments and hiring extra workers at a time when the economy should be on a path to recovery.  The election should have been a great chance for each party to convince the voters that they had a plausible solution but the outcome has only seen minor changes to the political landscape and the status quo has been maintained so that continued gridlock is a real possibility. 

Life would have been difficult for whoever won the election.  With the Republicans controlling the House of Representatives and the Democrats holding sway over the Senate, agreement between both parties is needed to pass any new laws.  But neither Obama nor Romney put themselves in a strong position due to the bulk of the campaigning being negative rather than providing any ideas on new policy direction (see An election with no winners).  As such, despite winning, Obama does not have much of a mandate - an entitlement to implement policies due to the perceived backing of a substantive majority of voters following an election.  The going will be made tougher with Obama having failed to exhibit much leadership in his first term as president.  Yet, Obama has come out of the blocks strongly with a bold statement that any new measures must include higher taxes for the rich.  On the other hand, Republicans are still not convinced that Obama has much support from voters and are likely to stand firm for now with regard to their demands for no tax hikes.

This sets the scene for last minute dramas and for uncertainty to continue to plague the economy.  The extent to which politicians can be trusted to make pragmatic decisions is unclear and Your Neighbourhood Economist is unsure of what will ensue.  Even Greek voters showed a considerable degree of pragmatism in backing pro-bailout parties in elections in June 2012 (Back from vacation in Greece).  Yet, like the situation in Greece, any possible solutions regarding the fiscal cliff are likely to be drawn out with stopgap measures likely before the end of the year (if at all) and more long-term policies discussed in 2013.  The prolonged uncertainty and political sideshows could have not come at a worse time but it is even more frightening to think that the worst may not be over. 

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