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Why the news media has the fiscal cliff all wrong

There are three pressing deadlines that Congress is facing and the fiscal cliff is the least scary of those three

Dec 18, 2012 @ 12:01 am

By Sam Wardell

Debt, congress, fiscal cliff
+ Zoom
(Bloomberg)

The news media is breathlessly counting down the days until the arrival of the fiscal cliff on December 31. It may make for good television (tune in tomorrow) but it's not good economics…or good political analysis. Here's why:

• As we all know, “fiscal cliff” is shorthand for a broad array of tax increases and spending cuts scheduled to take effect December 31. It's a catchy phrase but a misleading metaphor. It's really more accurate to visualize the so-called fiscal cliff as a hill which the economy must climb if it is to continue moving forward.

• The steepness of that hill is variable: W2 withholding and Social Security taxes start taking a larger bite out of paychecks on January 1, but the higher taxes on 2013 capital gain and dividend income won't be due until 16 months from now in April 2014. Likewise, the spending cuts, if they happen, will impact the economy at varying times.

• Another reason December 31 isn't a drop-dead date is because Congress has the power to change tax rates retroactively. If we hit the cliff, the new tax rates would take effect, but they wouldn't be carved in stone…they could be changed.

The bottom line is there's no real need to strike a deal by December 31 …or even during the lame duck session before the new Congress is seated in mid-January.

The deadline is actually sooner than Dec. 31

Unless Congress delays its holiday recess, any 2012 deal would have to be proposed as legislation by Dec. 18. So we'll find out by December 18 whether a deal has been struck in 2012.

The AMT is the most “cliff-like” element

As I noted above, the fiscal cliff doesn't hit all at once. The so-called “AMT patch” (an annual shell game Congress has played for decades to make future deficits look smaller) expired at the end of 2011. If no 2012 patch is passed, April 2013 tax bills will be roughly $90 billion higher than otherwise. That's likely to put a dent in the consumer.

Time is an issue here as well. In theory, Congress can address the AMT patch after year-end, but what's the deadline for the IRS to start printing forms? How about the programmers at the tax preparation software companies? When are their deadlines?

The fiscal Cliff deadline isn't even the most important deadline…or the biggest cliff

The debt ceiling, in contrast, is a very real fiscal cliff and it does arrive around year-end. The debt ceiling is a critical deadline. It's the least flexible, and it would require the largest “fiscal adjustment” if not extended.

Unless Congress raises the debt ceiling, the U.S. government will be forced to stop borrowing and limit its spending to what it collects in tax revenue. In effect, the debt ceiling would force the government to eliminate its fiscal budget immediately. This would be a fiscal tightening roughly twice as large as the so-called fiscal cliff. It would also happen much more abruptly, since the government would effectively have to go hand to mouth almost immediately.

Current projections are that the government reaches the debt ceiling around year-end and that it has enough cash on hand to continue operating for another three months or so. The prevailing assumption seems to be that Congress will vote to raise the debt ceiling without much of a fight. If that assumption is wrong, the ride could get very bumpy.

And don't forget the rating agencies, which have threatened to downgrade the U.S. if we don't bring our budget deficits under control. The deadline for a grand bargain which prevents those downgrades is probably late 2013.

In summation: there really are three different deadlines out there: the fiscal cliff, the debt ceiling, and the downgrade. The fiscal cliff comes first, but is the least scary of the three.

Sam Wardell is the senior vice president and investment strategist for Pioneer Investments. This commentary originally appeared on the firm's website.

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