Fiscal Cliff Deal Update 12/31

At the 11th hour, as expected, here comes the mini-deal. All speculation so far, but here’s what it’s looking like:

· Threshold for income tax rate increase would be $400k for individuals or $450k for families. Top rate on these taxpayers would increase from 35% to 39.6% though the marginal rates below that level will remain the same as they are now.

· Long-Term Capital Gains rates AND dividend rates go to 20% from 15% (but not 39.6%) for those above the $400k/450k income level. 15% would be maintained for those below.

· Extension of unemployment benefits for ??? time

· AMT Patch for 2012

· Deferral of sequestration-related spending cuts for a limited amount of time

· 40% top tax rate on estates over $5M (per individual??), up slightly from current 35%

Details still to be worked out. Votes in both the Senate and House required to pass. Not a given by any means. This would also do nothing for the debt ceiling (which needs to be raised sometime around late Feb / early Mar) and does VERY little to close the $1 Trillion per year deficit at the heart of the matter.

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Fiscal Cliff Update

Reporters are already beating this story to death, but I wanted to provide a quick update from my perspective. Going over the Fiscal Cliff means higher taxes for all via the expiration of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, and forced spending cuts via the sequestration that was agreed upon during the debt ceiling debacle last year. We will technically go over the cliff on Jan 1 if Congress and the President don’t pass a law to extend the tax cuts and/or modify the sequestration. By now, everyone knows that. Ultimately, the “answer” is not to perpetually extend tax cuts and keep spending more than we can afford. But, the idea is to extend some of the tax cuts and some of the spending until the economy is back on its feet while setting the stage for major tax and entitlement reform in 2013/2014.

What isn’t as readily apparent is that virtually everything that changes if we go over the cliff can be modified retroactive to Jan 1. I hate to get into politics on this blog, but there seems to be a substantial incentive to go over the cliff, or come as close to it as possible, and then to place blame on the other party for doing so while each party is able to appeal to its base for sticking to its guns. Speaker Boehner’s re-election vote is on Jan 3 and the odds of re-election are thought to be higher if he stands his ground, consistent with the motivation for each party to obstruct progress and issue blame. Then, post Jan 1, after payroll systems are at the deadline for change to charge higher taxes, markets are on edge, constituents are threating to stop funding Congressional election campaigns, etc., a deal can be reached without losing face.

Whether a minor deal is passed on 12/31 or in early January is not relevant (2012 AMT exemption aside – this will almost certainly get passed). What is relevant is avoiding a traumatic shock to the economy and laying the groundwork for long-term reform, at least far enough to prevent another debt downgrade, and prevent the market from demanding higher interest rates in order to lend money to the US government. It’s hard to have faith in government at this point. But, as Winston Churchill supposedly once pointed out, you can always trust Americans to do the right thing once all other possibilities have been exhausted. I believe we’re getting close to that exhaustion.

One more thing… a CNBC commentator recently drew a parallel between Congress’s fiscal cliff actions and term paper deadlines saying, “Did you ever turned in a term paper ahead of its deadline?” Of course the answer for virtually everyone is a resounding “No”. Congress acts similarly. However, I think this is a little different. This is like a term paper where you’re penalized one point for every day late. If the deadline is 12/31, you would be tempted to miss the deadline by a few days, but would be unlikely to never turn in the paper. Even though the incentive to turn it in on any particular day is fairly low and you might be ok with losing a few points, there comes a time where you start to add up the damage, sit down at your computer, and just get it done. Damage will be done to the economy and to confidence each day that passes beyond 12/31, but it’s important to note that we’re not going to immediately get an “F” or fall off a cliff into the abyss, despite claims from ratings-hungry reporters. Markets will get antsy, reporting will get ugly, and the political blame game will be enhanced to its highest level yet. But, as long the short-term is handled in the next few weeks and the long-term is handled in the next few years, this crisis will pass like all others before it.

Have a Happy New Year. The Mayan’s couldn’t take it away and neither will the Politicians.