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Over the cliff

For the second time in nine months, the USA has approached a fiscal cliff. This is where the federal government is forced to make government expenditure cuts and/or impose tax rises. There are two types of cliff face. The first is a legal limit on the size of the federal government debt and hence deficit. The second is failure to agree on a budget.

On January 1st this year, a fiscal cliff was narrowly averted by a last-minute agreement to raise the size of the permitted debt. On the 1st October (the beginning of the financial year), however, the US economy ‘fell over the cliff’. This time is was a failure by Congress to reach agreement over the federal budget. The sticking point was an unwillingness of the Republican majority in the House of Representatives to agree to a budget without the government making concessions on its healthcare reform. The government was unwilling to do that and so no budget was passed.

With no budget, much of government has to shut down! In practice, this means that all non-essential workers will cease to be paid. That includes workers in housing, parts of healthcare, the civil law part of the justice system, immigration, regulatory agencies, the passport service, parks and museums. Even workers in essential areas, such as civilian workers in the military, police and social services, are likely to see their pay delayed until the problem is resolved. The articles below look at some of the implications of this partial shut-down.

It is hoped that, within a few days, agreement on a budget will be reached. But that will not be the end of the story because a second fiscal cliff looms. And that is of the first type. There is currently a legal limit to Federal Government debt of $16.699 trillion. Because that limit was reached earlier this year, from May 18 the government has been able to use various ‘extraordinary measures‘ to carry on borrowing. These measures will run out, however, around 17 October. From then, if a new higher debt ceiling has not been agreed by Congress, the government will be unable to pay some of its bills. For example, on 1 November it will get a bill of $67billion for social security, medicare and veterans benefits. As the second Independent article below explains:

In a government shutdown, the federal government is not allowed to make any new spending commitments. By contrast, if we hit the debt-ceiling then the Treasury Department won’t be able to borrow money to pay for spending that Congress has already approved. In that case, either Congress will have to lift the debt ceiling or the federal government will have to default on some of its bills, possibly including payments to bondholders or Social Security payouts. That could trigger big disruptions in the financial markets — or a long-term rise in borrowing costs.

Not surprisingly, financial markets are nervous. Although the direct effect of lost output will be relatively small, provided agreements on the budget and the debt are reached fairly soon, the impact on confidence in the US system of government could be more damaging. Not only could this curb recovery in the USA, it could have a significant effect on global recovery, given the size and importance of the US economy to the rest of the world.

Webcasts
What does the shutdown mean for normal Americans? BBC News, Keith Doyle (1/10/13)
How the government shut down is being reported in the US BBC News (1/10/13)
Shutdown could slam frail U.S. economy Reuters, Bobbi Rebell (1/10/13)
Shutdown Will Cost U.S. Economy $300 Million a Day, IHS Says Bloomberg, Jeanna Smialek & Ian Katz (1/10/13)
How will the US government shutdown affect the global economy? The Guardian, Larry Elliott and Guy Grandjean (1/10/13)
How would a government shutdown affect the rebounding economy? Aljazeera, Duarte Geraldino (30/9/13)
How will the US government shutdown affect the economy? BBC News, Richard Lister (1/10/13)
Shutdown continues as Obama and Republicans fail to agree BBC News, Rajini Vaidynathan (2/10/13)
Former US Secretary of Labor Robert Reich on shutdown BBC News, Robert Reich (2/10/13)
Government shutdown: What’s the cost? CBS News, Rebecca Kaplan (1/10/13)
US shutdown will have ‘minimal impact’ on global economy One News (New Zealand), Dan Zirker (2/10/13)
What is the US debt ceiling? BBC News, Hugh Pym (14/10/13)

Articles
US wakes up to government shutdown as Congress fails to strike budget deal Independent, Nikhil Kumar (1/10/13)
US begins government shutdown as budget deadline passes BBC News (1/10/13)
David Cameron warns on world growth as US government shuts down The Telegraph, Damien McElroy (1/10/13)
Shutdown showdown: A glossary Aljazeera, Ben Piven (30/9/13)
Everything you need to know about how the partial shutdown will work in US Independent, Brad Plumer (1/10/13)
What’s the economic impact of a US government shutdown? BBC News, Kim Gittleson (1/10/13) (follow links at top of screen for further articles)
US government shutdown isn’t the worst of it BBC News, Linda Yueh (30/9/13)
Onset of the storm BBC News, Robert Peston (1/10/13)
The gathering storm? BBC News, Robert Peston (30/9/13)
Government shutdown: what’s really going on – and who’s to blame? The Guardian, Dan Roberts (30/9/13)
Government shutdown threat is getting very old, very fast CNN, Julian Zelizer (30/9/13)
US fiscal cliff fears rattle the markets The Australian, Adam Creighton (1/10/13)
U.S. Government Shutdown Sinks Dollar Forbes, Dean Popplewell (1/10/13)
US Government Shutdown: European Markets Not Fretting Over Temporary Closure International Business Times, Ishaq Siddiqi (1/10/13)
The States to plunge into abyss of debt, off fiscal cliff Pravda, Irina Sabinina (1/10/13)
Shutting down the United States government nothing new The Vancouver Sun, Andrew Coyne (1/10/13)
Christine Lagarde urges US that debt crisis threatens world economy The Guardian, Larry Elliott (3/10/13)
U.S. failure to lift debt ceiling could damage world – IMF Reuters (3/10/13)

Data
US government shutdown: in numbers The Guardian (see also)
US Budget: Historical Tables White House Office of Management and Budget (includes estimates to 2018 as well as historical data)

Questions

  1. If a debt ceiling is reached, what does this imply for the budget deficit?
  2. How serious are the two current fiscal cliffs?
  3. How would a continuation of the partial government shut-down impact on the US private sector?
  4. What multiplier effects on the rest of the world are likely to arise from a cut in US government expenditure or a rise in taxes? What determines the size of these multiplier effects?
  5. Explain the likely effect of the current crisis on the exchange rate of the dollar into other currencies.
  6. Why might the looming problem of reaching the debt ceiling drive up long-term interest rates in the USA and beyond?
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