@AmyMagnotta, CFA, Brinker Capital
Sequestration, the automatic spending cuts that were agreed to as part of the debt ceiling compromise in the summer of 2011, came into effect on Friday, March 1. The Budget Control Act of 2011 established the bi-partisan “super committee” to produce deficit reduction legislation. As incentive for the super committee to agree to deficit reduction legislation, if Congress failed to act than the across the board spending cuts (sequestration), totaling $1.2 trillion over 10 years, would come into effect on January 2, 2013. The start date was delayed two months as part of the fiscal cliff deal. The cuts are split 50/50 between defense (which was supposed to get the Republicans to act) and domestic discretionary spending (which was supposed to get the Democrats to act).
As expected, Congress and the Administration have not been able to agree on serious deficit reduction so we now face the automatic budget cuts. The public does not seem to be as focused on sequestration as they were on the fiscal cliff. In a recent poll from The Hill, only 36% of likely voters know what the sequester is. The spending cuts are broad based, as the chart below from Strategas Research Partners shows; however, it will take some time for the cuts to come into effect.
The drag on GDP growth from the sequester is estimated to be around -0.5% this year. This is not enough drag to push us into a recession if consensus estimates for 2013 growth are correct at 2-2.5%, but the effect is not negligible. The largest hit to GDP growth will likely be in the second quarter once a majority of the spending cuts have begun to take effect. If and when voters begin to feel the impact, there may be pressure on Washington to delay or eliminate the cuts.
We also face the expiration of the continuing resolution that funds the government on March 27, which, if not addressed, could result in a government shutdown. This could be a catalyst for another short-term fix. As typical in politics, whichever party is shouldering the most blame will be more likely to compromise to get a deal done.
The idea of real tax and entitlement reform that promotes growth and puts us on a long-term, sustainable fiscal path seems highly unlikely in this environment. Our elected leaders appear to lack the tenacity to make tough decisions. Sadly, kicking the can down the road is the path of least resistance and often the one that leads to reelection.
Bottom line: Fiscal policy in the U.S. will remain a risk throughout 2013. The spending cuts from the sequester alone are not enough to derail the economic recovery. However, tepid growth is likely to persist, especially in the first half of the year, as disposable incomes have fallen due to the expiration of the payroll tax cut. An accommodative Fed and an improving housing market are positives for growth.