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Doom and Gloom?

Irwin M. Stelzer

Three sorts of players will determine the near-term future of the American economy: consumers, businessmen, and politicians. Only one seems to be willing to give the economy a boost—consumers. At least, that has been the case until now as consumers flock to auto showrooms to replace aging vehicles, and re-enter the housing market, driving sales and prices up. Indeed, builders who were moaning about the lack of buyers now complain that they cannot find enough skilled construction workers. Never mind that unemployment remains high and income growth low-to-negative; consumers have been sufficiently confident—the highest level in five years—to dip into savings to gratify their current wants.

Unfortunately, that recent past is not necessarily prologue. Spending fell last month. Looking ahead, we don’t know how superstorm Sandy will affect consumer spending in the final quarter of the year. This week’s spurt in claims for unemployment insurance suggests that many workers could not get to their jobs, and that many businesses are having difficulty resuming operations. No pay check, no spending. Unless, of course, the need to rebuild and re-fit houses and businesses leads to the spurt in sales that chains like Home Depot are anticipating. In short, we just don’t know the near-term effects of Sandy. In the longer run, the storm will matter less: if we could durably spur sales by destroying homes and businesses, there would never be a construction slump, and floods, Fukushima, and hurricanes would be positive economic events.

Consumer spending might also falter in the face of that old bugaboo “uncertainty.” No one knows whether the President and Republicans who control the House of Representatives will come to some agreement to avoid the fiscal cliff, Friday’s optimistic turn by congressional leaders before the television cameras notwithstanding. If they don’t, taxes will go up and spending down, yanking about 4 percent out of GDP. Economists say we will dip into recession—shallow or sharp, short or long, depending on the crystal ball being consulted.

Only by diving over the cliff would we find out. A few things, however, are clear right now. The president is in no mood to compromise. He is calling for tax increases twice as large as those he demanded before the election. These are incorporated in his last budget, rejected by the Democratic controlled senate 99-0. Beneath promises of openness to new ideas lurks the old “I won” attitude, an unwillingness to discuss at this stage any reductions in entitlements—Medicare, social security (pensions)—or in spending on infrastructure, green energy, education, research and development. First, says the president, tax rates—and other taxes—must go up on everyone earning more than $200,000. Then “we can shape a process whereby we look at tax reform” and, presumably, the entitlement cuts that his trade union allies have told him they find unacceptable. To accept higher taxes now and gamble that Obama will cut spending later would be “a sucker bet” according to Wilbur Ross, an investor on everyone’s “rich list.”

Republicans are under increasing pressure to make some sort of deal since the president holds all the cards, and increasingly prepared to cave in, as comments by several Republican governors, assembled a few days ago in Las Vegas, make clear. Even in the increasingly unlikely event that a majority of Republicans hang tough, Obama can let us drop over the edge, let taxes rise on all income groups, and immediately push through a tax cut for middle-income taxpayers that gives him what he is demanding—higher rates on those earning over $200,000, restoring existing rates for others.

In any event, deal or not, higher earners will see their taxes rise, both because of Obama’s higher rates and because Republicans have already agreed to cut provisions from which they benefit—deduction of charitable contributions, interest paid on mortgages on second homes, lower rates on dividends and capital gains. Bad news for charities, housing, and high-end retailers.

If middle-income consumers believe that the President will protect them from tax hikes and from lay-offs due to cuts in defense and other spending, they will storm the malls in search of bargains. Because many stores will open on Thursday evening rather than the usual early Friday morning, the mall crush will occur immediately after we carve up some 50 million turkeys on Thanksgiving afternoon.

Even a mall rush is unlikely to cheer up businessmen, the second important group that will determine the course of the economy in 2013. The drop in share prices has them reaching for headache pills and tranquilizers. Fear of fiscal austerity—higher taxes and a cut in government spending—are already prompting layoffs and freezes on new investment, especially by health care providers and companies making military gear. Hoteliers and airlines are expecting to share the pain. But not just yet: holiday bookings are up, as consumers favor their old flame, Rosy Scenario, over practitioners of the dismal science.

Then there is the queue of regulations. During the first three years of his presidency, Obama issued 953 “major regulations”—costing $100 million or more or otherwise deemed significant by the government—reckons Wayne Crews of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. This compares with thirty by George W. Bush in a similar time period. Crews counts 4,128 additional regulations of all sorts still in the pipeline.

Add the costs that Obamacare will impose on most businesses, the failure of many firms to hit their earnings target, Wal-Mart’s puny third-quarter sales growth (1.5 percent) and downgrading of its fourth-quarter earnings estimate, and it is little wonder that businesses are sitting on some $2 trillion of cash rather than invest it in job-creating projects becomes understandable.

Then there is the third group, the world’s politicians, whose performance makes that of ours seem a model of good governance. The inability of the eurozone leaders to devise sensible solutions to the problems of its over-indebted members, its under-capitalized banks, and the trade imbalance between Germany and the rest of the zone is inevitably producing a recession. China’s governing kleptocracy has yet to decide whether to return to the marketization policies that triggered its great growth leap forward, and its slowdown is rippling through the Asian countries that sell to China’s consumers and provide supplies to its industries. Politicians in charge of the Arab Spring seem more interested in stifling than stimulating the growth of democracy and their tiny private sectors. Gaza’s Palestinians seem more intent on demonstrating their skill with rockets than unleashing the latent entrepreneurial talents Palestinians often demonstrate in other venues.

America’s business leaders behold the works of their and the world’s politicians and despair. With reason.