Just What is the Fiscal Cliff?

The ominous term “fiscal cliff” has crept into our lexicon, but just what does it mean? The fiscal cliff is a perfect storm of disastrous events that could push our recovering economy back into recession. First, there’s the scheduled expiration of the Bush tax cuts at the end of this year. Additionally, our economy will need to absorb automatic cuts to the federal budget, including significant reductions in defense spending mandated by last summer’s agreement to raise the U.S.’s debt ceiling. Finally, our national debt continues to spiral out of control and Congress finds itself stymied by partisan gridlock.

Focusing on doom and gloom, magazine covers feature pictures of the Capital Building slipping off the cliff. But this is not just media hype. Last week, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) issued a report warning that the economy will indeed enter a recession next year if the country goes over the so-called fiscal cliff. According to the CBO, the economy would contract by 0.5 percent in calendar year 2013 if the Bush-era tax rates expire and automatic spending cuts to the federal budget are implemented. Further, the CBO estimates that unemployment also would rise from 8.2% in 2012 to 9.1% next year.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has underscored the dangerous impact of the fiscal cliff, warning that “there is absolutely no chance that the Federal Reserve would be able to have the ability whatsoever to offset that effect on the economy.” Notably, over the course of the last few months, Chairman Bernanke’s warnings have become more dire. In April, he noted that “a sharp fiscal tightening could occur at the start of 2013” that could lead businesses to defer hiring and investment. Yet, minutes from the Fed’s July 31-August 1 meeting describe “a sharper-than-anticipated U.S. fiscal consolidation” as a “significant downside” risk to our economic outlook.

In the CBO report, Director Doug Elmendorf urges Congress to act in September to avoid the fiscal cliff, reasoning that the sooner uncertainty was resolved, the better for our economy. However, Congressional action is highly unlikely given the magnitude of the task and the distraction of a polarizing Presidential campaign. I hope that one day soon the importance of our nation’s fiscal health can transcend politics and that Congress and the President can reach an agreement. And for the sake of our fragile economy, let’s hope that day comes sooner rather than later.

However, despite this news an investor should not abandon their long-term investment strategy.  The pundits have been wrong before and it is more rational to stick to one’s long-term plan than to abandon it on what “might” happen.  Furthermore, once an investor abandons his or her plan he or she must decide when to reactivate the plan.  And by the time that decision is made most investors would have been better off if they had stuck to the plan.

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