Despite all the media hullabaloo about the fiscal cliff and a potential recession if none of the Bush tax cuts are extended, stock markets have behaved calmly throughout this whole period.
I’m going to guess that stocks, in their wisdom, are correctly sniffing that there will be no calamitous falling off the cliff. By that I mean there will be no $500 billion tax hike, which would be an economy killer.
Instead, after speaking with prominent Republican House and Senate members, I have come to believe the following: The GOP knows that Obama has the upper hand in this post-election battle. Therefore, they are preparing a strategic retreat.
Republicans don’t want to be the party of rich people and let Obama maintain his hold on the middle class. Republicans also don’t want to be the party of recession. So if no comprehensive deal is reached by President Obama and Speaker John Boehner, Republicans will not block an extension of the so-called middle-class tax cuts, which are roughly three-quarters of the total.
It’s hard to know how this story will work itself out. There may be deals on upper-end tax rates, say 37 percent instead of 39.6 percent. And maybe even some lower tax penalties on capital gains and dividends.
Ideally, the GOP can get solid promises on spending cuts and entitlement reforms in return for a tax package. That tax package may include a dollar limit for tax deductions along with the rise in upper-end tax rates. Entitlement reform is also on the table. And so is a roughly $60 billion 2013 spending cut, which carries over from the across-the-board sequester. That is still possible.
But what is not possible is that House Republicans give up their constitutional prerogative to set the debt ceiling. That is their biggest point of leverage. And that leverage will carry over into 2013, as lawmakers once again attempt an across-the-board effort for pro-growth tax reform (flatter rates, broadening the base), serious structural entitlement reform and more discretionary spending cuts. This will be the battle royale of next year.
As I said, no one knows how all this is going to play out in the next two weeks. But from the standpoint of the economy and the stock market, a worst-case tax-hike scenario that would sink gross domestic product is not likely to happen.
There will be a deal to extend most of the tax cuts. And while higher tax rates on successful earners, small-business owners and investors are most definitely not pro-growth, at least the across-the-board tax-hike calamity will be avoided.