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For the Supercommittee, No Deal Is Better Than a Bad Deal

As the supercommittee’s November 23 deadline approaches, some commentators contend that failure to reach an agreement would have serious adverse ramifications for financial markets and the economy.  These concerns are largely misplaced, according to a new analysis from economists at Goldman Sachs Research, Q&A on the Super Committee (November 9, 2011).

  • A debt “downgrade seems unlikely,” Goldman writes. “If the super committee reaches its November 23 deadline without any agreement, the process concludes. While this would be far from ideal and could weigh on sentiment, the practical near-term repercussions seem limited.  There would be no near term fiscal consequences, but automatic spending cuts would take effect from January 2013. At this point there is little reason to believe that either S&P or Moody’s would downgrade solely based on a failure to agree.  Both rating agencies have indicated that while a stalemate in the super committee would be negative, they expect $1.2 trillion in planned deficit reduction to materialize through automatic cuts if not through the super committee, so their fiscal outlook should remain unchanged.”
  • The medium-term deficit outlook will change “only modestly, if at all,” Goldman continues. “The super committee process presents an important opportunity to reduce the longer term imbalance between the expected growth in entitlement programs and the revenues used to finance them and other government spending.  However, a “grand bargain” to resolve this imbalance appears to be a low probability this year.  Instead, the politically realistic outcomes range from no agreement to a deal reaching $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction over 10 years.  While $1.2 trillion represents a meaningful amount of deficit reduction, it is important to keep in mind that the same amount of deficit reduction would occur even if the super committee deadlocked and automatic spending cuts took effect.  So while a great deal of attention is being paid to the super committee, it is unlikely that deficit projections will change substantially following their agreement.”

Neither we nor the researchers at Goldman think that obtaining $1.2 trillion in budget savings through automatic cuts would be an optimal outcome.  An agreement could produce a better targeted mix of tax and spending policies.  Also, if the supercommittee can agree on a deficit-reduction plan, that legislation might serve as the vehicle for needed measures to bolster the economy, such as extension of the payroll tax holiday and emergency unemployment compensation.  Nonetheless, as Goldman explains, failure to reach an agreement would not produce the dire outcomes that some predict.

In the final analysis, Goldman says, “the super committee process is important to market participants because it provides a signal as to how successful future fiscal consolidation efforts might be.”  But a bad budget deal could augur worse for the future than no deal at all.

For example, as Bob Greenstein and Jim Horney have explained, the most recent Republican offer would make further fiscal consolidation more difficult to achieve by essentially taking revenues off the table for future rounds of deficit reduction.  Adopting the new Republican proposal — or any other proposal that is unbalanced or makes it more difficult to raise additional revenues in the future — would be worse than no agreement at all.

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