Sequester: Front-Loaded Pain, No Gain
Zero Hedge – The sequester was supposed to be such a bad outcome that it would force a compromise. The across-the-board cuts were so rigid and hurt so many favored programs, BofAML notes, the “Super Committee” was almost certain to come up with a more flexible alternative. And yet, not only did the Super Committee fail to even make a proposal, the negotiations have now devolved into a blame game – the two parties are trying to pin the blame, and the political cost, onto the other party. As we have expected for some time, the sequester will very likely hit on March 1. This well likely add further downward pressure to the economy in the second quarter, with job growth averaging less than 100,000 per month and GDP growth slowing to 1%.
The Sequester Straitjacket
Federal budget accounting is incredibly opaque. There are two key complications. First, the sequester kicks in part way into a calendar year and about half way into a fiscal year, so figuring out the size of the shock requires first getting the timeframe correct. Second, it is important to distinguish between budget authority and actual spending; the latter depends on both past and present authority. The sequester cuts $1.2bn of budget authority over a nine-year period (2013-21).
Netting out about $200bn in savings from lower interest payments, that works out to about $109bn in reduced budget authority per year. However, there are three complications in calculating the actual cuts in spending this year. First, under the fiscal cliff compromise the cuts for this fiscal year don’t start until March and they are “only” $85bn. However, there are only seven months left in the fiscal year, so on an annualized basis the cuts are equivalent to a $146bn drop in appropriations. Second, the actual cuts in spending will be less than $85bn because the sequester cuts budget authority, not spending. Programs can use leftover appropriations from past budgets to cushion the immediate cuts. The CBO estimates the actual spending cuts will be $42bn.
That doesn’t sound too bad. Unfortunately there is a third complication. Currently, defense spending is running higher than the current annual cap. This overshooting has to be made up in the remaining months of the fiscal year. Thus we would not be surprised if actual defense spending drops more than the CBO estimates. Our rough bottom-line: we expect $50bn in cuts over the remaining seven months of this fiscal year, equivalent to 0.54% of GDP over that period.