We greet the new year with an America that has a Fiscal Cliff deal. Actually no, it doesn't - not even close. What it does have is an agreement, so far only at the Senate level which voted a little after 2 AM eastern in an 89-8 vote (Nays from Democrats Bennet, Cardin, Harkin, and Republicans - Lee, Paul, Grassley, Rubio and Shelby), to delay the all-important spending side of the Fiscal Cliff "deal" which "can is kicked" in the form of a 60 day extension to the sequester, to be taken up "eventually", but hopefully not on day 59 at the 11th hour, the same as fate of the all important US debt ceiling, which remains in limbo, and which now effectively prohibits America from incurring any new gross debt as the $16.4 trillion debt ceiling was breached yesterday. In other words, America's primary deficit sourcing mechanism is now put on hiatus, and all new net debt will come at the expense of defunding various government retirement funds as the 60 day countdown to the real showdown begins: the debt ceiling, as well as the resolution of the spending side of the Fiscal Cliff deal.
What did happen last night was merely the legislating of the inevitable tax hike on the 1%, which was assured the night Obama won the presidential election, something not even the most rabid Norquist pledge signatories had hope of avoiding. This was the first income tax hike in nearly two decades. A tax hike which, regardless of how it is spun, will result in a drag in consumption. It was also the brand new definition of rich, with the "$250,000" income threshold now left in the dust, and "$400,000 for individuals ($450,000 for joint filers)" taking its place. If you make more than that, congratulations: you are now "rich". You will also be hated for being part of the 1%. and be the target in the ongoing class war.
Who knew that "New Normal" would also bring us the "New Rich" definition.
Ironically, not even the tax hike component of the deal was fully worked out, as it still remains unclear just what the new tax brackets and what the tax increases for the much maligned 1% will be.
What is generally known is that the Senate bill boils down to the following: $620 billion in tax hikes over the next decade offset by $15 billion in spending cuts now. Hardly "fair and balanced." Anyone who, therefore, thinks this bill is a slam dunk in the House is a brave gambling man.
The said, the "good news" is that 99% of Americans will see no change in their taxes, as was the idea all along. And the evil 1% will get their just deserts, which was the whole purpose of this relentless soap opera
The bad news is that starting today millions of wage earners, will see a smaller paycheck as a result of the lapse in the 2% payroll-tax cut, enacted in 2010, which lowered the employee portion of the Social Security tax from 6.2% to 4.2%. The direct cost of the payroll tax expiration will be $125 billion per year, or nearly a full percentage point of GDP, and in practical terms, an individual earnings the maximum cap of $113,700 (for 2013), will see their paycheck drop by $200/month.
That's just the beginning. The WSJ details the various other implications of the expiration of the payroll tax cut:
It will take up to four weeks after a bill is passed for many workers to know exactly what their 2013 take-home pay will be, according to Michael O'Toole, an official of the American Payroll Association, a group of 21,000 payroll managers.
Just before midnight, the Internal Revenue Service issued new withholding tables for 2013 reflecting the expiration of the 2001-3 tax cuts and the two-percentage point Social Security tax cut. But the IRS noted that the tables might change given pending legislation.
The 2013 tax-filing season also is likely to be disrupted by Washington's wrangling on deadline. In November, acting Internal Revenue Service Commissioner Steve Miller warned that the filing season would be delayed by several weeks. Normally the season opens in mid-January, but this year it may be delayed till mid-February or later.
As a result, many filers won't be able to receive tax refunds as early as they normally do. "Congress's delays have pushed back the repayment of interest-free loans to the government for millions of taxpayers," said Lawrence Gibbs, a former IRS Commissioner now with the Miller & Chevalier law firm in Washington. The average refund is approaching $3,000, according to IRS data.
So very much still remains unknown. Here is what is known on the tax side of the "deal":
Income-tax rates. The top rate on ordinary income such as wages for joint filers earning more than $450,000 ($400,000 for single filers) would rise to 39.6%. Current law would be permanently extended for income earned below that level. Left unclear is whether the $450,000/$400,000 threshold refers to adjusted gross income (AGI) or taxable income. AGI doesn't include subtractions for itemized deductions, while taxable income does.
The individual income tax is the government's biggest single source of revenue, supplying nearly half the total.
Investment tax rates. For joint filers with income above $450,000 ($400,000 single), the top rate on long-term capital gains and dividends would rise to 20% from 15%. For taxpayers earning less than the thresholds, there would be a permanent 15% top rate on long-term capital gains and dividends, except perhaps for the lowest-bracket taxpayers, who currently have a zero rate.
Alternative minimum tax. The bill permanently and retroactively adjusts the alternative minimum tax to stop it enveloping more taxpayers than designed. The current fix expired at the beginning of 2012.
PEP and Pease provisions. The deal restores and makes permanent two backdoor tax increases for joint filers with incomes above $300,000 ($250,000 for singles).
When it was last in effect, the Personal Exemption Phaseout reduced or eliminated the value of personal exemptions for taxpayers earning more than the income threshold. The Pease provision—named after the late Rep. Donald Pease (D., Ohio)—reduced itemized deductions for taxpayers above a certain threshold. The formula's net effect was to add a bit more than 1% to the top tax rate, says Mr. Williams of the Tax Policy Center, including the top rate on capital gains.
Estate and gift tax. The estate and gift tax exemption would remain $5 million or more per individual vs. the $3.5 million sought by President Obama. But the current 35% top tax rate on amounts above the exemption would increase to 40%.
Tax "extenders." This term refers to several provisions that lapsed either at the beginning or the end of 2012. They would be extended for varying periods, and provisions that expired in early 2012 would be extended retroactively. Among these provisions are deductions for $250 of teachers' classroom expenses; state sales taxes in lieu of state income taxes; tuition and related expenses; a conservation donation benefit; and the direct charitable contribution of up to $100,000 of IRA assets for people 70½ and older.
The deal would also extend for five years the American Opportunity Tax Credit; for many taxpayers this dollar-for-dollar credit is worth up to $2,500 and therefore the most valuable education benefit. And it would extend for five years the current versions of the Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit, which are claimed by many lower-income workers making up to about $50,000.
Depreciation. A one-year extension of current "bonus" depreciation rules, which allow businesses to deduct up to 50% of the cost of a wide variety of property and equipment, excluding real estate. "This will be very helpful to a lagging economy," says Don Williamson, an accountant who also heads the Kogod Tax Center at American University.
In other words: congratulations America, you have a Fiscal Cliff deal. Oh sorry, no you don't. But it does make for even better political grandstanding and melodramatic theater.
And now, we look forward to late February, early March, when as we said all along, the real showdown will take place, one which the market will no longer be able to avoid.