BY MICHAEL BRENAN
As Americans look to a new year, they typically do so with some combination of hope, optimism, excitement, and enthusiasm. It’s who we are, a land and people of unending potential, for whom anything is possible. But today, at least for the business community, we anticipate 2013 with something else, something more different and darker:
Uncertainty. And we have the federal debt crisis and looming sequestration cuts to blame for it.
By now, the numbers are probably familiar to most people. The nation’s debt stands at more than $16 trillion — about $52,000 for every one of our citizens and $135,000 for every U.S. household. To put that in some perspective, $16 trillion could pay off the mortgage debt of all Americans twice over. It could finance the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan 12 times over. It could pay off all student loans 16 times over.
When Congress passed legislation to avoid the fiscal cliff, many felt that we had dodged the debt crisis bullet. But we haven’t. That deal did not reach the necessary $1.6 trillion in debt reduction over the next 10 years, so massive sequestration cuts are still on the horizon effective March 1. And if that happens, South Carolina will pay the price — literally and figuratively:
■ We will lose up to 30,000 jobs.
■ We will see a 6.9 percent decline in our share of federal funds — money that has already been allocated for spending.
■ Some South Carolinians will see their state tax bills rise.
In that 18 percent of the sequestration cuts that will affect specific federal programs, we will lose funding for nutrition programs for low-income women and children, education programs, public housing and many other programs that protect our most vulnerable citizens.
From a purely business perspective, however, failure to the fix the debt will result in another problem that, in its own way, is equally devastating: It will create an environment of policy uncertainty that cripples our ability to confidently make the kinds of hiring and investment decisions necessary to speed up what has to date been a stubbornly slow economic recovery.
For example, Sageworks, a financial information company, took a recent poll of accounting professionals and bankers who work with privately held companies and found that nearly three-fourths of the respondents believe it is unlikely that companies will increase hiring because of the national debt. What’s more, a similar percentage said businesses are also less likely to increase other investments because of the spiraling U.S. debt.
This is no small matter. Confidence is critical to economic recovery, and until policymakers in Washington take the necessary steps to instill that confidence, businesses aren’t going to spend any money. The private sector wants to know where the economy is headed. Unless it gets a roadmap that makes sense — or at least moves us in a positive direction toward a long-term solution — capital investment and hiring will likely be at a standstill. With growth in the gross domestic product forecast to be 2.1 percent next year, and with the unemployment rate expected to be at or just below 8 percent, that’s not good news.
In the absence of a sound, serious fix, this is only going to get worse. Consider this:
■ According to the White House Office of Management and Budget, gross federal debt has surpassed 90 percent of GDP for the past two years and is expected to stay above that threshold through 2017.
■ A major research paper published in April shows that in countries where debt exceeds 90 percent of the economy, growth rates have been subpar for more than 20 years, and that economic output at the end of that period has been 25 percent lower than it would otherwise have been.
■ A study from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University concludes that high debt levels are currently contributing to reduced economic growth and declining competitiveness, and that those conditions will only get worse as the debt-to-GDP levels keep rising, as is forecast.
Taken in the aggregate, those statistics demonstrate clearly and convincingly that the more the debt grows — and the longer the battle is fought with overheated words rather than meaningful actions — the greater the risk to our economy, our people, and our state.
The point here is not to make any specific policy recommendations. It is, however, to say that we have to stop the political posturing and rhetorical back-and-forth in Washington and find constructive, long-term solutions to this problem. That’s why I have joined Fix the Debt, a nonpartisan movement created to put America on a better fiscal and economic path.
Our experience in South Carolina mirrors that of the entire country; that is, business creates the jobs, opportunity, and wealth that keep the economy growing. We can’t do that in an unpredictable policy climate, and avoiding the fiscal cliff has done little to ease that unpredictability. So it’s time for Congress to solve the problem rather than keep ducking it, and send a message that delivers the confidence business needs — and the nation demands — to ensure that we can once more look to the American future with a renewed sense of hope, optimism and determination.
Michael Brenan is chairman of the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce and president of BB&T of South Carolina.