The Possible Implications of the Fiscal Cliff

Now that President Obama has been re-elected he has to face the upcoming fiscal cliff, which could possibly push the country into another recession. Here are tax changes to watch as the year comes to an end, as well as what the president plans to do.

The term “fiscal cliff” is said to have been coined by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke during hearings of the House Financial Services Committee in February 2012.

On Jan. 1, 2013, several major budget items are scheduled to expire. Among them are many tax incentives that have benefitted tax payers, such as the earned income credit, child credits and some subsidies for businesses, health care and education.

The end of 2012 will bring about the expiration of the Bush tax cuts — which lowered income and investment tax rates that have been in effect since 2001. Also, as the year draws to a close, we will see the expiration of an extension of both the stimulus payroll tax cut, and emergency unemployment benefits.

These events are likely to create ripples throughout the economy by themselves. However, at the same time, we could experience the effects of additional cuts such as the "sequester" cuts, which were part of a negotiated debt-ceiling compromise in defense and health spending. Jan. 1, 2013 will bring the 3.8% Medicare tax, instituted by the Affordable Care Act, which will be imposed on families who make $250,000 or more, or whose investment income exceeds the threshold.

If all of these provisions are allowed to hit around the same time, analysts agree that the impact on the economy will be substantial. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that if Congress cannot agree on a way to derail some of these deadlines, the economy could shrink by 1.3%.

Thus, if the fiscal cliff issue is not addressed, large spending cuts and tax increases will be too burdensome for the economy to handle at one time. This could push the economy into recession and would be the perfect storm of sorts.

Four more years

The president and Congress must work together to find a way to address the expiring tax cuts, other tax cuts, and revenue generating ideas and strategies designed to curb the growing deficit.

The recently re-elected President Barack Obama has promised to extend the Bush tax cuts across the board, but let them expire on the “wealthy,” defined as those who make $250,000 or more per year. However, the president will continue to face a divided Congress as Republicans still control the House of Representatives and Democrats maintain a hold over the Senate.

According to WealthManagement.com’s recent article entitled “On the Chopping Block,” there are a number of tax changes to watch as the year comes to an end, as well as what the president plans to do.

1. The payroll tax holiday

It is expected that the payroll tax of 6.1% on Social Security (replacing the current 2% reprieve that workers have enjoyed over the last two years thanks to the Tax Act of 2010) will return. The purpose of this tax holiday was to put more cash in average workers’ pockets, so that someone earning approximately $50,000 per year would have saved about $20 a week.

2. Limiting versus capping certain deductions

Over the past few years, many lawmakers have called for a limit on certain deductions for taxpayers who itemize, such as limits on deductions for mortgage interest, charitable gifts, and state taxes.

Obama has proposed limiting to 28% the amount of interest a taxpayer may deduct on these items. Lobby groups representing these interests have been vigorously fighting against these possible changes.

3. Adjust tax status on municipal bond interest and life insurance build-up

The president has proposed to limit the tax-exempt status of municipal bond interest to 28%. There has been push back by the $3.7 trillion municipal bond industry, and analysts believe that it is not likely that their taxability will change unless a similarly advantageous bond instrument replaces it, like a tax credit bond similar to the Build America Bonds created by the Stimulus Bill.

4. Estate-planning strategies

If the president does nothing to prolong or change these rates, then on Jan. 1, 2013 the tax rates will revert to 2001 levels — 55% and a $1 million estate, gift and GST tax exemption.

President Obama has stated that he will increase the estate tax rate to 45% and reduce the exemption to $3.5 million (or $7 million per married couple). He has also favored making portability permanent.

Hopefully, now that the election is over, the big picture will become clearer, and Congress and the president will begin to address the issues leading us to the fiscal cliff.