CEOs warn Obama, Congress to avoid ‘fiscal cliff’

The largest U.S. financial firms warned Thursday of dire consequences if Washington fails to head off year-end tax hikes and spending cuts, saying they could jolt the economy into recession and prompt a new and dangerous downgrade of the U.S. credit rating.

These projections come as U.S. business leaders have been escalating their lobbying on behalf of a bipartisan deal to avoid the “fiscal cliff,” pressing their case in a series of meetings with key members of Congress.

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The Washington Post’s Ed O’Keefe explains the buzz word that everyone has been using to identify the financial changes looming at the end of the fiscal year.

The Washington Post’s Ed O’Keefe explains the buzz word that everyone has been using to identify the financial changes looming at the end of the fiscal year.

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On Thursday, 15 of the nation’s largest financial companies warned President Obama and Congress in a letter that interest rates could spike significantly if policymakers do not agree to stop the series of automatic tax hikes and spending cuts and replace them with a long-term plan to tame the federal debt.

In an interview, JPMorgan Chase chief executive Jamie Dimon said he would use all the power he has as head of the country’s largest bank to press lawmakers for a solution. Dimon is a major backer of a Washington-based campaign known as “Fix the Debt,” which is planning to spend $30 million to pressure lawmakers.

“I will do whatever it takes,” he said.

The White House and congressional Republicans now appear ready to play chicken over the “fiscal cliff.” Administration officials say the president is prepared to veto legislation to block the tax hikes and spending cuts unless Republicans agree to increase tax rates on the wealthy, a red line for many GOP lawmakers.

On Thursday, analysts at JPMorgan said economic activity will be weaker than expected in the first part of next year because lawmakers are unlikely to renew the payroll tax cut, which has provided the average family with $1,000 a year in additional income.

“The change in our view wasn’t because of something that happened, but rather what didn’t happen,” analysts wrote in a research note. “Few in the political establishment came forward to push an extension of this tax break.”

If no agreement is reached, a variety of other taxes, affecting all Americans, will increase significantly on Jan. 1, and the government will begin to make deep cuts to domestic and defense spending. Many economists say that will cause a recession.

Also on Thursday, a top executive for the country’s largest bond firm, Pimco, warned that ratings companies would probably lower the credit rating on U.S. government securities after the new year.

“The U.S. will get downgraded; it’s a question of when,” Scott Mather, Pimco’s head of global portfolio management, said at a conference in Wellington, New Zealand, according to Bloomberg News. “It depends on what the end of the year looks like, but it could be fairly soon after that.”

Standard & Poor’s downgraded U.S. debt last summer. That action had little effect on global investors at the time. But a second credit-rating firm — Moody’s — has warned it could take similar action if lawmakers do not replace the “fiscal cliff” with a long-term plan to tame the debt.

“Another downgrade of our nation’s debt by a major rating service . . . could lead to significantly higher interest rates,” the financial services executives wrote in their letter Thursday. “Higher interest payments would worsen our nation’s fiscal burden and likely increase uncertainty and instability in global financial markets.”

Beyond Dimon, the signatories to the letter, organized by the trade group the Financial Services Forum, include Bank of America chief executive Brian Moynihan, Citigroup chief executive Michael Corbat and Goldman Sachs chief executive Lloyd Blankfein.

“Just take the fiscal cliff off the table,” Dimon said. “Some of the potential outcomes are very bad, and we shouldn’t take that chance.”

The letter is the latest sign that Wall Street, and corporate America more broadly, are planning to exert more pressure on lawmakers and the White House than last summer, when executives largely sat out the bitter debt-limit debate that nearly led to a default on the U.S. debt.

A body of recent anecdotal reports show the level of concern among executives spiking. Bank of America-Merrill Lynch said its surveys of chief financial officers and fund managers show the “fiscal cliff” as the top concern. A Chamber of Commerce survey of small businesses recently said that 65 percent were worried about the cliff.

As concerns mount, top executives, such as Larry Fink of asset manager BlackRock and David Cote of industrial company Honeywell, are parading through Washington to meet with lawmakers. The executives are urging Congress to prevent the fiscal cliff and embrace a plan to control the debt through a mixture of spending cuts, entitlement reforms and revenue increases.

“They’re turning their member meetings into focusing on this bigger, broader issue, rather than their company’s interest,” said Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a nonpartisan group that has signed up more than 70 top executives for the campaign to promote a debt deal.

MacGuineas added that executives would provide cover for lawmakers who will have to vote on politically unpopular changes, such as Medicare reforms or higher taxes. “This is going to be hard,” she said. “It will involve all the issues that politicians have been ducking for years. We want it to be the courageous vote and the right vote.”

While the executive participation is wider than it has been in recent years, it’s not clear how serious it will be. So far, the effort has largely entailed letters and exhortations. At Cote’s encouragement, 15,000 Honeywell employees sent letters to Congress urging action.

With business interests more closely aligned with Republicans, a critical question will be whether executives push conservatives to let taxes rise on the wealthy, as Obama favors.

“If you go to Wall Street, a lot of people would be fine with their taxes going up a little bit if that is part of a major agreement,” Dimon said.

But others do not agree. The Chamber of Commerce, for example, says that boosting tax rates could hit many small-business owners.

“You think 30 million companies are going to allow that to happen?” said Bruce Josten, a top lobbyist. “We are going to take a look at the entire package.”

Suzy Khimm contributed to this report.

 
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