Recent retail sales data indicate economic growth is shifting down a gear from the 2.7 percent pace set during the third quarter. The consensus of forecasts indicates growth slowing to below 2 percent in the fourth and first quarters—my submissions to those polls were 1.7 and 1.4 percent, respectively.
For all of 2013, the economy will be hard pressed to accomplish the 2 percent growth registered this year, and unemployment only will continue falling if more adults opt out of the labor market or settle for part-time work.
This forecast depends on a "fiscal cliff" agreement that imposes only moderately higher taxes and at least some veiled attempt to curb spending. (Read More: Boehner Blinks, Opens the Door to Tax Hikes on Rich.)
On spending cuts, this economist is from Missouri, which will be hit hard with defense cuts if a deal isn't reached. President Barack Obama and his allies in Congress simply won't accept that entitlement spending is out of control. Such cognitive dissonance colors long-term prospects, even as revealed by forecasts coming from Democratic economists.
Should the president succeed in obtaining an immediate $100 to 150 billion in new taxes, and Republicans obtain a similar-sized quick cut in spending, brace for a recession. With so many folks already unemployed or underemployed, it could be difficult to lift the economy off the mat again, even with trillion dollar deficits.
"The focus on higher taxes in the fiscal cliff negotiations almost guarantees another year of tepid growth or worse."
It is important to recognize that stronger third-quarter growth was on the back of inventory build and surging exports, whereas consumer spending, the big locomotive, slowed markedly. Inventory investments must moderate with the slower pace of consumer spending, and exports have already slowed considerably, thanks to policy dysfunctions and recession in Europe.
Consumers are hesitant to do more than replace wearing big ticket items and indulge in moderate outlays on nondurables like clothing, as worries about the fiscal cliff loom. More importantly, years of falling real wages constrain consumer buying power—savings share of personal income is already very low. (Read More: Modest US Growth in 2013, Housing Recovery to Continue: NABE.)
Jobs lost to Chinese and other Asian competition in manufacturing continue to be replaced by lower paying positions in service activities and in what new manufacturing emerges, and the failure to replace many jobs altogether pins down the percentage of adults working and wages.
Further, many states have solved their budget woes by raising taxes and fees. Falling real wages, high unemployment and higher taxes create more tight-fisted customers for Wal-Mart and Kia but fewer enthusiasts for Nordstrom and your local Forddealer.
There is also a big caution in the auto-patch—GM is discounting vehicles to clear piled-up inventories, and the dollar value of retail auto sales is not matching the surge in vehicles sold. (Read More: US November Auto Sales Surge to 4.5-Year High.)
Overall, the economy remains vulnerable to another shock—be it the fiscal cliff, big tax increases and spending cuts to avoid it, or some other disaster. The focus on higher taxes in the fiscal cliff negotiations almost guarantees another year of tepid growth or worse.
Peter Morici is a professor at the Smith School of Business, University of Maryland, and former Chief Economist at the U.S. International Trade Commission. Follow him on Twitter: @pmorici1