Friday, December 7, 2012

Will Stocks Drop Over the Cliff?

The stock market has been eerily calm in spite of all the sturm und drang over the fiscal cliff.  After a brief sell-off following President Obama's re-election, the Dow Jones Industrial Average has treaded water right around the 13,000 mark.  Evidently, the market believes the anonymously leaked assurances from both the Republican and Democratic sides that a deal on the fiscal cliff will be reached.  And, rationally speaking, that should happen.  So maybe the market is justified in its equanimity.

But is it?  Looking back at the most recent comparable instance of fiscal dysfunction, the 2011 debt ceiling scrum, we find that "resolution" of the political problem was followed by a drop in the market.

The debt ceiling fight simmered until June and July 2011, when all hell broke loose and records were set for political dysfunction in Washington.  Only at the last minute, on August 2, 2011, was a deal to lift the debt ceiling finalized and approved by Congress.  The Dow, which floated around in the 12,000s during July, fell below 11,000 within a week.  One might have thought that resolution of the debt ceiling battle would produce a market rally.  But, no, just the reverse happened.

The debt ceiling fight revealed the depths of America's political dysfunction.  Standard & Poor's cut America's credit rating on August 5, 2011.  The future looked, if anything, more uncertain than before the debt ceiling crisis.  The resolution to the debt ceiling problem was to kick the can down the road, and defer confronting the government's tax and spending issues until after the November 2012 elections.  Stalling and delaying isn't the kind of thing to inspire investors.  The market's frothiness before the deal and its drop after the deal seemed like a classic case of buy on the rumor and sell on the news.

Well, that may be where we are headed today.  There are plenty of nice sounding rumors being floated by politicians who have plenty of incentive to shade the truth.  Reality is that whatever compromise the Republicans and Democrats reach on the fiscal cliff will surely be ugly.  The pie is too small to be apportioned in a way that will make many, if any, happy.  With the "resolution" to the fiscal cliff likely to make most of the nation grumpy, stocks aren't likely to be exuberant.  Whatever you do, don't bet on politics to produce investment gains.

No comments: