It’s been a year and almost $6 billion dollars since the kick-off of the presidential campaign cycle. After all that, we are left with relatively few changes in terms of the composition of the executive and legislative branches. President Barack Obama decisively won in the Electoral College race, but when all was said and done, he garnered less than a 3% advantage over Mitt Romney. In the election aftermath or afterglow, depending on your perspective, all eyes are now on the Fiscal Cliff and other looming issues that the president and Congress were unable to tackle in the last four years. Here are our thoughts on the impact of the election for the economy and your investments.
The Fiscal Cliff
There are wide-ranging tax increases and spending cuts set to occur after January 1st. These included mandatory spending cuts across the board, the end of the Bush-era tax cuts, Alternative Minimum Tax expansion and the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), investment income taxes, payroll tax holiday coming to an end, and more. All of this adds up to about $650 billion.
Some hoped for shifting control on Capitol Hill to address these issues, but this was not to be. With the same actors who could not resolve these issues for the last two years remaining in office, that seems to be wishful thinking. Some potential considerations:
- Compromise possible: Some components of the Fiscal Cliff are not attractive to either party and government doesn’t have to figure out everything at once. Look for the possibility of compromises for things like AMT and mandatory spending cuts to occur prior to congressional recess in December.
- Bush Tax Cuts: With much of the Republican House beholden to a “no tax increase” pledge, the expiration of Bush tax cuts as of the end of the year and then a roll-back of some of those increases for lower brackets is a threat favored by the most liberal wing of the Democratic Party. To us, this would be a disappointing result, but not out of the realm of possibility. Keep an eye on the discussion of what income level is left out. President Obama has said he wants tax increases for those making over $250,000. This is a starting point, but others have talked about levels upwards of $500,000 or $1,000,000.
- Kicking the Can Down the Road: It’s certainly possible that a compromise will not be reached or mapped out prior to year-end. In the past, this has resulted in an infuriating form of procrastination by agreeing to delay a decision until some date down the road. The more this occurs, the worse off we are. We are especially concerned if there is a delay today because of the impact on corporate decision-making which is thirsting for some clear guidance about the road ahead. Further, if the arbitrary date gets too close to mid-term elections, we’ll be left with even longer odds for an agreement. That said, if there is true desire from those involved to tackle more significant tax overhaul, buying more time may be critical. The last major tax policy shift occurred in 1986. President Reagan and a Democrat-controlled Congress took two years to put a deal together, and they were more agreeable counterparties.
- Return of Volatility: Markets this year have had exceptionally low volatility when compared to recent years. Uncertainty and extreme possibilities will likely usher in very volatile returns through at least the end of the year and we’re already seeing this today. The more pain there is in the markets, the more likely that estranged parties become willing to work together for a solution. Do not be surprised if stock prices respond very positively and quickly if a compromise is reached.
Also on the Horizon
The Fiscal Cliff is not all that we should focus on as a result of the election. We are also watching:
- Federal Reserve: A Romney win would have meant much more uncertainty as to the future leader of the Federal Reserve vs. President Obama’s continued allegiance to Chairman Ben Bernanke. While Bernanke has said that he does not want to stay for another term (which ends in 2014), it is likely that the low interest rate mandate will remain with a Bernanke-esque nominee. Possible reasons for a change to the current zero interest rate policy? Robust GDP growth or significant inflation which we think may be more likely the longer easy money sticks around.
- Debt Ceiling: The current debt ceiling limit would be breached in early 2013 and coincides with the Fiscal Cliff discussions. Washington needs to remain on speaking terms to avoid the detriments of another failure to act on this issue.
- Treasury Secretary: Timothy Geithner has said he is not interested in remaining at the Treasury. President Obama’s nomination for replacement will be very important in terms of cooperation with Congress as well as opportunities to tackle the long-term debt issues for the US. Watch to see if the nominee has a reputation of bipartisanship and dealing with Congress or a more ideological persona. While the Fiscal Cliff is in the spotlight today, we believe a long-term path to sustainable growth coupled with lower government debt is a much more critical issue.
We are encouraged by several factors that may lead to better resolutions to the serious issues that must be resolved by Washington powers today. A second-term president moves from a focus on reelection to the desire for a lasting legacy. In our estimation, nothing would be deemed more critical, both by Americans today and the history books, than creating a long-term plan for debt while leaving the economy in better shape than it is today. While Republicans, especially in the House of Representatives, spent the last two years working to deny President Obama reelection, they will need more constructive accomplishments on their resume as they look toward mid-term elections in two years. Finally, there seems to be stronger organized encouragement from the business community led by Fortune 500 CEO’s encouraging both sides to set aside their differences and to come to the table.
While markets have welcomed the election results with a cold shoulder, year-to-date returns remain positive for many investments. As stated earlier, we are not surprised by more disrupted markets post-election. Uncertainty breeds volatility and we expect weeks and possibly months of posturing before we have a more clear direction going forward.
I encourage you to follow the 80/20 rule when it comes to concerns with the market: spend 80% of your time focusing on financial decisions you can control and less than 20% of your time on external worry and fear. As always, we’re here to help. Please don’t hesitate to contact us if you have any questions or concerns.
On behalf of everyone at The Center,
Melissa Joy, CFP®
Partner, Director of Investments
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