The sharp selloff in global equity markets that, through Thursday, had sent the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index down almost 6% since the reelection of President Obama, brings into stark relief the depth of the concerns among market participants over the looming “fiscal cliff” in the United States and the potential impact on the global economy if it is not averted. With the compilation of automatic spending cuts and tax increases totaling more than $600 billion which comprise the so called, “cliff”, scheduled to take effect in January, unless an accord can be reached to forestall it, investors have quickly begun to pare back their exposure to risk based assets. As Amy Magnotta pointed out in her most recent blog post, the effects of a failure of policy makers in Washington to reach an agreement would be severe, resulting in a 4 percent drop in Gross Domestic Product and casting the world’s largest economy back into recession. Marko Kolanovic, the Global Head of derivatives and quantitative strategy at JPMorgan Chase & Co. was quoted by Bloomberg News, “about 90 percent of the drop in the S&P 500 since election day can be attributed to concerns about the U.S. fiscal cliff.”
The divided government, which remains in the United States following the Nov 6th elections, with a Democratically controlled White House and strengthened position in the Senate, and a continued Republican hold on the House of Representatives, has led to a continuation of the stalemate that has gripped the Capital for much of the past two years. Although the representation of differing philosophies and governing styles is essential to a functioning democracy, the current environment inside the ‘beltway’ has degenerated to the point of stagnation. Neither side of the proverbial ‘aisle’ appears, at least publically, willing to compromise with Republicans declaring their resolve to avoid tax rate increases of any kind, and Democrats extolling the need to increase the percentage paid by the top income earners in the country. It is impossible to know how much of the recent rhetoric is simply political posturing and how much represents entrenched positions, but what is evident is that it has created an atmosphere of uncertainty which financial markets abhor. One potential area of concession, that has lately developed, is the rate of increase Democrats are seeking. Although it had been earlier suggested that a return to the 39.6% level last seen under President Bill Clinton was all that would be accepted, that stance has softened in recent days,(Strategas Research Partners), suggesting that a smaller increase could be where an accord is found.
As I am writing this morning, leaders from both political parties are preparing to meet at the White House to begin negotiations on bridging the gap that divides them. If they are successful in their efforts and common ground is reached, even on a temporary basis, which is the most plausible scenario, we should see a strong rebound across financial markets. While the process of resolving the differences that separate the two sides of this debate will undoubtedly take time and potentially create turbulence in the marketplace, if our policy makers can fulfill their responsibilities and find a resolution to this issue it will greatly strengthen the recovery in the global economy and lead to a substantive rally in risk based assets.