Stalemate

Joe PreisserJoe Preisser, Portfolio Specialist, Brinker Capital

The ongoing dysfunction in Washington D.C. reached a fever pitch this week, as the failure of lawmakers to agree on a bill to fund the Federal Government resulted in the President ordering its first shutdown since 1995.  The inability of Congress to effectively legislate has led to the furlough of more than 800,000 Federal workers, and a shuttering of all non-essential services.  Although equity markets around the world have remained relatively sanguine about the current state of affairs inside the beltway, the looming deadline to raise the debt ceiling, which the Treasury Department has declared to be no later than October 17, has heightened the stakes of the current impasse immeasurably, as a breach of this borrowing limit would have dire consequences not just for the United States, but for the global economy in aggregate.  It is the presence of this possibility that provides us with cautious optimism that a resolution might be forthcoming; as our belief is that the closure of the government and the subsequent pressure being applied by the electorate to end the stalemate has pulled forward the debt ceiling debate, which may result in a bargain that addresses both issues.  However, we intend to remain hyper-vigilant about the progress of these negotiations as we fully recognize the severity of the impact of a failure to honor our nation’s debts.

10.4.13_Preisser_Stalemate_1The current standoff has resulted from a multiplicity of factors, chief amongst which is a fundamental ideological difference between the parties over the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as “Obamacare”, which went into effect this week.  It is the vehemence of both sides in this debate combined with the extreme partisanship in the Capital that have made this situation particularly perilous.  Despite assertions to the contrary, the shuttering of the government comes at an exorbitant cost.  According to the New York Times, “ the research firm IHS Inc. estimates that the shutdown will cost the country $300 million a day in lost economic output…Moody’s Analytics estimated that a shutdown of three or four weeks would cut 1.4 percentage points from fourth-quarter economic growth and raise the unemployment rate.”  With consensus estimates for GDP currently at only 2.5% per annum, the present state of affairs, if not soon rectified will take an ever increasing toll on the nation’s economy.

Since 1970 there have been a total of 18 shutdowns of the Federal Government, including this most recent closure.  Although each situation was unique, what is common amongst them is that investors have, on average, approached them with relatively little trepidation.  According to Ned Davis Research, “during the six shutdowns that lasted more than five trading days, the S&P fell a median 1.7%.”In fact, optimism in the marketplace has tended to follow these periods of uncertainty.  Bloomberg News writes that, “the S&P has risen 11 percent on average in the 12 months following past government shutdowns, according to data compiled by Bloomberg on instances since 1976.  That compares with an average return of 9 percent over 12 months.”

Source: Ned Davis Research Group

Source: Ned Davis Research Group

There is one glaring difference between this year’s shuttering of the government and those of recent history, and that is the presence of the debt ceiling.  According to the New York Times, “the Treasury said last week that Congress had until Oct. 17 to raise the limit on how much the federal government could borrow or risk leaving the country on the precipice of default.”  Though we can look to the past as a guide to use to try and gauge the impact of a government shutdown, there is no way to accurately predict the effect of a failure of the United States government to fulfill its obligations, as this would be unprecedented. The need for Congress to raise the debt ceiling cannot be overstated, as the very sanctity of U.S. sovereign obligations depends upon it.  The importance of this faith to the global economy was captured by Nobel Prize winning economist, Paul Krugman, “Financial markets have long treated U.S. bonds as the ultimate safe asset; the assumption that America will always honor its debts is the bedrock on which the world financial system rests.”

Concerns Over “Fiscal Cliff” Continue to Dominate Markets

Joe Preisser

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.