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‘Fiscal Cliff’ Wild Card: Wall Street’s Reaction

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WASHINGTON – Congress and the White House can significantly soften the initial impact of the “fiscal cliff” even if they fail to reach a compromise by Dec. 31. One thing they cannot control, however, is the financial markets’ reaction, which possibly could be a panicky sell-off that triggers economic reversals worldwide.

The stock market’s unpredictability is perhaps the biggest wild card in the political showdown over the fiscal cliff.

President Barack Obama’s re-election gives him a strong negotiating hand, as Republicans are increasingly acknowledging. And some Democrats are willing to let the Dec. 31 deadline pass, because a rash of broad-based tax hikes would pressure Republicans to give more ground in renewed deficit-reduction negotiations.

A chief fear for Obama’s supporters, however, is that Wall Street would be so disgusted or dismayed that stocks would plummet before lawmakers could prove their newfound willingness to mitigate the fiscal cliff’s harshest measures, including deep, across-the-board spending cuts that could significantly damage the nation’s military posture. Some Republicans believe that fear will temper the president’s insistence on a hard bargain this month.

The so-called cliff’s recipe of major tax hikes and spending cuts can actually be a gentle slope, because the policy changes would be phased in over time. Washington insiders say Congress and the White House would move quickly in January or February to undo many, but not all, of the tax hikes and spending cuts.

Financial markets, however, respond to emotion as well as to research, reason and promises. If New Year’s headlines scream “Negotiations Collapse,” an emotional sell-off could threaten the president’s hopes for continued economic recovery in his second term, even if Republicans receive most of the blame for the impasse.

“Nobody can predict the markets’ reaction,” said Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn.

Some Republicans are surprised that the White House has not made clearer efforts to reassure Wall Street that if the Dec. 31 deadline is breached, the worrisome pile of tax increases and spending cuts would not hit all at once.

So far, the stock markets have stayed calm. That might be because investors agree that a temporary trip over the cliff wouldn’t be too harmful. Chastened lawmakers, the thinking goes, would quickly minimize the economic damage with a deficit-reduction compromise that eluded them in December.

Or, it’s possible that investors view the most pessimistic tones surrounding the fiscal cliff talks as posturing that will give way to a last-minute deal. If that is the thinking – and if the Dec. 31 deadline instead is breached – Obama’s fear might come to pass: The expectation of a deal might produce a significant decline in stock prices if it doesn’t occur.
— This article appeared on page B1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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