Sequestration Begins

Magnotta@AmyMagnotta, CFA, Brinker Capital

Sequestration, the automatic spending cuts that were agreed to as part of the debt ceiling compromise in the summer of 2011, came into effect on Friday, March 1. The Budget Control Act of 2011 established the bi-partisan “super committee” to produce deficit reduction legislation. As incentive for the super committee to agree to deficit reduction legislation, if Congress failed to act than the across the board spending cuts (sequestration), totaling $1.2 trillion over 10 years, would come into effect on January 2, 2013. The start date was delayed two months as part of the fiscal cliff deal. The cuts are split 50/50 between defense (which was supposed to get the Republicans to act) and domestic discretionary spending (which was supposed to get the Democrats to act).

As expected, Congress and the Administration have not been able to agree on serious deficit reduction so we now face the automatic budget cuts. The public does not seem to be as focused on sequestration as they were on the fiscal cliff. In a recent poll from The Hill, only 36% of likely voters know what the sequester is. The spending cuts are broad based, as the chart below from Strategas Research Partners shows; however, it will take some time for the cuts to come into effect.

3.4.13_Magnotta_Sequestration

Source: Strategas Research Partners, LLC

The drag on GDP growth from the sequester is estimated to be around -0.5% this year. This is not enough drag to push us into a recession if consensus estimates for 2013 growth are correct at 2-2.5%, but the effect is not negligible. The largest hit to GDP growth will likely be in the second quarter once a majority of the spending cuts have begun to take effect. If and when voters begin to feel the impact, there may be pressure on Washington to delay or eliminate the cuts.

We also face the expiration of the continuing resolution that funds the government on March 27, which, if not addressed, could result in a government shutdown. This could be a catalyst for another short-term fix. As typical in politics, whichever party is shouldering the most blame will be more likely to compromise to get a deal done.

The idea of real tax and entitlement reform that promotes growth and puts us on a long-term, sustainable fiscal path seems highly unlikely in this environment. Our elected leaders appear to lack the tenacity to make tough decisions. Sadly, kicking the can down the road is the path of least resistance and often the one that leads to reelection.

Bottom line: Fiscal policy in the U.S. will remain a risk throughout 2013. The spending cuts from the sequester alone are not enough to derail the economic recovery. However, tepid growth is likely to persist, especially in the first half of the year, as disposable incomes have fallen due to the expiration of the payroll tax cut. An accommodative Fed and an improving housing market are positives for growth.

U.S. Policy Update: Key Dates Ahead

Magnotta @AmyLMagnotta, CFA, Brinker Capital

I recently attended Strategas Research Partners’ public policy conference in Washington, D.C. It was hard to not come away with the feeling that our government will remain dysfunctional for the foreseeable future. But there is still hope. If we could just put politics aside, there are many smart, reasonable people on both sides of the aisle that could come together to devise an acceptable solution for our fiscal problems that does not stifle economic growth.

In the near term, policy uncertainty remains. The deal to avoid the fiscal cliff dealt primarily on the tax side, making the lower rates permanent except for those in the top tax bracket. However, they continued to kick the can down the road on the spending side. While Congress has agreed on a short-term extension of the debt ceiling, the issue will return mid-year. Washington will continue to be a focus for markets this year.

Below are some key items to watch for on the policy front:

  • The sequester, which consists $1.2 trillion of mandatory spending cuts over 10 years, half of which coming from the defense budget, is set to go into effect on March 1. At this point there is a high probability the cuts will happen. This will result in immediate negative headlines, but the impact of these spending cuts will not be felt for a few more months. Sequestration will also put some pressure on state and local governments as $37 billion of federal aid will be cut. A couple of months of cuts may force President Obama into a deal with the Republicans that would include some entitlement reform.
  • The continuing resolution that currently funds the government expires on March 27. No resolution could result in a complete or partial shutdown of the federal government.
  • The debt ceiling was extended until May 19, but the Treasury could stretch it out until July or August with extraordinary measures. Also included in the legislation is a requirement that both the House and the Senate produce a budget in April or their pay will be withheld.
  • The CBO will release their outlook on February 4.
  • Momentum is building for tax reform as Chairmen of the House Ways and Means Committee (Camp-R) and the Senate Finance Committee (Baucus-D) have hired dedicated staff. However, there is a lack of consensus on why we should do tax reform.
  • Ratings agencies are looking for a plan to stabilize our debt to GDP ratio at 70%. To do this we would need spending cuts closer to $2 trillion over ten years.

Is Europe on the Mend?

Magnotta@AmyLMagnotta, CFA, Brinker Capital

We have spent so much time focusing on the U.S. fiscal cliff that the concerns regarding Europe seemed to have been pushed to the sideline. On the positive side there has been progress in Europe. Mario Draghi, head of the European Central Bank, can take some credit for the progress. The Financial Times even named him their Person of the Year.

The €1 trillion Long-Term Refinancing Operation (LTRO) put in place in late 2011 helped fund the banking system. In July, Draghi pledged to “do whatever it takes to preserve the euro.” His words were followed up by the ECB’s open-ended sovereign bond buying program called Outright Money Transactions (OMTs) designed to keep yields on Eurozone sovereign bonds in check. The next step could be establishing the ECB as the direct supervisor of the region’s banks.

Source: FactSet

Source: FactSet

These actions have brought down borrowing costs for problem countries such as Italy and Spain, helping to change the trajectory of the crisis and prevent an economic collapse. Yields on 10-Year Italian and Spanish bonds have fallen over 200 basis points to 4.4% and 5.2%, respectively. The Euro has also strengthened versus the U.S. dollar since July, from a low of 1.21 $/€ to 1.32 $/€ today.

Source: FactSet

Source: FactSet

I wonder how long this lull in volatility in the region can continue in the face of a weak growth in the region. Seven Eurozone countries fell into recession in 2012 — Greece, Portugal, Italy, Spain, Cyprus, Slovenia and Finland. The Greek economy experienced its 17th consecutive quarter of contraction, while Portugal completed its second year of recession. There remains a stark difference in the economic performance of Germany and the rest of the Eurozone. Unemployment rates are at very high levels and continue to increase. Youth unemployment is above 50% in both Greece and Spain, a recipe for social unrest.

The ECB’s actions have bought time for the Eurozone economies to get their sovereign debt problems under control. However, continued austerity measures implemented in an attempt to repair the debt crisis have only served to further weaken growth in the region and exacerbate the situation by pushing debt to GDP ratios even higher. While some confidence has been restored to the markets, policymakers should attempt to implement more pro-growth measures to pull the region out of recession.

12.28.12_Magnotta_Europe_ChartCombo

Europe’s equity markets have rebounded nicely in 2012, leading global equity markets on a relative basis since the second quarter; the rally helped by the ECB’s actions. I remain concerned that the ECB’s measures, while improving confidence, do not address the underlying problems of weak to negative economic growth combined with deleveraging. Weak growth in the region should weigh on corporate earnings and keep a ceiling on equity valuations. The deleveraging process takes years to work through. Because the situation remains fragile, we are likely still prone to event risk and periods of increased volatility in the region.

Source: FactSet

Source: FactSet

Finally…A Fiscal Cliff Deal

Magnotta@AmyLMagnotta, CFA, Brinker Capital

It went down to the wire, but the House passed the Biden-McConnell compromise late last night. Investors are cheering today, happy to have avoided the worst case scenario. While this deal reduces the scheduled fiscal drag for 2013 and eliminates a tax-rate cliff in the future, it contains no structural reforms needed to address the country’s longer-term fiscal health. In addition, it sets us up for more fiscal policy uncertainty in the first quarter.

The previously scheduled fiscal drag, estimated at 3.5% of GDP, has now been reduced to around 1.5% of GDP. A majority of the fiscal drag ($120 billion) comes from the expiration of the 2% payroll tax cut that impacts all workers, with the remainder from the tax increases on the wealthy. However, in an economy growing at a 2.6% rate, this impact of this smaller fiscal drag is not negligible.

The tax side seems to be settled for now, reducing a sharp fiscal cliff in future years. Income tax rates have been permanently extended, with tax rates increasing only on those with incomes above $400,000 ($450,000 for families). Taxes on dividends and capital gains have been increased only for taxpayers in the highest bracket, and even still rates were increased from 15% to 20% (23.8% including the tax on investment income included in the Affordable Care Act). The AMT was also patched permanently.

However, they continue to kick the can down the road on the spending side. The sequester, or the mandatory spending cuts put in place after a deal on the debt ceiling failed to materialize in 2011, has been delayed for two months. No other meaningful spending cuts were put into place. As a result, the deal adds to the deficit.

1.2.13_Magnotta_FiscalCliff_Resolution_Chart1

Source: FactSet, BEA

This deal sets up more fiscal policy uncertainty and likely more drama in the first quarter as the sequester needs to be addressed and the debt ceiling increased. The President has vowed not to negotiate over the debt ceiling. The Treasury reported that we reached the statutory debt limit on Monday, but they can continue with extraordinary measures to keep under the limit until the end of February.

With the way the fiscal cliff deal played out over the last few weeks, Washington has done little to inspire confidence that a grand bargain to address our unsustainable fiscal path can be implemented. It is clear that we need to address both the spending and revenue sides of the equation. There has been bipartisan support in the past for a tax and entitlement reform package, like the Bowles-Simpson proposal offered by the President’s own debt commission. This type of plan would increase revenues by lowering tax rates and broadening the base, and reform entitlements, setting us on a path to getting our deficits under control and bring down our debt to GDP ratio.

Without improvement in our deficit and a plan to stabilize our debt to GDP ratio, we risk another downgrade of our sovereign debt. So far, Washington has alleviated some of the near-term headwinds to economic growth, but has done very little to address our longer term problems. We can continue to hope for a less toxic political environment, but in reality, fiscal policy uncertainty will continue in 2013 and will lead to periods of increased market volatility.

1.2.13_Magnotta_FiscalCliff_Resolution_Chart2

Source: FactSet, CBO

Looking Past the Fiscal Cliff

MagnottaAmy Magnotta, CFA, Brinker Capital

It looks like there will be some deal on the fiscal cliff that emerges from Washington before the end of the year—either (1) a large deal that includes a compromise on higher revenues, spending cuts and entitlement reforms, or (2) a smaller deal that results in a larger fiscal drag than consensus currently anticipates. Time is running out, and the market will likely be disappointed if Congress leaves for the Christmas holiday without a more specific plan in place.

In his research report today, Don Rismiller, Chief Economist at Strategas Research Partners, encouraged investors to look through the fiscal cliff and to take notice of the number of good things that are happening in the U.S. economy. Rismiller provided a dozen reasons for optimism after the fiscal cliff is resolved.

The Other Side

Positives on the Other Side of the Fiscal Cliff:

  1. The Fed has followed through on “QE4.”
  2. Additional global easing is expected (e.g., Abe & BoJ, Carney & BoE).
  3. The bond market has digested additional U.S. debt well (10-yr @ 1.8%).
  4. The U.S. dollar has held value (meaning there’s room for policy to operate).
  5. Housing has bottomed in the U.S.
  6. There’s pent-up demand for household formation (buy or rent).
  7. There’s pent-up demand being created for capex (which has already fallen).
  8. There’s likely some pent-up demand for autos (hurricane replacement).
  9. While small, nonresidential construction could increase with hurricane rebuilding.
  10. Domestic energy production continues to ramp up.
  11. Equity valuations look attractive.
  12. Equity multiples bottom before earnings, which is likely an early 2013 story.

Fiscal Cliff Update

MagnottaAmy Magnotta, CFA, Brinker Capital

The odds of a deal in Washington before year-end have increased as conversations between President Obama and Speaker Boehner have become more serious since Sunday. There has not been any public discussion of the negotiations, which is a positive sign. With less than three weeks left in the year, we need to see major progress soon, allowing for enough time to draft and vote on legislation before Congress leaves Washington for the Christmas holiday.

The highest probability outcome remains that a short-term deal is agreed on that serves as a down payment on tax and entitlement reform in 2013. This deal will include the framework for increased tax revenues and spending cuts, as well as an increase in the debt ceiling, which we feel will result in a fiscal drag of closer to 1% of GDP in 2013. It is our belief that this type of deal would be a positive for markets and confidence.

If time runs out on a larger deal, the House could pass a bill that maintains all of the current tax rates for those with incomes below $200,000, raises the capital gains and dividend taxes to 20%, and patches the Alternative Minimum Tax. However, the fiscal drag under this option is significantly higher than consensus. In addition, the brinkmanship would continue as the debt ceiling would have to be dealt with in early 2013.

The final potential outcome is that no deal can be reached and we go off the cliff completely. While we believe this is a lower probability event, it remains a risk. The markets would likely react negatively as the resulting fiscal drag would be greater than expected, and there would be a lack of confidence that Washington is serious about getting a handle on our long-term fiscal issues.

One big catalyst that should force both parties to reach a deal before year-end is that the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) patch expired at the end of 2011 and needs to be extended for this calendar year. If the AMT is not patched there will be a significant increase in the number taxpayers who are impacted, shifting the burden into the middle class. According to the Tax Policy Center, under current law if Congress does not act, the percentage of taxpayers affected by the AMT will increase from 4% to 32%. This increased tax bill would be a hit to consumers and a significant negative for growth in the first half of 2012.

12.11.12_Magnotta_Fiscal Cliff

Source: Strategas Research Partners, LLC

A deal on the fiscal cliff could restore some confidence that both parties in Washington can compromise on policy and are serious about setting us on a sustainable, long-term fiscal path. Some level of certainty on a deal could also boost business confidence, and as a result, investment and economic growth.

Follow Amy on Twitter @AmyLMagnotta.

Global Equities Rise on Hopes for End to U. S. Budget Impasse

Joe PreisserJoe Preisser

Optimism cautiously crept back into the marketplace this week, as investors continued to cast wary eyes toward Washington D.C. and the high stakes drama playing out around the looming budgets cuts and tax increases of the, “fiscal cliff”.  Stocks on Wednesday marked a turning point as they reversed earlier losses, and staged a late day rally with indications that policy makers in the United States were moving closer to bridging their differences helping to support share prices.  Although the momentum of late has been positive, indices around the globe remain beholden to news reports discussing the state of negotiations, with any hint of stagnation or progress toward resolution holding the power to move share prices significantly in either direction.  Joseph Tanious, a Global Market Strategist for J.P. Morgan was quoted as saying, “I think we’re going to have these markets that react to every single headline.  I think an agreement will be reached, and I think we’re likely to see a relief rally at the end of it.  But until then, hold on to your seat” (Wall Street Journal).

Through the confusion of this unnecessarily complex dance of politics, it appears as though the two sides are inching closer to common ground.  In a break with his party’s line, senior Republican Representative, Tom Cole of Oklahoma on Tuesday advocated to fellow G.O.P. members that they accept the White House’s proposition to extend tax rates for those making $250,000 or less (New York Times).  With the issue of possible tax increases on the highest income earners among the most contentious of the current debate, it has become apparent that the President may be amenable to adjusting the size of such an increase, potentially creating the conditions for compromise.  If the current tax rates of those Americans making more than $250,000 and $388,000 respectively, which represent the highest brackets, were permitted to expire they would reset to the Clinton era levels of 36% and 39.6%.  The co-chairman of the President’s 2010 deficit-reduction panel, Mr. Erskine Bowles suggested, following a meeting with President Obama this week, that those rates may be permitted to rise to a lower level as part of a broader deal.  According to the Wall Street Journal, “Mr. Bowles said White House officials made clear to him that the rates might not have to increase quite that high, as long as they increased a significant amount and were paired with some limits on tax breaks.”

11.16.12_Preisser_Fiscal_Cliff_Concerns

Equity markets got an additional lift this week from an article published by the Wall Street Journal, in which Jon Hilsenrath, who is widely considered a de facto mouthpiece for the Federal Reserve Bank of the United States, suggested that the Central bank will likely continue their unprecedented monetary easing policies into next year.  Mr. Hilsenrath wrote, “Three months after launching an aggressive push to restart the lumbering U.S. economy, Federal Reserve officials are nearing a decision to continue those efforts into 2013 as the U.S. faces threats from the fiscal cliff at home and fragile economies elsewhere in the world” (Wall Street Journal).  Although volatility will almost certainly surround the remaining days of the “fiscal cliff” negotiations in Washington, if the framework for compromise which has been created is completed, the extrication of this uncertainty coupled with the possibility of additional action by the Federal Reserve will be strongly supportive of equity markets around the globe.

Thought of the Week, from J.P. Morgan Asset Management

The following commentary has been posted with the consent of J.P. Morgan Asset Management.

When markets become volatile, it can be easy to lose perspective. Since the November 6th U.S. election, the S&P 500 has fallen nearly 5% as concerns have shifted from who will be the next U.S. President to how the fiscal cliff will be resolved. We continue to believe that Congress will come up with a solution – the biggest question is when. Thus, as uncertainty continues to plague markets, investors should remember that markets rarely move higher in a straight line. Since February 2009, the S&P 500 has fallen by more than 5% in 6 different months, but has risen more than 5% in 10 different months, and is up over 100% since the March 2009 low. Given that this market volatility will likely continue until the fiscal cliff is resolved, it will be important for investors to stay balanced and not panic in the face of a choppy market.

When Markets Become Volatile, Keep Things in Perspective

Source: J.P. Morgan Asset Management

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.

The Implications Of The 2012 Presidential Election

This Tuesday marked the end of the 2012 Presidential Election campaign, with Barack Obama heading back to the White House.  In a campaign marked by elements of vitriol and an astronomical amount of money spent, most experts ballpark it around $6 billion in total, the results were status quo.   Republicans maintained their majority in the House, while the Democrats, after picking up a few surprise seats, remain in control of the Senate and Presidency.

As the new(ish) regime begins to game-plan for the next four years, a number of issues to address lay in wait.  The first, and potentially most significant, is the fiscal cliff the government must face before January 1, 2013.  With the Bush-era tax cuts expiring in conjunction with spending cuts, the U.S. economy will see about a 4% drag on GDP, forcing policymakers to address the looming recession.  The most likely scenario is an extension of most of the provisions already in place, which would result in a drag on GDP closer to 1%.

A key proponent in all of this is a compromise of tax increases on high-income earners—a significant area of compromise for President Obama. It would seem that the majority of investors are anticipating such a short-term deal to take place, but if no deal is signed before the end of the year, the market will react to the disappointment.

Next on tap for the President is a defined, long-term fiscal package. And while it will be a difficult task with a split government, it has been done before.  It is important for investors to have a roadmap to address our fiscal issues as it would reduce uncertainties, provide businesses and consumers with a higher level of confidence, and ultimately spend and contribute to positive growth. One strong point here is our high demand for U.S. Treasuries, even at current low rates.

With possible changes facing the Federal Reserve and tax increases, we are faced with a number of uncertainties.  We’ve crossed the election off our list of concerns and now turn our heads to the fiscal cliff. So as we head into year end, we will prepare for market volatility while keeping a close eye on what Congress is planning.