Wall Street’s fortunes seem to be beholden to the Fiscal Cliff (a registered trademark of CNBC). Late in the day on Tuesday, some rather casual remarks by Senator Harry Reid were enough to knock a few points off the S&P 500. The same thing happened again on Thursday, but this time, the remarks came from House Speaker John Boehner. Then, as word of progress leaked out, well…the market started to gain traction.
Let me be clear: The threat from the Fiscal Cliff is greatly, hugely and fantastically exaggerated. It’s almost reached comical levels. The behavior at CNBC in particular has been reprehensible. The network is simultaneously over-hyping the threat while presenting themselves as the saviors. Folks, there’s nothing to worry about.
Of course, if we really were to go over the cliff, that would be bad news—and that’s precisely why it won’t happen. In the meantime, both sides need to prove to their respective bases that they’re not backing down. It’s for show, like you see in a nature program about silver-backed gorillas fighting for dominance.
But let’s get some facts. For one, the threat is easily avoidable. The White House and Congress have too much to lose by not reaching a deal. In fact, a recent article at Politico suggests that, despite the rhetoric we hear in public, the framework of a deal is starting to take shape. Neither side will get everything it wants, but they’ll both get enough to walk away with some pride.
Also, remember that this deal is being made with the lame-duck Congress. That means there are a few folks who won’t even be members of Congress in a few weeks. In fact, a deal may even be reached some time in the new year. In a few months, no one will be talking about this.
The market has resigned itself to the fact that taxes will go up. That’s no surprise. In response, dozens of companies like Costco (NASDAQ:COST) and Las Vegas Sands (NYSE:LVS) have announced special dividends.
Other companies like Walmart (NYSE:WMT) have moved up their dividend dates in order to avoid the taxman. An analyst at Deutsche Bank (NYSE:DB) suggested that Bed, Bath & Beyond (NASDAQ:BBBY), one of our Buy List stocks, could pay a special dividend. I’m a doubter, but I will note that the home-furnishings company is sitting on $4 per share in cash.
One good way of putting the Fiscal Cliff threat into perspective is by looking at how well defense and aerospace stocks are doing. Needless to say, any sequester would be very bad news for these companies.
The Defense Sector ETF (NYSE:ITA) badly lagged the market for most of this year. Its relative performance reached a low point in late September, but then, except for a brief period in mid-November, the ITA has been leading the market ever since. This tells me that that no one has the motive for a prolonged fight.
Furthermore, the Volatility Index (NYSE:VIX) has remained subdued, and the stock market has largely avoided wild daily swings in the past few weeks. There’s only been one daily swing of more than 2% in the last two months, and that was the big sell-off on the day after the election. This has been a calm market.