Stop Obsessing Over the Fiscal Cliff

11/01/2012 9:30 am EST


Howard Gold

Founder & President, GoldenEgg Investing

You don't have to follow the pundits...until we actually have a slowdown, the only thing you'll be doing by worrying endlessly is giving yourself more indigestion, writes MoneyShow's Howard R. Gold, also of The Independent Agenda.

Last Friday afternoon, while I was looking for a column idea, I had CNBC on in the background. And every single guest was talking about the “fiscal cliff.”

Not just talking about it; worrying about the same anxious tones many pundits fretted about, say, Europe, several months ago. Before Hurricane Sandy brought a grim dose of reality many of us did have to worry about, the fiscal cliff had become Wall Street’s obsession du jour.

For the past few weeks, stocks have slipped from their mid-September highs, as fears about the fiscal cliff replaced anticipation about the Federal Reserve’s next round of monetary easing in the minds of investors and traders.

For those of you who have spent the last few months vacationing on Mars, the fiscal cliff is a tax and spending-cut time bomb set to go off on January 1, 2013, mostly because of the cowardice and procrastination of the United States Congress.

On that date, all the Bush tax cuts are set to expire. The payroll tax cut President Obama negotiated with Congress also will disappear, as will the partial expensing of investments and extended unemployment benefits. A tax increase to help pay for the Affordable Care Act will kick in, and so will automatic spending cuts mandated by Congress in last year’s deal to raise the debt ceiling.

Altogether, there are about $400 billion in tax increases and $200 billion in spending cuts waiting to hit the economy like a wrecking ball when the confetti rains down upon us on New Year's.

Marginal tax rates will revert to Clinton-era levels, with the top rate at 39.6%—even higher when you add new taxes to pay for health-care reform. Capital gains taxes will go back to 20% from 15%, and dividends will be taxed as ordinary income. The estate tax will shoot up to 55% on estates over $1 million, so please try not to drop dead next year.

But lots of people worry the economy may die if this $600 billion anvil falls on its head. I’ve seen estimates of potential GDP declines as high as 5%.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said if we go over the cliff, we would have “economic conditions in 2013 that will probably be considered a recession," perhaps driving unemployment to 9.1% in next year’s fourth quarter.

The National Association of Manufacturers does them one better: It says the cliff could cost 6 million jobs and boost unemployment to 11% in 2014.

NEXT: Consumers and Businesses Split on the Cliff


Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody’s Analytics, calls fiscal issues “the No. 1 weight on investment” now.

That was shown dramatically in the most recent report on GDP, which rose by 2% in the third quarter. But that was powered almost entirely by consumer and defense spending, while business spending and exports actually slipped.

The University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment index for October hit its highest level since September 2007. Existing home sales and median home prices are up strongly from last year. US auto sales are on fire.

That split between consumers’ confidence and business’s gloom was reflected in a poll we just did of individual investors. According to the latest®/The Independent Agenda® Investor Class Poll, 87% of those surveyed expect a fiscal deal either in the lame-duck session of Congress after the election or some time in 2013. Only 13% believe we’ll go over the cliff.

This is a remarkable split between consumers and individual investors on one hand and companies and institutions on the other.

Could investors be blind? It wouldn’t be the first time. But as I noted, pundit after pundit predicted the imminent demise of Europe, too. And yet last I looked, the Eurozone is still around.

As I’ve often written this year, the four-year presidential stock market cycle looks good through early 2013, so I’m holding on to my already underweighted stock positions through then. I’m not willing to speculate on the results of the election, nor am I willing to put my money on what will happen after that.

If I had to guess, I’d say the payroll tax and extra unemployment benefits will go, but Congress will extend everything else into the second quarter of 2013. But ultimately I agree with the investors we polled: We’ll get a bad, ugly deal that no one likes. That would take GDP down 0.5% next year, but not much more.

No “expert” has any idea how this is going to turn out. Nor do I.  The only people who might know are President Obama, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, Speaker of the House John Boehner, or Senators Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid. And remember, many of them were surprised the last time around, too.

  • Read Howard's analysis of the stakes in this election in "The Choice We Face" in The Independent Agenda.

So, it all comes down to what the Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman (of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President’s Men) once said of Hollywood: Nobody knows anything.

When nobody knows anything, the best thing to do is nothing at all. That’s why I think all this brouhaha over the fiscal cliff is just noise that investors can safely ignore.

Howard R. Gold is editor at large for and a columnist for MarketWatch. Follow him on Twitter @howardrgold and catch his coverage of Election Night 2012 on

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