"And you tell me
Over and over and over again, my friend
Ah, you don't believe
We're on the eve
- Barry McGuire, "Eve of Destruction"
Panic has once again descended upon Wall Street. This time investors are gnashing their teeth over whether our political parties will be able to strike a tax and spending deal before Jan. 1. If not, so the story goes, we will plunge, like lemmings, over the so-called fiscal cliff never to return. Why am I not impressed?
We have had a number of these dramatic binary events over the last few years. They always make great theater, but none have turned out nearly as bad as the media predicted. If you had panicked and sold on their advice you would be much poorer today. This particular cliff-hanger reminds me of another end-of-the-year event that was predicted to cause horror and dismemberment among the world's institutions, Y2K.
The Year 2000 was a problem for both digital and non-digital documentation and data storage situations which resulted from the practice of abbreviating a four-digit year to two digits. Would the world's computers be able to recognize and accommodate a year that began with "2" instead of "1"?
At the time, we were assaulted for months with stories that spelled out what could, would or should happen if the world was not prepared for this digital disaster. But predicting the end of the world is a zero-sum gain. If someone gets it right, (and no one has thus far) there won't be anyone left around to brag about it. As for Y2K, it turned out to be, in the words of Shakespeare "Much Ado about Nothing."
In this case, investors; who have known about the fiscal cliff for months, are assuming what happened before will happen again. Readers may recall that last year both Republicans and Democrats could not agree on how to address our growing deficit. The Republicans used the nation's debt limit, which was fast approaching a ceiling, as a bargaining chip to force a series of spending cuts on the White House and Senate. Both sides refused to back down. At the 11th hour, it was agreed to kick the can down the road until after the elections by temporarily raising the debt ceiling in exchange for implementing a series of tax hikes and spending cuts that would be implemented automatically at the beginning of 2013.
If there is no compromise, pundits and even the president have predicted that the combination of tax increases and spending cuts will drive us back into a recession, the gains in employment will evaporate and the United States will quickly join Europe in vying for the worse economy of 2013. No one wins. Everyone loses.
What's wrong with that picture?
Well, for starters, everyone knows it and politicians hate to lose. Americans have also conveniently forgotten that the parties did compromise last year. They agreed to disagree, but still raised the debt ceiling at the height of partisan politics. Today, less than two weeks after the elections, President Obama was re-elected with a mandate to lead but also to compromise. That seems clear when you look at the results in Congress. Republicans were re-elected and maintain their majority in the House while the Democrats control the Senate. It seems to me that voters want compromise from all their elected officials and both parties know it. Last year there was no such message; in fact, if anything, both sides felt it was their way or the highway and still they compromised.
So far, both sides have said they are willing to do just that. In politics (as in real life) you go into negotiations with your strongest suite. Otherwise, you have nothing to give in exchange for another card. I believe there is a new willingness in Washington to compromise but, for Americans, it will have to be one of those "show me" moments. As such, patience and a cool head are required until then.
We only have a matter of days for work on Capitol Hill in order to get a deal done before this "Eve of Destruction." Just about everyone assumes both sides will not budge and negotiations have not even started.
In the meantime, there is an old saying on Wall Street: "Don't fight the tape." It means that regardless of whether the direction of the market is right or wrong, don't fight the flow. Right now, panic prevails, the markets are in a waterfall decline and investors are all going down like lemmings together. Don't get caught up in this crowd psychology. In my opinion, sentiment and the markets will reverse as soon as it becomes apparent that this black chasm in front of us is simply one more shallow ditch.
Bill Schmick is registered as an investment adviser representative and portfolio manager with Berkshire Money Management, managing over $200 million for investors in the Berkshires. His forecasts and opinions are purely his own. None of this commentary is or should be considered investment advice or a promotion of Berkshire Money Management.