Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

As 'Fiscal Cliff' Looms, Stock Markets Shudder at Economic 'Uncertainty'

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

As 'Fiscal Cliff' Looms, Stock Markets Shudder at Economic 'Uncertainty'

Article excerpt

For an election that was largely about the economy, the result this week leaves a lot of economic doubts in its wake.

President Obama scored a clear win, but now has unanswered policy questions piled on the White House doorstep.

First among those is what to do about the fiscal cliff of scheduled tax increases and federal spending cuts. Unless the president and a politically divided Congress take action, the economy drives over that cliff on Jan. 1.

That may explain, in large measure, why US stock indexes fell sharply on the morning after the vote. The Dow Jones Industrial Average slumped more than 2 percent in early trading Wednesday.

The re-election of President Obama removes one uncertainty for investors, economists Paul Ashworth and Paul Dales of Capital Economics wrote in a Wednesday analysis. But they are none the wiser about if, how and when Congress will deal with the colossal tightening in fiscal policy scheduled to occur early next year.

The tax hikes and spending cuts would dampen consumer spending (by households and by the government), threatening a new recession. Forecasters widely expect some bargain designed to change the cliff into more of a gradual slope.

But how such a deal will shape up, in the current partisan climate, remains unclear. Will Mr. Obama seek to hold firm on his view that an extension of Bush-era tax rates should exclude the rich? Will resistance to tax hikes within the Republican-controlled House stymie efforts to strike a grand bargain that mitigates the cliff in the near term while also reducing long-term deficits?

The analysts at Capital Economics in Toronto predict that Obama will struggle to garner bipartisan support for a more comprehensive agreement [on] how to put the nations finances back on a sustainable path.

Obama used his victory speech, delivered in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, to focus above the partisan fray on things that unite Americans rather than divide them.

With the cliff just weeks away, however, bargaining on the issue is moving immediately into high gear.

Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) said Wednesday that any solution should include higher taxes on "the richest of the rich," but also that hes not for kicking the can down the road" into next year.

Delaying the issue until next year could be hazardous to an economy thats already fragile, growing at an annualized pace of 2 percent or perhaps a bit less. Current forecasts, which assume some resolution of the "cliff" problem, call for similar tepid growth in 2013.

Wednesdays stock market weakness was also fueled by reminders that the economic clouds arent limited to the US. Traders were also listening as European Central Bank President Mario Draghi spoke of economic weakness in the wider euro zone. …

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