Now that the elections are over and nothing has really changed, it’s back to the fiscal cliff situation for the United States. At the end of the year, the Bush-era tax cuts and other benefits are scheduled to expire at the same time automatic cuts to government spending kick in, a combination known as a fiscal cliff that could send the country sliding into a recession next year if left unchecked by Congress.
This is now the major challenge that has to be tackled by the politicians with all the urgency it deserves. For now, nobody really knows what the policymakers in Washington will or won’t agree to or even compromise on.
It is generally expected that if the fiscal cliff is avoided, U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) could grow around 2 percent or even slightly above that in 2013. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) stated last week that if the substantial changes to tax and spending policies take effect in January, it expects real (inflation-adjusted) GDP to contract by 0.5 percent in 2013, while the unemployment rate would rise to 9.1 percent in the fourth quarter of 2013, up from the 7.9 percent where it stands now.
Under these circumstances it is practically impossible for a long-term investor to make any “non-speculative” investment decision before we get clarity on where we are going with the fiscal cliff. Take care, this could become seriously frustrating, as the final decisions will be completely in the hands of the policymakers in Washington.
The only thing we can do for now is to hope for the best and prepare for the worst. Besides, history has taught all of us no sustainable growth can be built on a mountain of debt. Hopefully, the policymakers will keep that in mind.
The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) released its composite leading indicators (CLIs) that point to stabilizing, but weak growth (100.2) in the full OECD area, which comprises 34 states. The United States (100.9) shows the best positive indicator of the whole lot and is up 0.98 percent year-on-year (y/y), China (99.4) is down 1.12 percent y/y, and Canada (99.7) is down 0.16 percent y/y.
The CLI for the euro area as a whole (99.4) is down 1 percent y/y, Germany (98.7) is down 1.72 percent y/y, France (99.5) is down 0.90 percent y/y and Japan (100.2) is down 0.14 percent y/y. All these economies continue to point to weaker growth. Only the United Kingdom (100.2), which is up 0.55 percent y/y, and Brazil (99.5), up 0.98 percent y/y, are showing growth picking up. Yes, very slow growth or even no growth at all seem clearly to be in place for the foreseeable future.
Global growth remains very weak and this is undoubtedly very well reflected in the Markit global business outlook survey. The survey shows global business confidence has fallen to its lowest level in three years, with sentiment sliding in the United States, but still remaining the second highest of all monitored countries, only coming in after Brazil.
Business confidence continues to fall in the eurozone, where pessimism has now spread to Germany and France, and also is falling in China, Japan and India. The overall employment outlook, even in China, shows further signs of weakening. Only Brazil and Russia expect employment growth. As a long-term investor, you should ask yourself where growth is finally going to come from.
In the mean time, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) reported that it expects demand for OPEC crude for 2012 to decline 0.1 million barrels per day compared with 2011, and demand for OPEC crude in 2013 is forecast to drop 0.4 million barrels per day from the current year. Here also we can’t see any indication of growth in the near future.
Taking all this into account, I can’t see where the various global quantitative easing actions undertaken by several important central banks are delivering the growth they were intended for.
Of course, it could be worse.
Fiscal, financial and economical uncertainties continue dominating and not just in Europe, where the cacophony is again performing at its best. As illustrated yesterday in Brussels, Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the Euro Group, which has the political control over the euro currency, openly disagreed on when Greece would have to reach the earlier agreed upon 120 percent debt-to-GDP ratio in 2020.
Juncker crossed out the target date of 2020 and insisted Greece be given two extra years to comply, which would push the target date back to 2022. Lagarde insisted the IMF was sticking with the original, formally agreed upon target date of 2020. How long that kind of soap opera will go on, I don’t know. One thing is for sure; this surely is not constructive for confidence building in the euro undertaking.
As far as I’m concerned, I prefer remaining completely “risk off,” with the United States and the dollar on top, notwithstanding the threat of the fiscal cliff.
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