Sometimes it feels like the wheels are coming off.
The pope resigns. The North Koreans detonate a nuke. A $100 billion cut in Federal spending is on track to take effect in a month. And the stock market is flirting with record high levels. What’s wrong with this picture?
What’s going right for the market is the Fed throwing money at the economy through quantitative easing. But stocks climb a wall of worry, and the world is obliging. First the Pope: the pontiff’s resignation was prompted by his health—he’s just not physically strong enough to deal with the 24/7 demands of being a modern leader in the 21st century, so he set a humble precedent: step down voluntarily. Don’t wait for your health to cripple the papacy, possibly for months. This is actually a good thing.
With North Korea, their motivation is simple: get as much attention as possible for as long as possible. It’s hard not to see this as timed to get play at the State of the Union speech. The way to address it is equally clear: quiet diplomacy, with as little prominence as possible. Unless they attack someone or sell their bombs to terrorists, this is old news, and fairly neutral.
But it’s the sequester that has the real potential to hurt the market. $100 billion is only 0.5% of the economy, but if it comes from the wrong places it can ripple through and be magnified. We’ve just raised Social Security taxes by 2%; that will cut spending. Hit people hard enough and often enough in their pocketbooks and they’ll scale back enough to contract the economy. In a global balance sheet recession like this one, that would be bad.
Yesterday’s news was alarming, but it’s the devil we’ve known—Congressional gridlock and government dysfunction—that’s the biggest risk today. Keep your eyes on Washington.
Douglas R. Tengdin, CFA
Chief Investment Officer