Our economic forecast for 2013 comes down to one simple phrase: "It all hinges on Washington." The President and Congress must decide whether tax rates rise or fall, whether fiscal stimulus or austerity rules the day, and whether the long term budget deficit issues (entitlements) will be addressed. The Federal Reserve has now promised to hold short term rates low until the unemployment rate falls to 6.5 percent, unless they determine inflation is likely to exceed 2.5 percent. Will the Fed's newest $85 billion monthly quantitative easing (bond buying) program continue to suppress longer maturity bond yields in 2013? To paraphrase the European Central Bank's Mario Draghi: "believe us, it'll be enough" to keep the U.S. Treasury 10 year bond yield from rising much in 2013.
We continue to view the Washington glass as "half full," so we expect fiscal cliff compromises will be reached by early 2013. Taxes will be raised on the "rich" (however that is defined) but the impact of tax increases on everyone else will be limited by extending the middle class tax cuts, "patching" the Alternative Minimum Tax, and gradually ending the FICA 2 percent payroll tax holiday. Alas, anyone who has a taxable investment account will pay more taxes through higher capital gains rates and higher tax rates on common stock dividends. Entitlement reform will likely be kicked down the road, but we expect the credit rating agencies will be assuaged by an agreement to create a Congressional commission, lessening the risk of a January ratings downgrade. Likewise, there should be just enough spending cuts to allow a compromise on raising the debt ceiling.
The downside risk from here hinges on Washington: policy errors that take us over the cliff might leave the economy crushed at the bottom of the gorge by another severe recession.
Sounds horrifying, doesn’t it? Well, it is — but we think this worst-case scenario is VERY unlikely. Even if taxes are raised, the increase shouldn't be too stiff and history shows that the impact on spending will be minor. Modestly higher capital gains rates also have a limited impact. Changes to corporate taxes and deductions will be a mix of plusses and minuses, as always. The regulatory burden only goes in one direction — heavier, but who could be surprised by that? Despite volatile gasoline prices, the CPI inflation rate has dropped to roughly 2 percent and that trend should continue in 2013. Energy prices should not rise significantly as increased supply meets very slow demand growth. With regard to consumers, housing activity and prices are on the upswing. In fact, residential construction has been additive to GDP for the past six consecutive quarters! Combined with the doubling of the S&P 500 since 2009 and decline in consumer debt outstanding, household net worth has improved sharply. Continued modest, but steady job growth should result in lower unemployment rates during 2013.
Basically, the economy can do one of three things: improve, stay the same, or get worse. The presence of feedback loops often determines which of these occurs. We began 2012 with a positive feedback loop — rising production of goods and services meant more hours worked, which meant incomes grew, which resulted in greater demand for goods and services, leading to rising production of goods and services! Unfortunately, fears arose during the year that caused great uncertainty for both businesses and consumers. Uncertainty weakens the links of a positive feedback loop and can eventually forge a negative chain. Fortunately, much of the current uncertainty should be alleviated by even a partial resolution of the fiscal cliff/budget deficit issues.
All in all, we expect a slow start to 2013 due to the hangover from Washington's partisan battles and going over the fiscal cliff (fiscal slope?) to some extent. However, as uncertainties are alleviated, we expect GDP growth to re-accelerate toward 2.5 percent+ in the second half.
Bob Leggett, CFA, is the Senior Investment Strategist at FirstMerit Wealth Management Services. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @firstmerit_mkt.
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