Wall Street holds its nerve as spending cuts near
NEW YORK — With barely a week to go before $85 billion in automatic government spending cuts are scheduled to kick in, Wall Street is holding its nerve.
The Dow Jones industrial average has gained 6.8 percent since the start of the year as investors largely ignored the latest installment of Washington’s budget drama.
The Dow climbed close to its record level at the start of the month, and the Standard & Poor’s 500 notched up a streak of seven straight weeks of gains before easing back this week. Even after its weekly loss of 0.3 percent, it’s still up 6.3 percent this year.
Wall Street is betting that the cuts, which the Congressional Budget Office estimates will take 0.6 of a percentage point of economic growth this year and cost 750,000 jobs, won’t be enough to derail the recovery. Investors also may have become used to Washington brinkmanship, having seen last-minute deals made after a series of political standoffs.
David Bianco, chief U.S. equities strategist at Deutsche Bank, said the automatic spending cuts actually could be a “net positive” for stocks, despite the drag they would put on the economy. That’s because a set of known, measurable spending cuts are better than no budget reduction at all.
“Significant spending cuts are needed,” Bianco said. “Until that happens, people are going to worry that this is still a problem that needs to be solved.”
Bianco estimated that the impact of the spending cuts on corporate profits will be limited, reducing the income of companies in the S&P 500 index by just 2 percent.
Sitting on the sidelines during the political wrangling in Washington hasn’t been a winning strategy in recent years either, as stocks have rebounded and come back stronger each time, said David Kelly, chief strategist at J.P. Morgan funds.
The Dow has returned 24 percent since the end of August 2011, after plunging following the showdown that month over raising the country’s borrowing limit. The index is also 12 percent higher since bottoming out in November after the election, when investors sold stocks on concern that a divided government wouldn’t be able to come up with a budget compromise.
Analysts and investors generally agree that the huge amount of attention being paid to the $85 billion of cuts far exceeds the actual impact they will have on the $16 trillion U.S. economy, particularly given that the cuts will be phased in over time, and some will ultimately be reversed.
The cuts are a problem of Washington’s own making. The Budget Control Act, signed in to law in August 2011, was meant to end the nation’s debt crisis and force lawmakers to come up with a measured approach to reduce the deficit.
The automatic spending cuts were included in the bill with the idea that they would be so unpalatable to lawmakers that they would have a strong incentive to avoid them by making a deal to reduce the budget deficit.