Will the stock market freak out over the fiscal cliff?

October 23, 2012

General Electric isn't taking any chances on the fiscal cliff: The firm just sold $7 billion in debt, netting $2 billion in cash and refinancing $5 billion in bonds that are scheduled to mature early next year, according to the Financial Times. The move was prompted by concern that there might be market turbulence as Congress wrangles over the pending tax hikes and spending cuts.


(Mary Altaffer/AP)

GE isn't alone: The fiscal cliff is quickly emerging as the most frequently cited source of market uncertainty in recent surveys and earnings reports of private firms. The Bank of America's fund manager survey in October found that the fiscal cliff is the "#1 risk for investors (42 percent of respondents vs. 27 percent for the E.U. debt crisis)." MacroRisk Advisors found the same in a new survey of recent investors, who cited both the elections and the fiscal cliff as the biggest source of uncertainty. "This is a shift from almost every other instance over the past three years in which we have asked this question, when the answer was overwhelmingly Europe," the firm said, per Morning Money.

Analysts agree that market turbulence could be on the horizon as the debate moves forward, particularly as the risks haven't been priced into earnings yet. "One reason we remain cautious on equities for the next few months is the likelihood for heightened volatility and the potential for a near-term correction amid the risks posed by the US presidential election and the fiscal cliff," the Bank of America's research team concludes. "We have retained 1450 as our 2012 year-end target but suspect that the risk-reward is currently skewed to the downside."

The stock market isn't a great proxy for the economy, but the psychological and political impact of a big drop-off in the market could have a ripple effect, spurring lawmakers to reach some kind of deal and alarming more ordinary Americans, who so far haven't been very concerned about the fiscal cliff, as far as they're aware of it.

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Dylan Matthews | October 23, 2012