By Simon Lack
For investors, 2012 has been a year so far of disasters that did not occur. The euro did not implode; Greece was not unceremoniously dumped out; Israel has not attacked Iran; and other perhaps even less likely mishaps did not occur. Consequently, it's been a good year for equity investors if you had the long-term view or short-term intestinal fortitude to remain invested.
But it seems to me that the next looming disaster, the "fiscal cliff," may not be so easily avoided. Corporations are increasingly voicing concern about slowing demand. Anecdotal evidence is that uncertainty related to the election and its immediate aftermath are causing many spending decisions to be put on hold. And it seems 3Q corporate profits, whether they were surprisingly good or not, have included downward revisions to guidance more often than in the past.
Meanwhile, conventional wisdom is that after the election, legislators in Washington will arrive at a compromise that avoids the worst of the immediate drag on the economy from higher taxes and spending cuts that current law dictates. The idea behind this structure was that it would force Congress to address the issue rather than submit to the blunt instrument of sequestration. Although many people seem optimistic that a solution will be found, I don't think it's so simple.
First of all, the election is intended to clarify popular opinion with respect to each party's preferred solution (i.e., will we solve the problem with more cuts and less tax hikes, or vice versa). And yet, the most likely electoral result is that Obama wins, the House remains Republican and the Senate is controlled by neither party (where a 60-vote filibuster-proof majority is required to push through contentious legislation). Don't be confused by the various national polls -- Intrade (where people bet money on the outcome) shows Obama with a 62% probability of winning (versus 38% for Romney). It may well come down to Ohio, and Romney's improvement in national opinion polls isn't nearly as important as what the people of Ohio think. Romney is not ahead in Ohio.
So there's a reasonable chance that the Lame Duck session of Congress that will meet following the election (for only 12 scheduled days until January) will be approximately the same group to be sworn in to power early next year. This is the same group of legislators who almost took us over the precipice in the summer of 2011 with the debt ceiling mess. The notion that the losing party will respect the popular mandate and make more of the concessions necessary to avoid the cliff seems fanciful. More likely is that the Republicans will claim that a weak Presidential candidate not truly loved by the rank and file failed to capitalize on the widespread unhappiness with Obama. Moreover, they'll have little incentive to compromise because it's not their economy. A 2013 recession might be the best way to start the fight for 2014 mid-term elections, from the Republicans' point of view.
But whether you accept that analysis or not, consider that neither side will want to settle things until the last possible minute, for fear of foregoing the best available deal usually obtained through brinkmanship. Two or three extra weeks of bargaining in hope of a better political outcome will seem worth the possible short-term economic damage.
They'll work something out in the end. There's little choice. But my bet is that between now and December 31, there will be moments when there's reason to doubt that optimistic outcome, and in any event, the economic damage caused by uncertainty is being inflicted every day.
How to invest through that period? We continue to own equities we like, but have trimmed positions in names that we believe are highly cyclical, and hold some cash in case we are able to invest in one or two businesses at better prices than are available today. In our Deep Value Equity strategy, one of our biggest positions is Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A), which is attractively priced and not likely to cause too much concern even in the dark days of late December. We also have a big position in Microsoft (MSFT) -- the release of Windows 8 looks underwhelming -- but its valuation and monopoly-like positions limit the downside, in our opinion. The Gold Miners ETF (GDX) is a bet on central bank reflation, and it's been handily outperforming the S&P 500 of late. And Corrections Corp (CXW) should reveal more about its REIT conversion in a couple of weeks.