January 7, 2013

Discounting for total political dysfunction

Filed under: Business, Economics, Government, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:30

The Economist reports on last week’s “deal” in Congress and why the markets are still able to function in spite of the almost unprecedented level of political uncertainty:

Markets now live in the policy equivalent of Beirut in 1982. They have adjusted to perpetual political dysfunction. Over the last eight weeks, as the fiscal cliff talks stumbled, revived, collapsed, then came to life again, market movements were surprisingly narrow, and much of them could be explained by tax considerations as investors prepared for higher capital gains and dividend rates. The sang froid perplexed many of us who follow the policy process for a living and knew how high the stakes were. But perhaps we were too close to it. You can steep yourself in the intricacies of political coalitions, the electoral calendar, the makeup of the executive, senate and house, the interaction of permanent and temporary fiscal policy and such arcana as reconciliation, filibusters and blue slips, and yet still not know how to model the outcome. The fiscal cliff perfectly illustrated this: the people closest to the process didn’t know any better how it would end than those reading the newspapers, or not reading the newspapers, for that matter. There were just too many moving parts.

Richard Bookstaber once attributed the evolutionary success of the cockroach to coarse decision rules: it ignores most of the information around it and responds only to simple signals. Investors do something similar when confronted with hopeless complexity. They boil it down to a binary question: disaster/no disaster. Then they ignore all the idiosyncratic inputs and ask: what does experience suggest the probability of disaster is? Four times in the last two years, politicians went up to some do-or-die deadline without going over: in December, 2010, when the Bush tax cuts first came up for expiration; in April, 2011, when the federal government nearly shut down for lack of discretionary spending authority; the following August, when Treasury was days away from hitting the hard debt ceiling; and December, 2011, when the payroll tax cut first came up for expiration. In each case, one side, or both blinked; tax rates never went up, the government never shut down, and Treasury did not stop paying bills, much less default. It was, arguably, a better record than in 1995-96 when the federal government shut down twice and Bill Clinton threatened to suspend social security payments if Newt Gingrich’s Republicans didn’t raise the debt ceiling. Ignore the specifics of the latest episodes, and the logical conclusion is that despite their differences, both sides have powerful incentives to avoid disaster, so they will.

And who are the policy experts to say otherwise? For all the twists and turns, the cliff negotiations ended up where the median market participant a few months ago assumed they would: with a short-term fix and the remainder stuffed in a can and kicked down the road.

What’s that odd whistling sound coming from Wall Street?

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