There's less uncertainty on the political landscape. But there's now more to worry about.
For a short while, Wall Street seemed to be fantasizing about a strong Republican showing in the 2012 elections, which would have brought single-party control to a notoriously fractious and dysfunctional government in Washington, D.C. That's one explanation for why the stock market had a banner day as voters were heading to the polls, rising by nearly 1 percent on a day when there was little tangible news to justify the gain.
But after a seemingly endless campaign and $6 billion worth of political spending, Americans voted to reelect President Obama, keep Congress more or less the way it's been, and continue the divided government that's been in place for the last two years. Many analysts considered that a worst-cast scenario in terms of resolving the "fiscal cliff," the huge set of tax hikes and spending cuts set to go into effect in 2013 if Washington doesn't come up with a better plan.
Since averting the cliff would require some kind of compromise between Democrats who control the White House and Senate, and Republicans who control the House of Representatives, a continuation of the status quo suggests that the same spiteful partisan squabbling that already dominates Washington will suffuse negotiations over cutting the deficit and starting to pay down the $16 trillion national debt.
"A status quo outcome will be viewed as a disappointment, and markets may sell off somewhat in the short run," wrote David Joy, chief market strategist for Ameriprise Financial, in a brief analysis of the election's consequences. "It will be viewed as an outcome which offers the prospect for continued partisan bickering on a budget deal, and which increases the likelihood of brinksmanship on the fiscal cliff."
Many analysts assumed that a Republican sweep, including control of both houses of Congress, would have raised the likelihood of a deal to rescind most or all of the tax increases scheduled to go into effect in 2013—which amount to about $545 billion. But Obama wants to raise taxes on the wealthy, which Republicans have said they won't tolerate.
That portends a nasty standoff similar to the meltdown that occurred when the U.S. borrowing limit needed to be raised in the summer of 2011, and bitter partisan wrangling went till the very last second. The borrowing limit did get raised, but the needless 11th-hour drama—plus the collapse of a broader deal to corral the mushrooming national debt—led to the first-ever downgrade in the U.S. credit rating. Over the next month, the stock market fell by seven percent.
So it's little wonder that Wall Street expects more of the same when an even bigger set of deadlines hits at the end of the year. "In a scenario in which the political makeup inside the beltway is largely unchanged from last summer, we expect an intense battle," investment bank UBS advised clients in a research note ahead of the election.
There are still plenty of ways that a divided Washington could steer clear of the cliff and spare the economy another unneeded shock. President Obama, who hasn't staked out a strong stance on deficit reduction, could grant House Republicans a few of their priorities—which mostly involve spending cuts—in order to reach a compromise. Chastened Republicans might show a stronger inclination to solve problems rather than scoring political points. Business leaders, who have been heavily lobbying for a solution, might finally bang some sense into the politicians.
But none of that will happen for a while, if it happens at all. In the meantime, brace for a few weeks that may be the bumpiest of the year so far. The election is over, but the fighting probably isn't.
Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.