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Breaking insights on the economy, market volatility, policy changes and geopolitical events.
January 24, 2023

Could debt ceiling negotiations slow economic recovery?

When the U.S. Government hit its debt ceiling on January 19, the Treasury Department began using "extraordinary measures" to enable the government to pay its bills1. While these measures could keep the government open for several more months as a divided Congress negotiates a new debt limit — and the markets so far seem not to be affected — investors should be aware of the potential longer term impact the Treasury's moves could have on the economy.
"The debt ceiling is a light gray cloud for now, likely to grow darker as negotiations unfold in a more assertive way," says Chris Hyzy, Chief Investment Officer for Merrill and Bank of America Private Bank. One concern is that the measures the Treasury must take to honor its obligations run counter to the efforts the Federal Reserve (the Fed) has been making to tame inflation, notes Robert T. McGee, head of CIO Macro Strategy in the Chief Investment Office for Merrill and Bank of America Private Bank. A recent Capital Markets Outlook report (PDF) from the Chief Investment Office (CIO) lays out the details.
What the debt ceiling is — and why it matters
Established by Congress more than a century ago, the debt ceiling (or debt limit) determines how much money the government can borrow to meet existing obligations, ranging from salaries for government employees and payments to government contractors to national debt interest.2 When the limit (currently nearly $31.4 trillion) is reached, Congress must raise or suspend the limit in order for the government to pay its bills. This has happened 78 times since 1960, according to the Treasury Department. If the limit is not adjusted, the government may partially shut down — this happened most recently for 35 days in December 2018 and January 2019, the longest shutdown on record.3
As Congress debates the 2023 debt ceiling, "the Treasury must shuffle funds to meet government obligations and avert a shutdown," says McGee. While not a permanent solution, the Treasury estimates it can provide the necessary money to pay bills through June, though some economists consider that a conservative estimate.
Economic ripple effects
The Treasury's shuffling of funds adds liquidity to the banking system at a time when the Fed is attempting the exact opposite — tightening the money supply and raising interest rates in order to keep inflation under control. When the debt situation is ultimately resolved, the Fed may have to start tightening all over again, McGee says. Should the economy enter a recession this year, as many observers expect, the need to further tighten would leave the Fed with less ability to take steps to help stimulate the economy into recovery.
What this could mean for investors
"Uncertainty around the debt ceiling adds a new layer of concern," says Hyzy. "But we still expect a new long-term bull market to take shape next year." Adds McGee: "As the debt ceiling drama plays out, current financial conditions favor long-duration bonds." A delayed U.S. economic recovery could favor non-U.S. stocks, particularly those likely to benefit from China's COVID reopening. "The current situation also calls for a high level of diversification and higher quality across asset classes," McGee says.
Footnote 1 CNN, "US Hits Debt Ceiling, Prompting Treasury to Take Extraordinary Measures," Jan. 19, 2023.

Footnote 2 U.S. Department of the Treasury, "Debt Limit."

Footnote 3 Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, "Q&A: Everything You Should Know About Government Shutdowns," Dec. 12, 2022.

January 12, 2023

SECURE 2.0 offers help for retirement savers of all ages

The new year brings new reasons to revisit — and possibly increase — your retirement plan contributions. The SECURE 2.0 Act of 2022 — part of the $1.7 trillion Consolidated Appropriation Act signed into law back in December — makes it easier for taxpayers of all ages to save more for retirement.
"SECURE 2.0 attempts to address deficiencies in retirement plan participation and savings," says Mitchell Drossman, head of National Wealth Strategies in the Chief Investment Office (CIO) for Merrill and Bank of America Private Bank. Several key provisions are highlighted below. But there's much more. For a broader look, read "Tax Alert 2023-01: SECURE 2.0 Provisions Affecting Retirement Plans and IRAs (PDF)" from the Chief Investment Office.
While many provisions benefit older savers, the SECURE 2.0 Act also aims to help new employees get in the retirement savings habit, says Mitchell Drossman, head of National Wealth Strategies, Chief Investment Office, Merrill and Bank of America Private Bank.
What's new for younger workers?
It's about to become easier to save for retirement while paying off student loans. "While many provisions benefit older savers, the SECURE 2.0 Act also aims to help new employees get in the retirement savings habit," says Drossman. Recent graduates with significant debt often must prioritize repaying loans over saving for retirement. The new law addresses that by enabling employers (starting in 2024) to make matching contributions to retirement plans based on the amount of student debt an employee is repaying (up to the amount that employee would be eligible to contribute to their own plan).
Saving becomes automatic. To increase participation, starting in 2024 companies offering new retirement plans must automatically enroll employees and periodically increase their employees' plan contributions. Employees may still choose to opt out, but automatic enrollment can encourage more employees to save, Drossman notes.
More incentives for those closer to retirement
Higher "catch-up" contributions. Catch-up contributions have long been a way for individuals over 50 to save additional amounts in their tax-advantaged plans. Starting in 2024, the new law allows participants in 401(k) and 403(b) plans aged 60 through 63 to contribute $10,000 or 150% of the standard catch-up amount, whichever is greater. (For participants in SIMPLE IRAs and SIMPLE 401(k) plans, the limits are $5,000 or 150%). But there's a catch: Starting in 2024, those earning more than $145,000 will have to make catch-up contributions to a Roth IRA or Roth 401(k) plan. in other words, they'll have to contribute post-tax dollars, though the distributions will be tax free when they take them out in retirement.
Later RMDs mean more time to invest. The new law raises the age for taking required minimum distributions (RMDs) to 73 in 2023, up from 72 last year and 70.5 as recently as 2019. The change reflects the fact that many Americans are choosing to work longer, Drossman says. "Forcing people to take distributions while they're still working conflicts with the goal of saving for retirement." In 2033, the age will rise to 75. All of which means potentially more years for your investments to grow before you must take money out.
Lower penalties for missing the RMD deadline. Failure to take distributions on time has traditionally meant a penalty of 50% of the amount of the missed RMD, Drossman notes. The SECURE 2.0 Act cuts the penalty to 25% starting this year, and it could even be lowered to 10% in some cases. These and other changes often contain complex requirements, he adds. Speak with your plan administrator and your tax professional about how best to take advantage of the new opportunities this legislation offers.
To find out whether you should consider saving more for retirement, try our Retirement Calculator and read "10 Tips to Help You Boost Your Retirement Savings — Whatever Your Age."
November 10, 2022

The voters have spoken — how will the markets react?

Preliminary midterm election results surprised markets that had already priced in a decisive Republican sweep. "Leading up to the elections, we had seen the equity markets advance, particularly in the last couple of weeks," says Chris Hyzy, Chief Investment Officer, Merrill and Bank of America Private Bank.
Instead, with votes still being tallied, Republicans now appear likely to take control of the House of Representatives by a slim margin, and control of the Senate may come down to a runoff election in Georgia in early December, notes Dan Clifton, head of Washington Research for Strategas Research Partners. Below, Clifton provides insights on what happened, and the likely impact on markets and the economy moving forward.
Why gridlock can be good for the markets
While gridlock can be a negative for the economy, markets respond favorably to the idea that a president or Congress may have a harder time enacting new spending, tax increases and regulation. A slimmer-than-expected Republican majority in the House, with Democrats holding on to the Senate, would still bring a degree of gridlock, Clifton notes. New tax increases or energy regulation would be unlikely over the next two years, for example, he says. But Republicans may be unable to slow the progress of existing bills such as the Inflation Reduction Act, promising billions of dollars in spending on green energy. "Historically, the combination of a Democratic president, Republican House and Democratic Senate has produced a 13.6% increase in the S&P 500 over the next year,"Footnote 1 he adds.
Historically, the combination of a Democratic president, Republican House and Democratic Senate has produced a 13.6% increase in the S&P 500 over the next year, says Dan Clifton, head of Washington Research for Strategas Research Partners. Source: Strategas Research Partners, based on FactSet S&P 500 data.
All eyes on the lame-duck session
The remainder of 2022 could be a key time to accomplish goals that benefit both parties, Clifton notes. For example, "Both parties have an incentive to hammer out a budget." Washington may also find bipartisan agreement to raise the debt ceiling before the new Congress takes office, he adds. These actions would help avoid headaches for both parties next year, and they also could mollify markets, since pitched battles over budgets and debt ceilings are a type of gridlock that markets don't like, Clifton says. Despite partisan tensions, lawmakers may also find common ground on the National Defense Authorization Act, funding the military, and on corporate tax credits, established during the previous administration, that are set to expire, he adds.
Sectors that could potentially benefit
In anticipation of a larger Republican victory, markets had priced in a potential reduction in green energy spending. Now, "there may be a bit of a rally in clean energy stocks," Clifton says. Infrastructure-related companies, too, may prosper as they begin to see a bump in spending related to 2021's Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. In other sectors, the impact of the midterm elections may be overshadowed by the economic and market volatility that 2022 has already experienced, thanks to inflation, rising interest rates, geopolitical instability and other factors, Clifton notes. Biotechnology and pharmaceuticals, meanwhile, will likely continue to perform well in a time of inflation.
Looking ahead to 2024
Heads are already turning to the election two years from now, which will include a presidential race. "The market will start anticipating outcomes almost immediately," Clifton notes. With the potential for races focusing less on partisan hostility and more on policy matters, he says, "I think the 2024 election is going to be one of the great elections of our lifetime."
Tune in to the CIO Market Update audiocast series for weekly insights on the markets and the economy.
Footnote 1 Strategas Research Partners, based on FactSet S&P 500 data.
October 28, 2022

Will there be a post-midterm market rally?

At a time of sharp inflation, rapidly rising interest rates, uncertainty around the midterms and other pressures, the approaching Nov. 8 elections have already seen the fourth-largest midterm drawdown since 1950, says Chris Hyzy, Chief Investment Officer, Merrill and Bank of America Private Bank. But, historically, midterm market volatility has been followed by market growth lasting through the first half of the following year. In fact, "the average gain from the midterm market low point, one year after the election, is about 32%,"Footnote 1 Hyzy notes.
However, because this time around any potential market rally might be delayed by a mild recession, Hyzy encourages investors to look to the future. "With great resets come great opportunities," he says. The outcome of the midterms could determine where some of those potential investment opportunities lie.
The average gain from the midterm market low point, one year after election is about 32%, says Chris Hyzy, Chief Investment Officer, Merrill and Bank of America Private Bank
Investing in a time of gridlock
With inflation and the economy at the forefront of voters' minds in 2022, "Republicans appear in pretty good shape to win back control of the House of Representatives," says Jim Carlisle, head of Federal Government Relations at Bank of America. The Senate remains too close to predict, he says, adding that a split Congress would result in gridlock.
With no new legislation getting through, Democrats would likely shift to implementing infrastructure and green energy projects paid for under bills that have already passed. "Republicans would likely focus on crime, energy independence and border security," notes Carlisle. Areas of common ground might include regulating crypto assets and enhancing digital privacy.
Post-midterm strategies to consider
With so many unknowns, investors should stay diversified and avoid trying to time the markets based on short-term predictions, Hyzy notes. "Now is a good time to step back and take a deep breath," he says. "Between the midterms and year-end, we should get a better view of corporate profits and momentum for next year." In the meantime, investors can consider the following three strategies.
  • Look for bipartisan opportunity. "Regardless of the election outcome, defense spending is likely to continue to support Ukraine and to rebuild our peacetime arsenal," says Marci McGregor, senior investment strategist for the Chief Investment Office, Merrill and Bank of America Private Bank. "Another key area to consider is cybersecurity."
Regardless of the election outcome, defense spending is likely to continue to support Ukraine and to rebuild our peacetime arsenal. Another key area to consider is cybersecurity, says Marci McGregor, senior investment strategist, Chief Investment Office, Merrill and Bank of America Private Bank.
  • Pivot to bonds. "While rising rates have created one of the worst years ever for bond investors, we believe adding longer-term Treasurys or municipal bonds now through 2023 makes sense," Hyzy says. Should a mild recession in early 2023 prompt the Fed to pause rate hikes, "bonds could help diversify a portfolio and deliver yield and return at the same time."
  • Focus on big-picture opportunities. "Long-term investors should consider industries likely to drive innovation," McGregor believes. Areas such as digitalization, robotics, healthcare infrastructure and renewable energy "may regenerate and ultimately underpin markets as we get into a new cycle."
Footnote 1 Strategas Research Partners, Chief Investment Office. Data as of October 14, 2022.
October 12, 2022

What could the midterms mean for the markets and economy?

Amid inflation, rising interest rates, market volatility and geopolitical conflict, the November 8 midterm elections may be drawing less attention than usual from financial observers, says Marci McGregor, senior investment strategist for the Chief Investment Office, Merrill and Bank of America Private Bank. "In a typical midterm year, this would be the dominant subject," she says. Yet while the elections may be competing for headline space, investors should not discount their potential impact on policy, the economy and markets, she adds.
For perspectives on the elections, what a shift in Congressional power could mean, and likely next moves from the Federal Reserve (the Fed), McGregor turned to Libby Cantrill, head of public policy for the global bond firm PIMCO.
Q: Historically, what have the midterms meant for the party in power?
While there's no sure way to predict outcomes, midterm elections historically tend to work against whichever party currently holds the White House, especially during a president's first term, Cantrill says. "Since World War II, the party in power has lost an average of 26 seats in the House of Representatives and four in the Senate." As in previous midterms, a party turnover may be likeliest in the House, where all 435 seats are up for election, versus 34 of 100 Senate seats, she adds.
Q: What are the implications for the markets and economy?
Over the past two years, new laws such as the Inflation Reduction Act have passed with slim margins along party lines. A change in control in one or both houses of Congress would likely bring "gridlock, meaning that the administration's legislative agenda is completely frozen," Cantrill says. For the next two years at least, that would likely mean no new changes to the tax code. Additionally, "a shift in Congress would throw sand in the gears of regulatory efforts — and investment markets may favor the prospect of fewer business regulations," she adds.
A shift in Congress would throw sand in the gears of regulatory efforts - and investment markets may favor the prospect of fewer business regulations, says Libby Cantrill, head of public policy, PIMCO.
"The downside, if Congress flips, is that we should expect more policy volatility around things that are relatively routine. So funding the government becomes much more difficult," Cantrill says. Gridlock could lead to potential government shutdowns, as well as protracted battles over everything from the debt ceiling to the administration's new student loan forgiveness policy and fiscal support for the economy in the event of a recession. "I liken it to the fiscal punchbowl being taken away," Cantrill says.
The downside, if Congress flips, is that we should expect more policy volatility around things that are relatively routine. So funding the government becomes much more difficult, says Libby Cantrill, head of public policy, PIMCO
Q: Speaking of recession, what's the likelihood we'll see one?
Regardless of the election results, the Fed is likely to continue raising interest rates until inflation comes under control, Cantrill believes. That's because the Fed is worried that inflation is becoming more entrenched. Further rate hikes could lead to a "hard landing" for the economy, she adds. "The degree of recession, though, if we have one, is an open question. Our base case is that it would be a shallow but persistent recession, but there is more downside to that growth prediction, meaning we could see a deeper recession."
Tune in to Merrill's CIO Market Update audiocast series, for regular insights on the markets and economy.

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