Who's not afraid of the fiscal cliff?December 6, 2012: 11:31 AM ET
Three sectors are shrugging off fear of the fiscal cliff -- here's why.
FORTUNE – As Washington approaches judgment day over the fiscal cliff, the mix of tax hikes and spending cuts prompted CEOs from JPMorgan Chase's (JPM) Jamie Dimon to Honeywell's (HON) Dave Cote to march to Washington for a resolution. President Obama and lawmakers are fiercely politicking to keep the economy from tipping over the doomsday scenario of seeing Americans pay millions of dollars more in taxes next year.
But not everyone is freaking out about the edge of the fiscal cliff. Here are three sectors shrugging off fear -- for now, at least.
Homebuilders and rich buyers
Chances of higher taxes haven't ruined the draw of record-low interest rates. Just ask homebuilders and the relatively well-to-do homebuyers they've targeted.
Earlier this week, Toll Brothers (TOL), the largest U.S. luxury homebuilder, reported that revenues jumped 48% during the quarter ending on Oct. 31. Earnings rose $411.4 million or $2.35 per share, sharply higher from $15 million or 9 cents per share a year ago. To be sure, the bump included an income tax benefit of $350.7 million. Without it, earnings, at 35 cents per share, were still higher than a year ago.
CEO Douglas C. Yearley said a combination of higher home prices and low interest rates brought buyers back to the housing market in a big way this year.
This follows strong earnings reported by other major builders over the summer. Miami-based Lennar Corp. (LEN), the largest U.S. homebuilder by revenue, saw profits more than quadruple during the third quarter ended Aug. 31. And even thought first-time home buyers aren't purchasing homes as much as they once did, KB Home (KBH), the Los Angeles-based homebuilder that targets first-time buyers, reported an unexpected profit during the same period as sales climbed.
With the way consumers have behaved, they either think President Obama and lawmakers will work out a deal before the country tips over the fiscal cliff, or they just aren't following the nation's fiscal problems.
While businesses hold off on spending, consumers seem less fazed. At least for now. In October, spending fell for the first time in five months by 0.2%, after a 0.8% gain the previous month, according to the Commerce Department. However, the drop had more to do with disruptions caused by Superstorm Sandy than worries over federal taxes and spending cuts. During the same month, consumer confidence surged to its highest level since before the recession, according to a survey by the University of Michigan.
And in December, consumer confidence continued to climb, rising to its highest level since February 2008.
"Consumers are feeling good, housing is rebounding, and we remain confident that there'll be a resolution in Washington" on budget deficits, said Kurt McNeil, General Motors Co. vice president of sales operations, said during a teleconference on Monday.
To be sure, if Congress doesn't act by January, consumers will feel far differently. Probably not right away, but gradually as the average American family would see their tax bill go up $3,500 and their after-tax income drop 6.2%, The Tax Policy Center has estimated.
The services industry
And as consumers feel good about the economy, the U.S. services industry saw gains. In November, the Institute for Supply Management's non-manufacturing sector index rose to 54.7 from 54.2 in October. Readings above 50 usually means the sector, which includes utilities, health care, housing and finance, are expanding.
Economists had expected a decline, similar to a fall in the ISM factory index that showed manufacturing contracted during the same month. However, unlike manufacturing, services depend less on capital spending that has declined in the face of the fiscal cliff.
"The non-manufacturing sector is very diverse," Anthony Nieves, the ISM survey's chairman, told Bloomberg news. "Because it's made up of 18 industries with a slew of companies, small, medium and large, it's like having a diverse stock portfolio. You're not heavy in one particular sector or investment, so the overall effects or impacts from political uncertainty are not as immediate as you would see on the manufacturing side."