Fiscal cliff may have given the economy a liftJanuary 15, 2013: 8:00 AM ET
Some companies say the threat of a disaster brought on by a standoff in Washington actually boosted business in the fourth quarter.
FORTUNE -- It's conventional wisdom these days that Washington gridlock is the main thing holding back the economy. But the fiscal standoffs may not be as much of a headwind as people think. In fact, they might be good for the economy.
On Friday, Wells Fargo's CFO Tim Sloan said that the so-called fiscal cliff, the mix of tax increases and spending cuts that were set to kick in January 1st but were partially averted in a last minute deal, was good for business. He said lending at the bank (WFC) picked up in the fourth quarter, particular in December, in part because of the fiscal cliff. Companies looking to pay out dividends early or do deals ahead of the planned tax increases borrowed money to do so.
"The fiscal cliff actually had a positive effect on our business," Sloan told analysts on Friday.
Wells was not alone. Investment bankers and lawyers were busier than usual at the end of the year, completing deals ahead of fiscal cliff deadline. And not all of those deals just mean more money for Wall Street. Disney (DIS) says it plans to beef up spending at LucasFilms, which it bought in late October for $4 billion -- one of the many deals that appear to have been pushed by the fiscal cliff.
Some would argue that these deals would've happened anyway, just a few months later. So really all the fiscal cliff did was pull some activity forward. But that's what stimulus always does. It's impossible to know that all of these deals would have happened without the cliff drama.
The government will benefit as well. A number of companies, Costco (COST) included, paid out special dividends at the end of 2012. And while those deals may have been done to avoid higher taxes in the future, they are still going to generate more tax revenue now, which could help to narrow the deficit.
At the very least, there seems to be little indication that the fiscal cliff slowed the economy, as many predicted it would. Companies added just over 150,000 workers to their payrolls in December, which is about the pace of growth we have been on for months. But hours worked was up in December, and for the first time in a while pay was up as well. That suggests that companies were ramping up their activities in December, not slowing down.
The one sign that the fiscal cliff might have slowed the economy came from business investment, which was down in the fourth quarter. But it was down in the third quarter as well. So that seems more like the continuation of a trend, perhaps inspired by debt problems in Europe or fears of a hard landing in China, rather than fiscal cliff-related.
The takeaway is that Washington acrimony is most likely not nearly the negative that people on Wall Street think it is. Remember how everyone said the debt ceiling standoff back in the summer of 2011 was such a disaster? In retrospect, not so much. The Dow Jones industrial average is up about 2,500 points since then. Interest rates are still low. And the recovery is, slowly, still happening. So perhaps we shouldn't be as worried about the current debt ceiling standoff. Although, of course, you never know.