Stock markets leap after 'fiscal cliff' compromise, but problems lurk

The House of Representatives passed the budget bill late Tuesday night, a contentious exercise because many Republicans had wanted a deal that did more to cut government spending.

Seth Wenig/AP
Traders work on the floor at the New York Stock Exchange in New York, Jan. 2. The 'fiscal cliff' compromise, for all its chaos and controversy, was enough to send the stock market shooting higher Wednesday, the first trading day of the new year.

The "fiscal cliff" compromise, for all its chaos, controversy and unresolved questions, was enough to send the stock market shooting higher Wednesday, the first trading day of the new year.

All the major U.S. stock indexes swelled by at least 2 percent in early trading before trimming some of those gains. The Dow Jones industrial average briefly surged to its biggest gain in six months.

Stocks around the world also leapt higher. The major indexes in Britain, France and Germany rose more than 2 percent. Markets in Greece and Spain were up more than 3 percent. Stocks in Asia also zoomed higher.

In the U.S., the rally was extraordinarily broad. For every stock that fell on the New York Stock Exchange, roughly 10 rose.

The Dow briefly surged as much as 273 points in early trading. At noon, it was up 229 points, or 1.8 percent, to 13,333.

The Standard & Poor's 500 was up 25, or 1.8 percent, to 1,451. The Nasdaq composite was up 70, or 2.3 percent, to 3,089.

Some investors cautioned that the euphoria can't last long.

The market's big escalation, they said, was driven not so much because investors love the budget deal that Republicans and Democrats hammered out, but because they're grateful there was any deal at all.

"Most people think that no deal would have been worse than a bad deal," said Mark Lehmann, president of JMP Securities in San Francisco. He called the current package "not too Draconian."

The U.S. House of Representatives passed the budget bill late Tuesday night, a contentious exercise because many Republicans had wanted a deal that did more to cut government spending. The Senate had already approved the bill, and it now needs the signature of President Barack Obama.

Because lawmakers didn't have a budget compromise in place when the new year started on Tuesday, the U.S. technically did go over the "fiscal cliff." That means that certain tax increases and government spending cuts automatically kicked in that day, a scenario that some analysts worried would boot the U.S. back into recession.

The bill passed Tuesday night will prevent the "cliff" from taking hold. Still, it only postpones rather than solves many of the budget issues haunting the U.S.

The deal doesn't include any significant deficit-cutting agreement, meaning the country still doesn't have a long-term game plan for how to rein in spending. Big cuts to defense and domestic programs, which were slated to kick in with the new year, are still overhanging the market but just delayed for two months. And the U.S. is still set to bump up against its borrowing limit, or "debt ceiling," in about two months.

"There's definitely another drama coming down the road," said Lehmann. "That's the March cliff."

Others worry that more political bickering could cause the U.S. to get its debt rating downgraded by the ratings agencies. The stock market plunged in August 2011 after Standard & Poor's cut the U.S. government's credit rating.

Wednesday's performance gave no hint of the dark clouds on the horizon.

The yield on the 10-year Treasury note rose sharply, to 1.84 percent from 1.75 percent, as investors dumped safe harbor investments like U.S. government bonds and plowed money into stocks. Prices for oil and key metals, including gold, copper and platinum, were up.

Still, some investors also noted that the "fiscal cliff," which has dominated headlines for weeks, is only masking serious problems punctuating the world economy, including middling growth for the U.S. economy and the still-unsolved European debt crisis.

There were new reminders of those issues Wednesday: The government reported that U.S. builders spent less on construction projects in November, the first decline in eight months. The president of debt-wracked Cyprus said he'd refuse to sell government-owned companies, a provision that the country's bailout deal says it must at least consider.

Among stocks making big moves, Zipcar shot up 48 percent, or $4, to $12.24 after the company said it had agreed to sell itself to Avis. Avis rose $1.02 to $20.84, about 5 percent.

Zipcar has a business model that's popular with drivers, allowing them to rent cars for just a few hours at a time. The company has struggled to win over investors, however, and its stock plunged nearly 39 percent in 2012. Avis rose 84 percent in the same period.

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