Now that the March 1 deadline for Congress and the White House to reach a deficit-reduction agreement has lapsed, federal agencies must begin to absorb $85 billion in automatic spending cuts, but for financial advisors, it could be business as usual, at least for the time being.
"Frankly, sequestration has not been a high-priority issue," said Neil Simon, vice president for government affairs at the Investment Adviser Association.
The fact that the deadline came and went without a resolution was hardly a surprise. While Obama met with congressional leaders from both parties on Friday, Congress had adjourned earlier in the week without producing a bill to avert the sequester. At least a week earlier, it had become evident to many Washington insiders that no compromise would be reached before the cuts took effect.
The lack of urgency on the sequester can be attributed in part to the next in a series of looming fiscal deadlines coming on March 27, when the continuing resolution that is currently funding the operations of the federal government expires. The effects of a government shutdown, both practically and politically, would be much more severe than the cuts to domestic and military spending that the sequester will entail, potentially roiling securities and bond markets and inviting a downgrade of U.S. credit.
"It strikes me that again in the short term there's not going to be a direct impact on advisors. If this is not resolved by, let's say March 27, then all bets are off," Simon said.
Traders seemed unfazed by the sequester deadline passing, with the markets up slightly since the deadline passed.
That apparent apathy could owe to the widely held presumption that the deadline would lapse, though it also remains unclear what impact the spending cuts will have on the economy, particularly if Congress moves to replace them retroactively with more targeted reductions. For some advisors, that makes the sequester essentially a non-event.
"I don't think you react to something like this from an investment-management standpoint or even a financial-planning standpoint," said David Henderson, principal of the Henderson Group, a Staunton, Va.-based financial-planning firm. "To do something you would have to predict the consequences."
Henderson's advice to clients with concerns about the sequester? "Sit tight, ignore the noise."
The layoffs and furloughs of government employees and contractor personnel would begin gradually, and could be halted if Congress takes action to reverse the cuts. Furloughed workers, of course, would see their take-home pay drop.
That means that the real and immediate impact of the sequester could affect planners with clients who work for the government or with a federal contractor, according to Duane Thompson, a senior policy analyst with the advisor consultancy fi360.
"If you're a financial planner and you have clients who are employed by federal government," Thompson said, "then this becomes more of a heightened issue."
If the cuts are left in place, they would deepen in coming years. One of Henderson's clients who works for a government contractor said the federal agency his firm works with has indicated that no cuts would affect his job until at least 2014, though of course circumstances could vary widely among the different agencies and programs.
But apart from those financial planning considerations related to clients' employment picture, nothing about the sequester alone should materially alter the investment strategies that advisors recommend.
"Financial planners are conservative when they look at investing, so they're not necessarily going to jump off the deep end and start market-timing with their clients when they've been preaching discipline," Thompson said.
The failure to avert the indiscriminate cuts in the sequester, which most politicians agree is not a wise policy, does offer another example of the inability of lawmakers and the White House to broker a compromise. The Investment Adviser Association's Simon expressed confidence that the March 27 deadline would be the forcing event that compels a resolution, that a government shutdown would be so politically damaging that Obama and congressional Republicans would come together and hammer out a deal.
The stakes in that fight will be considerably higher, he warned.
"Certainly one thing markets and advisors hate is uncertainty and the apparent dysfunction, if that's the word, afflicting the government right now does introduce uncertainty," Simon said.
"I don't expect there's going to be a real-world impact within a month," he added. "If it goes past that, then it will be disruptive to the markets and then I think there will be increasing anxiety about the ability of the federal government to manage itself, and at that point I do think it will impact advisors' judgment and their clients' senses of well-being."