House Democrats may be hailing the passage of a massive economic-stimulus bill, but Wall Street's reaction hasn't nearly as cheerful. With the American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan now headed to the Senate for debate, markets are showing ample displeasure with the bill in its current form. The economic recovery plan passed muster in the U.S. House of Representatives by a vote of 244-188 Wednesday evening, with 177 Republicans unanimous in their opposition to the package -- despite President Barack Obama's urging of bipartisan support. Following the House's quick passage of the $819 billion recovery plan, which came just eight days after Obama's inauguration, Democrats trumpeted the benefits the package will bring to the U.S. economy. "This legislation will go a long way toward addressing
small business concerns and getting capital flowing again," said Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-N.Y.), chairwoman of the House Small Business Committee. The timing couldn't have been more perfect for those in support of the stimulus plan. Its passage came on the eve of the government's latest report on weekly jobless claims, which showed that the number of out-of-work Americans receiving unemployment benefits reached an all-time record. Continuing claims increased by 159,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 4.78 million, the most since the government's records begin in 1967. Additionally, a separate government report Thursday showed that new home sales plummeted nearly 15% in December to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 331,000, wrapping up the worst year for new-home sales since 1982.
The Senate is likely to take up its own bill next week, with some differences from the House's plan that has pushed estimates to $888 billion. From there, a hybrid proposal will go to a final vote before being sent to the president's desk. But Wall Street is far from enamored. Stocks sold off sharply Thursday morning, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average sporting a triple-digit loss. Republicans have argued the bill features too much wasteful spending that won't aid job creation, as well as being extremely short on tax cuts. "The point is that the underlying bill, while it certainly has some good provisions, has a lot of wasteful spending, a lot of slow-moving government spending in it," said House Republican leader John Boehner (R-Ohio). However, a GOP amendment to the Democrats' plan, comprised almost entirely of tax cuts, was defeated by a vote of 266-170. Market observers argue that traders aren't necessarily frowning on the stimulus plan because there aren't enough tax cuts alongside too much government spending. "In short, this isn't good for Wall Street because there isn't a direct pipeline of cash from Washington to Wall Street," said Matthew Smith, chief investment officer with Smith Affiliated Capital. Unlike the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, which allocated $700 billion of taxpayer dollars for the purchase of toxic assets on the balance sheets of struggling lenders like Citigroup ( C), Morgan Stanley ( MS), Bank of America ( BAC) and Goldman Sachs ( GS), there is little in the proposed economic stimulus plan that will directly affect the financial sector.
"Wall Street was looking for a TARP 2.0, which they're not going to get," said Smith. "The stimulus isn't a one-shot injection like the TARP. It's actually staggered over years, which doesn't help the liquidity crisis on Wall Street in the short term." Paul Nolte, director of investments with Hinsdale Associates, agrees that many parts of the package are long-dated from the market's perspective. "Any road construction, as you know, will take a while to get started," he said. "Workers say they're shovel-ready, but it'll be a while before any of that trickles into anyone's back pocket." Nolte is also quick to point out the muted response to the economic stimulus plan passed one year ago by President Bush. That plan cost only $150 billion, roughly one-fifth of the proposed American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan, which involved sending rebate checks to American taxpayers. "We've had a couple of stimulus packages now, and even the most recent one wasn't very simulative," he said. "If you blinked you missed it. Plus, people paid off their credit card bills, which didn't do anything to help the economy." Instead, the market would react more favorably to a stimulus plan that directly addressed the burdened bank balance sheets. One solution is the "bad bank" plan that would hold financial firms' debt securities, thereby boosting their capital levels and restoring confidence in the sector. On Tuesday, Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) said he was open to using funds from the original TARP to establish a bad bank. However, market analysts suggest that Wall Street would be more satisfied with a different approach.
"The problem is that toxic assets are still on the books, no one is putting a valuation on them, and the government isn't buying them at cost," Smith said. "Wall Street wants some sort of 'bad bank' plan in the stimulus where they can throw the bad assets and get cash from the government. The key in this is liquidity and preventing insolvency." Estimates currently put the total value of troubled assets on banks' balance sheets in a range between $750 billion and $1.25 trillion. With only $350 billion left in original TARP funds, additional federal money would be needed to fund the gap. Success isn't guaranteed either. The first TARP was announced on Sept. 19, when the S&P 500 traded around 1255. When it was delivered on Oct. 2, the S&P had fallen to 1114 and now trades at about 855, a decline of 30%. "The first TARP wasn't much of a success because there were no metrics anywhere," said Nolte. "They were basically doing a pirouette, tossing money in the air. My biggest gripe with TARP is that it's hard to measure success. There has never been anything in place that looks at the amount of money spent and the result, like one most good businesses would have."