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Futures edge higher as cliff talks go on

Dec 31 2012 07:40 Reuters

(File, AP)

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Washington - Equity futures were slightly higher on Sunday night as talks continued in Washington over resolving the "fiscal cliff."

While the Senate will not vote on Sunday night on any bill to avoid a series of $600bn in tax hikes and spending cuts, as many had hoped, negotiations continued between lawmakers and the White House.

The Senate will reconvene on Monday after the open of equity trading. In order for a deal to take effect, it would also have to be passed by the House of Representatives.

Despite the gain indicated by futures, stocks still could end up falling on Monday when the cash markets open if lawmakers are unable to come to an agreement to avoid the cliff, which many fear could push the economy into recession.

" There is always a chance for a massive stalemate, and we could see a lot more volatility if we get to a point where there's no more hope. Right now there's still hope," said Adam Sarhan, chief executive of Sarhan Capital in New York.

Midnight on Monday marks the deadline for a deal, though the government can pass legislation in 2013 that retroactively prevents going over the cliff, an option that is viewed as politically easier.

"At some point, someone will have to blink, or Congress will just come in early in 2013 and vote for a tax cut," Sarhan said. "Something will be done to resolve this."

S&P 500 futures were up 5.4 points, at 1,389 in electronic trading. Still, futures were about 7 points below the fair value level of 1,397.19. Fair value is a formula that evaluates pricing by taking into account interest rates, dividends and time to expiration on the contract. Despite the rise, if futures remain below fair value, cash markets will open lower.

Dow and Nasdaq futures were also slightly higher, though below fair value.

Stocks fell sharply on Friday, with significant losses in the last minutes of trading, as prospects for a deal worsened at the beginning of the weekend.

The rise in the futures market does not necessarily augur for a rally on Monday, however. The cash market and futures markets closed with a wide gulf on Friday, by virtue of the extra 15 minutes of trading in futures.

The S&P 500 closed at 1,402.43 at 4 p.m. ET on Friday, down 1.1%, but futures continued to fall before closing 15 minutes later with a loss of 1.9%. S&P futures and the S&P cash index don't match point-by-point, but that kind of disparity points to a weak opening in stocks on Monday.

One hour before they had hoped to present a plan on Sunday, Democratic and Republican Senate leaders said they were still unable to reach a compromise.

Earlier in the day, President Barack Obama, appearing on NBC's "Meet the Press," said investors could begin to show greater concerns in the new year.

"If people start seeing that on January 1st this problem still hasn't been solved ... then obviously that's going to have an adverse reaction in the markets," he said,

Investors have remained relatively sanguine about the process, believing that it will eventually be solved. In the past two months markets have not shown the kind of volatility that was present during the fight to raise the debt ceiling in 2011.

The Dow industrials and the S&P 500 each lost 1.9% last week, after stocks fell for five straight sessions, which marked the S&P 500's longest losing streak in three months. Equities have largely performed well in the last two months despite constant chatter about the fiscal cliff, but the last few days shows a bit of increased worry.

The CBOE Volatility Index rose to its highest level since June on Friday, closing at 22.72. 



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