For 2017, expect gridlock from unexpected places

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The interplay between politics and the macro economy has shaped our business environment since 2008, often in adverse ways, and will continue to do so.

The last eight years have been marked by a toxic partisan divide between Congress and the president. This adversity often resulted in politicians engaging in last-minute brinksmanship — threatening to default on debt or shut down the government — to extract concessions in an ongoing ideological battle.

Heading into the new legislative session, many have already suggested that it is now the Senate Democrats’ turn to use the tactic most recently employed by Republicans to inhibit presidential action: the filibuster. The parties have flipped, but the gridlock that has prevailed will remain.

Americans are frustrated with the brinkmanship, and this electoral cycle reflects that, according to polls. Some figure the solution is now simple: take away the filibuster through a change in Senate rules, and allow a simple Senate majority to govern all decisions. When coupled with a Republican president and congressional majority, this would break the ongoing deadlock.

The financial markets are clearly expecting this to be the case, anticipating significant tax cuts, healthcare changes, lax regulation and higher inflation. They are counting on Republicans’ expressed policy intentions. And markets don’t care about ideology, they care about predictability.

The question now is: Will calls to eliminate the filibuster be successful? I have sincere doubts. There are a number of long-term Republican senators who respect the customary practices of government, and recall the filibuster’s usefulness when they were in the majority. It’s unlikely they will vote to change a tool that has been a long-standing protection against simple majority rule.

So the threat of gridlock remains — not necessarily along Democrat/Republican ideological differences, but along those developed within the Republican party between Tea Party conservatives and establishment Republicans.

It will become apparent in 2017 that Tea Party conservatives’ expectations will not be met. For example, establishment Republicans will be less willing to take health care benefits away from working Americans, cut social security or turn Medicare into a voucher program. Look closely for conversations that have already begun in the Republican Party for how to deal with the Affordable Care Act or the funding of Planned Parenthood, for early indications of this coming ideological divide.

Meanwhile, Democrats will have little interest in crossing the aisle to work with establishment Republicans, choosing instead to watch further fractures within the GOP.

My prediction is that the resulting dysfunction may at first appear to be along party lines, but that by the middle of next year, the more profound split will be within the Republican party itself. How that split is addressed will be the largest factor shaping our country’s prospects for 2017. Anyone hoping for a quiet year will be disappointed.

The discord will make investing in the stock market next year riskier and the federal government’s borrowing costs jump.

Next week, I’ll offer my reasons for these conclusions and other likely trends in the financial markets for the coming year. Some of them will be due to government dysfunction — but not all of them.

Column originally posted in WashingtonPost.com.

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