The “fiscal cliff” refers to lower government spending and higher taxes that will kick in Jan. 1, if Republicans and Democrats can't agree to a new budget by then.
The Senate is due in session Thursday, and President Barack Obama is expected to return early from his Christmas vacation in Hawaii, arriving back in Washington early Thursday. Still, congressional officials said Wednesday they knew of no significant strides toward a compromise over the long Christmas weekend, and no negotiations have been set.
It's not clear that the market would automatically rise if there is a deal, or automatically fall if there isn't. Except for the past three days, the market has risen more or less steadily since mid-November despite the lack of a “fiscal cliff” deal. That means many traders have been assuming that lawmakers would work out something before the deadline, so any positive effect from a compromise is already baked into stock prices.
While a compromise is still possible, some analysts said that what the market feared most wasn't the cliff, but the possibility that lawmakers would come up with only a stop-gap solution. That would probably mean they'd have to meet again in the new year to hammer out a permanent deal, dragging out the uncertainty.
“It's like ripping the Band-Aid off now versus later,” Cavanaugh said. “The Band-Aid's got to come off. We've got to cut spending, we've got to pay down the debt.”
The bright spot was a report from the Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller national home price index, which said that home prices rose in most major U.S. cities in October compared with a year ago. However, prices fell in many cities compared to the month before.
The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note edged down to 1.75 percent from 1.77 percent Monday, a sign that investors were taking money out of stocks and putting it into bonds.
It was the first trading day after the Christmas holiday. Trading volume was low, and European markets were still closed.
Just 2.3 billion shares were traded on the New York Stock Exchange. For the year so far, the average has been around 3.6 billion.