What to Look At Beyond the Fiscal Cliff

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Everywhere you go, references to the impending fiscal cliff abound. Yet as important as tax policy is and as huge as the potential impact of higher tax rates could be on the economy, companies, and individual taxpayers, fiscal cliff issues are only a small part of what you should be thinking about as you mull long-term moves for your portfolio.

For now, markets are uneasy, with volatility rising and investors impatiently waiting for any news at all about a possible resolution to the current impasse. Yet whether it's a few weeks or a few months from now, it'll be time to look past the fiscal cliff and focus instead on the next set of concerns facing investors. In fact, if you can get a head start on what the next hot-button issues will be, you can put yourself in the best position to take advantage of the effects those issues will have on the overall market and on particular stocks. Here are two of the ones I'm tracking.

1. Where interest rates will go.
The low-interest-rate policy of the Federal Reserve has had a huge impact on businesses and individuals. For corporations, low rates have provided an unprecedented opportunity to restructure their debt at incredibly low costs. AAA-rated Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) has taken the opportunity to lock in record-low corporate rates, leveraging extremely thin spreads between Treasury and corporate debt generally to minimize its financing costs going forward. Earlier this month, short-term debt of top-rated ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  ) and Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ  ) actually traded at lower yields than Treasuries. Even companies with a great deal more credit risk have nevertheless found attractive rates in the high-yield market, issuing bonds to income-hungry investors who are willing to boost their risk level in an attempt to match what they would have earned on risk-free assets just five years ago.

Individual borrowers have also had a good deal. While credit card rates remain high, rates on mortgages are near record lows, and low prevailing interest rates have largely prevented the once-feared wave of adjustable-rate mortgage adjustments from being problematic -- at least for now.

Meanwhile, savers have gotten crushed. CD rates have been chopped from 5% to 1% or less, while savings account rates have seen similar drops. Desperate savers seeking ways to replace much-needed cash flow have increasingly moved toward dividend stocks simply to match the yields on their maturing fixed-income securities.

The Fed has promised to keep rates at "exceptionally low levels until at least mid-2015." But "exceptionally low" doesn't necessarily mean the current 0% to 0.25% level, especially given that normal rates are closer to the 4% to 5% range. If pressures like inflation or asset bubbles arise, the Fed might start signaling minor increases sooner than 2015 -- and that could have a huge impact not just on bonds but stocks as well.

2. How Europe and emerging markets fare.
U.S. investors claim to be world-wise, but they tend to get tunnel vision when problems at home come up. Even though the U.S. economy is undoubtedly important, the issues affecting investors overseas are also critical to the world's overall economic health.

In the past month, indexes of European stocks and of emerging-market stocks have both outperformed the S&P 500 by a substantial margin, with emerging markets falling by less than half the U.S. market's loss. Europe still has plenty of problems, but prices are low enough that they largely reflect all but the worst of possible scenarios.

Also, China's market has been looking to bottom after a long bearish run that has sent the emerging market in just about exactly the opposite direction as the U.S. stock market. Even tech giants Baidu (Nasdaq: BIDU  ) and SINA  (Nasdaq: SINA  ) have both given up huge amounts of ground despite the undeniable potential of China's Internet population. If Chinese stimulus efforts succeed, the nation could pull up not only its own market but stocks around the world as well.

Don't get sidetracked
The fiscal cliff is an incredibly important issue for investors, but it's not the only one. By staying aware of the next big issue folks are going to look at, you'll be ahead of the game when the fiscal cliff gets resolved -- one way or another.

With signs that the Chinese economy may be ready to bounce back, it's time to look at emerging market stocks again. Given the opportunities in China for growth in the Internet sector, is it time to buy Baidu? Our new premium report breaks down the dominant Chinese search provider's strengths and weaknesses. Just click here to access it now.

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