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Passage of Bill to Avoid 'Cliff' Should Bolster Wall Street

U.S. stocks are poised for gains to begin the year after the late passage of a bill to avoid harsh tax hikes that would have hit most Americans and crimped economic growth.

U.S. stocks are poised for gains to begin the year after the late passage of a bill to avoid harsh tax hikes that would have hit most Americans and crimped economic growth.

However, harsh reality awaits any euphoria that comes from avoiding the "fiscal cliff". In two months, battles over further spending cuts and, in particular, the U.S. federal debt limit will come to a head.

The House of Representatives voted for a bill passed on Monday by the Senate that will raise taxes on wealthy individuals and families and preserve certain other benefits that will, together, soften some of the blow that would have been sustained without an agreement to avoid the fiscal cliff.

That puts Wall Street in prime position to begin 2013 with a rally, even if thorny issues remain to be addressed in the coming months in Washington.

Asian markets extended gains modestly, with the MSCI Asia Pacific ex-Japan index of stocks up 1.7 percent. U.S. markets will not have a chance to react until 6 a.m. ET, when futures trading begins after the New Year's Day holiday.

"When you separate the fundamentals of the economy from the headlines, the fundamentals really suggest we can support higher prices in the new year," said Bill Vaughn, equity portfolio manager at Evercore Wealth Management in San Francisco.

The Standard & Poor's 500 stock index ended the year up 13 percent, its best gain since 2009, mostly shrugging off the debt-related worries that dominated headlines during the year.

Equity markets held up in the last two months of the year as well, expecting a resolution to head off $600 billion in spending cuts and tax hikes that could push the economy into recession if they stay in effect for long. While the deadline to avert the cliff was Dec. 31, legislation can be formulated to retroactively prevent going over.

The back-and-forth in recent weeks has primarily been of concern to businesses, where confidence has eroded. Some slowing in economic growth due to the impasse is expected, but that may play into the hands of value investors if the market corrects in coming months.

"It appears as though politics will dominate for some time," said Richard Bernstein, chief executive of Richard Bernstein Advisors in New York. "That being said, equity market valuations already reflect this ... the stock market is attractive from my perspective."

Stock markets around the world were closed Tuesday because of New Year's Day. Some Republicans in the House had expressed concern on Tuesday afternoon that a bill would not be finished before U.S. markets open.

Many traders will still be away from their desks because of the holiday, indicating trading volume will stay near its recent low levels. The anemic action, coupled with uncertainty over the cliff, resulted in a spike of volatility in December, with the CBOE Volatility index jumping 13.5 percent in the month.

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