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Why Companies Still Aren't Likely to Invest—or Hire

Mike Kemp | Getty Images

Investors have opened their wallets following the fiscal bargain struck in Washington, but corporate CEOs may not be so quick to tap into their swelling coffers.

Stocks are sharply higher for the very young 2013, but uncertainty abounds as Congress faces critical deadlines in the months ahead that could yet lead to a government shutdown, not to mention steep cuts in defense and domestic spending and an inability for the U.S. to keep funding its massive deficit spending.

With all that in mind, it's hardly a good climate to bring corporate money in off the sidelines.

"Given how cantankerous the fiscal cliff negotiations were, we do not have much faith that the next round of talks, which will begin within a couple weeks and which arguably have much bigger long-run stakes, will go any better," Deutsche Bank chief U.S. economist Joseph LaVorgna warned clients. "We do not see how this is going to be good for business spending and hiring."

Indeed, a row over raising the debt ceiling and avoiding so-called sequestration spending cuts could prove even more critical than the "fiscal cliff" negotiations that caused political paralysis and market mayhem for the latter part of 2012. (Read More: Congress Ushers in New Members, Old Problems)

The New Year's Day deal addressed only some $600 billion in tax increases and did virtually nothing to tackle entitlement spending cuts that congressional Republicans likely will tie to further increases in the $16.4 trillion national debt limit.

That's a tough psychological hurdle to cross for companies that have held on to their cash in the years since the financial crisis.

Domestic nonfinancial companies are holding nearly $1.78 trillion on their collective balance sheet - the highest level since the crisis exploded in 2008 - and have shown little inclination to part with it as the fiscal battle rages.

"The economy has made tremendous headway - we note private sector balance sheets are in excellent shape and the housing market is in a meaningful recovery," LaVorgna said. "But growth prospects would be significantly better if fiscal policy were on the right track." (Read More: US Will 'Soon Get Messy' Again: Roubini)

The fiscal agreement has caused some economists to raise their 2013 growth projections modestly as the tax increases were not as severe as some feared and businesses and individuals now have some certainty of the road ahead.

But the limited nature of the pact has spiked worries that the worst could be yet to come in terms of market and economic upheaval.

"We had hoped that a comprehensive agreement would prompt a wave of spending by households and businesses who are currently sitting on the sidelines due to uncertainty about fiscal policy," said Paul Ashworth, chief U.S. economist at Capital Economics. "Instead, we have another potentially very disruptive budget battle coming soon, so any upside risk to our forecast from pent-up demand may now have gone, for a few more quarters at least." (Read More: December Retail Sales See Some Hits, but Mostly Misses)

The best-case scenario, then, appears to be one in which Congress again can dodge the fiscal guillotine and come up with a solution that at least spurs some more confidence later in the year.

"Consumers know how much they're going to be taxed, businesses know how much they're going to be taxed. From a corporate standpoint, they have enough information to start putting that capital to work," said Carol Roth, head of Intercap Merchant Partners. "I would imagine they would do it judiciously and carefully. I don't imagine them going all in, but you'll see an acceleration of spending and investment from companies."

Companies did close out 2012 showing some willingness to spend.

Merger and acquisition activity spiked in December, up 64 percent from the previous year, though the U.S. for the year saw a below-par $971 billion in volume on an all-time record for deals of 11,957, according to Dealogic.

And dozens of companies, looking to get ahead of a feared steep increase in dividend taxes, borrowed to fund special dividend issues in December.

But all that could go away quickly if Washington doesn't find workable solutions to its challenges.

"Having some certainty is a step in the right direction," Roth said. "That being said, if two months out all of a sudden we get no resolution and Congress starts their nonsense again, that can halt their plans."

—By CNBC's Jeff Cox