Wall Street insiders keeping their cool as election uncertainty swirls

This presidential election is clearly unlike any other, but investors might be wise to treat it just like most of the previous ones.

History shows the stockmarket’s performance doesn’t correlate that closely with which party controls the White House: It tends to rise following elections regardless of who wins. Because of that, many fund managers are sticking with their investment strategies and focusing on the long term — even in a year when the election’s outcome could be in doubt past Election Day, and the nation is in the grip of a pandemic.

A contested election is a worst-case scenario for investors.
A contested election is a worst-case scenario for investors.Credit:AP

“The election is kind of noise in the short term,” said Kari Montanus, senior portfolio manager at Columbia Threadneedle Investments. “It doesn’t mean you dismiss it completely,” but she said she doesn’t want “to try to position or make a bet on different outcomes.”

Most fund managers are holding stocks that they intend to hang onto for years, which means they care more about the long-term prospects for corporate profits. In that case, what ultimately happens with the coronavirus pandemic — whether and when a vaccine is widely available, for example — is much more important than who sits in the White House.


“As investors, we are focused first and foremost on the economy and on corporate earnings, because that’s what moves stock prices,” Montanus said.

Money managers aren’t pretending as if the election won’t have any consequences. In the short term, they’re fully expecting the big swings that swept the market in recent weeks to continue until Election Day, and perhaps beyond.

A contested election is a worst-case scenario for investors. Markets famously hate uncertainty, and not knowing who will lead the United States for weeks following Election Day would be a huge unknown. President Donald Trump has refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses.

Consider 2000, when the S&P 500 dropped 5 per cent in about five weeks after Election Day before Al Gore conceded to George W. Bush. That, though, also happened during the near-halving of the S&P 500 from March 2000 to October 2002 as the dot-com bubble deflated.

If one were to happen, strategists at Goldman Sachs say the S&P 500 could fall to 3100 in the near term. That would be a drop of 11.1 per cent from Wednesday’s close. Compare that with the 3700 level for the S&P 500 that Goldman Sachs expects if the election were to yield a divided Congress and 3,400 if Democrats were to sweep the House, Senate and presidency.

Even if the outcome is contested, most of Wall Street expects a clear winner to eventually emerge for the White House. Whoever it is, many investors say the resolution of the market’s heavy uncertainty should ultimately help it rise afterward.

David Jilek, chief investment strategist of Gateway Investment Advisers, noticed growing expectations last month among investors for volatility in the stock market, not only in the October run-up to Election Day but also in November, December and even in January.

“Presidents get both far too much credit and far too much blame for what’s happening in the economy and the markets.”

Darrell Spence, an economist at Capital Group

Jilek was measuring their concern by watching pricing climb on futures for the VIX index, which measures how much volatility traders expect from the S&P 500. VIX futures for January hit a peak late last month, after Trump indicated he might not accept the outcome if Biden wins.

Some of that may have also been due to worries about the possibility of increasing coronavirus infections as the weather turns colder. But VIX futures have come down recently after polls showed Democrat Joe Biden widening his lead over Trump, which would increase the odds of a clear winner being known earlier.

What history tells us

Going back to 1933, the S&P 500 has had an average annual gain of 12.9 per cent under an entirely Republican-controlled Washington and 9.3 per cent under Democratic control. The best returns have historically come with a split Congress and a Democrat in the White House, though a split Congress with a Republican president has been just a hair behind.

Wall Street jumped higher after the speech.
Wall Street jumped higher after the speech. Credit:Bloomberg

“Presidents get both far too much credit and far too much blame for what’s happening in the economy and the markets.” said Darrell Spence, an economist at Capital Group, which manages more than $US1.7 trillion.

“The US economy is large and complex, so there is a limit to how much a person or policy can really move that around. For example, tax cuts or increases only really impact growth at the margin.”

Making big changes to your investments based on expectations for a political outcome is essentially placing a bet upon a bet upon another bet, said Rich Weiss, chief investment officer of multi-asset strategies for American Century Investments.

First, an investor has to bet correctly that either Trump or Biden will win. Second, the winner has to bring about the policies the investor expected. Third, the investor would need to correctly guess the timing of those policies.

“To get all three, the sun and the moon and stars all have to be perfectly aligned for you to make money on that bet,” Weiss said.

The memory of Election Night four years ago is still fresh. Markets initially tumbled following Trump’s surprise win. But within a couple hours, they spun 180 degrees to march higher.

“Even if you have a good crystal ball and know what the policies are going to be, it’s not obvious how the stocks are going to react,” said Columbia Threadneedle’s Montanus.


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