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The presidential election and the stock market

Elections matter, but do they predetermine a bear‡ or bull market on Wall Street?

If history teaches us anything, there is one thing investors can count on during an election year, and that’s an upcoming period of uncertainty in the markets. The year promises to be interesting on multiple fronts—and while the candidates are busy making the case for why they should be elected, we wanted to get to the bottom of one question: How does a presidential election affect returns in the stock market?

Market Returns and the Four-Year Presidential Cycle

We all know the market dislikes uncertainty and it doesn’t matter what causes the uncertainty. Political uncertainty is no exception. Going back to 1900, we categorized each calendar year of market returns into one of four categories: the election year, the first year, the second year and the third year of the presidency. We discovered the third year in office was the best performing and the election year had the most uncertainty.

Stocks have struggled in the first half of historic election years, no doubt due to the uncertainty of the election and what a new president may mean to the economy and the markets. Typically, the market struggles early in the year when the political theater is at its highest, with numerous candidates still in the running. Consequently, the bottom of the market is linked to the timing associated with determining a clear winner. A few examples make the point: In 1996, President Clinton’s second term was not in question and the market only suffered a minor correction of 5 percent. In 2004, there was more uncertainty. Incumbent George W. Bush, running for a second term, was in a tight race with John Kerry. That year the market established a bottom in August. This graph illustrates the two races.

S&P 500 1996 vs. 2004

The bottom line: Expect volatility whenever you see uncertainty, but as this pertains to election cycles, it usually clears up quickly.

Political Rhetoric

As politicians campaign, they need to gain the voters’ attention. When the discussion turns to sectors and industries, markets react—sometimes temporarily or sometimes longer-term. In any case, the impact is seldom as bad as the language being used.

A perfect example of this is the Affordable Care Act. This legislation was signed into law on March 23, 2010. Initially, there was massive uncertainty as employers and investors analyzed and interpreted the new law. In 2010, the S&P Health Care Index was up a mere 0.7 percent, managed care increased 8.3 percent and the S&P 500 was up 12.8 percent. As I previously mentioned, this market reaction proved temporary as the positive financial impact of the Affordable Care Act began to assert itself on the companies’ bottom lines. So looking at the next 12 months, returns reversed. In 2011, the S&P Health Care Index was up a stellar 10 percent, managed care increased an impressive 32.9 percent and the S&P 500 was up only 2.1 percent.

Democrat or Republican?

In the long run, markets are driven by economic fundamentals that trickle down to corporate earnings. In the short run, noise can influence markets. The data suggests that elections would be classified as noise.

We went back to 1900 and analyzed which political party in the White House produced the best returns in the stock market. Over this long period of time, Democrats won this contest, producing an average return of 7.9 percent. Republicans produced a return of only 3.0 percent.

Democratic President 7.9 47.2
Republican President 3.0 52.8
Democratic President, Congress Split 10.1 3.3
Republican President, Congress Split -4.2 10.6

I concede that this is a naïve way to analyze the data; however, the answer to the question of which party is best for the markets is inconclusive. I presented this data to a group of investors and a Republican asked if the returns would be different if I lagged returns by a year. The question has merit and does change the results dramatically as the outcome would be completely opposite.

It becomes difficult to assign market returns to a specific president. For years, we have experienced mounting debt, an increase in terrorist threats and easy monetary policy. As these issues flare up, they either positively or negatively affect the market. So is it fair to say the current president is totally responsible?

Is This Time Different?

This election may be different. This year we have a candidate who represents the establishment and a candidate who represents the anti-establishment.  I’m fairly confident that not all of the actions and policies touted by the candidates would be a good thing for the markets. Keep in mind that what a candidate says they will do during a campaign is typically not what they will do once in the oval office. A candidate’s goal is to excite the voter base, increase voter turnout and gain a political advantage.

And, remember: the president must work with Congress to get things done. In 2017, the president will not have a free hand. If we have a Democrat in the White House, there is a good chance we will have a Republican Congress. If we have a Republican president, he will have to deal with two experienced and successful leaders, Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, individuals who will not subordinate their policy views.

The Long and Short of the Matter

Elections are important on many fronts, but as far as markets are concerned there is a short-term effect and a long-term effect.

The only thing we can say conclusively about the market data is that prior to an election, markets tend to trade flat with higher volatility. After the election, the market has consistently delivered stronger returns.

In the long-run, the market’s preference for one political party over another is unclear. The data is clunky and incredibly sensitive to modest adjustments.

I would caution against using every statement and policy suggestion made by the candidates as a tool for guiding investment decisions. Rather, understand what history has taught us and refrain from making long-term decisions based on short-term emotions.


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