Dr. Daniel Crosby, Executive Director, The Center for Outcomes & Founder, Nocturne Capital
With less than one month remaining until the election, the already frenzied political coverage is sure to become even more fevered in the coming days. While each presidential election is unpredictable, it seems certain that this one is destined for the history books. For all of their sophistication, are there any political pundits that correctly predicted the rise of Bernie Sanders or that Donald Trump would emerge from a pack of 16 more politically experienced Republicans?
Adding to the confusion is that recent popular votes of all stripes—from Brexit to the Colombian peace deal—have not gone the way pollsters predicted. In the face of all of this uncertainty it is natural to wonder, “could the U.S. be the next surprise?” And a natural follow-on question is, “What does all of this mean for my money?” To begin to answer these questions, let’s look at some historical trends around U.S. elections and the stock market.
Incumbent vs. Challenger
Most considerations of political impact examine how potential candidates might influence the market, but let’s begin our study by flipping that on its head and ask, “How might the market help determine who wins the election?” As you might expect, incumbent parties are helped enormously by a rising market and challengers tend to be swept into power by a poor market.
Since 1928, 14 of the 22 presidential elections saw a rise in the broad market in the three months leading up to the big vote. In all but two of those instances, the incumbent party stayed in their comfy digs on Pennsylvania Avenue. But what of the eight instances where the market was down in the run up to the election? All but one of those more bearish periods saw the incumbent ousted from power.
This phenomenon was seen most recently in the failed reelection campaigns of George H.W. Bush (1992) and Jimmy Carter (1980). Bill Clinton, sensing the natural tendency of hard economic times to bring about change chided the senior Bush with his now famous “It’s the economy, stupid” line. The date to watch for this particular metric in this election cycle is August 1, at which time the S&P 500 closed at 2,170.84.
Democrats versus Republicans
Inasmuch as Republicans are broadly perceived as the more pro-business of the two parties, it may come as a surprise that the stock market has performed considerably better under Democratic than Republican presidents. In fact, since 1945 the average annual gain under a Democratic president is 9.7%, easily besting the average gain of 6.7% on the Republican’s watch.
But a closer look at the statistics tells a more nuanced story as, to borrow a Dickensian turn of phrase, Republicans have presided over both the best of times and the worst of times. The market’s most successful run occurred under Republican Gerald Ford—a whopping 18.6% annualized. However, the elephants also own the only two losing records in modern (post-1945) market history, with George W. Bush (-4.6% annualized) and Richard Nixon (-5.1% annualized) both overseeing periods of extended bearishness.
The Election Cycle
Having now examined the market’s ability to predict the winner of the election and the impact of parties on performance, let’s look at the influence of the presidential cycle on market returns.
Since 1833, the market has typically produced the best returns in the year preceding an election, averaging 10.4% annualized. Election years themselves have tended to be good as well, with average returns at right around 6%. The worst years in the election cycle have been the first and second years of a president’s term, averaging 2.5% and 4.2% respectively. The conventional logic has been that familiarity breeds comfort and that the uncertainty surrounding the economic policies of a new leader have driven low returns early in the cycle.
Why None of This Matters
Having gone to some pain to research the relationship between the election and the market, let me now suggest that none of what you have read above matters. None of it. Our desire to look for signal in the unending noise surrounding political campaigns is a waste of time at best and can be dangerous to our financial well-being at worst. The government produces data on 45,000 pieces of economic each year and when they are laid on top of the mountain of data collected by political scientists, correlations emerge and most of them are spurious. To quote political pollster Nate Silver, “The temptation that some economists succumb to is to put all this data into a blender and claim that the resulting gruel is haute cuisine.” To make this point more concretely, consider some of the following:
- Since 1928, election years like this one without an incumbent running for reelection have been some of the worst on record, clocking a -2.8% annualized return. Had you been aware of and acted on this information, you would missed the 5.37% gain for the large cap index year to date.
- As discussed above, the market tends to gain 6% in election years. Great, but small comfort to those who lost 34% in 2008, an election year. It has been joked that a six-foot man can easily drown in a river that is three feet deep on average (since many parts of the river might be much deeper). The same can certainly be said of market returns where long-term averages tend to mask the more dramatic volatility underneath. The performance of the market is more attributable to economic conditions than superior policies. Democratic Presidents Roosevelt and Obama both inherited markets broken by the Great Depression and Great Recession respectively. While both deserve credit for guiding the nation during difficult times, they are also the beneficiaries of a tendency for stock prices to mean-revert and bounce back from dramatic lows. Bulls and bears may have less to do with donkeys and elephants than the statistics might suggest.
- Finally, consider the research suggesting that the first year of a President’s term leads to the most paltry returns. Had you acted on this knowledge, you would have missed the 23.45% rise in the market in Obama’s first year in office and the double-digit advance in the first year of Bill Clinton’s presidency. By definition, averages are generalities that are not true of any specific situation and relying on them can cause deviation from an otherwise sound financial plan.
Election years introduce volatility and uncertainty into financial markets that leave investors and advisors alike searching for a calm port in a wild political storm. But in our efforts to make sense of the political and economic landscape, we run a real risk of finding connections where none exist. In 2016, one of America’s most powerful political dynasties was nearly upended by an independent and self-proclaimed democratic socialist. The Republican Party is now helmed by a reality television star who has never held office. The Cubs are in the playoffs.
At uncertain times like this, investors must return to what Jason Zweig refers to as “controlling the controllable.” The outcome of the election and the accompanying market reaction are very much unknowable. What remains very much in your control are your ability to diversify across multiple asset classes, maintain a long-term focus and work closely with a competent advisor to manage your own behavior. I don’t know who will win the White House and neither do you, but I know with some certainty that patient investors adhering to first principles will always come out ahead.
The views expressed are those of Brinker Capital and are not intended as investment advice or recommendation. For informational purposes only. Holdings are subject to change. Brinker Capital, Inc., a Registered Investment Advisor.