In the days leading up to the US election, markets seemed to be pricing in (1) uncertainty that would drag on after a contested presidential election and/or (2) a “blue wave” that would bring forward a Democratic agenda. This pricing was reflected in a -6.34%, -6.63% and -7.74% drop in the S&P 500, Dow Jones, and NASDAQ, respectively, between mid-October and November 2nd.
In the days immediately following the election, markets shot higher, shrugging off the chaos swirling around the presidential contest and riding on projections that Republicans would keep control of the Senate. On Monday of this week, markets continued their ascent, roaring past all-time intraday highs following news that preliminary data showed Pfizer’s Covid vaccine candidate to be 90% effective and the presidential election was called by all mainstream media outlets for Joe Biden over the weekend.
While markets have cooled off since their Monday surge, they still seem very convinced that the Senate will remain controlled by the GOP come January. This is despite the fact that two very tight Senate races in Georgia face a run-off after Democratic and Republican candidates in both contests failed to reach the 50% threshold needed to call the election under state law. If Democrats turn out in large numbers for the run-off, the end result would be a 50-50 tie in the Senate between Republicans and Democrats (including two independents), forcing the Vice President-elect, Kamala Harris, to cast a tiebreaking vote. If this scenario were in fact to play out, the “blue wave” long-feared by markets could resurface.
A team member of Evergreen had a chance to sit in on a Zoom call with one of the Republican Senators seeking re-election in Georgia this week. While he remained optimistic about his chances, he recognized that he and his Republican counterpart would be outspent 3:1 in the race, and that anything could happen because the run-off will be more about voter turnaround than winning new voters. The first post-election run-off poll shows both Republican Senators ahead in the race but, then again, pollsters have an iffy track record of late.
Admittedly, that’s a lot of “what ifs,” but with markets seemingly convinced that the United States will be operating under a split federal government come January, the reality of the present political situation poses a risk to this complacent view. And with uncertainty (the market’s biggest adversary) still rearing its head for the time-being, the question becomes: “How should investors respond to the stock market’s pricing of a post-election world?”
This week, we are presenting a very timely missive on the matter from Anatole Kaletsky, the “Kal” in Gavekal. (It will soon become evident to readers that Anatole leans somewhat left-of-center, in contrast to his other senior partners, Louis and Charles Gave; diversity of opinion is supported at Gavekal, unlike in much of today’s media.) As you will read, Anatole also remains unconvinced that the Senate party lines have been drawn, leaving room for varying market outcomes in the months and years ahead. He also makes a valid point that Donald Trump’s reluctance to concede may produce a backlash in Georgia against the GOP, hurting Republican chances of retaining the Senate.
For once, everything went according to plan. The US election has passed without any big surprises—and the initial market reaction has been exactly what would be predicted in any textbook of finance, when a centrist and predictable conventional politician replaces an extreme and erratic populist as US president.
Late last year, in trying to assess the risks facing the world economy and markets in 2020 (before anyone had heard of Covid-19), I suggested that one of the biggest dangers would be a US presidential contest pitting Donald Trump against Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. This would have presented investors with the choice between four more years of a Trump presidency unconstrained by the imperatives of reelection and a socialist experiment unprecedented in American history.
Faced with this awful dichotomy, I suggested that stock markets would take off like a rocket if the Democrats nominated a centrist candidate. This is exactly what happened immediately after March 20, when Joe Biden won the Super Tuesday primaries, forcing Sanders to withdraw on April 16 from the Democratic race. Of course, many other events connected with Covid and fiscal stimulus doubtless played a bigger part in the enormous market rebound that began on March 23, three days after Super Tuesday. Still, this suggestive timing coincides nicely with the gains of 6% in the S&P 500 and 9% in the Nasdaq composite in the three trading days since the election.
The obvious reason for these gains was simply the reduction of uncertainty— both the short-term intrinsic unpredictability of any election and the long-term structural unpredictability created by Trump’s unusual personality. But beyond this natural stabilization in US investment conditions, there are several fundamental reasons why a Biden rally in risk assets globally could continue in the months ahead.
Roughly two weeks ago, I suggested four reasons to expect a post-election rally regardless which candidate were to win: the short-term near-certainty of further fiscal stimulus; the medium-term likelihood of a Keynesian macroeconomic regime change; the long-term possibility of a global investment boom driven by the new energy transition; and, in the background to all these other events, the steady decoupling of Chinese economic and financial conditions from anything that may or may not happen in America and Europe. Now that Biden has been elected, all these developments are even more likely. So, are they already discounted in asset prices? I think the answer is “No”.
There is an obvious contradiction in market pricing between near-zero or negative bond yields and the possibility that global growth in the rest of this decade will be both stronger and more capital-intensive than it was in the past 10 or 20 years. And the further decline in US and global bond yields since the election suggests skepticism rather than confidence, about the short-term fiscal stimulus, the medium-term shift towards Keynesian policies and the long-term boom in energy and transport investment suggested above. This skepticism is based on widespread market views that the Democrats will fail to win the Senate, and that their failure will immediately paralyze Biden and prevent Covid relief, thwart fiscal expansion or block new energy and infrastructure investment. In short, conventional wisdom believes that the Republicans will simply follow their playbook for sabotaging the Obama presidency after he lost the Senate majority in 2010.
This seems to me a miscalculation, because there are five features of current American politics this conventional wisdom overlooks:
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