Brawling Politicians: Bad for Your Portfolio?
By Richard Satran September 7, 2012
The love fest of the political convention season ended almost as soon as it began, when the first prime-time speaker, House Speaker John Boehner, set a Republican agenda that “starts with throwing out the politician who doesn’t get it, and electing a new president who does.” Since then, the two parties have launched into a brawl in which few rules apply, and flame-throwing and facile lies are standard gear.
The loser could well be you and your stock portfolio over the next two months. Much of the heated rhetoric will consist of Republican claims that President Obama mishandled the economy or Democrats saying how they believe Mitt Romney’s programs would hurt people more.
In that kind of environment, investor confidence, already low, could sink further, say some analysts. Fund company T. Rowe Price said in its recently monthly report, “investors are focused on an apparently never-ending eurozone crisis and the campaign rhetoric emanating from both major political camps in the U.S.”
Good-time elections now history. Historically, election years have been good times for investors. But over the past five elections, the Dow has fallen an average of 3.72 percent, and declined in four out of five September-to-November election day periods.
“The past several presidential elections, and politics in general, just keep getting more nasty,” says Tyler Vernon, chief investment officer and co-founder of Biltmore Capital Advisors in Princeton, N.J. “It’s not the way things were 25 years ago. Over the past few cycles, it has become much more negative. With Democrats and Republicans, the attack ads are questioning leadership more and more. It hurts investor confidence.”
The perception that advertising is growing more negative is borne out by numerous studies. A recent one by the Wesleyan Media Project showed negative ads rising by a staggering amount—accounting for 70 percent of all presidential advertising in the early few months of this year, compared with just 9 percent in the 2008 period (although other factors, including fewer positive ads run by groups supporting Obama in this cycle, caused some of that shift.)
The big difference over the past four years is that so-called Super PACs have been freed from spending limits, or even listing contributors, and the Big Money advertising has been overwhelmingly negative, the Wesleyan study showed.
Politicians have always had a penchant for painting a negative picture of their opponents—some remember President Johnson’s vivid black-and-white television ad showing a girl picking a flower as a nuclear mushroom cloud appeared behind her, a slap against his opponent Barry Goldwater’s strident anti-Communism, or George H.W. Bush’s ads accusing Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis of furloughing a convicted murderer, Willie Horton, who embarked on a violent crime spree.
Those negative campaigns, though memorable, were not the norm. The LBJ ad was quickly withdrawn. And ads were often about “finding prosperity,” rather than slamming the economy, Vernon says. From 1900 to 1988, the market scored nearly twice as many gains as losses in the September-through-November election span. The Dow gained in 15 of the years and declined in eight. The average September-to-election gain was 1.7 percent, exactly in line with the average gain for all two-month periods since 1900.
Impact of financial crisis. The most recent election losses can be blamed at last partly on the crash of 2008, which was an election year event, although election years of the past also had some ugly Octobers, including the 1932 pre-election period in which stocks plunged 20 percent.
But the rising importance of the economy as an election factor and a surge in negative advertising are also playing a critical role, studies show. It’s not just your imagination; things really have gotten uglier since the days of Ike and Adlai, or even since Bill Clinton and George Bush the First.
The Google Ngram tool, which measures and displays keywords in publications going back to 1800, shows a dramatic “hockey stick” upswing in the term “negative political advertising” after 1988. It also shows the steady rise of the phrase “the economy” in the national dialogue. Social issues and foreign policy have faded, in relative terms.
The issue-oriented negative ads might be even more effective at swaying voters than obvious personal attacks, suggested one study by two Rutgers professors and one from George Washington, “The Effects of Negative Campaigning, A Meta-Analytic Reassessment.” They saw significant potential for the practice to undermine public sentiment.
“When that happens, people spend less, they don’t hire, they don’t buy homes,” says Vernon.
The focus on business issues likely reflects the fact that many of the Super PAC contributors are wealthy and tend to be most interested in issues affecting their financial standing. Supreme Court rulings in 1976 and 2010 affirmed a free-speech right to spend one’s money on political campaigns without limit, freeing wealthy contributors and candidates of key post-Watergate campaign reforms. Many politicians began shunning matching funds to give them more fund-raising freedom.
What investors are doing. “A lot of people are just incredibly confused about the economy, and they are like deer caught in the headlights,” says Vernon. “The campaign promises and attacks are not helping. There is always uncertainty about elections, but it is really magnified this time. The leadership, both Democrat and Republican, acts like they are in kindergarten when it comes to getting things done. They prefer to do things that are right for the party, not for the country,” citing the near shut-down of the federal government over the disagreement on extending the debt ceiling.
Still, the market responds to influences well beyond the scope of any election, and there’s no doubt it’s been surprisingly strong in the August through early September period with the S&P returning to prerecession highs. But economic indicators, like the latest ugly jobs report, are still weak. “It’s hard to get really excited about the market when all that really gets it going is the chance for easier Fed policy,” says Vernon.
He is advising his own clients “to stay long, but stay hedged.” He advises a balanced portfolio and a long-term view. Studies in the past have shown that the market does worst during the first two years of a presidential term, and tends to do better the second two years.
While stocks have performed poorly in recent pre-November periods, bonds have been generally stronger, gaining in price and offering steady yield.
“From now to the election, bonds will be a fairly good place to be,” Vernon says. “People do not want to invest in riskier things when there is a high level of uncertainty. And there is a lot of that out there now.”