How an election year could affect the stock market

History suggests that investors can expect lower returns and volatility, experts say

A man yells in front of where protesters against former US president Donald Trump gather outside of the Crotona Park rally venue on May 23 in the Bronx borough of New York City. AFP
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This year is set to be a record-breaking one for elections, with more than two billion voters going to the polls in 50 countries.

The US, Europe, India, Mexico and a host of other countries are holding elections, with UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak adding to the tally by calling a snap vote on July 4.

The world will be holding its breath to see whether Donald Trump retakes the White House in November, and what happens if he does.

We live in a new age of political extremes, amid divisive culture wars, trade wars, cold wars and outright shooting wars.

The stakes could not be higher, with populism on the march, dictators flexing their muscles and democracies losing faith in themselves.

So far, global stock markets have shrugged off the uncertainty to hit record highs. Investors appear to be more concerned over the direction of interest rates, rather than politics.

So, have politics and stock markets become uncoupled? Not quite.

Markets famously hate uncertainty, and elections bring plenty of that. Especially today.

History suggests that investors can expect lower returns and volatility during an election year, says Vijay Valecha, chief investment officer of Century Financial in Dubai.

“Since 1932, the US S&P 500 has returned 6.2 per cent on average during election years, but 9.6 per cent during non-election years. Market volatility also tends to be higher,” he says.

This year’s US elections could certainly be more turbulent than most, so do markets have a preference?

Mr Trump’s first term was pretty good for equities with the S&P 500 delivering an average total return of 16 per cent a year, Mr Valecha says.

It has returned only 12 per cent a year under President Joe Biden, although Mr Valecha adds: “Economic conditions have been more challenging, with inflation elevated and interest rates at multi-decade highs.”

Inflation and interest rates were close to zero throughout Mr Trump's term, although he did catch the tail end of the Covid-19 pandemic. That triggered a global crash in March 2020, but markets quickly rallied on a synchronised blast of fiscal and monetary stimulus.

So, which candidate would be better for markets this time?

Mr Biden has been pumping money into the US economy through his trillion-dollar Inflation Reduction Act, which diverts funds into green industries.

Mr Trump would also look to stimulate the economy, but by cutting taxes instead, so the two could even each other out.

What Mr Trump brings is potential uncertainty, says Jason Hollands, managing director at fund platform Bestinvest by Evelyn Partners.

“If he wins, then trade wars could be back on the agenda as he has pledged a 10 per cent tariff on all imports to the US, rising to a whopping 60 per cent on Chinese ones.”

Mr Trump has also stated he will not reappoint Jerome Powell as chairman of the US Federal Reserve, Mr Hollands adds.

“He has been highly critical of Fed decisions, so markets might fear Fed independence is under threat.”

Much also depends on which party controls the Senate and House of Representatives.

Quilter Investors polled 21 leading fund managers, including BlackRock, Fidelity and Pimco, to find the most market-friendly solution.

The answer? A Biden presidency with Republican control of the Senate, with a split in power generally favoured over one-party dominance.

Fund managers are not afraid of a clean sweep for Mr Trump, though. Only 15 per cent saw a negative impact for US equities should Mr Trump return to power and Republicans win control of Congress, too.

It might spell bad news for European markets, though, where more than six in 10 fund managers anticipate a negative impact from import tariffs and Mr Trump’s equivocal attitude to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The survey showed that fund managers see the relationship between the US and China cited as the most likely source of volatility, but Quilter Investors investment strategist Lindsay James says: “Worryingly, markets have not priced this in.”

In India, incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition are widely expected to win, extending a 10-year period in office.

That is one of the longest periods of stable government since India gained independence, says Mr Hollands.

“While aspects of the BJP’s Hindu nationalist agenda are controversial, the party is perceived as business-friendly and under Mr Modi’s tenure, the country has undergone meaningful, structural reforms.”

Although western democracies may appear to be in turmoil, every serious ruling party has to follow broadly the same script, says Tony Hallside, chief executive at Dubai-based brokers STP Partners.

“Despite political polarisation, they share the common goal of a robust economy. Investors should remain vigilant and adapt their strategies, but they shouldn’t panic,” he adds.

In the UK, markets have shown a preference for the Conservative Party, due to its support for free markets. Today, the left-wing Labour Party appears to be cruising towards victory, with leader Keir Starmer 20 points ahead of Mr Sunak in the polls. However, investors are not too worried.

After 14 years of frustrating Conservative rule, they are ready for change, just as most British people seem to be.

Mr Hollands says that Labour will struggle to put into effect radical economic policies. “Taxes are already at a 70-year high, while the bond markets won't tolerate a government borrowing blitz.”

In this busy year for elections, investors should resist the temptation to second-guess results, says Anu Gaggar, vice-president of capital markets strategy at Fidelity.

“No one can predict with any certainty which party will win, let alone what sectors, industries or stocks may benefit from the next administration’s policies,” she adds.

Another issue is that politicians make all sorts of promises while on the campaign trail, but rarely live up to them.

After the election is over, business often continues as usual, Ms Gaggar says.

“Markets are non-partisan, so it’s very important not to base your investment strategy on the outcome of elections.”

Once the results are in, markets seem to settle down regardless of which party wins, Mr Valecha says.

“Typically, investors return to focus on fundamental factors such as monetary policy, fiscal policy, economic growth, labour markets and corporate profits,” he adds.

Mr Trump could prove an exception to that rule, as he so often is. Markets are not too worried about politics today. That could change in November.

Updated: May 29, 2024, 7:27 AM