How should investors approach the upcoming election?
It’s not at all unusual for volatility to spike and uncertainty to rise as we enter the final stretch in the lead up to the U.S. election. As strategists and asset allocators, we remain broadly constructive on risk assets, but we’re also vigilant about the risks associated with election cycles.
The outcome of this election will provide important information about the future path relating to U.S. fiscal, trade, and regulatory policy, and it’ll give investors the opportunity to implement more nuanced market positions. That said, we continue to believe that several key structural macro themes will remain particularly relevant to investors regardless of the election outcome.
Crucially, while investors might be tempted to head for the exits in view of heightened uncertainty, we’d argue against it. Historical data suggests that it makes sense for investors with a longer-term investment horizon to stay invested, even when confronted with high levels of uncertainty.¹
The two key known unknowns
In our view, there are two key factors that’ll determine the market’s direction in the hours, and possibly days, after the election—the length of time it’ll take for the outcome to be finalized and the composition of the U.S. government, which is dependent on not only the outcome of the presidential election, but also the results of the Congressional elections.
It’s important to remember that the results of the 2000 U.S. presidential election weren’t finalized until 36 days after the vote had taken place.
When will we know the final outcome?
Given the higher than typical share of mail-in votes, it’s entirely possible that a winner may not be declared on November 3. Some U.S. states, such as Florida and Arizona, have preprocessing procedures that enable them to begin counting mail-in ballots in advance; others can only start the counting process on either the day before or day of the election. Understandably, this isn’t what we’re used to, and markets have responded by pricing in greater odds of volatility through November and December. However, it’s also important to remember that the results of the 2000 U.S. presidential election weren’t finalized until 36 days after the vote had taken place.² In other words, even if we were confronted with a delay this November, it isn’t unprecedented.
The composition of government might matter more than who wins the presidency
With the Democrats widely expected to retain their majority in the House of Representatives (as of this writing), the focus shifts to the contest for the Senate. In addition to being a far tighter race, we also believe that the battle for control of the Senate is far more relevant to investors—the outcome could influence future U.S. policy, from trade agreements to fiscal policy.
In our view, if the Republican Party—which typically favors a more conservative approach to fiscal spending—manages to hold on to its majority in the Senate, it’s reasonable to assume that U.S. government spending in the next few years could be relatively lower than it would’ve been otherwise.
At this point, we should note that it’s just as important to pay attention to the size of the majority that a party commands in the Senate that could also make a huge difference. The magic number here is 60—if either party manages to win at least 60 seats in the Senate, it’ll make it much more difficult for its opponent to invoke the filibuster, thereby making the task of pushing through the majority party’s agenda a much easier task.
Interestingly, markets have traditionally fared better when we have a split government where both political parties retain some form of influence over the policymaking process,³ as it tends to make it more challenging for the administration to push through significant policy changes. The implication here is that it’s more likely for status quo to be maintained. However, given that the economy is likely to remain very fragile in the first half of 2021, a split government could delay any fiscal aid, thereby potentially adding an additional layer of uncertainty to the general environment.
Interestingly, markets have traditionally fared better when we have a split government where both political parties retain some form of influence over the policymaking process.³
Four scenarios to monitor
History has taught us that polls can be unreliable. Consequently, instead of assigning probabilities to outcomes based on election polls, we believe it’s more practical to focus on the four most likely election outcomes and the associated implications for each of them (these scenarios assume that the Democrats retain control of the House of Representatives).
From a macro perspective, fiscal policy, structural regulatory changes to key sectors (particularly those that are relevant to the broader economy), and trade policy are of most interest to investors given their respective impact on growth and inflation outlooks, broad risk sentiment, and the foreign exchange market.
Three long-term themes that matter regardless of the outcome
The upcoming U.S. election is no doubt important, but we believe investors should also pay attention to emerging macro themes that are likely to play an important role in shaping global financial markets.
- We continue to expect interest rates to remain extraordinarily low in developed markets. We don’t expect any major central bank to raise interest rates in the coming five years—rather, we think there’s a likelihood that policy rates could be cut further, taking rates into negative territory (in some cases, further into negative territory). A return to a lower-for-longer interest-rate environment, combined with the Fed’s shift toward average inflation targeting and the abundance of remarkably large quantitative easing programs, could mean that global yields will remain suppressed for some time—particularly in the front end of the yield curve, up to the 10-year maturity. Where investors are concerned, this means the search for yield becomes a more challenging task, likely pushing them further out on the risk spectrum and forcing them to embrace assets with less desirable risk/return profiles.
- In some ways, the COVID-19 outbreak has rewritten the rule book for how we look at fiscal balances. We expect debt-to-GDP ratios in most developed economies to remain near historically high levels in the coming years. By the same logic, we also expect government debt issuance—specifically, long-dated debt—to rise, which would create downward pressure on the very long end of the yield curve.
- Finally, regardless of the outcome of the U.S. election, we expect geopolitical tensions to remain elevated for some time. The ongoing health crisis and its associated impact on the global economy will no doubt add to a growing sense of uncertainty, as will the emergence of trade tariffs as the gradual movement to unwind decades of globalization takes shape, along with its various implications for the global supply chain.
1 "Making sense of the market drawdown: what history has shown us," Manulife Investment Management, 3/24/20. 2 “The Bush-Gore Recount is an Omen for 2020,” The Atlantic, 8/17/20. 3 “Blue Wave Breaches the Red Wall,” Bank of America Merrill Lynch, 11/8/18.
Views are those of the author(s) and are subject to change. No forecasts are guaranteed. This commentary is provided for informational purposes only and is not an endorsement of any security, mutual fund, sector, or index. Past performance does not guarantee future results.