Election Blues (And Reds)

Given the market volatility around the 2016 election results and election day tomorrow, I thought it would be a good idea to do a Q&A-style post about the election and its potential impacts.

Q: Who’s going to win the presidential election?

A: There’s no way to know for sure at this point, and it’s pretty likely that we won’t know tomorrow night either. But, if you believe the polls and the work of statisticians such as Nate Silver (fivethirtyeight), Biden has about a 90% chance of winning. If you believe the betting markets, Biden has about a 60% chance of winning. These are two very different ways of analyzing the election probabilities. Analyzing the polls is essentially using the estimated margin of error in each poll and weighting the polls by their likely accuracy to determine the mathematical chance of the overall margin of error being big enough for Biden to lose and Trump to win despite the polling averages showing a lead for Biden on average. The betting markets on the other hand are showing the odds that a bettor on Biden would be willing to take (betting $3 for a chance to win $2 more) vs. what a Trump better would be willing to take (betting $2 for a chance to win $3 more). The betting is purely opinion-based and is an average of what all bettors think is going to happen in aggregate. It’s possible that both are somewhat skewed. I don’t really believe the hype around Trump supporters lying to polls, but it’s possible that they’re harder to reach to poll. It’s also well known that the betting markets are male-dominated and that Biden’s lead over Trump is much lower among men than women. Since people often bet in a way that favors what they’d like to see happen, that could skew the odds toward Trump’s side. If I had to guess, I would go somewhere in between and say that Trump has about a 30% chance of winning. That means I’d be willing to bet $3 to win at least $7 on him, or be willing to bet no more than $7 to win at least $3 on Biden. 30% is not zero. The favorite doesn’t always win, as we saw in 2016. A good baseball hitter gets a hit about 30% of the time. There are lots of hits in baseball. There are more outs though.

Q: What about the Senate?

A: 538 gives the Democrats about a 75% chance of taking control of the Senate (including a 50-50 split with a Democratic president), with the most likely scenario being 51-49. Betting markets. again, have the race closer with Democrats having a 60-65% chance of winning. The closest races are in GA (2), NC, IA, ME, and MT. Interestingly, the second GA senate seat is a special election to fill a vacant seat and has multiple candidates from both parties. If a majority isn’t reached, a runoff will take place on January 5, 2021. That could be the seat that decides control of the Senate and a runoff has a decent chance of happening at this point.

Q: What impact will the election results have on the stock market?

A: I don’t think that answer would be clear even if we knew today exactly how every race would turn out. That’s because there are so many potentially offsetting impacts. Here are some of the possible scenarios:

  • Biden wins, the Democrats take control of the Senate by several seats, and the Democrats keep decisive control of the House – corporate tax rates likely increase (clearly bad for stocks), taxes on higher income individuals likely increase (probably bad for stocks, at least short-term), higher regulation (probably bad for stocks, at least short-term), large stimulus package gets passed (probably good for stocks, at least short-term), more certainty (probably good for stocks), less pressure on global trade (probably good for stocks) less political angst (impeachment, oversight inquiries, etc… probably good for stocks).
  • Biden wins and the Democrats control the Senate and the House by a small margin – tax picture a little more blurry, regulation still likely to increase, still likely to get a large stimulus package, but allocation to state/local may be a bit smaller, still a boost to global trade, a little less certainty, still less political angst.
  • Biden wins and the Dems & Republicans each control one chamber – tax changes are unlikely (probably good for stocks as a relief to the alternative), smaller stimulus likely (probably bad or less good for stocks at least short-term), still a boost to global trade, more political angst.
  • Trump wins and the Dems control both chambers – tax changes very unlikely, large stimulus likely, much more political angst, and global trade challenges continue (worsen?).
  • Trump wins, the Republicans hold the Senate, and Democrats hold the House (status quo) – tax changes unlikely, stimulus likely smaller with less support for state/local and maybe a big battle to get it done at all, political angst steady, and global trade challenges continue (worsen?).

Longer-term, I really don’t think it matters who wins. Take a look at the chart below from Capital Group:

Sure, there are some dips in that chart, but for the most part it’s a steady upsloping line for 87 years regardless of party. By the way, I don’t think one can make any conclusions about which party is better for the market from that chart because the market prices in election results prior to the election and certainly prices in likely policy changes between election and inauguration. The takeaway should be that from a purely stock market perspective, if you zoom out far enough, it doesn’t really matter who wins a single presidential election.

Q: You said that we probably won’t know the result of the election tomorrow. Why not? When will we know?

A: Each state has their own method of counting ballots. The NY Times recently attempted to summarize those methods. The battleground states have some significant differences. Florida, for example, has already counted many ballots received by mail and will release those counts along with in-person early voting by 8:30pm eastern. Election Day ballots will be counted through the night, but no additional mail-in ballots are allowed after 11/3. So we’ll know who won FL by 11/4 morning barring a 2000-like “hanging-chad” incident. Ohio also plans to release pre-election day votes 11/3 evening (by 8pm) and will count election day votes through the night. But, in stark contrast to FL, they will allow ballots postmarked by 11/3 and received by 11/13 to count, and then won’t provide updated results as those ballots come in. As of 11/2, officials say that full statewide results may not be known until the election is certified by the state on 11/28. Since the state knows how many mail-in ballots were sent out, it will know the maximum that could be received, but if neither candidate leads by enough to make it statistically impossible for the mail-in ballots to swing the results, it sounds like Ohio can’t be called until 11/28! 538 recently published a graphic with their opinion of the state-by-state portion of the vote that should be counted on election night:

There is a chance that one of the candidates will have enough of a lead in battleground states, that that ballots received and counted after 11/3 won’t matter and the election results could be known on 11/3 or 11/4. Again, we can rely somewhat on betting markets to gauge opinion of the probability. PredictIt has a wager on when the election will be “called” by both CNN and Fox News. That wager shows the odds of being called on:

  • Election Day = ~23%
  • November 4th = ~31%
  • November 5th = ~7%
  • November 6th or 7th = ~6%
  • Later in November = ~18%
  • December or later = ~15%

Personally, if I were a betting man, I like the combination of after 11/4 for better than even odds. Maybe that’s more of an emotional hedge though. I certainly hope for a result by the 4th!

Q: What’s the market going to do if we don’t know who won or if the election is contested?

A: We know the stock market didn’t like the 2000 election result process (the FL “hanging chad” election), but it wasn’t exactly catastrophic, as the chart of the S&P 500 shows. It also wasn’t long-lasting.

A contested election that results in not only recounts, but lawsuits that potential swing a result from one candidate to another, etc., could be temporarily much worse. But it’s unlikely that an election with a large margin of victory would be contested and even lower chance that it would reverse the result. So, a very close election with no clear result, that leads to social unrest could certainly hurt financial markets temporarily. Some unrest is likely no matter what the result given current political polarization. The less clear the result is and the more it seems to change, the higher the risk of extreme volatility. I have a high degree of confidence that the next president will be inaugurated on January 20th, regardless of how the election goes. With all of that said, the stock market does a very good job of factoring-in event probabilities and their impacts (including support by the Federal Reserve if things really go off the rails). That means the market is likely to respond very positively, all else being equal, to a clear winner. There’s no way to game the system without a crystal ball or time machine.

Q: Give it to me straight, all-in-all is tomorrow night going to be a mess for the stock market?

A: If you define mess as volatile (bouncing sharply in either/both directions), I’d say that’s much more likely than on an average night. If you define mess as the market falling sharply, I don’t think anyone knows in advance. The better question though is whether what happens tomorrow night matters. I made this short post at about 11pm on election night 2016. Stock futures were down 4.5% at the time and got slightly worse as the result became clear. By 8am, futures were barely down. By the close on 11/9, stocks closed up a little over 1% from the election day close, completely reversing the overnight pullback. By the end of 2016, they were up almost 10% from the day of the election and even now, mid-pandemic, they’re still up over 50% (S&P500) from that election. People are on edge over the election for reasons that far outweigh finance. I get it. The moral of the story here is that there’s little/no reason to let predictions of, or even actual, stock market volatility add to your anxiety.

To summarize:

  • For the markets, the election is all about probabilities. While Biden is favored to win and the Democrats are favored to narrowly take the Senate, neither is anywhere near a sure thing.
  • There are dramatic, offsetting impacts to the economy and financial markets, at least short-term, in every possible scenario. Each is currently priced in, probability-weighted.
  • It may take a while for election results to unfold with certainty.
  • It may be chaotic in the markets for a while and that could include big down or up moves as a clearer picture of the future arrives.
  • Long-term, the 2020 election barely matters from a financial point of view. If you’re feeling anxious, try to zoom out for perspective. Stick to your plan. Things are going to be ok.

Note: Many of the links in this post are being updated periodically with new information as election information evolves (538, NY Times, etc.).

One thought on “Election Blues (And Reds)

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