Will the US election make any difference to the stock market?

When it comes to American presidents, popular wisdom has it that markets prefer a Republican. That may or may not be true. What really matters is timing. And that's not looking good.

Will the US election make any difference at all to the stock market? Popular wisdom has that it will. As James Mackintosh notes in the FT today, "it has become accepted on Wall Street that if Republican Mitt Romney were to carry the White House on Tuesday, shareholders would be delighted. Why? Because "an instant bounce would be followed by a stronger market thanks to Mr Romney's business friendly stance".

But there is a problem with the idea that the market loves a Republican. History just doesn't back it up. On average, says Mackintosh, "the market gains far more under Democrats". That's a point also made by US market guru Jeremy Grantham in last week's Bloomberg Businessweek.

"History speaks pretty clearly that the markets do better with Democrats. Republicans' ideas of what constitutes fiscal responsibility simply are not good for the stock market. Democrats have many tendencies, but one of them is to look after the workers, and actually that tends to be good for demand and good for markets," says Grantham. "These capitalists who are desperate to elect Republicans should study their history books."

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However, Grantham also makes the point that whoever gets in, the first two years of the presidential cycle which as an investor he says he "worships" are rarely much good for markets.

"Going back to 1932, if you take the first and second year together, they've had no real return in the market. All of the return has been compressed into a gigantic Year Three and a respectable Year Four." Worse, for those thinking of putting money into the market this month, "for us, the cycle years start on October 1st. So now we're in the dreaded first year."

I'm not entirely convinced Grantham is right on this one. Look at the two charts here and here from Yardeni Research, and you will see that there isn't really much of a pattern to the market regardless of who is in charge. What Grantham might be right on, however, is what he says next: "We have Republicans threatening to add fiscal constraints into a very fragile economy. We have the European situation. We have China stumbling in an incredible slow-motion style."

Grantham's conclusion? "I think it's a really good year to keep your head down" (he is OK with blue chip brands and some beaten down European stocks but not much else).

Perhaps, of course, what really matters to the market during a presidential term is not who gets to be president, but how cheap the market is when he takes up his position. Obama moved into the White House in January 2009, a time when even the biggest bears thought most developed world markets were a bargain. They are up around 90% since (including dividend payouts).

The next president will move in (or stay put) at a time when the global economy is in just as awful a state, but when the US market at least is very far from being a bargain.

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.