I have political views, but I try to keep them out of my classes and my blog posts. I teach and write about corporate finance/valuation, not political science, and I don’t think it is fair to subject my students or readers of this blog to my views on politics. I would be committing malpractice, though, if I avoid talking about Tuesday’s election, since it does have consequences for investing. That said, I know that nerves are exposed and emotions are raw and I want (perhaps unsuccessfully) to stay away from the hot-button issues and focus, as best as I can, on the investment implications of a Trump Presidency. As I started writing, I realized that I was repeating almost word for word what I had written in June, after UK voters voted for Brexit. Consequently, I decided to go back and copy the Brexit post, change “Brexit” to “Trump Election”, to see how close they were. The changes are in red and the replaced words are crossed out. You can be the judge on the parallels!
There are few events that catch markets by complete surprise but the decision by British US voters to leave the EU elect Donald Trump as President comes close. As markets struggle to adjust to the aftermath, analysts and experts are looking backward, likening the event to past crises election surprises and modeling their responses accordingly. There are some who see the seeds of a market meltdown, and believe that it is time to cash out of the market. There are others who argue that not only will markets bounce back but that it is a buying opportunity. Not finding much clarity in these arguments and suspicious of bias on both sides, I decided to open up my crisis survival kit, last in use in August 2015, in the midst of another market meltdown.
The Pricing Effect
I am sure that you have been bombarded with news stories about how the market has reacted to the Brexit vote Trump Election and I won’t bore you with the gory details. Suffice to say that, for the most part, it has not followed the crisis rule book: Government bond rates in developed market currencies (the US, Germany, Japan and even the UK) the United States have dropped risen, gold prices have risen stayed flat, the price of risk has increased decreased and equity markets have declined risen. The picture below captures the fallout of the vote across markets:
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As the election results came out on Tuesday night, the immediate market reaction was dire, with Dow futures dropping almost 800 points, triggering circuit breakers. By Wednesday morning, though, the panic seemed to have subsided and the market effect in the two days since the election have been not just benign, but positive. I know that it is early and that much can happen in the next few weeks to spook markets again, but as things stand now, here is what we see. Rates on US treasuries have risen sharply, with interpretations varying depending upon your election priors, with those negatively inclined to Trump viewing the rise as a sign that foreign buyers are pulling out the market, leery of his comments about and those positively inclined arguing that the rise reflects expectations of higher growth in the future. The dollar has held its own against other currencies and the fear indices (gold and the VIX) have fallen since Tuesday, with the VIX dropping dramatically. US stocks have risen in the two days since the election, with small cap stocks in Russel 2000 rising more than the large cap stocks. If you are puzzled by the NASDAQ’s inability to join the rally, you can see why when you look at the returns across the S&P sectors:
|Last 5 days||Last 3 months||YTD (2016)|
The stock market rise in the last few days has been uneven with consumer staples, utility, technology and real estate stocks (ironically) lagging and financial firms, health care and industrials doing well. Though it is dangerous to try to create full-blown stories based on stock market behavior over a few days, it seems likely that the rally in financials and pharmaceuticals can be traced as much to expectations about what Trump has said he will do (repeal Obamacare, for instance) as to relief that some of the regulations/restrictions that Clinton had proposed (on pharmaceutical pricing and more constraints on banks) would not longer be on the table. The decline in utilities can be attributed to rising interest rates but the swoon in tech stocks bears watching, since it could be an indication that tech companies, who strongly backed Clinton, may face headwinds in a Trump administration.
The Value Effect
As markets make their moves, the advice that is being offered is contradictory. At one end of the spectrum, some are suggesting that Brexit Trump election could trigger a financial crisis similar to 2008, pulling markets down and the global economy into a recession, and that investors should therefore reduce or eliminate their equity exposures and batten down the hatches. At the other end are those who feel that this is much ado about nothing, that Brexit will not happen or that the UK will renegotiate new terms to live with the EU and that investors should view the market drops as buying opportunities the Trump effect can be more positive than negative, with changes in taxes and regulations offsetting any negative consequences from his trade policies. Given how badly expert advice served us during the run-up to Brexit the Trump election, I am loath to trust either side and decided to go back to basics to understand how the value of stocks could be affected by the event and perhaps pass judgment on whether the pricing effect is under or overstated. The value of stocks collectively can be written as a function of three key inputs: the cash flows from existing investment, the expected growth in earnings and cash flows and the required return on stocks (composed of a risk free rate and a price for risk). The following figure looks at the possible ways in which Brexit the Trump presidency can affect value:
I know the perils of assuming that campaign promises and rhetoric will become policy, but broadly speaking, you can outline the possible consequence for companies of Trump’s proposed policy changes. The biggest and potentially most negative effect would come from his trade policies, where protectionist policies can and will draw protectionist responses from other countries, putting global trade and growth at risk. Trump has been ambivalent about both the Federal Reserve’s interest rate policies and financial markets, arguing that the Fed has played politics with interest rates and that financial markets are in bubble territory. It will be interesting to see whether the FOMC, when it meets in January, takes into account the election results, in making its widely telegraphed decision to raise rates (at least the ones that it controls). Trump has proposed major changes to both corporate and individual tax rates, and if Congress goes along even part way, you can expect to see a lower corporate tax rate accompanied by inducements to bring the $2.5 trillion in trapped cash that US companies have in other markets.
There is also likely to be sector-specific fall out from other Trump policies, at least in contrast to what these sectors would have faced under a President Clinton. President Trump has prioritized repealing Obamacare and that will have direct consequences for companies in the health care sector, with some benefiting (pharmaceutical companies?) and some perhaps being hurt (insurance companies and hospital stocks?). President Trump’s proposal to invest heavily in the nation’s infrastructure will benefit the construction, engineering and raw material firms that will construct that infrastructure but he may run into both budgetary constraints (with his tax proposals) and political headwinds (from conservatives in Congress). Finally, President Trump has promise to reduce regulation on business and put in more business-friendly regulators on the regulatory bodies and that will be viewed as good news by banks and fossil-fuel firms that were facing the most onerous of these regulations. The Trump proposals to preserve the entitlement programs, lower taxes and increase infrastructure spending are potentially at war with each other and budget constraints, but that does not mean that significant parts of each one will not become law.
In evaluating these possibilities, I am cognizant of the checks and balances that characterize the US system. Unlike parliamentary systems, where a new government can quickly rewrite laws and replace old policies, the framers of the US constitution put in a system where power is shared by the executive, the legislature and the courts, making change difficult. Even with Republicans controlling the executive and legislative branches, I am sure that Trump supporters will be frustrated by how slowly things move through the mill and how difficult it is to convert proposals to policies and Trump detractors will learn to love the same filibusters, congressional slowdowns and legal roadblocks that they have inveighed against over the last eight years.
The Bigger Lessons
It is easy to get caught up in the crisis of the moment but there are general lessons that I draw from Brexit the Trump election that I hope to use in molding my investment strategies.
- Markets are not just counting machines: One of the oft-touted statements about markets is that they are counting machines, prone to mistakes but not to bias. If nothing else, the way markets behaved in the lead-up to Brexit the election is evidence that markets collectively can suffer from many of the biases that individual investors are exposed to. For most of the last few months, the British Pound Mexican Peso operated as a quasi bet on Brexit the US presidential election, rising as optimism that Remain Clinton would prevail rose and falling as the Leave Trump campaign looked like it was succeeding. There was a more direct bet that you would make on Brexit Trump in a gamblers’ market, where odds were constantly updated and probabilities could be computed from these odds. Since Brexit the US election was also one of the most highly polled in history, you would expect the gambling to be closely tied to the polling numbers, right? The graph below illustrates the divide.
- No one listens to the experts (and deservedly so): I have never only once before seen an event where the experts were all so collectively wrong in their predictions and so completely ignored by the public. Economists, foreign policy experts and central banks opinion leaders all inveighed against exiting the EU Trump, arguing that is electing him would be catastrophic, and their warnings fell on deaf years, as voters tuned them out. As someone who cringes when called a valuation expert, and finds some of these experts to be insufferably pompous, I can see why experts have lost their cache. First, in almost every field , expertise has become narrower and more specialized than ever before, leading to prognosticators who are incapable of seeing the big picture. Second, while experts have always had a mixed track record on forecasting, their mistakes now are not only more visible but also more public than ever before. Third, the mistakes experts make have become bigger and more common as the world has become more complex, partly because the interconnections between variables means there are far more uncontrollable elements than in the past. Drawing a parallel to the investment world, even as experts get more forums to be public, their prognostications, predictions and recommendations are getting far less respect than they used to, and deservedly so. Finally, it is time that we that are open about the fact that we are all biased and being smart or an expert does not immunize from bias.
- Narrative beats numbers: One of the themes for this blog for the last few years has been the importance of stories in a world where numbers have become more plentiful. In the Brexit debate US presidential election, it seemed to me that the Leave side Trump had the more compelling narrative (of a return to an an old Britain America that enough voters found appealing to help him win) and while the Remain side Clinton argued that this narrative was not plausible in today’s world, its counter consisted mostly of numbers (the costs that Britain would face from Brexit) inveighing against Trump’s character and temperament. Looking ahead to similar referendums elections in other EU countries, I have a feeling that the same dynamic is going to play out, since few established politicians in any EU country seem to want to make a full-throated defense of being Europeans first the status quo.
- Democracy can disappoint (you): The parallels between political and corporate governance are plentiful and Brexit this election has brought to the surface the age-old debate about the merits of direct democracy. While many, mostly on the winning side, celebrate the wisdom of crowds, there are an equal number on the losing side who bemoan the madness and prejudices of crowds. As someone who has argued strongly for corporate democracy and against entrenching the status quo, it would be inconsistent of me to find fault with the British American public for voting for Brexit Trump. In a democracy, you will get outcomes you do not like and throwing a tantrum or threatening to move are not democratic responses. You may not like the outcome, but as an American political consultant said after his candidate lost an election, “the people have spoken… the bastards”.
The End Game
I am sure that reading this post, with its crossed-out words and red insertions, has been tiresome, but I also think that the parallels between what happened around Brexit and the US presidential election are too strong for this to be coincidence. Just as technology and social media are upending traditional models in businesses, these two elections are signaling a change in the political game and it is not just politicians, pollsters and political consultants who should be taking notice.
Article by Aswath Damodaran, Musings on Markets