Swedroe: Politics Can Sway Investing

June 08, 2016

It seems that in the upcoming presidential election, American voters will be faced with choosing between two candidates with the highest unfavorable ratings in history. It’s either that (at least if the parties’ national conventions go as expected), or a choice not to vote.

The unfavorable ratings of both candidates are creating a great amount of anxiety among voters, even those who actually favor one of the two front-runners. That’s because recent polls show a close race. The Real Clear Politics average poll results as of June 1 had Hillary Clinton ahead by a slim, point-and-a-half margin over Donald Trump: 44% versus 42.5%. That’s well within the margin of error.

As the director of research for The BAM Alliance, I’ve regularly been receiving emails and phone calls from clients and advisors (who are getting the same calls from their clients) worried about the impending “disaster” to the economy if one or the other (presumptive) candidate is elected. They want my view on what they should be doing with their portfolios to protect themselves.

What’s particularly interesting—and consistent with my prior experience, as well as the academic literature—is that those who favor Clinton are worried about the “disaster” that will occur in the economy and the stock market if Trump is elected, while those who favor Trump are concerned about the economic “disaster” that another eight years with a left-leaning Democrat in the White House would bring.

Political Bias Influences Investment Attitude

Many investors are unaware how their political biases can impact their investment decisions (usually with negative results). My experience has been that Republicans were much better investors during the Bush administration, and Democrats were much better investors during the Obama administration.

The reason is that when the party they favored was in power, they tended to be more optimistic. That led to a more disciplined investment approach, which helped them avoid panicked selling.

After all, we know that doing nothing (except rebalancing and tax managing, harvesting losses where appropriate) is more likely to prove productive than doing “something.” As the Oracle of Omaha, legendary investor Warren Buffett, stated in Berkshire Hathaway’s 1996 annual report: “Inactivity strikes us as intelligent behavior.”

Unfortunately, investors often make mistakes with their money because they aren’t aware of how decisions can be influenced by their beliefs and biases. The first step to eliminating—or at least minimizing—mistakes is to become cognizant of how our financial decisions are affected by our views, and then how those views may influence outcomes.

A 2012 study, “Political Climate, Optimism, and Investment Decisions,” showed that people’s optimism toward both the financial markets and the economy is dynamically influenced by their political affiliation and the existing political climate.

Using a large sample of UBS/Gallup survey data, and portfolio holdings and trading data from a large U.S. discount brokerage house, the study’s authors examined whether the changing expectations of U.S. households about the behavior of financial markets and the macroeconomy affect their investment decisions.

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