Do Elections Affect the Stock Market?

The last of the three presidential debates for 2004 concluded last evening. We’ve heard plenty of election coverage, so I won’t get into much of the politics here, but one question is relevant to me and my clients. Will next month’s election (or any presidential election for that matter) affect the stock market’s future returns. And if so, how?

Much of the country has concluded during President Bush’s first term that his policy of reducing taxes on income, capital gains, and dividends has helped bring investors back to the market after many portfolios were dismantled in the first three years of the new millennium. Some have worried that the market would react negatively to a Kerry victory in November due to his desire to raise taxes for those individuals earning more than $200,000 a year.

We have also heard that academics have found that the market itself performs better under Democratic Presidents, as opposed to Republican ones. Interesting contradiction, isn’t it? Rather than listen to the pundits on television, I decided to take a look at the research myself and determine which, if any, political side is better for the stock market. Stock prices are proven to follow corporate earnings over the long term, and most won’t argue that the best predicter of company profits is economic growth. Here is what I found.

There are two sets of numbers highlighted below. The first are the most commonly used economic statistics used to measure the health of the economy; GDP growth, unemployment, inflation, growth in federal spending, the budget deficit, and the national debt. These numbers came from research completed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), both non-partisan bodies that the White House and others rely on for unbiased data continually. This data is for the 40-year period from 1962 through 2001. The results are very interesting, especially if you favor the Republican political view that seeks to lower taxes and reduce government spending, as opposed to the “perceived” idea that Democrats prefer to “tax and spend.”

From 1962-2001:

GDP Growth: 3.9% (D) 2.9% (R)

Unemployment Rate: 5.1% (D) 6.8% (R)

Inflation Rate: 4.3% (D) 5.0% (R)

Growth in Federal Spending: 7.0% (D) 7.6% (R)

Growth in Federal Spending (Ex-Defense): 8.3% (D) 10.1% (R)

Yearly Budget Deficit: $36 Billion (D) $190 Billion (R)

Total Increase in the National Debt: $720 Billion (D) $3.8 Trillion (R)

(Sources: BLS & BEA)

The first point to make is that while Republicans are billed are fiscally conservative and tax reducers, over the last forty years Democratic Presidents have actually spent less and been much better balancing the U.S. budget. And while Republicans have taxed Americans less, that has not translated into better economic prosperity, as measures of inflation, GDP growth, and unemployment all have been better under Democratic leaders.

Now, that’s fine, but the real question is how this relates to stock market performance. Despite what the economic numbers above reflect, what happens to stock prices while each party is in office should be the real question. If Republicans are indeed better for the markets, then you can argue that even though favorable economic statistics sound good, they won’t really help grow your investment portfolio. Not surprisingly, though, the stock market did prefer better economic conditions, as you can see below.

Avg S&P 500 Returns: Democratic Presidents vs Republican Presidents

1926-1997: 15.1% (D) 10.7% (R)

(Source: Stock Traders Almanac)

For some, these statistics will be important when you go out and vote for our next President on November 2nd. For others, they won’t be. However, as a money manager I was curious to see if the claims made frequently in the media are actually true, so I thought I’d share my findings.

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