The stock market does not perform well in the year leading up to midterm elections. This year’s election may just add to the overall woes besetting equities.
Historically, the average annual return of the benchmark S&P 500 Index in the 12 months before midterm elections is 0.3 percent, versus the historical average of 8.1 percent in non-midterm years. In 2022, of course, with the S&P 500 down more than 20 percent, those historical numbers look pretty good. Unfortunately, volatility also tends to rise before and after midterm elections.
But this year is different, you might say, since we are witnessing the first European war in decades, as well as the highest inflation rate in 40 years. And let’s not forget the continued existence of the coronavirus, a pandemic the size of which the world has not seen in more than a hundred years.
While all of this is true, it does not contradict the data. For more than a century, the second year of the four-year presidential election cycle has always been the weakest in performance, so investors should brace for an even worse year than most.
Consumer sentiment is in the dumps and a growing list of issues — political, social and economic — are plaguing voters. The economy is giving off conflicting signals. It is still growing, although that growth is moderating. But right now, U.S. GDP remains strong enough to keep employers hiring and wages rising — but for how long?
Two big negatives are posing a growing threat to the economy: Inflation, and the Fed’s determination to fight it through tighter monetary policy. Both elements are impacting the wealth effect of American voters. Higher interest rates are hurting the stock market, and with it the average American's retirement portfolio. Housing prices, another bright spot for homeowners, are also leveling off as mortgage rates climb. The two combine to inflict a general feeling of diminishing wealth among many households. We are feeling poorer.
Inflation adds to that feeling. At the gas pump and in the supermarket, skyrocketing inflation has dramatically increased the cost of living for most voters. Workers are finding that recent pay raises are not covering the effects of inflation on the family budget. What is worse, more and more economists are beginning to worry that the Fed’s monetary tightening will ultimately lead to a recession sometime soon, whether this year or next. If so, the macroeconomic data will likely make that apparent just in time for November’s midterm elections.
The makeup of the Congress and the Senate adds even more uncertainty to the midterm equation. If we look back at midterm elections since 1934, the president’s party has lost at least 30 seats in the House and four seats in the Senate. There are only three years in history where the president’s party gained seats. Democrats cannot afford to lose any seats in the Senate and few seats in the House if they hope to maintain their majority. At this point, history is against that happening.
Investors tend to dislike uncertainty and like the status quo within their governments. The stakes are high. If the Democrats hold firm in both houses of Congress, the chance of new legislation (and possibly new taxes) becomes a higher probability. If Republicans win one, or both Houses, gridlock becomes the likely result within government. In that case, investors can expect little in the way of new legislation or downside surprises. Either way, we can be sure that the markets will be anything but calm leading up to Nov. 5.
Of course, there are a host of social issues, which may help determine the outcome. However, the economy usually takes precedence over all else in voters’ minds. In any case, readers can expect that politicians on both sides of the aisle will be sure to add to the market’s volatility in the months ahead. Starting now.