Mark Lister, 11 July 2016

Brexit is out of the way, for now. But politics is still set to dominate headlines as the countdown begins to the big one, the US Presidential Election. After the respective party conferences this month, the campaigning will ramp up ahead of election day in November.

A Hillary Clinton win would largely mean business as usual, so the debate in investment circles is around the “what if?” scenario of a Donald Trump victory. Call me cynical, but I think American businesses will just get on with it, regardless of the outcome.

In the lead up to every US election a range of investment storylines emerge. When Barack Obama first emerged as a frontrunner, alternative energy was cited as the place to be, while the healthcare sector was singled out as a big potential loser under his watch. US healthcare has been a fairly decent investment since then, while clean energy companies haven’t gone anywhere.

This time, we should buy big multinationals and exporters ahead of a Clinton victory, while Trump’s protectionist stance is expected to benefit smaller, domestic companies. A border wall could benefit building materials firms.

However, the political landscape hasn’t been as important for the performance of US shares as many might think. US politics is so bureaucratic and it’s a much bigger machine than just the President – just think back to all those “debt ceiling” negotiations.

Nobody got anything done and the multiple layers of Congress faced one stalemate after another. Many would argue that Obama hasn’t been able to push through much of his agenda at all while he’s been in office. The US economy is the biggest and most innovative in the world. It’s the place where the world’s best universities meet the world’s deepest pockets. It has a flexible labour force, and investment capital rapidly moves from industries in decline to those with new, revolutionary ideas.

Since the S&P 500 sharemarket index was introduced in the 1920s, it has produced a positive annual return during 66 per cent of the time, with an average of 7.4 per cent. There have been 22 election years over this period, and the market has been up in 73 per cent of these.

The Democrats have won 12, and in those years the market has risen 58 per cent of the time, for an average gain of 3.3 per cent. The Republicans have a better record, with an 11.4 per cent average gain in years they’ve won, with the market up 90 per cent of the time.

With a few months to go, Clinton is the frontrunner despite some tight polls. Financial markets will undoubtedly panic if a Trump victory starts looking likely, but really – they’re both politicians. Will it make that much of a difference which America chooses?

This article was originally published in the New Zealand Herald on 11 July 2016.