Written by Kyle Rodda - IG Australia
I'm mad as hell and I am not going to take this anymore! It was this sentiment in November 2016 that raised political-renegade and anti-establishment Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump from rank-outsider and laughing-stock to President of the most of powerful country in the world. No one seemed to see it coming, and as electoral college votes were slowly counted on Election Day almost exactly 2 year ago, the world sat in awe as what was considered a near impossible feat only 18 months prior came to shocking fruition. America, we were told, was about to become great again.
Almost two years to the day has passed, and with arguably the most significant US mid-term elections in recent memory to be decided by the American voter over the course of the next 24-48 hours, the question becomes: will the American polity deliver another shock to the world? If there's one thing that 2016 reminded financial markets participants, it is that the map is not the terrain. Pollsters, pundits and market traders may try to price in the probabilities of a series of outcomes, but all the information that makes up our complex political reality remains too difficult to access and understand.
A humbleness is always required when forming assumptions on what truths the democratic process may reveal: a modest acknowledgement that though the world may look clear and complete to our own eye, a total comprehension of the various and unique realities occupied by the several hundred million of individuals dictating the historical process remains beyond the reach of a single mind. In saying this, it does not mean an honest enquiry should not be undertaken to induce a possible explanation for the events of the past, and subsequently infer what this may mean for events in the future.
It's telling that the quote included in the opening sentence of this commentary comes from the classic-American film, Network, produced all the way back in 1976. In the film's famous monologue, its protagonist -- a ranting T.V. anchor turned prime-time cultural evangelist named Howard Beale -- delivers a deranged and scathing assessment of modern American life: "Everybody knows things are bad. It's a depression. Everybody's out of work or losing their job...and there's nobody out there who seems to know what to do, and there is no end to it". The rant finally ends with Beale imploring his viewership to go to their windows and scream "I'm mad as hell and I am not doing to take this anymore!"
Though the cultural context of the film was vastly different to that of 2016 America, the voting members of the American public at the year’s Presidential election proved they felt the same. After 9 years of what must have felt like empty promises from the political elite about an economic recovery that never trickled down to the middle class, America's silent majority finally cracked and spewed forth into mainstream society. They were sick of society's rich getting richer thanks to policies that didn't seem to be designed to help them; and they were tired of the fact that the members of the (supposed) elite class were shipping off their jobs -- to workers in some foreign nation, no less, and all in the name of saving a buck at their expense.
It was these set of circumstances -- which have been grossly simplified here, of course -- that galvanised a significant sub-section of American society to scream at the ballot box in November 2016 "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore". Though in our reality it was not a psychotic T.V. anchor who proved the mouthpiece of the people, but a New York businessman, turned reality TV star, turned social media provocateur, who promised them that he could return to them what was rightfully theirs’ -- and in doing so, Make America Great Again.
This social upheaval turned the global political order upside down. The once inexorable forces of globalisation, political liberalism, and expanding economic interconnectedness were all the sudden turned on its head. The enraged and forgotten people of American society were set to reclaim their destiny. But as the world awaits the latest expression of the God-given and inviolable right of the US voter to exercise their choice on who will compose their chambers of congress, the question is: are Americans, as they were in 2016, still mad as hell?
It may be cynical, but in a representative democracy like the US, voters will vote for those who can promise to improve their quality of life and economic fortunes. In the lead-up to the 2016 US election, the fledgling US economic recovery had seemingly fizzled, with little sign of any benefit to the middle class. The economy was beginning to flatline, the jobs being created were low skilled and undesirable, wages and living standards were stalling or going backwards in real terms, and the stock market was trading sideways. US voters felt poorer, their opportunities appeared dim, and the future didn't look like it would provide anything better.
Move forward to November 2018 and it feels as though the world (and the American voter) is in a very different place. The US economy is roaring, growing at 3.5 per cent according to the last reading -- a pace strong enough to keep the US labour market at full capacity and the unemployment rate to 3.7 per cent. Inflation remains stable despite the ever-tightening labour market, but as of Friday night's Non-Farm Payroll figures, wages growth is above 3 per cent per year for the first time since the GFC. The stock market, despite experiencing two major corrections this year, has also hit record highs twice in 2018 and consumer sentiment is still trending upward towards 15-year highs.
Love him or loathe him, US President Trump has played a major role in bringing about this sense of economic euphoria. Politicians often over-state their influence and importance to the fortunes of the economy. The US economy was trending in the direction it currently finds itself in for several years, with the extreme monetary policy enacted by the US Federal Reserve likely its greatest driver. However, massive (and probably unnecessary) late-cycle fiscal stimulus from the Trump administration has sent the US economy into warp speed; while his chest-beating and patriotic fervour has ostensibly unleashed investors’ animal spirits.
The question is now though, whether voters will attribute their relatively better lot in life to US President Trump, and award him at the polls. Undoubtedly, other issues come into consideration for the very diverse American electorate when voting Republican or Democrat. Irrespective of the very many and meritorious issues motivating the US electorate, logic does suggest that if the popular narrative is true -- that President Trump was elected based on social and economic dissatisfaction, and that he himself is responsible for turning this around -- some kudos at the ballot box could be forthcoming.
Betting markets at first glance aren't supporting this notion: the bookies have the democrats winning back the House of Representatives relatively comfortably, and the Senate looks set to be held by the Republicans. Such an outcome, although far from an endorsement of US President, would not be a calamity for him. It's well known that an incumbent President generally loses seats in congress come their first mid-term elections, as the sheen comes-off "the new guy" following the realisation that he (or presumably she, when the day arrives) can't meet every expectation they set as a candidate.
(Source: The Conversation)
With this all considered: what could this all mean for financial markets? First, the major caveat must be that the major forces behind economic activity will almost certainly remain the same: the US economic cycle will continue to unfold, and the US Federal Reserve will likely persist with its rate hiking cycle. Amid the political noise, when it is all said and done, the economy will do what the economy intends to do, meaning the flow on impacts to financial markets, particularly regarding the risk to equity markets of higher global interest rates, will keep broadly unchanged.
In saying this, there are several areas where marginal changes may be witnessed. Primarily, the best outcome for financial markets is often the expected one -- the one already "priced in" -- so a Democratic house combined with a Republican senate might be the ideal scenario here. Looking further into the many nuances though, several elements of the Trump doctrine and policy platform may come under fire consequent to the retaking of some power from the Republicans by the Democrats.
The biggest issue up for grabs must be the trade war and broader US-China relations. The past week has seen a softening stance from the White House towards China, which has talked up the imminence of a deal between the two warring nations. An extra dash of Democrat blue in congress reintroduces the globalists to the equation, who will likely prove much more sympathetic to the notion of making peace with the Chinese. President Trump will maintain his executive powers, implying that he can continue to slap-on his tariffs on national security grounds if he sees fit. However, with a more divided congress, horse trading becomes a bigger thing, meaning concessions demanded by Democrats could temper Trump's hawkishness.
A de-escalation in the Trade War would be considered good for Chinese and therefore global growth. The possibility of static or reduced tariffs would assay come anxieties regarding slower Chinese growth and would possibly mark a definitive turn-around in China's equity bear-market. The Yuan would also appreciate, leading to a short-term pop higher in the Australian Dollar, supported by a probable jump in commodity prices all the way from iron ore, to the classic barometer of economic growth prospects: copper. The Japanese Yen, gold prices and even the US Dollar would fall on the back of higher risk appetite, although the greenback would likely sustain its trend higher in the medium to long term by way of virtue of the US Fed's interest rate hikes.
The Nikkei and DAX, which have been the heaviest hit of developed market indices in this trade war, would probably experience an uplift, courtesy of reduced anxieties about industrial tariffs -- especially on automobiles -- and softer Chinese growth. Similar gains would be experienced on the Dow Jones, and to a lesser extent the S&P500, which would benefit from a rally in industrial stocks. The ASX200 would participate in the global bounce in growth optimism, led by gains in commodity prices and subsequently the materials sector. Persistent concerns about the strength of the big banks however— due to domestic challenges regarding higher global funding costs and the softer Australian property market – would still smother optimism.
The other hot issue of financial market import coming out of the US mid-terms will be US President Trump's fiscal policy. Such as with the trade-war, greater checks and balances on the President from increased influence by the Democrats on the White House would force some fiscal restraint. The twin deficits building because of Trump's fiscal profligacy would be curbed, easing pressure on bond yields towards the back end of the curve. Economic growth might well slow down somewhat as stimulus is removed, taking some of the heat out of the US economy; but price pressures would settle somewhat because of a more stable economy, removing some of the impetus for the US Fed to hike hastily.
The outlook for earnings growth in US equity markets would probably weaken as fiscal stimulus waned - though it must be remarked this would have happened to some extent anyway considering Trump's corporate tax cuts have already been absorbed by shareholders. Ultimately, although inflation risk would be reduced, significant enough price growth would almost certainly remain. The US Federal Reserve's interest rate hikes would stay atop of the list as the biggest risk to share market performance, as higher rates stretch the valuations on growth stocks in sectors like US tech further, undermining the upside to equities indices such as the NASDAQ. A possible benefit, though, would be the counterbalance from the Democrats’ influence in congress on the often-unpredictable President Trump, but that may come in the form of improved sentiment alone.
Overall and in the end: as has already been stated, but bares mentioning once more, speculating on the political, economic and financial market outcomes of the democratic process is fraught with danger, and must be approached with humbleness. It's nigh on impossible to tell with complete certainty what the US mid-term elections will hurl at the world, let alone financial markets. The Trump election shocked the world in 2016, as the American polity stood-up to make their dissatisfaction known to the global community. Whether such resentment can be mobilised again and cause another historical upset, only time will tell. One thing is for certain though, and that this mid-term election is a referendum on President Trump's legitimacy, and will have tangible impacts on global politics, economics and financial markets in the months and years ahead.