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18 November 2020 / U.S. ELECTION

U.S. Election Results Appear Market-Friendly

Divided government likely would produce moderate policies.

Key Insights

  • Initial market reactions to the U.S. election results have been favorable, but a disputed transition creates the potential for near-term volatility.
  • If Republicans keep control of the Senate after two runoff elections in Georgia, divided government could impede a Biden administration’s legislative agenda.
  • Republican Senate control almost certainly would rule out any significant tax increases. A Biden presidency might focus more on regulation and foreign policy.

Although President Donald Trump has not conceded the race and has mounted legal challenges to contest key state results, the 2020 U.S. elections appear to have produced a presidential win for Democrat Joe Biden. Two runoff elections in Georgia in January will determine the balance of power in the Senate. Currently, a continuation of divided government appears most likely, with Democrats narrowly retaining control of the House.

While capital markets appeared to have reacted positively to these results, the postelection transition creates a potential for market volatility. However, T. Rowe Price investment professionals believe that other issues, such as further progress on a coronavirus vaccine, are likely to be more critical in the months ahead.

“I think eyes will be more on the response to COVID than on the election,” says John Linehan, CIO, Equity. “The only reason that could change would be if we got into an environment where there was a seriously contested election. In that environment, I think markets would go much more into ‘risk off’ mode.”

While capital markets appeared to have reacted positively to these results, the postelection transition creates a potential for market volatility.

Election and Policy Issues

With Congress entering the “lame duck” period before President-elect Biden’s inauguration, markets will focus on the prospect for additional fiscal relief. Negotiations on such a package broke down shortly before the election.

Katie Deal, the Equity Division’s Washington analyst, sees only a “slim chance” of significant fiscal legislation before the end of 2020, with negotiations beginning in earnest for a 2021 stimulus package. Given the slim majority either party may hold in the upcoming Senate, Democrats will struggle to match their previous USD 2.2 trillion package, which failed to move beyond the House.

Divided government likely will dominate the fiscal picture in 2021—assuming Republicans hold at least one of the two Georgia Senate seats headed for runoff elections. “In a GOP Senate, a proposed tax rate increase of any magnitude would be dead on arrival,” Linehan predicts.

In a divided government, the fiscal debate eventually could return to the question of what to do about exploding federal deficits, suggests Mark Vaselkiv, CIO, Fixed Income. For now, however, both parties appear to recognize a need for fiscal accommodation. Failure to pass additional fiscal stimulus early next year could increase the risk of a double-dip recession, Vaselkiv warns.

Outlook for Monetary Policy

One significant factor that the election almost certainly will not change is the Fed’s massive liquidity support for the economy and the capital markets, which has pushed credit spreads down and enabled a surge in both investment-grade and high yield corporate debt. “What the Fed has done has been extraordinary,” Vaselkiv notes.

Yet, despite surging liquidity, short-term and long-term Treasury yields have remained low and stable—a sign that inflation expectations are still muted. This could allow the Fed to avoid raising rates through 2024 and perhaps even into 2025, Vaselkiv adds.

Regulatory and Trade Policy

With major fiscal initiatives less likely in a divided government scenario, a Biden administration might look to regulatory policy to advance its agenda. This could include efforts to shift the U.S. energy base away from fossil fuels and toward renewables. While new energy regulation could deter capital spending in the sector, it might have an offsetting benefit of reducing supply and boosting energy prices, Linehan says.

Major changes in health care policy—such as adding a public insurance option to the Affordable Care Act—appear unlikely, Deal says. And while both parties have expressed interest in regulating the big technology platform companies, their proposals are very different, making quick action doubtful.

Trade policy is another area where a new administration might try to differentiate itself, Deal says. Biden has expressed a desire for normalized relationships with traditional U.S. trading partners, such as the European Union, Japan, and South Korea. However, China may prove a different case. Biden would find it politically difficult to roll back Trump’s tariff regime without first making demonstrable progress with Beijing, Deal argues.

Capital Market Implications

For equity investors, the election is unlikely to change the trend toward wide return dispersion—especially between growth and value—that has gapped wider over the past year. However, much depends on the course of the pandemic. Further progress toward a vaccine and stronger economic growth potentially could benefit cyclical sectors such as energy, Linehan says.

In U.S. credit markets, low interest rates, declining default rates, and Fed liquidity support are likely to remain positive factors in the postelection period. However, longer-term Treasury yields could drift higher in early 2021 if the economic recovery accelerates, Vaselkiv says.

A steeper yield curve should improve net lending margins—and, thus, profitability—for banks and other lenders. However, even a modest rise could produce capital losses on longer-duration securities, he warns. He suggests that investors may want to consider high yield bonds and floating rate bank loans, which are less sensitive to duration risk.

The potential costs of shifting in and out of asset classes in response to shorter-term political events can be steep.

- Mark Vaselkiv, CIO, Fixed Income

Conclusions

Although the 2020 elections raise significant short-term issues for U.S. and global capital markets, we continue to believe that most investors would be best off focusing on their long-term investment strategies and avoiding major changes based on political events.

Historically, U.S. equity market performance has been relatively consistent across presidents from both parties, Linehan notes, suggesting a long-term perspective is most appropriate. The potential costs of shifting in and out of asset classes in response to shorter-term political events can be steep, Vaselkiv adds.

“It’s very easy to get consumed by the election results,” Linehan says. “But we think having a balanced approach to investing, and being thoughtful and careful, could be critical to long-term investment success.”

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