By Michael Zezas and Seth Carpenter, strategists at Morgan Stanley
On Tuesday, Americans will cast their ballot for members of Congress. Well…most Americans will. Many will have already voted by mail, meaning that, as in 2020, investors may have to wait days to know with certainty who will control Congress. Given the axiom that markets hate uncertainty, here are our three key takeaways to help investors to cope with the lack of clarity that election week in America will bring:
Concerned about near-term market volatility? Higher volatility more likely results from a better-than-expected night for Democrats than for Republicans. Outcomes that meet expectations typically do not move markets a lot. And judging from recent levels and trends in both polls and prediction markets, Republicans are expected to win a majority in at least one chamber of Congress. Against that backdrop, it is important to note that we do not see a Republican win as leading to policies that on their own would be important market catalysts in any direction. Conversely, Democrats' expanding their majorities in Congress would buck the expectations set by polls and prediction markets. That outcome would also undercut the notion that inflation is an electoral liability for the Democrats. Investors could see this result as freeing the party from the political and legislative constraints that kept Congress from enacting some of the fiscally expansionary policies that were part of President Biden’s original ‘Build Back Better’ agenda. Hence, markets could assign a higher probability to further fiscal expansion, with Congress and the Fed effectively pulling in opposite directions on inflation. The short-term implications for markets could be higher Treasury yields and a stronger dollar, reflecting the potential for a higher peak federal funds rate.
A Republican ‘win’ may not create near-term market volatility, but does introduce situational risks for 2023. Benign neglect is often the outcome for a split government in the US, but not always. Following the 2010 midterm elections, gridlock led to protracted debt limit standoffs and government shutdowns. The resolution to one such standoff was the Budget Control Act of 2011, which implemented contractionary fiscal policy while the economy was still weak. Indeed, when the legislation was passed in August of that year, the unemployment rate stood at 9%. The result was weaker growth and a slower economic recovery, which partially explains why the liftoff of the fed funds rate was delayed until 2015 and unfolded gradually thereafter. At present, Republican leadership is signaling its intent to deploy the same tactics if the party wins majorities. While markets could easily dismiss these negotiations as political theater, as they have in recent years amid solid economic conditions, if the economic outlook sours in 2023 in unexpected ways, the specter of the Budget Control Act could weigh on markets.
Beware premature conclusions on election night. As in 2020, the increased use of vote by mail means the early reported vote tallies may not be a good indicator of who is winning, especially in races expected to be close. What we saw in 2020 and in other elections is that mail-in ballots were cast more often by Democrats than Republicans, and in many jurisdictions were counted after in-person voting. That means early reported results should look favorable to Republicans, but as in 2020, leads can vanish over time. Consider the Pennsylvania Senate race. Assuming mail-in ballots are cast in the same proportions and with the same party skew as they were in 2020, we estimate that the Republican candidate could win the in-person vote by 29% and still lose after all ballots are counted. Hence, we will need to reserve judgement, perhaps for days, on which party seems poised to control Congress. If you’re looking to cut through this noise and assess whether early results are consistent with a good outcome for Democrats or Republicans, check out our ‘Blue Shift’ interactive tool.
And as always, our ultimate piece of advice for those who don’t like political uncertainty…vote!