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U.S. Elections: Charting Patterns in Market Volatility

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This Markets in a Minute Chart is available as a poster.

Us election volatility in markets

This Markets in a Minute Chart is available as a poster.

U.S. Elections: Charting Patterns in Market Volatility

Do elections influence market volatility?

Over 90 years of data shows that volatility jumps 30% in the five months leading up to an election. But while elections have historically stoked uncertainty in the market, in reality, the scale of their impact plays a relatively minor role.

This Markets in a Minute chart from New York Life Investments shows volatility trends surrounding elections over the last century, and how investors can best position themselves amid market turbulence.

Making Sense of Market Volatility

Volatility is when a security has sharp price movements in either direction. The market’s volatility is measured by the CBOE Volatility Index (VIX), also known as the ‘fear gauge’ for the market. The higher the VIX reading, the higher the volatility.

The five-year average VIX value is 15.8, with an an all-time low of 9.1 in November 2017, and reaching an all-time high of 82.7 in March 2020. Specifically, in the five months ahead of U.S. elections, the VIX tends to fall between 14 and 18.

MonthAverage Monthly VIX During U.S. Election Years Since 1928
July14.2
August15.0
September16.0
October17.4
November18.0
December14.7

Source: Eureka Report

After the dust settles from elections, market volatility reduces as investors gain more clarity on government direction.

In short, in the six months following an election, volatility tends to fall on a downward sloping trajectory.

Finding Opportunity Surrounding U.S. Elections

With volatility here to stay, investors can utilize a number of portfolio strategies prior to elections.

  1. Stay the course: The easiest thing investors can do is nothing. Ignoring irrational market activity and staying invested will help you keep your investment goals on track.
  2. Focus on value: Investors can focus on companies with sound balance sheets that return value back to shareholders, such as fixed-income investments or dividend-paying stocks. For instance, when concerns circled around increased taxes on investment income in 2012, no less than 1,100 companies issued a special dividend following the election.
  3. Bargain hunt: Overvalued stocks, or sectors in the policy spotlight, can temporarily dip amid market fear. For example, in 2016 the health care sector saw new policies that investors feared would have damaging effects. Ultimately, these concerns were overdone, and the sector rallied after the election.

Focusing on solid company fundamentals can offer windows of opportunity to investors who look past the short-term volatility.

Long-Term Areas to Focus On

Investors can look to structural factors, such as the economic environment, that have a more powerful impact on financial markets.

Interest rates, low bond yields and policy measures, among others, have a greater influence on market performance. Rather than paying attention to short-term volatility, investors can also focus on policy changes that have a lasting impact on the economy:

  1. Employment: Economic policies that help to promote workforce outcomes will have positive impacts on earnings growth, market performance, and investor portfolios.
  2. Taxes: Tax policies reallocate capital. Corporate tax cuts, for instance, can buoy markets and investor optimism.
  3. COVID-19 containment: The policies in place in response to COVID-19, such as the CARES Act, will have a marked impact on investor sentiment, company earnings, and ultimately economic resilience.

Looking past the election, and keeping an eye on policy shifts, could provide more insight into key forces shaping the future of the economy.

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Markets in a Minute

Should a U.S. Election Affect Your Asset Mix?

Election jitters prompt investors to put their money in low-risk assets. We analyze why this may not be the best idea for your portfolio’s asset mix.

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Should an Election Affect Your Asset Mix?

U.S. elections are a powerful force in investor psychology.

In fact, historically, investors pour more money into low-risk assets than equity investments surrounding election season. Following election years, investors reverse course and put their money back into equities.

This Markets in a Minute chart from New York Life Investments shows how investors have reacted to U.S. presidential elections over time, and why maintaining your long-term asset mix may be a better course of action.

Market Behavior During U.S. Elections

While investors allocated funds into safe assets in election years, what happened to the market?

 Average S&P 500 Returns in Presidential Election Years (1928-2016)
New president is elected9.3%
Incumbent president win13.4%
All election years11.3%

Source: Morningstar (Dec, 2019)

On average, the market has returned 11.3% in election years over the last century.

Markets also appear to prefer familiarity—when the incumbent president won, the S&P 500 averaged higher returns. Alongside this, it made no difference if a Democrat or Republican candidate won.

Implications for the 2020 Election

Still, with mail-in voting controversy and the anticipation of a results dispute, the 2020 presidential run has stoked greater volatility in financial markets. What reference point can we make to previously contested results?

Following the 2000 results between Al Gore and George Bush, investor fear ran rampant. Markets fell 1.6% when no winner was clearly determined. Compare this to the 2016 presidential run, when markets jumped 1% the day after the election.

But while short-term impacts of U.S. elections cause heightened uncertainty, it’s important to analyze if it’s an emotional or rational decision being made in response to market unrest.

Opportunity Costs

While investors typically run to safe-haven assets during these cycles, the table below illustrates how this may be less optimal for their portfolios.

 U.S. Treasury Bill (T-Bill) Rates
8 Week T-bill0.09%
26 Week T-bill0.11%
52 Week T-bill0.13%

Source: U.S. Treasury (Dec, 2020)

Instead of paying attention to unknown variables inherent in every market, investors can focus on what the numbers are saying.

Building a Resilient Portfolio

So how can investors stay the course during election season?

Broad historical trends show that in spite of unique events, money in the stock market positively increases over time. Staying invested in your long-term asset mix can help capture these overarching trends.

One-off events such as an election provide an opportunity to take advantage of temporarily lower prices. This, coupled with the higher volatility levels that accompany election cycles, offer an avenue for your portfolio to be more resilient as it helps strengthen portfolio returns.

The diminishing returns of cash compound this effect. Over the last decade, cash returned close to 0%. These return rates could fall even lower in the years ahead as interest rates decline.

In short, it’s impossible to predict the future. Instead, equities and other fixed income investments have offered a number of advantages. Macroeconomic factors, such as falling interest rates and the supply of capital, have only highlighted this trend.

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Markets in a Minute

Visualizing the 200-Year History of U.S. Interest Rates

How long could U.S. interest rates hover near zero? This 200-year chart puts rates into context, as the Federal Reserve projects no change until 2023.

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This Markets in a Minute Chart is available as a poster.

Visualizing the 200 Year History of U.S. Interest Rates

U.S. interest rates will stay near zero for at least three years as the Federal Reserve enacts measures to prop up the economy.

But are low interest rates a new phenomenon? Interestingly, one study by the Bank of England shows that this pattern of declining interest rates has taken place globally since the late Middle Ages. In fact, it suggests that these downward-sloping rate trends have taken place even before modern central banks entered the scene—illustrating an entrenched, historical trend.

This Markets in a Minute chart from New York Life Investments tracks the history of U.S. interest rates over two centuries, from the creation of the first U.S. Bank to the current historic lows.

U.S. Interest Rates: Historic Highs and Lows

What are the highest and lowest rates throughout history?

Prior to today’s historically low levels, interest rates fell to 1.7% during World War II as the U.S. government injected billions into the economy to help finance the war. Around the same time, government debt ballooned to over 100% of GDP.

Fast-forward to 1981, when interest rates hit all-time highs of 15.8%. Rampant inflation was the key economic issue in the 1970s and early 1980s, and Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker instigated rate controls to restrain demand. It was a period of low economic growth and rising unemployment, with jobless figures as high as 8%.

YearAverage Interest Rate*Year OpenYear CloseAnnual % Change
20200.9%1.9%0.7%**-65.1%
20192.1%2.7%1.9%-28.6%
20182.9%2.5%2.7%11.8%
20172.3%2.4%2.4%-1.6%
20161.8%2.2%2.4%7.7%
20152.1%2.1%2.3%4.6%
20142.5%3.0%2.2%-28.6%
20132.4%1.9%3.0%70.8%
20121.8%2.0%1.8%-5.8%
20112.8%3.4%1.9%-42.7%
20103.2%3.9%3.3%-14.3%
20093.3%2.5%3.9%71.1%
20083.7%3.9%2.3%-44.3%
20074.6%4.7%4.0%-14.2%
20064.8%4.4%4.7%7.3%
20054.3%4.2%4.4%3.5%
20044.3%4.4%4.2%-0.7%
20034.0%4.1%4.3%11.5%
20024.6%5.2%3.8%-24.5%
20015.0%4.9%5.1%-1.0%
20006.0%6.6%5.1%-20.6%
19995.7%4.7%6.5%38.7%
19985.3%5.7%4.7%-19.1%
19976.4%6.5%5.8%-10.6%
19966.4%5.6%6.4%15.2%
19956.6%7.9%5.6%-28.8%
19947.1%5.9%7.8%34.5%
19935.9%6.6%5.8%-13.0%
19927.0%6.8%6.7%-0.2%
19917.9%8.0%6.7%-17.0%
19908.6%7.9%8.1%1.9%
19898.5%9.2%7.9%-13.2%
19888.9%8.8%9.1%3.5%
19878.4%7.2%8.8%22.1%
19867.7%9.0%7.2%-19.7%
198510.6%11.7%9.0%-22.1%
198412.5%11.9%11.6%-2.3%
198311.1%10.3%11.8%14.1%
198213.0%14.2%10.4%-25.9%
198113.9%12.4%14.0%12.5%
198011.4%10.5%12.4%20.3%
19799.4%9.2%10.3%12.9%
19788.4%7.8%9.2%17.6%
19777.4%6.8%7.8%14.2%
19767.6%7.8%6.8%-12.2%
19758.0%7.4%7.8%4.9%
19747.6%6.9%7.4%7.3%
19736.9%6.4%6.9%7.6%
19726.2%5.9%6.4%8.8%
19716.2%6.5%5.9%-9.4%
19707.4%7.9%6.5%-17.5%
19696.7%6.0%7.9%27.9%
19685.6%5.6%6.2%8.1%
19675.1%4.7%5.7%22.8%
19664.9%4.6%4.6%-0.2%
19654.3%4.2%4.7%10.5%
19644.2%4.1%4.2%1.7%
19634.0%3.8%4.1%7.5%

*Indicated by 10-Year Treasury Yields, a prime mover of interest rates
**As of September 28, 2020
Source: Macrotrends

Over the last year, interest rates have dropped from 2.1% to 0.9%, a 65% decrease. Rates are now below 1945 levels—and well under 6.1%, the average U.S. interest rate over the last 58 years.

Longer Horizons

Interest rates in the 18th and 19th centuries also provide illuminating trends.

After falling for three decades at the turn of the century, interest rates stood at 4% in 1835. That year, president Andrew Jackson paid off the U.S. national debt for the first and only time in history, as debt was seen as a “moral failing” or “black magic” in his eyes.

One consequence of this was the government sold swaths of land to finance the federal budget, ultimately avoiding the accumulation of debt. It didn’t last for long. The influx of land sales led to a real estate bubble and eventually, the economy fell into a recession. The government had to borrow again and rates ticked higher over the next several years.

Similarly, after the Civil War ended in 1865, data shows that interest rates also witnessed a long-term, negative slope, which ended in 1945. It then took 100 years for interest rates to exceed the highs of the Civil War era.

Why So Low For So Long?

While the exact reasons are unclear, broad structural forces may be influencing interest rates.

One explanation suggests that higher capital accumulation could be a factor. Another suggests that modern welfare states, with their increased public spending, have as well. For instance, average expenditures of total GDP in the UK averaged 35% between 1981 and 1960, compared to 8% between 1700 and 1750.

Along with this, rates usually have cycles that last between 22 and 27 years. When cycles shift from rising to falling rates, a quick reversal typically takes place. This was seen in 1982, when interest rates dropped 25%—from 14.2% to 10.4%—in one year. However, a different trend can be seen when falling rates switch to rising trends. These reversals typically average 2-14 years.

As near-zero rates seem more likely for the extended future, market distortions—such as ultra-low income yields—may become more commonplace. In turn, investors may want to rethink traditional asset allocations between fixed income, equities, and alternatives.

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