Fund managers: No, the election won't wreck your 401(k)

AP News
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Posted: Nov 03, 2016 2:26 PM

NEW YORK (AP) — Worried that the election will ruin your 401(k)?

Don't be, fund managers say, no matter who wins the White House. As long as you're a long-term investor willing to ride through whatever market bumps occur after Election Day, and there certainly could be scary ones, presidential elections historically haven't had much impact on stocks over the long term. Other factors, such as how expensive stocks are relative to their earnings and what the Federal Reserve is doing with interest rates, are more important factors for the market than who sits in the White House.

Annual stock returns going back to 1853 have been virtually identical, regardless of which party sits in the Oval Office, at roughly 11 percent, according to the investment strategy group at Vanguard. The U.S. president may be the leader of the free world, but even that much power doesn't allow for singlehanded control of the economy or interest rates.

Still, elections do hold great sway over investors' psyches. And investors have a history of overreacting to politics, which can lead to sharp, short-term moves in the market. It was only a few months ago that the United Kingdom's vote to exit the European Union sent investor anxiety higher and stocks tumbling around the world. The S&P 500 plunged 3.6 percent in one of its worst days since the financial crisis.

Something similar could happen Wednesday, if the election yields something other than the continuation of the status quo. The markets seem to be pricing in a Democratic president continuing to be held in check by a Republican Congress, a dynamic that's been in place since 2011 and one that's coincided with an 89 percent return for the S&P 500.

A Democratic sweep of the White House and Congress could knock down stocks of pharmaceutical companies and banks on expectations of tougher regulations for those industries, for example.

An even sharper — and broader — drop for the market would be the likely result if Donald Trump were to win the White House. Investors are worried that a Trump presidency could lead to a global trade war and hurt U.S. companies, which increasingly depend on foreign customers for their sales. Microsoft, Chevron and Apple all get the majority of their revenue from outside the United States, for example.

If Trump wins, a quick 10 percent loss for the market wouldn't be surprising, some fund managers say. The threat is serious enough that lawyers are racing to complete corporate-borrowing deals before Tuesday on the chance that a Trump victory causes a Brexit-like shock.

Still, fund managers preach holding steady if such tumult occurs.

"Even if you thought that would happen, 10 percent corrections happen about once a year, and what's happened after every one is that we've recovered from every one," says Brian Nick, chief investment strategist at TIAA Global Asset Management. After Brexit, it took only two weeks for the S&P 500 to recover its losses, and the index set a record high in August, though it's regressed in recent weeks with worries about the U.S. election.

Nick travels often for his job, talking with TIAA customers around the country, oftentimes college professors. The first question he receives, without fail, is about the election and what effect it will have on their retirement savings. He uniformly tells them not to let the election push them to time the market.

"Earnings, valuations and the Fed, those are three things more important for how your portfolio performs than who wins the presidency," he tells them. "Earnings aren't going to change overnight based on the election."

The follow-up question is always the same, as well. Sure, that may have usually been the case, but isn't this time different? Trump is not the usual candidate.

Even an unusual politician like Trump would still have to work with Congress to pass laws. And even if Republicans were to take control of both houses, they could still moderate some of the anti-trade policies that investors fear.

"It's hard to handicap how much of the rhetoric would translate to actual policy rather than just hyperbole," says Lamar Villere, a portfolio manager who helps oversee $2.2 billion in investments at Villere. He expects any sell-off following a Trump victory to be followed by a quick snapback, as investors question how much Trump could actually do on his own.

That said, it's not like your 401(k) is totally in the clear. Those factors that fund managers say matter more than the election — corporate earnings, the Fed and the global economy — all look less enticing than they did several years ago. Profits have only just recently started growing again, after falling for more than a year, while economic growth around the world remains only modest. Stocks also look more expensive relative to their earnings, after their prices rose despite falling earnings. And the Fed looks likely to raise rates in December for only the second time since 2006.

Add those up, and fund managers are forecasting subdued returns in coming years. No matter who wins the election.