Why Politics Isn't Driving Markets
03/28/2013 10:05 am EST
It's a refreshing change from the past few years, and one investors shouldn't take for granted, writes MoneyShow's Howard R. Gold, also of The Independent Agenda.
This past week, investors and talking heads looking for something to worry about cast their eyes eastward to the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, where a banking crisis threatened to unravel the Eurozone's fragile peace.
The final deal forced investors and big depositors to dig deeper in their wallets to liquidate one weak bank and save a stronger one. As of Thursday, banks had reopened, although the Cypriot government imposed strict withdrawal limits.
Investors responded with a gigantic ho-hum as European markets rallied Thursday. The Italian election, which resulted in a stalemate and no new government, also has produced big yawns. And have you heard anyone wringing their hands about the budget gridlock in Washington, DC lately?
After 2 1/2 years in which political events repeatedly shook markets-from the first Greek crisis in 2010 through the "fiscal cliff" deal of New Year's 2013-we're finally at the point where politics don't matter.
The absence of big elections this year (except in Germany, which we'll get to later) has combined with a calmer Eurozone and a less crisis-prone Washington to produce a more "normal" market environment in 2013. That's why economic growth, earnings, valuations, and seasonal trading patterns-not politics-will move markets for the rest of this year.
And, of course, the Federal Reserve's loose monetary policy continues to support higher equity prices.
- Read Howard's view of why Marty Zweig's "don't fight the Fed" still matters on MoneyShow.com.
It's a stark contrast with where we've been.
In spring 2010, Greece requested a bailout, and the European Union and International Monetary Fund eventually agreed to a ?110 billion ($141 billion) rescue. The S&P 500 index lost 16% from its April peak before rallying again, only after Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke announced a second round of "quantitative easing" in late August.
Greece got a new bailout in 2011-just about when the debt-ceiling crisis prompted S&P to lower the US's AAA credit rating. The S&P slid 19.4% from its late April high, and global markets lost even more, in what may have been an abbreviated bear market.
Then came 2012, with a French election that brought Socialists to power; a drawn-out US presidential election campaign; a power struggle in China; and another outbreak of the European crisis, this time involving Italy and Spain, the Eurozone's third- and fourth-largest economies.
But in late July, European Central Bank chairman Mario Draghi vowed to do "whatever it takes" to save the euro, and global markets rallied. Since June 2012, the S&P has risen 22% and is now within a hair of its all-time high.
NEXT: Fiscal Cliff Fizzles Out|pagebreak|
Why? Mainly because political risk has drastically diminished. Draghi's July pronouncement took all but the most extreme tail risk off the table in Europe. China's new leaders are firmly in power.
And in the US, the much-feared "fiscal cliff" just fizzled out, as Congress and newly reelected President Obama agreed to make most of the Bush tax cuts permanent, while raising over $600 billion in revenue over the next decade from high-income taxpayers.
Since then, we've cleared one hurdle after another, most recently the dreaded "sequester." Republicans in the House and Democrats in the Senate have actually put forward their own budget plans-the latter for the first time in four years. Hallelujah!
Neither plan will pass both houses, but that's not the point. Republican leaders have soft-pedaled the debt limit issue, which means we're probably back to the more normal Washington dysfunction that makes Americans cringe, but there likely won't be a repeat of the market-roiling debt-ceiling fiasco of 2011.
Some investors took the resolution of the fiscal cliff as the "all-clear" to buy stocks again. Institutions saw it as a signal to stop worrying about Washington.
- Read Howard's column on why individual investors shouldn't jump back in so fast at MoneyShow.com.
There's one scheduled event that could affect markets this year-the German election, slated for late September. Chancellor Angela Merkel is personally popular and her Christian Democratic Union-led coalition government has a majority in the German parliament.
Merkel's position on Europe-being tough on bailouts of weaker Eurozone countries while moving integration forward a step at a time-gets solid support from German voters. "If you read the polls, she's in a strong position," said Dr. Klaus Deutsch, director of the Berlin office of Deutsche Bank's DB Research.
Yet he told me that the opposition Social Democrats have voted for all the rescue deals, and "are even more supportive of European integration" than Merkel's CDU. So even if the SPD scores a surprise victory, it won't change things that much, Deutsch said.
There still are a couple of wild cards. The perennial one, of course, is if Israel attacks Iran to stop the Islamic Republic from getting nuclear weapons.
But January's Israeli election forced Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into a far-flung, domestically focused coalition government. He looked chastened during President Obama's visit to Israel last week, making Israeli military action less likely.
And then there's the wildest card of all-North Korea, whose new leader, Kim Jong-un, has threatened nearly everyone, it seems. A new Korean war could have vast consequences and shake global markets, but should you really invest based on what a megalomaniac may or may not do?
Not me, and that's why I welcome the new investing environment. Give me a market that moves on earnings, job reports, housing starts, and consumer confidence rather than on what's in the political tea leaves any time.
Howard R. Gold is editor at large for MoneyShow.com and a columnist for MarketWatch. Follow him on Twitter @howardrgold and catch his commentary on politics and the economy at www.independentagenda.com.