Be cautious of ballot-box investing

Value Judgments

Your Money

October 24, 2004|By JANET KIDD STEWART

CONVENTIONAL wisdom tells us pocketbook issues are keenly important to voters, and financial experts have flooded investors with tips on structuring their portfolios based on who wins the White House.

This election season, both of those assumptions are under fire.

Economic issues have taken a back seat to terrorism and the war in Iraq in several voter polls. An Oct. 9 Gallup Poll found that a third of voters believe the economy will improve or worsen regardless of who wins the presidency.

And just try to find a coherent voter poll on detailed economic issues.

"Traditionally, candidates have had trouble making hay with Social Security, the deficit and other long-range issues, and this election specifically isn't a clear-cut pocketbook election," said John R. Hibbing, a University of Nebraska political science professor and author of books on Americans' attitudes about government.

Polling firms that have tried queries on complex economic issues have found voters quickly change their answers when given even a small amount of information on the topic, which then weakens the polling data.

Investing in particular industries viewed as friendly with a candidate can also be problematic, according to a study by Bianco Research LLC, a stock market research firm in Chicago.

I asked Bianco's Howard L. Simons to back-test the notion of winning and losing stocks by industry around the 14 postwar elections. He found that while some industries do tend toward volatility around election time - finance, gold, energy and steel in particular - they are also subject to fairly pronounced and rapid post-election reversals.

"The best assessment is not to base your investing on anticipated post-election policies," Simons said in a report to clients on the matter.

As for voting for a candidate based on who is better for the economy and the stock market in general, that's another fast-eroding rule of thumb.

Several economists have studied market performance during presidential cycles and found the market performs better under Democrats.

But Bank One Corp.'s Anthony Chan recently compiled more detailed performance data that ended up a mixed bag for both parties. Republican presidents with a Republican majority in Congress have presided over a 22 percent gain in the Standard & Poor's 500 index, compared with a 9 percent gain when the Democrats control both the presidency and Congress, Chan is telling investors on a current speaking tour.

When the Democrats control the White House and Congress, economic growth as measured by the gross domestic product has increased an average 5.5 percent, compared with 2.3 percent when the Republicans control both branches, according to Chan.

All that said, I do believe there are voters for whom longer-term and more complex economic issues are of growing importance, and there are investors who are factoring politics into their long-range financial plans.

"I do take one factor into [consideration in] long-term investing, and that is the huge budget deficit and the unrestrained spending," a reader said in response to an e-mail query. "This will catch up to us one day and I do not want to be in the market then."

Another reader said he fears economic fallout from drastic environmental cleanup efforts if they go ignored by the White House.

"The ripple effects throughout the economy [insurance, agriculture, tourism] could easily overshadow other economic issues and potentially have a huge negative effect on our standard of living," he wrote in an e-mail response.

At a recent Financial Planning Association gathering in Atlanta, planners' biggest concerns about the election focused on their clients' unanswered questions by either candidate to long-range issues such as planning for health care costs in retirement, said Elizabeth W. Jetton, the organization's president.

"It continues to become clearer to planners that a perfect storm is brewing with people living longer and Medicare and Social Security being under pressure," Jetton said. "We have a responsibility as planners to start being more involved in public policy."

E-mail Janet Kidd Stewart at yourmoney@tribune.com.

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