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How This Election Really Matters

By Roger Conrad on November 2, 2012

Mercifully, only a few days remain before the polls close on election day. After enduring months of apocalyptic rhetoric cranked to high volume, most investors seem to agree on just one thing: If their guy doesn’t win, we’re all doomed.

My advice: Shut off your television. Ignore the partisan spin. And start paying attention to where this election will really count.

If you want a prediction as to who will win this year’s presidential sweepstakes, you might as well visit, the self-proclaimed “world’s leading prediction market.” Based on what amounts to options trading on candidates, as of Thursday evening, the president is priced at a 66.9 percent chance of winning versus 33.2 percent for his main challenger.

Follow-on bets include a 67.2 percent chance the president wins Ohio, a 75.7 percent chance the Democrats hold the US Senate and 95.5 percent odds Republicans remain the dominant party in the US House of Representatives. Bets are also available for the state of Florida, with the challenger priced for 69.5 percent odds he’ll win there.

Note these numbers are constantly shifting; you may see different conclusions if you visit the site. But they do generally mirror the assessments of more seasoned and conventional forecasters.

My favorite political oddsmaker is a guy I met back in the 1990s. He’s a Capital Beltway institution and I’ve found him to be consistently “spot on” with his election analysis: Charlie Cook of the scrupulously non-partisan and widely followed Cook Political Report.

Cook’s conclusion, as posted on his website: “There is still a tougher path to 270 Electoral votes for Mitt Romney than for President Obama.”

Cook’s current estimate in the US Senate ranges from “no net change to a Republican (gain) of three seats.” That presents a best-case scenario for Republicans of a 50-50 tie in the upper chamber, with a Romney victory ensuring control of the chamber but far short of the 60-40 advantage needed to break filibusters.

As for the House, Cook gives a range of a net pickup of five seats for Republicans to 10 seats for Democrats, with either scenario leaving GOP Speaker Boehner in charge. And finally, of the 11 governors’ mansions up for grabs, he forecasts a net gain of one to three for Republicans.

A lot can still happen between now and Tuesday. Just ask the millions affected by Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath, one of the most destructive storms in history. Odds are thousands of Americans will still be without electricity when the polls close. Some analysts say that the hurricane was this election’s “October surprise” and it helped Barack Obama, by giving him a chance to appear presidential.

Regardless, I will venture just one prediction for this election. Come January 2013, neither Democrats nor Republicans will enjoy a monopoly on power in Washington. Divided government, which Americans seem to favor lately, will remain in place.

That means the most important issue facing the new government—setting the nation on course for fiscal sanity without triggering a crippling recession and even bigger deficits—will have to be settled the old-fashioned way, the same way the nation’s capital has always done business: compromise.

This election will matter for the same reason that every other election has mattered. Mainly, it will determine what interests have the most seats at the table for the negotiation, which in turn will determine who benefits and who suffers.

Winners and Losers

Given the federal government’s wide reach into every aspect of the economy, the impact will be widespread. Defense and aerospace companies have a lot at stake in any sort of deal, since the industry faces an across-the-board cut of up to 10 percent in Department of Defense expenditures if the debt ceiling deal of 2011 remains in place. It seems certain, however, that they’ll fare better than most in budget negotiations, given neither political party wants blame for draconian cuts in national security.

The vast group of companies lumped together as “health care” also have much at stake, because of Governor Romney’s repeated pledge to repeal “Obamacare” on his “first day in office.”

Of course, during the presidential debates last month, the candidate also promised to keep the provision governing pre-existing conditions intact. That’s only fundable if insurance companies have the benefit of the law’s requirement for all Americans to carry some form of health insurance.

Repealing or stripping down Obamacare may be possible if the Republicans capture the presidency and the US Senate with enough seats to break a filibuster. But anything short of that, Democrats are sure to block repeal and score political points for what will then become the key focus for both parties—congressional elections in 2014. And that almost certainly means no change to Obamacare unless it’s a compromise.

Taxes on the Table

Mr. Obama had two years with his party controlling the House of Representatives and almost a year with a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. So it’s somewhat disingenuous to suggest there’s a secret agenda he’ll try to push through if he’s re-elected, at least anything he didn’t try when he had a virtual monopoly on power. But there is plenty we can clearly infer about a second Obama term.

First, tax rates on dividends are very likely to rise, at least for higher tax bracket investors. My view is since we didn’t see a rally in 2003 following the dividend tax cut, we’re unlikely to see a permanent decline in dividend- paying stocks if taxes do go higher. Moreover, institutions and retirement accounts hold most of the float in dividend-paying stocks. They would see no change in tax rates and would therefore take advantage of any selloff to buy.

That’s exactly what I’ll recommend if there is a tax-related selloff in dividend-paying stocks. Meanwhile, investors who care about this issue should visit and sign the petition to keep investment taxes low. And high tax bracket investors should check out master limited partnerships we recommend in Personal Finance.

Second, it’s a safe bet a second Obama administration would continue to enforce if not tighten current Environmental Protection Agency air and water regulations, including fuel efficiency standards and the ban on “mountain top mining” for coal—essentially taking the tops off mountains and dumping the rock into river valleys.

Mr. Romney would presumably follow the positions taken by the Republican Party and loosen such regulations, particularly those involving the coal mining industry—although he seemed to hedge on that pledge during the three presidential debates.

One rumor making the rounds now is that oil and gas production in North America would explode under a Romney administration, as any and all restrictions to drilling were lifted. Some have even gone so far as to predict the demise of numerous producers’ stocks as expanded supply sends prices plunging.

I would take that prediction with a huge grain of salt. Mainly, we’ve already seen a crash in the price of natural gas as well as for many natural gas liquids this year. Production ran ahead of demand and the limited or non-existent ability to export outside North America. As a result, producers in both the US and Canada have largely stopped drilling new natural gas wells, and instead are focusing capital spending on oil.

As for oil, we are indisputably seeing a boom in shale development in North America. But while that should diminish US dependence on foreign sources for oil over time, even the most optimistic forecasts won’t offset a global/supply demand balance increasingly driven by China’s growing thirst for black gold.

Even if Mr. Romney allowed drilling on the White House lawn, it’s doubtful any company would take him up on the offer unless oil prices remain at high levels and natural gas stages a massive rebound. And even then, most would first turn to their proven reserves to ramp up production to take advantage, rather than look to develop other lands at greater risk and expense.

The upshot: Markets will determine how much gas and oil are drilled in North America, not whoever is president. And right now, the odds look good for more light oil to come out of the ground and less natural gas, until the market resets the price, no matter who wins.

Take the Micro View

The nitty-gritty wrangling of bureaucratic Washington sometimes matters more than the exalted macroeconomic picture.

Case in point: Financial services have seen intensified regulation from the Obama administration. That follows the pattern after financial crises in the past, with officials closing the barn door after the horse has long since fled, and making life even tougher for the survivors.

It’s undeniable that recent actions have slowed financial reporting, particularly by small companies, as well as made it very difficult for many investors to buy anything not listed either NYSE or NASDAQ.

Because Mr. Romney made his fortune in this very difficult business, it seems likely that he would at least call off the dogs. One example could be a 3-2 Republican majority at a more restrained Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which he would appoint.

Mr. Obama has boosted FERC’s enforcement unit with a 50 percent increase in budget, and the Commission has responded by going after several large banks for allegedly manipulating energy prices. That follows a record $245 million fine levied on the former Constellation Energy as a condition for its now completed merger with Personal Finance Income Portfolio’s Exelon (NYSE: EXC).

A potentially reconstituted FERC, as well as a new Federal Communications Commission, is a place where this election could matter. Based on the record of the last 3-2 Republican majority at FERC, a new Republican majority would likely impose fewer conditions on power industry mergers, although it should be pointed out that President Obama’s FERC did approve the two biggest during its first four years: Exelon/Constellation and Duke Energy (NYSE: DUK)/Progress Energy. Return on equity for transmission line investors also would stand a better chance of remaining robust.

Verizon Communications (NYSE: VZ) and AT&T (NYSE: T) have continued their road to dominance over the past four years, despite an often-hostile FCC. But a Romney appointed 3-2 Republican majority could well help them get there faster by being more accommodative to proposed mergers—particularly in the still-fragmented US wireless business—as well by allowing them to acquire needed spectrum for networks.

These are not the big issues grabbing headlines now. And clearly, I’m at odds with those who warn that the very survival of the country is at stake in this election.

We’ve certainly heard the same braying from partisans before; the only difference this time around is the size of the megaphone. And taking the hyperbole at face value has almost never benefitted investors.

Here’s the sober reality: Political power will almost certainly be split at the national level and the new government’s choices on big issues will be hemmed in by record debt and slow economic growth. That’s why industry and company-specific issues will make the biggest and very likely the only real difference for investors.

Republican-leaning investors should remember the S&P 500 has returned 85 percent since President Obama took office. That’s versus a nearly 40 percent loss for the index for the eight years of his Republican predecessor.

Democratic-leaning investors, meanwhile, can justifiably feel good about the S&P’s 265 percent return under former President Clinton. But they also have to acknowledge the far larger 440 percent return produced under 12 years of Ronald Reagan and his successor George H.W. Bush. And partisans on both sides are likely to be surprised to learn that the market managed a 56 percent return under the much-maligned four years of President Jimmy Carter.

If you want to find a pattern that predicts stock market returns based on the president’s party, knock yourself out. For my money, it’s better to spend your energy focusing on what really does count in elections. And that’s always the below-the-radar developments affecting individual companies, which after all are where every investor’s attention should always be.

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