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Politics & Power: A Primer on the Primaries

By Richard Stavros on March 4, 2016

Would a Trump administration be “yuuuge” for utilities? How about Republican challengers Rubio, Cruz or Kasich? On the Democratic side, would a Clinton or Sanders administration mean a continuation or even expansion of Obama’s clean-energy policies?

With Super Tuesday voters delivering strong leads to frontrunners Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in the Republican and Democratic primaries, respectively, and the overall field winnowing down to six, the candidates’ energy policies are starting to come into focus, as are their implications for energy investment.

To be sure, candidates will likely moderate their messaging as campaigns shift from marketing themselves to the party faithful who dominate the primaries to the broader electorate that will turn out in November. But just as jokes contain kernels of truth, so do politicians’ ever-changing policy positions.

At the same time, investors should remember that a U.S. president’s impact on investment or economic development is typically indirect.

In fact, I once conducted a study that examined whether presidents truly have the ability to guide something as large and complex as the U.S. economy. The regression analysis that I used incorporated numerous economic indicators to cover the preceding 50-year period.

Contrary to what partisans like to believe, I found no correlation between whether a Democrat or Republican occupied the White House and the economy as a whole. In other words, no party can really claim they are better for the economy, at least when it comes to the presidency.

The main reason for this is because Congress has the power of the purse.

That being said, with GOP majorities in both houses of Congress, a Republican president would have an easier time pursuing dramatic changes in energy policy. By contrast, a Clinton or Sanders administration would likely continue to favor or expand upon Obama’s energy policies, albeit under the constraints of a divided government.

More Renewables or Less?

The dividing line between the six candidates seems to be the degree to which they would support or oppose clean-energy development based on their view of climate change.

The Obama administration has made climate change a central issue by promulgating sweeping new regulations via the Environmental Protection Agency.

Republicans have largely opposed these efforts by arguing that such proposals will harm the economy by making energy use more expensive, while Democrats have countered that businesses should pay the true environmental cost of making their products.

Regardless of personal political beliefs, as investors we have to determine whether the next president’s policies could change the attractiveness of investing in one part of the energy complex versus others.

Though state-level initiatives to expand renewables would likely not be affected, there is a case to be made that Republicans’ dominance in the White House, Congress, the governorships and state legislatures across the country would mean policymaking might start to favor fossil fuels over renewables again.

Conversely, a Democrat in the White House would likely push for further development of renewables, such as wind and solar, as well as continue the move toward natural gas and away from coal, though these policies would likely face opposition from Congress.

Subscribers get to see our guide to which candidates are likely to be a boon for utilities, and which could be a bust.

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