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French Fraternity Prevails and Investors Exhale

The policy slugfests in Washington, DC generally dominate Wall Street’s mood, but there’s a political struggle unfolding in Europe right now that also exerts an enormous effect on U.S. and global markets.

Recent presidential election results in France were a setback for far-right populists, indicating that the European Union is safe from another body blow, at least for now. Investors are relieved.

For global markets, the stakes are high. France is the world’s seventh-largest economy by nominal figures and it’s the third-largest economy in Europe, with Germany the biggest. Traders have feared that France might follow Britain’s lead and leave the EU.

Last year’s Brexit vote unleashed a torrent of nationalist sentiment across Europe, giving rise to far-right parties opposed to the EU. Britons clearly weren’t the only ones unhappy with the European status quo. That’s why the recent Dutch elections, which saw far-rightists defeated resoundingly, and the still-unfolding French elections have been so closely watched.

Back in March, the anti-immigration populist Gert Wilders and his Dutch Freedom Party didn’t pick up a majority in parliamentary elections. If they had, Wilders would have certainly steered Amsterdam down an anti-EU course and possibly triggered yet another national exit. European stocks breathed a sigh of relief on his defeat, but it was hardly the last hurdle for the great European experiment.

This past weekend it was France’s turn to go to the polls with a full slate of candidates across the political spectrum, including the fiery right-wing populist Marine Le Pen. Le Pen hasn’t been shy about expressing her own disdain for the EU. Le Pen wants to ditch the euro, tax any businesses that hire foreigners, expel all illegal immigrants, and cut France’s immigration quota to just 10,000 people per year. That should sound familiar to American ears.

While Le Pen came in second in a field of five with 21.3% of the vote, the pro-EU Emmanuel Macron placed first with 24%, though there is still another round of balloting to go on May 7. While that may seem like an uncomfortably close margin of victory, the supporters of the other candidates are widely expected to throw in with Macron, whose views more closely align with the other candidates, or sit out the election altogether.

Macron, who comes from an investment banking background, doesn’t express any beef with the EU, wants to implement a EUR50 billion stimulus package, and cut corporate taxes from 33.3% to 25%. Considering he’s the favorite to win, there doesn’t seem to be a “Frexit” in the offing, which has helped push European stocks higher so far this week. Le Pen could still pull off an unlikely upset in the final round, but it does seem that cooler heads are prevailing.

The EU isn’t entirely out of the woods yet, with German elections coming up in September. With five months left to go, current Chancellor Angela Merkel and her CDU/CSU coalition are the odds-on favorites to win. However, the opposition SDP recently appointed popular Martin Schulz as their new leader and he seems to be closing the gap with Merkel.

Thankfully, Schulz is by no means an anti-EU populist. In fact, from a foreign investment standpoint, there probably wouldn’t be much difference between the two, aside from the fact the Schulz likely wouldn’t take the more austere approach of Merkel.

Barring Le Pen executing a Trump-style surprise on May 7, the EU no longer faces an existential crisis. Aside from whatever tumult Brexit will cause as those negotiations continue, European stocks should move higher now that an EU crackup seems to be off the table.

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