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2020 US election preview: All, or nothing?

Less than a fortnight before the US election, a new paper from BNP Paribas Asset Management examines Joe Biden’s and Donald Trump’s prospects of favourable White House – and Congress – outcomes. Because without both the Senate and House of Representatives on their side, their ability to deliver on their mandates will be severely hampered.

  • Even though the pollsters make Democrat Joe Biden the clear favourite, he also needs his party to turn a 47-53 lag in the Senate into a majority if he is to push through plans for fiscal stimulus and tax increases to help fund bigger spending on infrastructure and healthcare.
  • Donald Trump needs to turn over the Democrats’ large majority in the House of Representatives if he is to deliver on his full programme. Otherwise, he will have to focus mainly on foreign policy, trade and sector-specific deregulation in his second term.
  • The Federal Open Market Committee’s (FOMC) new policy framework means the monetary response to a major fiscal stimulus will be much slower than it was after Trump’s tax cuts.

Biden may be favourite, but he needs the swing states

As is always the case under the US electoral system, what counts most is the size of a candidate’s lead in the few ‘swing’ states most likely to decide the Electoral College vote. This time around, these include Florida, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, and while Biden currently leads in these, on polling day, anything can happen – as it did in 2016.

Little time left for Trump to turn it around

With the economy and COVID often cited as the most important issues for voters, Trump’s dismissive approach to the coronavirus may be costing him. In the wake of his own infection with the virus, there has been little evidence of a new approach by the president to change minds and win over undecided voters.

If Trump is re-elected, it’s most likely to be because of a surprise event in the final campaign days, or that there is a sizeable error in the opinion polls in the swing states, or a large number of votes for Biden are ruled inadmissible.

Few policy hints for Trump’s second term

In 2020, Trump’s platform lacks much in the way of defined policies or strategies. One topic mentioned repeatedly is additional tax cuts, but the odds of pushing those through without the Republicans regaining the House of Representatives – which looks highly unlikely – seem very low.

Without support from both chambers of Congress, a second term for Trump could look similar to the last two years; the focus would be on foreign policy, trade and sector-specific deregulation. These are all areas where the president and his Administration have considerable latitude to manoeuvre without explicit permission of Congress.

Biden’s priorities

Biden’s policy agenda is broad, but at its simplest, the most market-relevant parts can be boiled down to:

  • A commitment to handle COVID more seriously
  • Emergency fiscal stimulus to support those segments of business and society that have suffered in the recession
  • Redistribution via higher taxes on businesses and richer individuals to help pay for better access to healthcare
  • Addressing the infrastructure and climate change challenges the country faces.

Biden’s policies in these areas would see a significant increase in the role of government in the economy.

One important policy area concerns the USD 2.4 trillion fiscal stimulus package that House Democrats approved in October. Should the Democrats gain the White House, the Senate and keep the House, fiscal stimulus on that scale – at around 10% GDP – would lift growth, but also be extremely expensive.

Control of the Senate is crucial

For many of the ambitious, potentially market-moving, parts of Biden’s agenda to be delivered, Democrats will need to take control of the Senate, where Republicans now have a majority of six. Only a portion of Senate seats is up for election this year. While many of these seats are considered extremely safe, around 10 of them will determine the overall outcome – and the current polling in the Senate races is tighter than in the Presidential contest.

The Federal Reserve’s likely reaction to fiscal stimulus

The expansionary fiscal policy that followed Trump’s 2016 win was viewed as likely to push up inflation, an outcome the Fed would typically seek to avoid by raising rates. This it did – raising rates on three occasions in 2017, followed by four further moves in 2018. Even so, core inflation only briefly reached 2% in 2018 before slipping back in 2019.

The central bank has drawn lessons from that experience. Its thinking about the conduct of monetary policy has changed, most recently in the new strategic framework announced in August.

No longer will the Fed raise rates simply in response to low unemployment or strong growth; it needs to be accompanied by stronger inflation. Given how flat the Phillips curve is thought to be, there is little immediate prospect of fiscal stimulus stoking inflation.

Aggressive fiscal stimulus under a Biden administration combined with laissez-faire monetary policy should lead the US economy to outperform its counterparts elsewhere in the world for a time.

Read our full preview entitled 2020 US election preview: All or nothing?

Any views expressed here are those of the author as of the date of publication, are based on available information, and are subject to change without notice. Individual portfolio management teams may hold different views and may take different investment decisions for different clients. The views expressed in this podcast do not in any way constitute investment advice.

The value of investments and the income they generate may go down as well as up and it is possible that investors will not recover their initial outlay. Past performance is no guarantee for future returns.

Investing in emerging markets, or specialised or restricted sectors is likely to be subject to a higher-than-average volatility due to a high degree of concentration, greater uncertainty because less information is available, there is less liquidity or due to greater sensitivity to changes in market conditions (social, political and economic conditions).

Some emerging markets offer less security than the majority of international developed markets. For this reason, services for portfolio transactions, liquidation and conservation on behalf of funds invested in emerging markets may carry greater risk.

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