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Investor Panic Over the Coming Election Is a Myth

By Thomas Coyle November 3, 2016

Like many people the globe over, financial advisor Miguel Sosa’s offshore clients pay close attention to U.S. presidential elections.

It’s a practical matter for them, says Sosa, head of Premia Global Advisors, a new wealth management firm in Coral Gables, Fla., that manages more than $110 million.

Sosa’s non-U.S. clients, mostly Latin Americans, need to know how the candidates’ policies could affect their stateside investments. After all, these wealthy people don’t just have U.S. securities portfolios to worry about. Often, they own U.S. businesses, depend on U.S. purchasers, and many have family ties here. And, as people in jurisdictions subject, in living memory, to bouts of political violence, authoritarian rule and economic freefall, they look to the U.S as an exemplar for good governance and general stability.

But in the run-up to this election — which pits Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton against Republican hopeful Donald Trump — Premia’s clients abroad are especially eager to understand what’s going on in this country.

“They know there are always differences between the candidates,” Sosa, a former Merrill Lynch advisor, says of his foreign clients. “But not like now.”

As an apparently tightening race for the White House winds through its last scandal-racked week, talk of border walls and stricter immigration rules is making them nervous like never before.

“They want to know what it means for them,” says Sosa. “They want to know what happens if some of these ideas take effect.”

Meanwhile, as the two major-party candidates accuse each other of diabolical malfeasance with frequent allusions to conspiracy theories that would make a pulp novelist blush, U.S.-based wealth management clients are — seemingly, at least — just as anxious about life after the election.

A new survey by market research firm Spectrem Group says 43% of U.S. investors with at least $500,000 to invest are heading to the sidelines this month in a bid to avoid what they see as the election’s negative impact on market performance.

Miguel Sosa

In mid-October, money management firm BlackRock released the results of an investor sentiment survey showing three-quarters of those polled “believe the 2016 election will have a greater impact on their personal finances than the 2008 election, and about one-third feel the election poses a threat to their financial future.”

But some observers point to arguably more empirical signs of a healthy indifference about the identity of the next occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

For instance, Sosa’s answer to his offshore clients’ broader concerns — that U.S. political processes are coming unglued among talk of vote rigging, rampant media bias and violent reprisals — is to suggest it’s simply “how democracy works in the U.S.”

Adds Sosa: “I remind them presidential elections here are open forums with lots of personal attacks, this time especially.”

In the end, he says, this rhetorical rawness, coupled with some sharp policy differences, “brings some concern” among his clients. “But in the end, they have tremendous confidence in this country, so their concern is nothing like true panic.”

“It’s an expression of, ‘Wow I’ve never seen anything like this before. How does it affect me if the statements the candidates are making become reality?’” Sosa concludes.

Thomas Howard, of the “behavioral” investment firm AthenaInvest, agrees talk of panic is exaggerated. Surveys notwithstanding, he says there’s plenty to suggest investors aren’t flipping out over the election.

For one, the investor-fear-measuring Volatility Index, or VIX, which toyed with the 80 mark in the depths of the financial crisis of 2008, sits below its historical average of about 20. In fact, just weeks ago, it toyed with a new all-time low.

Meanwhile, despite day-to-day jitters, the S&P 500 is on track for strong returns in a calendar year dominated by coverage of two of the most polarizing political figures ever nominated for the White House.

“The data says the market isn’t in turmoil like investors think it should be,” says Howard, whose firm manages about $300 million.

And on the economic side, Howard says reliable indicators like the Manufacturing Purchasing Managers Index have been robust all year.

“Presidential elections make people passionate,” says Howard, summing up his take on the race’s impact on investor behavior. “Most people let their passions drive them to the polls but not out of the market, whatever they say about it beforehand.”