Midterm Elections Gridlock Was the Best Possible Outcome

Celebrated value investor Benjamin Graham, who mentored a young Warren Buffett, liked to say that the market is a voting machine in the short term, a weighing machine in the long term. This week the market voted to reward stocks in the aftermath of the midterm elections, which gave Democrats control of the House and left the Senate in the hands of Republicans. This all but guarantees that gridlock will be the status quo in Washington, at least for the next two years.

A divided Congress might very well be the only time gridlock is a positive. Corporate gridlock can hold a company back from growing, and there’s not a soul alive who enjoys sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic. The congestion in Austin, just north of our headquarters, is legendary, costing commuters as much as 43 hours a year. (This congestion could be improved with better infrastructure, which I’ll get to in a second.)

The truth is that markets favor divided government. Both Republican and Democratic presidents have had the greatest effects on stocks when Congress was split and gridlock prevailed, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch data. Granted, such leadership makeups are rare, occurring for only a combined 11 years in the past 90, so I’ll be curious to see if the trend holds true.

Stock markets have generally thrived under a divided government
click to enlarge

But in the short term, markets showed a lot of enthusiasm. The S&P 500 Index advanced more than 2 percent on Wednesday, marking the best post-midterm rally since 1982. Stocks got slammed only after the Federal Reserve announced more rate hikes were forthcoming.

I want to remind you that we’ve already entered the three most bullish quarters for stocks in the four-year presidential cycle. Average returns in the fourth quarter of year two have historically been 4 percent, followed by 5.2 percent in the first quarter of year three and 3.6 percent in the second quarter.

Record Votes, Record Campaign Spending

Voter turnout was abnormally high for a midterm election. Here in Texas, nearly 53 percent of registered voters cast ballots—a very strong showing thanks in large part to the much-publicized and heavily funded Senate race between Senator Ted Cruz and Congressman Beto O’Rourke.

Indeed, a whole lot of cash passed hands this cycle. For the first time in U.S. history, more than $5 billion was spent during a midterm election by candidates, political parties and other groups, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP). That’s up almost 40 percent from spending levels in 2014. The biggest independent donor was billionaire Sheldon Adelson, founder and CEO of Las Vegas Sands, who shelled out more than $113 million in support of Republican candidates.

More than 5 billion was spent on midterm elections far surpassing previous totals
click to enlarge

Because it’s such a massive amount, it might help to put $5.2 billion into perspective. An estimated 113 million Americans participated in the midterm election, a new record, meaning roughly $46 was spent on each voter.

Here’s another way to look at it. Between the House and Senate, 470 seats were up for grabs. That comes out to an incredible $11 million per seat.