Trump’s impeachment is more important to Washington than Wall Street

  • By Randall W. Forsyth,
  • Barron's
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Now that the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) has announced the House of Representatives will move forward with an impeachment inquiry, the impact probably will be felt more acutely in the nation’s capital than in the stock market.

Policy deliberations could come to a standstill while an impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump proceeds in the House of Representatives. But past impeachments—and similar episodes such as Watergate—had little direct effect on the stock market, as economic fundamentals superseded politics.

President Bill Clinton was impeached by the House in 1998. But Bespoke Investment Group points out the S&P 500 (.SPX) rose 28% from January of that year, when news of the Monica Lewinsky affair broke, until his acquittal by the Senate on Feb. 12, 1999. In between was a 20% drop after the Russian debt default and the Long-Term Capital Market hedge-fund collapse in the third quarter, which was reversed by aggressive easing by the Federal Reserve. The stock market would go on to soar until the technology bubble finally burst in 2000.

The S&P 500 plunged 48% in the 1973-74 bear market, which had the Watergate inquiry and the resignation of President Richard Nixon as the backdrop. But, as Bespoke observes, the economy was in a very different place then. That woeful period saw the unprecedented simultaneous phenomena of high unemployment and inflation, the twin results of soaring oil prices and gasoline lines.

The current situation is far closer to 1998 than to 1974. Unemployment at 3.8% currently hovers at a half-century low. The current inflation problem is that the Fed has struggled to bring it up to its 2% target, as measured by its preferred gauge, the personal consumption deflator. And the stock market is within a couple percentage points of record highs.

On the political front, Strategas’ Washington watchers, led by Dan Clifton, observes recent public opinion polls (taken before the latest revelations about Trump’s telephone call to his counterpart in Ukraine) show a similarly low support for impeachment as during Clinton’s in 1998. That said, odds in betting markets predicting the chances of Trump being impeached about doubled recently to 51%, according to a chart in the firm’s client note. It should be noted that impeachment requires only a simple majority of the Democratic-controlled House. A conviction by the Senate requires 67 votes. The upper chamber is controlled by the Republicans by a 53-47 margin, so 20 GOP members would have to defect to convict Trump—an unlikely prospect. Stocks has already fallen Tuesday in anticipation of that Pelosi would announce a formal impeachment inquiry, with the major indexes dropping from 0.54% for the Dow Jones Industrial Average (.DJI) to 0.84% for the S&P 500 and 1.46% for the Nasdaq Composite (.IXIC). Weaker-than-expected consumer-confidence readings from the Conference Board added to the risk-off sentiment, which sent Treasury yields down sharply, with the 10-year note at 1.64%, a two-week low.

The Bespoke report’s title repeated the famous refrain of Clinton’s campaign consigliere, James Carville: It’s the economy, stupid. That’s as relevant as ever for investors, even if the political fights escalate further.

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