The Markets Are Weak Because the Candidates Are Lousy

The good news is that an Obama victory is already priced in.

A lot has been said about the causes of the drastic drops — and extreme volatility — in stock prices and the impending recession. Blame has been heaped on low interest rates and dubious mortgage practices, and on the subsequent collapse of real-estate prices and the freeze in financial markets. But one other major factor has largely escaped attention.

To state the obvious: The valuation of an individual stock reflects the collective expectation of investors about a company’s future profits, dividends and appreciation, and the same is true of the market as a whole. These profits, in turn, are greatly influenced by government policy on taxes, spending, subsidies, environmental and other regulations, labor laws, and the corporate legal climate. Investors have heard enough from both candidates in the last month or two to conclude that prospects for a flourishing, competitive, growing and reasonably free economy in a McCain administration are bad, and in an Obama administration far worse. (In fact, the market’s bearish behavior over the last couple of months pretty closely tracks Barack Obama’s gains.)

If you don’t believe me, please answer a few questions:

– Have you thought of what a gradual doubling (and indexation) of the minimum wage, sailing through a veto-proof and filibuster-proof Congress, would do to inflation, unemployment and corporate profits? The market now has.

– Have you thought of how easily a Labor Department headed by a militant union boss would push through a “Transparency in Labor Relations” law that does away with secret ballots in strike votes, and what this would do to industrial peace? The market now has.

– Have you thought of how a Treasury Secretary George Soros would engineer the double taxation of the multinationals’ world-wide profits, and what this would mean for investors (to say nothing of full-scale industrial flight from the U.S.)? The market now has.

– Have you thought of how an Attorney General Charles J. Ogletree would champion a trillion-dollar reparations-for-slavery project (whittled down, to be fair, to a mere $800-billion, over-10-years compromise), and what this would do to the economy? The market now has.

– Have you thought of what the virtual outlawing of arbitration — exposing all industries to the fate of asbestos producers — would do to corporate liability and legal bills? The market now has.

– Have you thought of how a Health and Human Services Secretary Hillary Clinton would fix drug prices (generously allowing 10% over the cost of raw materials), and what this would do to the financial health of the pharmaceutical industry (not to mention the nondiscovery of lifesaving drugs)? The market now has.

– Have you thought of a Secretary of the newly established Department of Equal Opportunity for Women mandating “comparable worth” pay practices for every company doing any business with government at any level — where any residual gap between the average pay of men and women is an eo ipso violation? Have you thought about what this would do to administrative and legal costs, hiring practices, productivity and wage bills? The market now has.

– Have you thought of what confiscatory “windfall profits” taxes on oil companies would do to exploration, supply and prices? The market now has.

– Have you thought of how the nationalization of health insurance, the mandated coverage of ever more — and more exotic — risks, the forced reimbursement for excluded events, and the diminished freedom to match premium to risk would affect the insurance industry? The market now has.

– Have you thought of Energy Czar Al Gore’s five million new green jobs — high-paying, unionized and subsidized — to replace, at five times the cost, what we are now producing without those five million workers, and what this will do to our productivity, deficit and competitiveness? The market now has.

I could go on, but you get the point. Nothing reveals Mr. Obama’s visceral hostility to business more than the constant urging of our best and brightest to desert the productive private sector (“greed”) and go into public service like politics or community organizing (i.e., organizing people to press government for more handouts). Who in his ideal world would bake our bread, make our shoes and computers, and pilot our airplanes is not clear.

And if you think all this comes from an ardent John McCain fan, you couldn’t be more wrong. The Arizona Senator has made some terrible mistakes, one of them trying to out-demagogue Mr. Obama to the economic illiterates. This kind of pandering never works. Such populists and other economic illiterates will always go for the genuine article.

Mr. McCain should have asked some simple questions — pertinent, educational and easily understood by ordinary voters. Such as:

– If the rise in the price of oil from $70 to $140 was due to “greed” (the all-purpose explanation of the other side for every economic problem), was the fall from $140 to $70 due to a sudden outbreak of altruism?

– If a bank is guilty both for rejecting a mortgage (“redlining”) and for approving it (“greed” — see above), how might a bank president keep his business out of trouble with the law?

– If the financial turmoil of the last year or so was caused by inadequate regulation, which party has controlled both Houses of Congress and all of its financial committees and subcommittees (where such regulation would originate) in the last two years?

– If we bemoan the sending of $750 billion a year to our enemies for imported oil, which party has prevented domestic drilling for decades that would have made us more self-sufficient?

– You were unhappy with Congress, and in 2006 you cast your lot with those who, like Mr. Obama now, promised “change.” Are you happy with the changes that have taken place in the last two years?

None of these questions have been asked loudly or often enough, while the other message — everything is bad, it’s all Bush’s fault, and McCain=Bush — has sunk in. So given his own penchant for business bashing, a McCain win would merely count as damage control.

The market is forward looking. If it is unhappy with a president, it does not wait almost eight years before the numbers reflect it. If it really anticipated good times under Mr. Obama, the market would have gained 40% in anticipation of the transition. By losing that much, it seems to be saying the opposite.

The silver lining in all this is that the market has already “discounted” an Obama win, so if that happens you won’t wake up on Nov. 5 to find your remaining savings down the drain. If the unexpected happens, you may be in for a pleasant surprise.

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