A Barack Market

The voters may be full of hope about the looming Obama Presidency, but so far investors aren’t. No President-elect in the postwar era has been greeted with a more audible hiss from Wall Street. The Dow has lost 1,342 points, or about 14%, since the election, with the S&P 500 and Nasdaq hitting similar skids. The Dow fell another 4.7% yesterday.

Much of this is due to hedge fund deleveraging, as well as dreadful corporate earnings reports and pessimism that the recession will be deeper than many had hoped. We also don’t want to read too much into short-term market moves. But there’s little doubt that uncertainty, and some fear, over Barack Obama’s economic agenda is also contributing to the downdraft.

The substance of what Mr. Obama has promised for the economy is bearish for stocks. The threat of higher tax rates, especially on capital gains and dividends, now may be getting priced into the market. Add that to investor doubts about Democratic policies on unions, health care and trade — and no wonder stocks are falling. Lower stock prices in turn reduce household net worth, thus slamming consumer confidence and contributing to what appears to be a consumer spending strike.

If Mr. Obama wants to reassure markets, he could announce that he won’t be raising taxes for the foreseeable future. Unlike hundreds of billions in new government spending or more taxpayer cash for Detroit auto companies, this no-tax-hike declaration is a “stimulus” that would cost the U.S. Treasury nothing. In the current market, there won’t be many capital gains and few companies will have surplus earnings to pay out in dividends. A higher tax rate on zero gains yields zero revenue, so what’s the point of raising rates?

What markets want to see from Mr. Obama is a sense that the seriousness of this downturn is causing him to rethink the worst of his antigrowth policies.

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