Investors hoped a clear outcome from the US election would quickly materialize Tuesday night, eliminating a key source of uncertainty in a tumultuous year. Their wish didn’t come true.
Key races that could determine who heads to the White House are still too close to call, including Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. In some places, it could take days to count all the votes.
That’s left markets hugely exposed to bouts of volatility. US futures swung dramatically Tuesday night and early Wednesday morning. The US dollar gained 0.4% against a basket of top currencies, while heightened demand for benchmark 10-year US Treasuries, a safe haven asset, weighed on yields.
Wall Street bet that former Vice President Joe Biden would win the White House and that Democrats would take control of the Senate, paving the way for a generous fiscal relief package during a difficult winter.
Biden still has multiple paths to victory. But results so far have not produced the decisive “blue wave” many investors had been expecting.
Credit Suisse told clients early Wednesday that the races for both the presidency and control of the Senate were “much tighter than expected.” It cautioned that the country may not have a definitive answer on whether President Donald Trump or Biden won until Friday.
“We expect volatility to remain elevated,” the bank said. “Amid the lack of clarity, patience is required.”
The biggest concern on Wall Street has been a contested election that takes days or weeks to resolve. That risk hasn’t gone away.
Speaking at the White House early Wednesday morning, Trump attacked legitimate vote-counting efforts, suggesting attempts to tally all ballots amounted to disenfranchising his supporters. He also said he had been preparing to declare victory earlier in the evening, and baselessly claimed a fraud was being committed.
Such unsubstantiated claims only darken the market sentiment, according to ING chief international economist James Knightley.
“With Donald Trump clearly now pushing the case that this is going to be unfair, this is going to be challenged — that’s just going to make markets anxious this could [take] weeks,” Knightley told me.
The big picture: America is in the middle of a pandemic, and Covid-19 cases are rising again. Economists have warned that additional relief from the US government is crucial to keeping the economic recovery on track, and that more spending to help businesses and the unemployed is overdue.
But a drawn-out, divisive election makes passing such a package in the coming weeks unlikely, and could cause risky assets like stocks to pare back some of their recent gains.
“When you’ve got the animosity and arguments going on, it’s not exactly going to give you confidence [that] you’ll get politicians sitting around the table to hammer out a quick deal,” Knightley said.
If Congress can’t move towards an agreement, pressure will rise for the Federal Reserve to do more. The central bank, which meets Wednesday and Thursday, has assured the public it still has room to act after pushing interest rates near zero and snapping up trillions of dollars worth of bonds this year.
The Fed has made clear it doesn’t want to be the only game in town. Depending on how the election plays out, it may not have a choice.