Years ago I walked the Camino De Santiago, a holy pilgrimage across Spain that dates back to the 9th century. Not being Catholic I’m sure that a number of religious aspects of my month-long trek were lost on me, but what I did take away was a cursory understanding of Spain’s curious political instability. Everywhere I went there was graffiti calling for the independence of Catalonia, a movement that I had been completely ignorant of. In fact, other than the Basque region, it had never occurred to me to even question the essential makeup of the nation of Spain.
Last week Catalonia held a highly contentious referendum on its independence. Like Scotland and Wales, Catalonia has a devolved parliament and is a region with its own language and history distinct from (and forever tied to) Spain. Leading up to the referendum was a fair amount of heavy handedness from the government in Madrid that only made things worse. Strictly speaking the referendum is likely illegal, and the Spanish constitution does not recognize Catalonia’s decision to simply walk itself out the door on a whim. More puzzling has been the outcome of the vote, with the Catolinian government refusing to categorically claim independence. A deadline set for this Monday was meant to clarify Catalonia’s declaration of independence, but it seems to have lapsed without clarification.
In the universe of investing events like this seem poised to throw everything into chaos, and yet markets have shown themselves to be surprisingly resilient in the face of big political upheavals. Last year included a surprise win for the Brexit vote, which initially began with a market panic, but morphed into a prolonged rally for the British markets. The US too has had a surprising run in the Dow and S&P500 despite numerous concerns about the stability of the US government and its inability to pass any of it objectives.
So how should investors react when political chaos erupts? Is it a sign that we should hunt for safer shores, or should we simply brave the chaos?
One thing to consider is that we probably over estimate the importance of events as they unfold and assume that things that are bad in the real world are equally bad in the markets. War is bad objectively, but it isn’t necessarily bad for business. Protracted wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been damaging to those involved but they haven’t slowed market rallies much, a depressing but necessary distinction.
On the other hand chronic instability has a way of building in systems. One of the reasons that serious conflicts, political instability and angry populism haven’t done much to negate market optimism is because the nature of Western Liberal democracies is to be able to absorb a surprising amount of negative events. Our institutions and financial systems have been built (and re-built) precisely to be resilient and not fragile. Where as in the past bad news might have shut down lending practices or hamstrung the economy, we have endeavored to make our systems flexible and allow for our economies to continue even under difficult circumstances.
However there are limits. In isolation its easy to deal with large negative events, but over time institutions can be pushed to their breaking point. There are compelling arguments that the wave of reactionary populism that has captured elections over the past three years is a sign of how far stretched our institutions are. Central banks, democratic governments and the welfare state have been so badly stretched by a combination of forces; from a war on terror, a global financial crisis and extended economic malaise, that we shouldn’t find it surprising that 1 in 4 Austrians, 1 in 3 French and 1 in 8 Germans have all voted for a far right candidate in recent elections.
Equally we can see the presumed effects of Climate Change as large parts of the US have suffered under multiple hurricanes, torrential downpours, or raging forest fires. For how many years can a community or nation deal with the repeated destruction of a city before the economy or government can’t cope?
In this reading, markets have simply not caught up yet with the scope of the problems that we face and are too focused on corporate minutia to see the proverbial iceberg in our path.
While I believe there is some truth in such a view, I think we have to concede that it is us as citizens that are too focused on the minutia. The market tends to focus on things like earning reports, sales predictions and analyst takes on various companies before it considers major events in the valuation of stocks.
Consider, for instance, the election of Donald Trump. Trump rode a wave of dissatisfaction with free trade and promised to shake up the trade deals the US had with other nations. Superficially this threatens the future earnings of multinational firms that depend on trade deals like NAFTA. But how many people didn’t go and buy a car they had been intending to buy over the last year? As is often the case the immediacy of political craziness obscures the time it will take for those issues to become reality. Trump may end up canceling NAFTA, but that could be years away and has little impact on the price of companies now. That applies to events like Brexit and even the Catalonian vote. Yes, they create problems, but those problems are unlikely to be very immediate.
The lesson for investors is to remain calm and conduct regular reviews of your portfolio with your financial advisor (if you don’t have a financial advisor you should give me a call), to ensure that the logic behind the investment decisions still makes sense. Nothing will be more likely to keep you on track with your investment goals and sidestepping bad decisions than making sure you and your investment advisor remain on the same page.