Markets want clear US winner

Traders and investors seem to agree on one thing about the US presidential election: The markets want a clear winner.

Some market analysts forecast doomsday scenarios if a particular candidate wins - predictions that usually reflect their political leanings more than anything else.

But markets hate uncertainty, and having a drawn-out US presidential election is one of the worst prospects. No one on either side wants a repeat of the protracted fight that followed the 2000 race between Al Gore and George W Bush.

"If we wake up Wednesday morning [US time] and we don't know the results, that also pushes off the dealing with the fiscal cliff, which is the next most important thing in our agenda," said Art Hogan, managing director of Lazard Capital Markets in New York.

Markets are terrified of this next step for the United States - figuring out how to avoid plunging off the fiscal cliff or US$600 billion (NZ$725b) in tax increases and spending cuts that could kick in next year and send the US economy reeling.

The stock market "has been directionless over the last few weeks because of uncertainty about what fiscal and tax policy looks like next year," said Perry Piazza, director of investment strategy at Contango Capital Advisors in San Francisco. "You could argue that just having the uncertainty behind us could lead to a bit of a relief rally."

Whoever wins, the president will also have some sway over monetary policy, even though the Federal Reserve is theoretically independent from the government. A Romney victory would throw the status of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke into doubt.

Romney has said he would replace Bernanke, whose dovish monetary policy has been a pillar of the gains in both US bond and stock prices in the recent years.

A Romney victory may increase interest-rate volatility, said Tom Sowanick, co-president and chief investment officer at OmniVest Group LLC in Princeton, New Jersey. But if Obama gets four more years in the White House, Sowanick said, the current policy of quantitative easing may accelerate.

As US voters cast their ballots, the US stock market surged, with the Dow Jones industrial average, Standard & Poor's 500 Index and Nasdaq Composite Index rising 1.12 per cent, 0.90 per cent and 0.59 per cent, respectively.

"Everybody is a winner today because the market is up across the board," said Andrew Ahrens, chief executive of Lafayette, Louisiana-based Ahrens Investment Partners, which oversees about US$750 million in assets. "But there may be some hangovers tomorrow."

Unlike in 2000, this time Ohio instead of Florida is expected to be the proving ground for taking the White House. At issue is whether the Obama administration's bailout of the auto industry will carry the day or whether Romney will maximise turnout in the Ohio suburbs.

The equity options market is pricing in a 20- to 30-point move in either direction for the S&P 500 on Wednesday [US time], according to Marko Kolanovic, global head of derivative and quantitative strategies at JPMorgan.

Many believe the larger move could come as a result of a Romney win. "I think the market is expecting an Obama victory, so I think the most important thing is that you don't get much of a response if you have an Obama victory," Jonathan Golub, chief US equity strategist at UBS Securities said.

The benchmark S&P 500 has rallied 67 per cent since Obama took office - one of the most impressive runs ever for stocks under a single president.

"Interestingly, there has been a big divergence in the performance of stocks in the United States versus overseas since the 2010 midterm elections," according to Bespoke Investment Group analysts. "Stocks in the United States are up 15-20 per cent since then, while the rest of the world is pretty much down across the board."

Despite a downgrade of the US credit rating from the Standard & Poor's agency in August 2011, yields on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note hit historic lows last July. Cumulative returns for all maturities on all US Treasuries are at 14 per cent since the president's inauguration, according to data from Barclays.