Whether Trump or Clinton, Anxiety Creeps Into U.S. Stock Outlook

  • Implied S&P 500 options prices increase in July and October
  • Another explanation for the peaks is the Federal Reserve

Will GOP's Donald Trump Implement Reaganomics?

Slowly but surely, U.S. presidential politics are starting to influence the price investors pay to protect their equity holdings from sudden shocks.

The best illustration of this may be through measures of expected volatility in options tied to the S&P 500 Index that expire at different points throughout the year. While a broad upward slope is normal in a market where anxiety about the future gets worse with time, price jumps are now noticeable around the time of the Republican National Convention in July and the November election.

While it’s almost impossible to ascribe changes in options prices to a single catalyst, strategists see increasing evidence the presidential race is having an impact. As Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump look like they are headed to a showdown, it will only get more expensive for investors to protect their portfolios from damaging swings that can come without warning as the campaign rhetoric heats up.

“We’re heading into political conventions that most people will admit are pretty scary events,” said Tom Mangan, senior vice president of James Investment Research in Xenia, Ohio, which oversees about $6.5 billion. “While most people have decided which side they’ll come down on, the support is very tepid. The potential is there for big surprises and, of course, markets don’t like surprises.”

Between the Federal Reserve, China, the evolving outlook for global growth and plunging earnings, so many bombs have been falling on the U.S. stock market that strategists have been reluctant to assign any impact to politics -- so far. The S&P 500 has separately plunged 11 percent and rallied 14 percent in 2016, both during stretches when Clinton and Trump were effectively locking up their nominations.

Trump on Thursday secured enough votes to lock up his party’s nomination, and his candidacy is upending the normally reliable Wall Street predilection for Republican administrations.

Clinton gathered almost 70 cents of every $1 spent in the presidential race by employees of the six biggest U.S. banks in the first quarter, according to data compiled by Bloomberg Government based on Federal Election Commission reports. Meanwhile, spending by bankers on Republican presidential candidates and their allies, including super-political action committees and national party committees, dropped to $52,514 in the first quarter from an average of $439,000 over the previous four. The Democrats raised $270,098.

Without a clear thesis into what’s good or bad, traders are making use of the options market, where you needn’t speculate on the direction of a shock, just that it will happen. The cost of equity market insurance is expressed in implied volatility, the key variable in price that shows where demand is clustering at points in the future.

“More and more people are buying options targeting expiries tied to specific events and trading around them,” said Stephen Solaka, managing partner of Belmont Capital Group in Los Angeles, which oversees about $450 million. “They’re either hedging or making directional bets, and that’s why you see kinks in the curve. It’s a fairly common tactic, and it’s getting more popular.”

To be sure, nothing that affects equity prices happens in isolation, and one trader’s anxiety over politics mingles with another’s about economic growth. Take the bump in volatility expectations that occurs from July 22 to 29 on the S&P curve. It coincides with the Republican National Convention on the four days ending July 21, but also with a Fed policy announcement scheduled for July 27.

Either way, there’s strong evidence something is bugging options traders around those dates. After spiking up, volatility expectations quickly calm down in the weeks after, a classic sign of event risk to BNP Paribas.

“At that point, the general electorate and investors will have a much better sense how successful Donald Trump might be,” said Anand Omprakash, an equity-derivatives strategist at the firm. “Volatility around the election is going to appear before the actual date, which is part of the reason why you see a sharp jump in forward volatility over that period.”

The slope of expected price swings starts higher again at the end of July and continues rising through the end of September, a period that includes the Sept. 21 FOMC decision. 

For Sept. 16 to 30, S&P 500 options are embedding a price swing that’s 1.5 percentage points above the historical median. Implied volatility falls the following week, a move that’s anomalous to a curve that should rise with every subsequent data point, according to Omprakash. The expected volatility is calculated using forward S&P 500 options with an exercise price of 2,075.

The rising curve also captures the premium being paid prior to the Nov. 8 presidential election, said Omprakash. For an event of that magnitude, it’s not uncommon for investors to start positioning in the preceding months.

“Some of the volatility around the presidential election is going to appear before the actual date,” he said. “It at least partially explains the sharp jump in forward volatility you see in the months leading up.”

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