Brexit scars made Wall Street masters timid election bettors

By Anna-Louise Jackson

The final presidential debate between Hillary Clinton And Donald Trump held in Las Vegas. Photo / Getty
The final presidential debate between Hillary Clinton And Donald Trump held in Las Vegas. Photo / Getty

Opinions are free. Betting on them isn't.

So even with Hillary Clinton a 3-1 favorite, money managers steered clear of aggressive new positions in the runup to today's election.

BMO Global Management in Chicago made defensive tweaks to a $10 billion large-cap fund. David Donabedian, who helps oversee US$28.8 billion at Atlantic Trust Private Wealth Management, didn't even see the need to move and made no changes in allocations.

Swayed by memories of Brexit, Chris Zaccarelli of Cornerstone Financial Partners bought a broad-market put to protect his $1 billion portfolio.

For investors still smarting from the sell off that followed the UK's vote to leave the European Union, the final weeks of campaigning have been no time to go all-in on US stocks. They've held their fire even as many betting sites put Clinton's chances of winning above 70 per cent.

"There was a little bit of overconfidence in the markets and it reminded me a lot of Brexit," said Zaccarelli, chief investment officer of Cornerstone Financial Partners, which oversees more than $1 billion in Huntersville, North Carolina.

He bought a broad-market put option expiring this month.

"It seemed like a prudent thing to do to just buy a little protection while it was cheap, just in case."

If Monday's stock rally is any indication, a Clinton win could be a call to action for money managers sitting on cash that by some measures is at the highest levels in 15 years.

The S&P 500 Index rallied the most in seven months, restoring almost $500 billion in value to US equities after a nine-day slump.

Stocks have shown themselves sensitive to the Democrat's prospects, rising during her standout performance in the first debate and declining sharply after the FBI said October 28 her e-mails remained a topic of interest.

Watch: Market Watch: Should investors be worried?

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The benchmark for American equity rose 0.6 per cent to 2,143.47 as of 12:15 p.m. in New York.

A rush to defense has been going on elsewhere after last week's trading punctured calm that had prevailed for three months, sending the CBOE Volatility Index on its longest streak of gains on record and prompting investors to pull $3 billion from an S&P 500 exchange-traded fund. Hedge fund manager Dan Loeb said Friday that he's cutting risk holdings out of concern that the markets could be shaken by a surprise result.

"Elections are emotional and investing is emotional," said Jeffrey Kleintop, global investment strategist at Charles Schwab Corp. "This is like emotional squared."

Even after Monday's rally, the S&P 500 remains lower by 1.5 per cent in the past two weeks as polls showed the race tightening, and the VIX fear gauge, which plunged 17 per cent Monday, still sits 16 per cent above its one-year average.

Elections are emotional and investing is emotional.
Jeffrey Kleintop, Charles Schwab global investment strategist

While the house view at BMO Global Asset Management is that Clinton will win, the firm decided that all it really needed to do was tweak to its holdings by underweighting energy and health-care and bolstering banks in a $10 billion US large-cap fund, said Ernesto Ramos, head of equities at the $238 billion firm.

"We can't position our portfolio for both of them to win because that's just not possible," Ramos said. "If it goes our way, we're fine, that's what we're anticipating, but we're going to ride it out and if it turns out we were wrong, then we'll unwind this and get much more defensive."

For Atlantic Trust Private Wealth Management, the most prudent position has been to sit tight. Following the party conventions in the summer, the firm, which oversees $28.8 billion, established a baseline expectation of a Clinton victory and a divided Congress, said chief investment officer Donabedian.

Stocks have shown themselves sensitive to the Democrat's prospects. Photo / NZME
Stocks have shown themselves sensitive to the Democrat's prospects. Photo / NZME

"We haven't wavered from that, but you absolutely have to constantly evaluate," he said. "You can't just dig in your heels and say, 'Well, we developed a view in July and we're not going to deviate from it.' You have to look at potential for unexpected inflection points."

Other money managers are ready to pounce, but only after markets give their initial verdict on the election's outcome. And if history is any guide, the days following the vote won't provide any clear direction for stocks.

While the index swings an average 1.5 per cent the day after the vote, gains or losses over the first 24 hours predict the market's direction 12 months later less than half the time.

"I'm putting a list together of stocks I want to own going forward, no matter who's elected," said Robert Pavlik, chief market strategist at Boston Private Wealth who helps oversee $9.1 billion. "I'm looking for stocks that have been pushed down lately, perhaps unfairly, but have upward prospects that aren't likely to be impacted by the election."

My bet would be Hillary wins and the VIX goes back down to where it was before this all started.
Adam Sender, Sender Co & Partners CEO

All of this has put investors in the position of picking a winner, something many see as beyond their expertise.

"Unless you're willing to make a forecast of who's going to win the election, there's nothing to really do," said Eddie Perkin, chief equity investment officer for Boston-based Eaton Vance, which managed $343 billion at the end of September.

"I personally think almost regardless of the outcome after an initial reaction of a day or two, it will be good for stocks."

Perkin added that if Trump were to win and it sparked losses, he would be a buyer. Others are waiting to dive in as well.

"If we do get a significant sell off, it's a good buying opportunity because it's all short-term," said Jim Paulsen, chief investment strategist at Wells Capital Management. "There are going to be more people who think like that."

"I'm going to play long into this event," Adam Sender, chief executive officer and founder of Sender Co & Partners, said in an interview on Bloomberg Television on Friday. "So what I started to do is scale into a long bet and I'll continue to do that on Monday and Tuesday, and what we'll do is watch the results state by state. If it starts to go badly then I'll put on a hedge to try and protect myself."

He added, "My bet would be Hillary wins and the VIX goes back down to where it was before this all started."

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