What would a contested US election mean for investors?

With fewer than six weeks to go before the US election, investors are starting to get antsy. Recent comments from President Donald Trump aren't helping.

Posted Updated

Julia Horowitz
, CNN Business
CNN — With fewer than six weeks to go before the US election, investors are starting to get antsy. Recent comments from President Donald Trump aren't helping.

What's happening: Trump failed to commit on Wednesday to a peaceful transition of power after Election Day, fueling concerns he may not relinquish his office should he lose in November.

"Well, we're going to have to see what happens," Trump said.

Why it matters: The political and democratic implications of such a comment merit their own debate. For Wall Street, however, it feeds fears that a contested election result and a potential constitutional crisis could spark weeks of uncertainty at a delicate moment for markets.

Though they're still up dramatically from March lows, stocks have been shaky this week. The S&P 500 fell 2.4% on Tuesday, and the index closed lower in five of the past six trading sessions.

"From Covid infection spikes to worries that central banks are out of ammunition, and on to concerns about how much fiscal easing is available, not to mention the uncertainty around the US election, there's plenty of fuel to feed to the current risk aversion," Societe Generale strategist Kit Juckes told clients on Thursday.

Investors are showing increasing signs of alarm about what could happen in November; expectations of volatility, as measured by options markets, have shot up recently, per Brad McMillan, chief investment officer at Commonwealth Financial Network.

The specific impact of a disputed election is difficult to map out, and strategists note that the length of any period of uncertainty about who will take the White House is crucial.

"The effects likely will be real and substantial, but also temporary," McMillan said.

The clearest analogue for what could happen is the 2000 election, when the Supreme Court had to weigh in on whether to let a recount continue in Florida. Despite breathless media coverage, the market reaction was muted.

The 2020 election could be different — both because of the political players and because of the economic shock caused by the pandemic.

"The risk of stronger market reactions cannot be dismissed," Commerzbank economists said in a note to clients this week. "Domestic political rifts have become much deeper."

Not just stocks: Commerzbank warns that in a situation where the loser does not concede the election, the US dollar — which has already shed more than 5% since the beginning of July — would especially suffer.

Business to Congress: Please pass more stimulus

The CEOs of America's largest companies are worried about what will happen if Trump and Congressional leaders can't agree on more stimulus to rescue consumers and small businesses, my CNN Business colleague Paul R. La Monica reports.

The latest: In a statement Wednesday, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon, who also serves as chairman of the Business Roundtable, said he "urges the Administration and Congress to come back to the negotiating table and pass more legislation to further ease the economic challenges American workers, small businesses and suppliers are experiencing."

The Business Roundtable's latest survey on the economic outlook showed a significant improvement in sentiment between July and September compared to the second quarter. But the index, which is used to track CEO spending plans, remains far below its historical average.

The group isn't the only powerful entity expressing concern.

Goldman Sachs has cut its forecast for US GDP growth in the fourth quarter in half, noting that due to the looming election and lack of consensus on what to fund, further stimulus spending looks unlikely before 2021.

"We would not entirely rule out passage of a limited package of fiscal relief measures, though this is not our expectation," strategists including chief economist Jan Hatzius told clients.

The investment bank now thinks the US economy will grow by 3% on an annualized basis between October and December instead of 6%.

Investors don't love every new stock

Some Wall Street debuts this month have quickly turned into a frenzy, with investors rushing to snap up shares of tech companies like Snowflake and Unity Software.

But not every company can have a wild first day of trading. Corsair Gaming, which sells hardware and accessories that people can use to build their own custom PCs, saw shares fall 16% on Wednesday to $14.25 per share. It priced its IPO at $17 per share Tuesday night.

CEO Andy Paul maintains that the shift to spending more time at home will benefit the company in the long run.

"With people at home, they're able to spend a little bit more time on the internet, sharing content with friends," Paul told my CNN Business colleague Shannon Liao. "That's been really helpful for consumer demand. We've still got a huge untapped market in front of us, because the vast number of gamers have yet to buy specialized gear.

Big picture: The Renaissance IPO ETF, which tracks recent US listings, is up 63% this year, while the S&P 500 is barely in positive territory. But not every buzzy IPO leads to major stock gains, even with lots of enthusiasm around stay-at-home names.

Up next

Initial US jobless claims for last week post at 8:30 a.m. ET. Americans are expected to have filed 840,000 claims, down from 860,000 the previous week.

Also today:

BlackBerry, Darden Restaurants and Rite Aid report results before US markets open. Costco follows after the close.Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testifies before the Senate starting at 10 a.m. ET.

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