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Financial Lessons from the 2016 Presidential Election

As I mentioned on Friday, I want to share a few investing-related thoughts regarding last week’s presidential election. As always, however, my goal is to keep this nonpolitical.

Models Work Great, Until They Don’t

Nearly all of the experts were saying that a Clinton win was likely, and some were super confident about such an outcome. For instance, the final forecast by The Upshot gave Clinton an 85% chance of winning.

It makes me think of the Long-Term Capital Management blowup of the late 90s or the Lehman Brothers blowup in 2008. (In each case, the people involved created a model for how various types of assets behaved. Then they borrowed lots of money to invest according to their model. Then the models turned out to be flawed, resulting in massive losses.) Modeling complex systems is difficult, and it’s best not to bet heavily that your model is an accurate representation of how the real world works.

Or, in a more common and less risky part of the investment world, it makes me think of the model-based portfolios that I often see advisors create for their clients. You get 3% of your portfolio in Fund A, 6% in Fund B, 15% in Fund C, and so on — because that’s what the model calls for.

Personally, I much prefer to have a very “dumb” portfolio — one that doesn’t rely on any predictions, other than the most basic. Specifically, with our money invested primarily in domestic and international “total stock market” index funds, the only prediction being made is that the publicly traded companies of the world will continue, on average, to earn profits.

Small, Unpredictable Events Can Have Huge Outcomes

Consider what would have happened if the timing of the FBI email announcement and the release of the Access Hollywood video had been switched, such that it was the video that was getting the primary news coverage immediately prior to the election. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if such a scenario would have resulted in a Clinton win.

Point being, a U.S. presidential election is a major macroeconomic event, yet the outcome can be determined by small, unpredictable events. This is a critical part of why it’s so hard to make specific predictions accurately.

Predicting the Market is Hard

On election night, the prices for stock market futures fell considerably. But then on Wednesday the U.S. stock market (as measured by Vanguard’s Total Stock Market Index Fund) actually turned out to rise by a little over 1%.

In other words, it’s as if the market on Tuesday night was saying, “A Trump presidency? Oh no!” But by the very next day had changed its mind to: “Trump presidency? Sounds great!” Over the long term, the market’s performance will ultimately reflect the profits earned by our publicly traded companies. Over the short term, however, it’s nonsense. Trying to predict that nonsense by jumping in and out of the market at just the right times is not wise.

For example, I know of two people who pulled out of the market prior to the election in order to “wait until things calmed down.” But guess what? The election is over, and things haven’t calmed down. Our country is as divided and chaotic as ever. So when do you get back into the market when trying such a stunt?

What to Expect Going Forward?

Several people have emailed to ask what I think we should expect as far as legislative changes. I would say that, with Republicans in control of the White House as well as both chambers of Congress, certain things have become more likely than they would have been under a Clinton administration. For example:

  • Tax rates are more likely to come down,
  • The Affordable Care Act (or critical pieces of it) is more likely to be repealed, and
  • Taxes that specifically affect people with higher incomes and/or net worth (such as the estate tax or the 3.8% tax on net investment income) are more likely to be repealed.

But again, my whole overall point here is that things are less predictable than we like to think they are. There’s absolutely no way to know which (if any) of the above events will occur — much less when they will occur or exactly what the specifics will look like.

The best bet is to use a portfolio that works well in a wide range of scenarios, and to be flexible with your financial planning, when possible.

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