Key takeaways

  • Investor patience is a virtue in volatile U.S. presidential election years.
  • International stocks appear attractive on a company-by-company basis.
  • Consider upgrading bond portfolios as rates stay lower for longer.

U.S. outlook: Maintain balance in this election year

Heading into 2020, there is little doubt that politics will dominate the news cycle. For investors, U.S. presidential elections often bring heightened market volatility, especially during the rough-and-tumble primary season. Add that to the U.S.-China trade war, the U.K.’s Brexit drama, slowing global economic growth, civil unrest in Hong Kong, impeachment proceedings in Washington D.C., and you’ve got a classic “wall of worry” for markets to climb.

On the surface, the 2020 presidential election would appear to be a highly consequential event with major implications for the U.S. economy and markets, not to mention the rest of the world. However, history suggests that may not be the case. U.S. markets have consistently trended upward after presidential elections, rewarding patient investors — regardless of who occupies the White House.

Chart shows S&P 500 Index average cumulative returns since 1932, demonstrating that volatility during primaries is often followed by strong returns. Non-election years had a subsequent one-year return of 5.8%, compared to 10.2% in presidential election years. Sources: Capital Group, RIMES, Standard & Poor's. Includes all daily price returns from January 1, 1932, to November 30, 2019. Years without an election exclude all years with either a presidential or midterm elections. Subsequent one-year return calculation begins on May 31 each year, a proxy for the end of primaries. The Standard & Poor's 500 Composite Index is a market capitalization-weighted index based on the results of approximately 500 widely held common stocks.

“Presidents get far too much credit, and far too much blame, for the health of the U.S. economy and the state of the financial markets,” says Capital Group economist Darrell Spence. “There are many other variables that determine economic growth and market returns and, frankly, presidents have very little influence over them.

“As we move into the new year, I think we will start to see some improvement in U.S. economic growth, helped along by easy monetary policy,” Spence continues. “But I don’t think the winner of the next election, whether it’s a Democrat or a Republican, will have much of an impact beyond the usual short-term market gyrations.”

International outlook: Consider a borderless approach

Investors who are worried about political risk in the U.S. might want to look overseas for a broader set of investment opportunities. Not because international stocks have any less political risk, but because the world has changed dramatically under the influence of free trade, global supply chains and the rapid growth of multinational corporations.

From an investment perspective, national borders are no longer as relevant as they used to be. Many companies headquartered in Europe, for instance, derive much of their revenue from the U.S., China or Latin America.

Click to watch Capital Group’s 2020 Outlook webinar with Rob Lovelace. CE credit is available for CFP and CIMA.

“Where a company gets its mail is not a good proxy anymore for where it does business,” explains Rob Lovelace, a Capital Group portfolio manager.

Moreover, many of the best stocks each year are found outside the United States. If you look at individual companies instead of index returns you’ll find that the companies with the highest annual returns each year were overwhelmingly located outside the U.S. In 2019, 44 of the top 50 stocks were based on foreign soil. Investors who opted not to go outside the U.S. missed a shot at those companies, many of which are small to mid-sized firms with potentially faster growth opportunities.

Think all the best stocks are in the U.S.? Nope, not even close. 74% of the top stocks since 2010 have been based outside the U.S. Chart image shows the number of top 50 stocks each year from 2010 to 2019 year-to-date by company location: Emerging markets (ex China), China, developed international and United States. The index returns for U.S. and non-U.S. in 2010 are 15.1% and 11.2%, respectively; 2.1% U.S. and –13.7% non-U.S. for the year 2011; 16.0% U.S. and 16.8% non-U.S. for the year 2012; 32.4% U.S. and 15.3% non-U.S. for the year 2013; 13.7% U.S. and –3.9% non-U.S. for the year 2014; 1.4% U.S. and –5.7% non-U.S. for the year 2015; 12.0% U.S. and 4.5% non-U.S. for the year 2016; 21.8% U.S. and 27.2% non-U.S. for the year 2017; –4.4% U.S. and –14.2% non-U.S. for the year 2018; 27.6% U.S. and 16.5% non-U.S. for 2019 year-to-date. Sources: MSCI, RIMES. 2019 data as of November 30, 2019. Returns in U.S. dollars. Top 50 stocks are the companies with the highest total return in the MSCI ACWI each year. Returns table uses S&P 500 and MSCI ACWI ex USA indexes for U.S. and non-U.S., respectively.

Fixed income outlook: Think about upgrading your bond portfolio

Over the past year, the bond market has reminded investors that not all is well with the global economy. Central banks around the world have cut interest rates aggressively in a bid to offset the negative effects of U.S.-China trade tensions, persistent deflationary pressures and slowing growth in China, Europe and elsewhere.

In the U.S., an inverted yield curve has suggested that a recession may be looming. In Europe and Japan, negative interest rates have spread like wildfire — with more than $15 trillion of bonds trading at negative yields.

In such uncharted waters, investors would do well to upgrade their bond portfolios as a counterbalance against periods of equity market volatility, says Mike Gitlin, head of fixed income at Capital Group.

“In an extraordinary market like this, balance is essential,” Gitlin stresses. “Amid unusual market trends and mixed economic indicators, a strong core bond allocation may be your best defense.”

Graphic shows a series of bar charts for each of the six recent periods of equity corrections (when equities fell at least 10%) and the performance of core taxable bond funds, core tax-exempt bond funds and the S&P 500 index, titled “Core is especially important in periods of equity volatility.” For these six periods it shows both bond categories outperforming the S&P 500, at times very sharply. These periods included the flash crash in 2010, U.S. debt downgrade in 2011, China slowdown in 2015, oil price shock in 2015–2016, U.S. inflation/rate scare in early 2018 and the global selloff in late 2018. In all periods, core taxable and tax-exempt categories returned between –1 and 4%, while the equity index returned between –10% and –19%. Source: Morningstar. Categories shown include Morningstar U.S. Intermediate Core category and Morningstar U.S. Municipal National Intermediate category. Dates shown for market corrections are based on price declines of 10% or more (without dividends reinvested) in the unmanaged S&P 500 with at least 50% recovery persisting for more than one business day between declines for the earlier five periods shown. The returns are based on total returns.

2020 Outlook: Key takeaways

Stay balanced in an election year

  • Patient investors can do well in election years. We looked at every election since 1932 and found that primary seasons are volatile, but markets have notched solid gains afterward.
  • Recession in 2020? Not if the consumer stays this strong. In the U.S., consumer strength should continue to offset a manufacturing slowdown caused by trade uncertainty.

Consider upgrading your equity portfolio

  • The best offense is a good defense. It’s not too soon to prepare portfolios for rougher seas as we face headwinds from an election year and a slowing global economy.
  • Look for sustainable dividends, not just “value” stocks. The value label can be misleading; it’s not always defensive. Consider selecting companies with the potential to maintain dividend payments in tough times.

Think about upgrading your bond portfolio, too

  • Consider revisiting your bond allocation. Given the late-cycle U.S. economy and weakness abroad, we think a fixed income allocation should be mostly core bonds that can help mitigate stock market volatility.
  • Explore complementary assets to high-yield corporates. High-income munis and emerging markets bonds have offered similar after-tax income potential — often with lower correlation to equities.

Darrell Spence is an economist and research director with 26 years of investment experience. He earned a bachelor's degree in economics from Occidental College and is a CFA charterholder.

Rob Lovelace is vice chairman of Capital Group, president of Capital Research and Management Company, and serves on the Capital Group Management Committee. He has 33 years of investment experience. He holds a bachelor's in geology from Princeton and is a CFA charterholder.

Mike Gitlin is head of fixed income at Capital Group. He has 25 years of investment experience. Before joining Capital in 2015, Mike was the head of fixed income and global head of trading for T. Rowe Price. He holds a bachelor's from Colgate University.

Investing outside the United States involves risks, such as currency fluctuations, periods of illiquidity and price volatility, as more fully described in the prospectus. These risks may be heightened in connection with investments in developing countries. Small-company stocks entail additional risks, and they can fluctuate in price more than larger company stocks.

The return of principal for bond funds and for funds with significant underlying bond holdings is not guaranteed. Fund shares are subject to the same interest rate, inflation and credit risks associated with the underlying bond holdings. Lower rated bonds are subject to greater fluctuations in value and risk of loss of income and principal than higher rated bonds. Income from municipal bonds may be subject to state or local income taxes and/or the federal alternative minimum tax. Certain other income, as well as capital gain distributions, may be taxable.

Standard & Poor’s 500 Composite Index (“Index”) is a product of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC and/or its affiliates and has been licensed for use by Capital Group. Copyright © 2019 S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC, a division of S&P Global, and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved. Redistribution or reproduction in whole or in part is prohibited without written permission of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC.

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The market indexes are unmanaged. Investors cannot invest directly in an index.

Standard & Poor’s 500 Composite Index is a market capitalization-weighted index based on the results of approximately 500 widely held common stocks.

MSCI ACWI ex USA is a free float-adjusted market capitalization-weighted index that is designed to measure equity market results in the global developed and emerging markets, excluding the United States. The index consists of more than 40 developed and emerging market country indexes.

MSCI ACWI is a free float-adjusted market capitalization-weighted index that is designed to measure equity market results in the global developed and emerging markets, consisting of more than 40 developed and emerging market country indexes.