Wall Street has soured on the new Administration's policy moves. Can this relationship be saved?
At least on Wall Street, the honeymoon is over for President Barack Obama.
Polls still show the President has strong popularity among the general U.S. population, and Obama continues to command power in Congress. But among investors, fairly or unfairly, there is griping that the new Obama Administration is at least partly to blame for the recent slide in stocks. Since Nov. 4, Election Day, the broad Standard & Poor's 500-stock index is off about 25%, and since Jan. 20, when Obama took office, the "500" is down 15%.
It's never easy to determine exactly why the stock market moves in a particular direction. Plenty of other factors have influenced stock prices since November. For example, the global economy has slowed further and the outlook for corporate profits has worsened.
But BusinessWeek interviewed a wide array of investment professionals, and many said the first six weeks of the Obama Administration have soured their outlook on the stock market.
Bar Was Too High
It wasn't always so. On Nov. 21, word arrived that Timothy Geithner would be tapped as Obama's Treasury Secretary and markets rallied immediately. The S&P 500 rocketed 15% higher that day and the following trading session.
Stocks continued to climb into January, and even rallied in the week after the inauguration. "Hopes were too high," says independent market strategist Doug Peta. Too many were hoping the new Administration would have "this magic potion to solve our problems," he says. "That was unrealistic."
Proposals for a stimulus bill pushed infrastructure stocks to unsustainable heights. Caterpillar (CAT) surged 39% from the market lows in November to early January. Since then, shares in the maker of construction equipment have tumbled back down again, falling 43%.
Charges of Bungling
Many investors hoped Obama could start to solve the stock market's—and the economy's—biggest problem: the credit crisis. "It was a false hope," says Brian Reynolds, chief market strategist at WJB Capital Group, who believes there is "nothing the government can do to stop the crisis."
Others are more hopeful the government can ease credit conditions, but say the Obama Administration has bungled the operation so far. A Feb. 10 presentation of a financial-sector relief plan by Geithner was widely criticized. Stocks fell almost 5% that day.
Geithner was a "particularly poor salesperson back on Feb. 10," says Marc Chandler of Brown Brothers Harriman, who says he voted for Obama. "The Obama Administration has failed to get ahead of the curve."
Uncertainty Leaves Room for Rumors
A lack of details from Geithner disturbed investors, says Quincy Krosby, chief investment strategist at the Hartford (HIG). "Markets need certainty," she says. "The market has been sitting here waiting, waiting, waiting. That allows rumors and conspiracy theories to dominate."
Jerry Webman, chief economist at OppenheimerFunds (OPY), defends the Administration. "I would like to see Administration people more visible" on the issue, he says. But, "the problem is: What do we expect them to say? 'This is a big complicated problem and we don't know where we're going to get the money to solve it'? That would be the truth," Webman says, but it wouldn't make market participants very happy.
Credit issues may be the chief complaint about Obama among investors. But they're hardly the only gripe. In recent weeks, Obama has made clear he intends to keep campaign promises on health-care reform, climate change regulation, and higher taxes for Americans who earn more than $250,000.
Surprised by "Leftism"
Professional investors tend to be more conservative, so it's perhaps no surprise they're concerned. "The basic agenda of Obama's Administration is going to be more leftist and less centrist than I had anticipated," says John Merrill, chief investment officer at Tanglewood Wealth Management in Houston.
The impact of Obama's proposals are easy to see in particular segments of the market. In a speech to Congress on Feb. 24, Obama pledged a "substantial down payment" on health-care reform. David Chalupnik, head of equities at First American Funds, points out that, since then, stocks in the Dow Jones U.S. Health Care Providers Index (IHF) are down 16%. Health-care stocks had been a relative safe haven in the market, because medical spending tends to hold up even in recessions.
Investors aren't just expressing their political beliefs that taxes and regulations are bad for the economy. They're also making a practical calculation that they will hurt corporate bottom lines in the future. "What you're doing is lowering the profitability of these firms," says Bill Larkin of Cabot Money Management.
There may be little right-leaning investors can do about liberal policies coming from the White House. "A majority of Americans elected this President on that platform," says Jeffrey Kleintop of LPL Financial Services. In any case, many in the market are more focused on short-term concerns—the recession and the credit crisis—than the long-term implications of Obama's policies.
"People are looking for a very quick fix," Larkin says. "It's the way the markets are. They like to have a problem resolved." Unfortunately, solutions from Obama, the Federal Reserve, or anyone else are slow in arriving. "It's going to take time," Larkin says.
On Mar. 3, Obama tried to get investors to take the long view. "You know, it bobs up and down day to day," Obama told reporters, referring to the stock market. "And if you spend all your time worrying about that, then you're probably going to get the long-term strategy wrong."
Missed Opportunities Early On
Obama and Geithner missed the chance—if they ever had such an opportunity—to "wow" the market and help restore some market confidence early in his Administration, Larkin says. So, instead, "this is going to be a long, drawn-out thing."
Investors will need to wait to see evidence that the stimulus package and measures to ease the credit crisis are really working. "The market is sitting back and saying: 'Show me the money. I'll believe it when it happens,'" Kleintop says.
Obama also tried to argue on Mar. 3 that stocks were a good buy. "Profits and earning ratios are starting to get to the point where buying stocks is a potentially good idea," Obama said, adding "if you've got a long-term perspective on it."
The problem for investors is the long-term outlook has never looked so fuzzy. With the economy deteriorating, the credit crisis continuing, and the Obama Administration still formulating a response, few feel confident enough about the future to buy stocks. It may be quite some time before investors find a change they can believe in.