NEW YORK ( ETF Expert) -- On an intraday basis through Thursday, Oct. 25, the Dow Jones Industrial Average has pulled back 4.6% from a 52-week high. Similarly, since tagging a multiyear, intraday peak, the S&P 500 has forfeited 4.8%.
Is the presence of corrective activity and consolidation alarming? Hardly. The fact that investors were able to ignore earnings and revenue warnings until those admonitions became actualities is far more surprising.
We shouldn't blame profit and sales weakness alone, however. There is a real possibility of a disputed outcome in the upcoming election -- for the White House as well as for control of the Senate. The stakes couldn't be higher.
How might this affect riskier assets?
Bush v. Gore
ugliness resulted in -8% returns for large-cap equities in November of 2000. Of course, at that time, unemployment was not widespread, the
was not purchasing Treasury/mortgage-backed bonds and a
fiscal cliff catastrophe
was not looming on the immediate horizon.
While there are some who are talking about the chance of a postelection scramble in 2012, the markets may be thinking in terms of a highly probable postelection scrum. That causes risk takers to take a wait-and-see approach.
The reason that markets are beginning to consider a likely dispute has to do with new voting laws. New "provisional ballot" rules in swing states like Virginia, Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin haven't been previously tested. And when scores of additional voters cast provisional ballots, officials must scrutinize those ballots to determine which should count and which may be deemed duplicates. (Can you say, "hanging chad"?)
Before the first week of October, markets believed that Obama would win the presidency and that the House of Representatives would go to the Republican party. A split between the legislative and executive branches has often been beneficial to stocks. Today, with the candidates neck and neck, the White House may not be determined until Thanksgiving. What's more, a 50-50 split in the Senate would effectively go to the Republican party if Romney prevails, making tight Senate races all the more contentious; again, provisional ballots may play a role in determining the makeup of the Senate.
Clearly, weeks of not being able to recognize who controls what causes more than heartburn and indigestion for institutional and individual investors. One can choose to buy volatile dips on the notion that winners will be declared eventually. However, the ripple effect of not being able to know the landscape is the inability to assess the economic impact of a non-negotiated fiscal cliff calamity (e.g., rising payroll taxes for all employees, capital gains tax increases, absence of an alternative minimum tax patch, dividends reverting to ordinary income, automatic cuts to the defense sector, etc.).
Nevertheless, there are signs that the fears may be temporary. "Risk off," flight-to-safety investing over the last five years has often seen Treasury bond ETFs gain at the expense of Stock ETFs. In the last month, however, U.S. Treasury Bond ETFs have struggled in the same manner as Stock ETFs.
In spite of genuinely weak corporate sales ... in spite of a Federal Reserve commitment to suppress interest rates ... in spite of an intraday corrective phase approaching -5% ... and in spite of a highly probable postelection dispute ... participants have yet to flock to Treasury bond ETFs. The absence of panicky Treasury bond buying is one reason to believe that stocks may yet find support levels to build upon.
This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.