The attached note looks at increasing signs that the political pendulum is swinging back to the left and what it means for investors. The key points are as follows:
- Growing support for higher taxes on the right and greater government intervention in the economy suggest median voters have shifted to the left. Support for economic rationalist policies has fallen.
- The risk is that the shift away from economic rationalist policies to greater government intervention will contribute to constrained medium-term investment returns.
When I was in my early 20s I thought socialism might be the way to go. Two things happened. One I studied economics which led me to the conclusion that socialism/heavy state intervention doesn’t lead to the best outcome in terms of living standards for most. Second, I had the benefit of a trip to the USSR before it and the eastern bloc disintegrated. It must have been Paul McCartney’s faux Beach Boys’, “Back in the USSR” that got me interested! Sure the history and scenery were fantastic and I like the fact that I saw it before the wall came down – but economically it was a mess. And trying to spend excess roubles before we left the USSR was a struggle (nothing but off chocolate to spend them on). “Socialism” seemed to work a bit better in the Deutsche Democratic Republic – but not really and it was a relief to come through Checkpoint Charlie knowing decent food (McDonald’s) was waiting.
So I ended up gravitating to the centre with the view that the best approach is to allow a market economy with the government providing a good safety net, education and intervening where there are market failures. But a wise man told me when I was young that it’s best to start off on the left when you are young otherwise you will end being like Attila the Hun, as you move to the right as you age. Given the tendency for the young to start off on the left its no surprise to see younger generations favour a bigger role for government in what The Economist magazine has dubbed “millennial socialism”.
If the millennials and Gen Z follow the normal pattern they will shift to the right as they age like their forebears. So nothing new! Well, maybe but there is a big difference now compared to the 1980s. Back in the 1980s the political pendulum (or technically the median voter) was moving to the right. So my ageing was in tune with a big picture political cycle. Now the pendulum is swinging left. We first looked at this three years ago (see “The political pendulum swings to the left”, Oliver’s Insights, June 2016). Since then it’s become more evident. This note looks at what’s driving it and what it means for investors.
Political cycles beyond elections
Just as the weather, economies and financial markets go in cycles so it is with politics, even beyond standard electoral cycles. This has been clearly evident over the last century:
1930s-1970s – the Great Depression gave rise to a fear of deflation and high unemployment and scepticism of free markets. The political pendulum swung to the left and culminated in the economic disaster of the high tax, protectionism, growing state intervention and the welfare state of the late 1960s and 1970s that gave rise to stagflation.
1980s-2000s – stagflation and the failure of heavy government intervention gave rise to popular support for the economic rationalist/right of centre policies of the 1980s. Thatcher, Reagan and Hawke and Keating ushered in a period of deregulation, freer trade, privatisation, lower marginal tax rates, tougher restrictions on access to welfare, measures to reign in budget deficits and other supply side economic reforms designed to boost productivity. The middle class didn’t support higher taxes on the rich because they aspired to be rich. This was all helped along by the collapse of communism and the integration of the old USSR and China into global trade. The political pendulum swung to the right and there was talk of “The End of History” with general agreement that free market democracies were the way to go.
2010 – ? – but post the global financial crisis (GFC) it seems the pendulum is swinging to the left again and support for economic rationalist policies seems to be fading if not reversing.