President George W. Bush inherited the lousy end of the business cycle. The stock market has been falling throughout his entire term, battered by war, a feeble economy, and corporate scandals. Yet this decay still hasn't shaken Americans' faith that Republicans are better for the economy and the market. Poll after poll shows that when Americans divide up the chores of running the country, they tend to think of the economy and stock market as Republican domain and delegate softer issues, like the environment, to Democrats.
But Democrats, it turns out, are much better for the stock market than Republicans. Slate ran the numbers and found that since 1900, Democratic presidents have produced a 12.3 percent annual total return on the S&P 500, but Republicans only an 8 percent return. In 2000, the Stock Trader's Almanac, which slices and dices Wall Street performance figures like baseball stats, came up with nearly the same numbers (13.4 percent versus 8.1 percent) by measuring Dow price appreciation. (Most of the 20th century's bear markets, incidentally, have been Republican bear markets: the Crash of '29, the early '70s oil shock, the '87 correction, and the current stall occurred under GOP presidents.)
According to almanac editor Jeffrey Hirsch, the presidential party figures are among the most significant he's found. If the stock market were random, we'd expect such a result only one-quarter of the time. "I don't know why people are convinced Republicans are good for the stock market," Hirsch says.
Nor does having a Republican Congress help the market. A Democratic Senate showed returns of 10.5 percent (versus 9.4 percent for a GOP upper chamber), and a Democratic House returned 10.9 percent versus 8.1 percent for the Republicans.
When both houses of Congress opposed the president, the return was a stellar 12.9 percent. Libertarians may celebrate this as proof that the market likes gridlock and government inaction. But the market likes steamrollers nearly as much: The S&P performs almost as well—returning 11.8 percent—when the presidency and both houses are held by the same party. The only situation Mr. Market dislikes is what we have now: one house for each party. Those years have a -0.9 percent return.
Republicans are no doubt muttering that that's just the stock market, not the whole economy. But real GDP growth follows the same pattern. Since 1930 (the first year decent data is available), GDP growth was 5.4 percent for Democratic presidents and 1.6 percent for Republicans.
There may be all sorts of explanations for the bias of the economy and the markets toward Democrats. The worst years of the Great Depression occurred under Republican Herbert Hoover, and Democrats got credit for the entire recovery. Democrats had some awfully good streaks of peace and prosperity in the '30s, late '40s, and '90s. These could be chance, or it could be that Democrats more tightly regulate the markets, which gives investors confidence. Democrats are more likely to spread the wealth around through public spending on education or transportation, which may stimulate the economy more broadly. The foundation of recent GOP economic policy—tax cuts—may offer narrower benefits than Republicans claim. High defense spending, another GOP hallmark, may only boost one sector while hurting the whole economy in the form of bigger federal deficits and higher interest rates.
Whatever the reasons for it, this Democratic dividend should encourage the party's 2004 presidential contenders. They have a new slogan to run on: Democrats—the party of Wall Street.
Moneybox thanks economists Susan Woodward and Robert Hall, Ibbotson Associates, and the Stock Trader's Almanac.