A Presidential Cycle and the Markets

The stock and bond markets are off to a great start for 2023. This news is especially notable after a difficult 2022 for stock-based ETF investors. Including dividends and interest, the iShares Core S&P 500 ETF is up 6.3%, and the iShares Core Total US Bond ETF is up 3.3%. While a strong start can be helpful against losses later in the year, what may be more relevant is that we are now in the third year of a presidential cycle. In this article, we discuss this unusually strong relationship.

Data since 1933

According to a researcher at Charles Schwab using data from 1933 to 2015, the S&P 500 had average returns in the first, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th years of a presidential cycle of 6.7%, 5.8%, 16.3%, and 6.7%, respectively. So, in the third year of the presidential cycle, there was nearly a 10% increase in average returns. We revisited this data to include the end of the Obama administration, as well as the four years of the Trump administration and the first two years of the Biden administration. The results appear in the table below, which indicates that, even with the impact of the global coronavirus pandemic, the relationship still holds.

Presidential YearAverage Return (%)Sample Size
Average Returns of the S&P 500 from 1928 to 2022. Data Source: www.macrotrends.net

Clearly, we find that correlation is at play here, although the sample size is not very large. But, what could be the cause of this outperformance?

Possible Causes

A 2013 study at the University of Chicago attributed the effect of the 3rd year of a presidential cycle to increased future uncertainty of what a change of administration may cause. Others have argued that in the third year, the current administration has some momentum to start seeing the impact of their policies being implemented. But, it is always important to note that correlation is not causation, and there are likely many other factors at play that are producing this unusual market behavior. By the end of this year, we will see if the 3rd year of the Biden administration continues this outperformance.

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