Markets maintain relative calm

Posted: Monday, November 13, 2000

There is a tired old saying that markets hate uncertainty and respond negatively to it. If you carry this concept to its logical conclusion, you'd assume that if Wall Street had its way we'd never have another election.

But stocks opened broadly higher on the same Wednesday markets awoke to the news that nobody knew who the next president would be and that he might serve with a mandate morally crippled by either his failure to win the popular vote or by a flawed ballot in a single Florida county that called into question the legitimacy of his victory in the electoral vote. To this confusion was added the prospect of a Congress where neither party will dominate by convincing majorities.

And though most stocks edged lower as Wednesday wore on, the bond market withstood the excruciating uncertainty with perfect aplomb by having another boring day. Some of the usual Wall Street experts predicted the stock market would wallow aimlessly until the presidential election is decided. I wanted to ask each of them what they think it has been doing for months.

In any event, it can't be reassuring that a majority of voters will find the tentative result of these elections unsatisfactory.

These include, for now, all the people who voted for Al Gore and the people who naively hoped Ralph Nader would play a role nobler than that of a cheap spoiler. They surely include even the people who voted for George Bush in hopes he would lead them to a commanding victory that would give him the moral authority to turn the nation sharply to the right. The best they are likely to get is a Bush presidency that will be regarded as illegitimate by close to half the electorate and is supported by the narrowest of Republican majorities in Congress.

Even Bill Clinton's most hysterical enemies did not question the legitimacy of his election in 1992 and his re-election in 1996.

But if Wall Street or the U.S. business community are terrified about the prospect of a wounded presidency and a paralytic Congress, they aren't showing it. This may be because this situation suits them fine. We are, after all, still enjoying the longest economic boom in history and if this makes it harder for government to mess it up with a wrenching change in policy direction, well, who will complain?

Bush may not enjoy congressional majorities that will make it possible for him to ram through his fondest dreams of huge, surplus-squandering tax cuts. But neither the business community nor Wall Street were ever happy with the Reagan deficits and have been tickled to death with the lower interest rates that have prevailed since Clinton started moving toward a balanced budget and into an ongoing surplus. The pharmaceutical and corporate health care industries will be satisfied to have a Congress and president who fail to agree on a Medicare drug benefit or on a patient bill of rights that might allow people to sue their HMOs.

Most corporate CEOs will tell you they'll be entirely satisfied if a morally weakened Bush merely stuffs all the regulatory agencies with industry-friendly appointees who'll take a more tolerant attitude toward air and water pollution, a less enthusiastic attitude toward antitrust enforcement and a less unforgiving attitude toward price fixing and other forms of corporate misbehavior.

There is always the possibility that this election was a mistake, that Al Gore is the legal president-elect. With Republicans sure to control both houses of Congress for at least two years, this is a pill Wall Street and corporate America could willingly swallow. After all, they have the receipts from the campaign contributions to both parties that give them a seat at the head of government's table no matter who's running it.

Reno is a columnist for Newsday.

Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service

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