Politics, Taxes, and Other Fun Stuff

Posted by Brad McMillan, CFA, CAIA, MAI

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This entry was posted on Apr 18, 2017 3:13:06 PM

and tagged Politics and the Economy

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politics and policyToday is tax day here in Massachusetts, as we got an extra day due to Patriots’ Day, a state holiday. The holiday brings with it a number of special events, including the Boston Marathon, as well as reenactments of the Battles of Lexington and Concord. My wife, son, and I actually saw the local militia marching to battle yesterday morning, along the same route they did more than 200 years ago.

Politics and revolution, therefore, are in the air, and the events both here and abroad keep capturing my attention. The Turkish referendum; the decision by the British to call a snap general election; the pending French election, where there’s a real chance that both candidates moving to the second round will be anti-euro; and the back and forth here in Washington, DC, have made politics the meta-narrative of the day.

The union of politics and economics

Which, for me, presents something of an issue. The brief of this blog is, primarily, to offer an impartial look at economics and markets. This is what I talk about most of the time, and this is where my expertise lies. We are at a point in history, however, where politics is economics, and vice versa. You simply can’t discuss one without getting into the other.

In the past, this didn’t present much of a problem. Sure, I received occasional pushback on various posts, but comments usually were even-handed, from both the right and the left. Always, I have tried to present fact-based discussions—not politics, but math—rather than take a partisan position. With that said, I have indeed gone after policy consequences, on a factual basis, and have not hesitated to call out what I considered bad decisions, on both sides. And that worked, for the most part.

Recently, however, politics and policy have become increasingly sensitive topics, and I’m seeing commentary driven more by emotions than by specific disagreements. I am not sure what this means, but I do have some thoughts. When people are emotionally invested in a set of ideas, criticism of those ideas becomes unacceptable to them and places those ideas beyond the level of unbiased analysis. What can we learn from this?

  1. Those ideas, if common, are likely to become more accepted until, or if, the facts against them become too overwhelming.
  2. Investing on the basis of those ideas will probably work very well, until it suddenly doesn’t.

This brings us back to 1999, or even 2007. In 1999, it was a new economy, and things were different this time. People who pointed out the holes in that argument, even those as august as Warren Buffett, were routinely derided. In 2007, of course, it was the housing market. In both cases, a rising level of conviction—conviction beyond argument—led to an investment thesis that worked until, disastrously, it didn’t.

Leaving no ideas unexamined

With the dependence of the global economy today on politics and policy, and the rising risks therefrom, it would be irresponsible of me to fail to consider politics and policy—of any stripe—in my economic analysis. In order to do my job, I have to be willing to evaluate ideas, on both sides, that seem to me to be wrong headed or damaging. Historically, the unexamined ideas have been the most damaging. I don’t think we can take that chance today, so I plan to keep analyzing—on a factual basis, as impartially as I can—politics and policy and pointing out both the risks and the benefits as I see them. I simply don’t see how I can do any differently. Politics, for better or worse, is the primary driver of economics and markets today.

That said, I would love thoughtful and analytical reader feedback on how well I am doing at my goal of being impartial. I think my discussions are balanced, but our own biases are notoriously hard to see. Please let me know, either by commenting below or through the Have a Question? form at the right. Help me do a better job for all of us.

Thank you!

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