On June 23, the UK will vote on whether to remain in the EU. On November 8, the US will vote on whether to elect Donald Trump as president. These elections have much in common. Both could lead to outcomes that would have seemed inconceivable not long ago. Both pit angry populists against the political establishment. And in both cases, polling suggests that the outcome is in doubt, with prediction markets suggesting a probability of between one in four and one in three of the radical outcome occurring.
It is interesting to contrast the way that financial markets are reacting to these uncertainties. The markets are highly sensitive to Brexit news: the pound and the British stock market move with every new opinion poll. Analysis of option pricing suggests that if Britain votes to leave the EU, sterling could easily fall by more than 10 per cent and the British stock market by almost as much. It is widely believed that the uncertainties associated with Brexit are consequential enough to affect the policies of the US Federal Reserve and other major central banks.
It would in all likelihood be economically very costly for Britain to leave the EU and would raise questions about the future cohesion of the UK. It would also threaten London’s role as a financial centre and curtail British exports to Europe.
What I find surprising is that US and global markets and financial policymakers seem much less sensitive to “Trump risk” than they are to “Brexit risk”. Options markets suggest only modestly elevated volatility in the period leading up to the presidential election. While every Fed watcher comments on the implications of Brexit for the central bank, few, if any, comment on the possible consequences of a victory for Mr Trump in November.
Yet, as great as the risks of Brexit are to the British economy, I believe the risks to the US and global economies of Mr Trump’s election as president are far greater. If he is elected, I would expect a protracted recession to begin within 18 months. The damage would be felt far beyond the United States.
Mr Trump’s authoritarian style and cult of personality surely would take a toll on business confidence
First, there is a substantial risk of highly erratic policy. Mr Trump has raised the possibility of more than $10tn in tax cuts, which would threaten US fiscal stability. He has also raised the possibility of the US restructuring its debt in the manner of a failed real estate developer. Perhaps this is just campaign rhetoric. But historical research suggests that presidents tend to carry out their major campaign promises.
The shadow boxing over raising the debt limit in 2011 (where all participants recognised the danger of default) was central to the stock market falling by 17 per cent.
Second, in a world economy defined by global integration, Mr Trump’s economic nationalism is highly dangerous. Exports have been a major driver of the American economy in recent years. What would happen to exports if the US were to build a wall along its southern border and abrogate all its trade treaties? Withdrawal from trade agreements does not currently require congressional approval. If Mr Trump did even half of what he has promised, he would surely set off the worst trade war since the Great Depression.
Third, prosperity depends on a secure geopolitical environment. Requiring Japan and Korea to defend themselves and scaling back Nato is a prescription for emboldening China and Russia and promoting nuclear proliferation. A perception that the US is at war with Islam rather than with radical elements within Islam is an invitation to terrorism. In such an environment, investment and trade are unlikely to flourish.
Fourth, Mr Trump’s authoritarian style and cult of personality surely would take a toll on business confidence. He has proposed to bring back torture as a tool of US foreign policy and to change the law so he can sue and punish publications he does not like. The country was paralysed by Watergate and to a lesser extent the Iran-Contra scandal, both of which involved extralegal activity by the president’s staff and the abuse of power. Who will rest secure with President Trump controlling the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency?
Finally, there is the question of uncertainty and confidence. Improving business confidence is the cheapest form of stimulus. Creating an environment where every tenet of the rule of law, internationalism and consistency in policy is up for grabs would be the best way to damage a still fragile US economy. In no election in my lifetime has a major party candidate for president been so dangerous for the economy.
Markets are discounting the possibility of a Trump presidency. Let us all pray they are right.
The writer is Charles W Eliot university professor at Harvard and a former US Treasury secretary