Obama bad for stocks? Not so simple

The stock market is supposed to be a bet on the future.

The market's verdict so far this year: There is no future.

The continuing meltdown in share prices, the worst since the Great Depression, now has become Exhibit A in the political battle between the Obama administration and its harshest critics.

Conservative pundits including Rush Limbaugh and CNBC-TV's Larry Kudlow assert that the president is waging war against capitalism itself, with his tax-hike proposals, social programs and banker-bashing rhetoric. That has sent disillusioned investors fleeing, they contend.

Well, something has. After diving 38% last year, share prices are down 24% just since Jan. 1, as measured by the Standard & Poor's index of 500 big-name issues.

Despite a slight uptick on Friday, stocks plummeted 7% this week alone.

The decline from the market's peak in October 2007 now is 56.3% -- the steepest drop since the plunge of 1938 to 1942, when no less than the future of democracy was at stake.

"I think everybody is afraid of Obama," said Todd Leone, a veteran stock trader at Cowen & Co. in New York. "They're afraid he's a socialist."

Yes, the S-word.

Others say the market is more upset with the administration's failure to stabilize the ravaged banking system -- a Herculean task that Wall Street had hoped would be the first major challenge the White House tackled.

"Every time Obama talks about something like healthcare, the market's reaction is -- 'No, the banking crisis!' " said Jeffrey Schappe, investment chief at BB&T; Asset Management in Raleigh, N.C.

Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner still hasn't provided specifics on his plan to get rotting loans off the balance sheets of major banks, a step seen as crucial to jump-starting new lending.

For his part, the president this week advised investors to look beyond what he called "day-to-day gyrations" in share prices.

He then ventured into territory where few other presidents have gone. Perhaps taking a cue from fellow Democrat Warren E. Buffett, Obama offered an opinion on whether stocks were bargains.

"What you're now seeing is profit and earning ratios are starting to get to the point where buying stocks is a potentially good deal, if you've got a long-term perspective on it," he said Tuesday.

He didn't get the lingo right, assuming he meant to say "price-to-earnings ratios," a measure of stock prices relative to earnings per share. That flub caused snickering among market pros.

Still, the question of why stocks have fallen so hard this year is not so easily answered with Obama's name alone, despite what Limbaugh and Kudlow would have us believe.

There is, of course, the horrendous recession Obama inherited. Consumer and business spending fell off a cliff beginning in September as the global credit crisis deepened, and there have been scant signs that the economy has even begun to bottom.

On Friday, the government reported that the economy shed 651,000 jobs last month, bringing the total lost to 4.4 million since the recession began in December 2007.

Though investors are supposed to look ahead, "it's asking a lot for the stock market to hold up in the face of unrelentingly ugly numbers on the economy," said Ethan Harris, an economist at Barclays Capital in New York.

Obama's critics also conveniently forget to mention that the U.S. stock market meltdown this year isn't happening in isolation. Major European stock markets also are down more than 20% since Jan. 1. In Japan, the Nikkei index hit a 26 1/2 -year low this week.

What's more, Obama isn't responsible for the cascade of securities-fraud cases that have come to light since December, when the Securities and Exchange Commission charged Wall Street veteran Bernie Madoff with running a $50-billion Ponzi scheme.

For well-heeled investors, the scam revelations have been another heavy blow to confidence -- and a good reason to pull some of their money from ever-secretive hedge funds, if they've had any doubt at all about their manager's veracity.

Some of the evidence used to pin investors' angst on Obama has been ridiculous.

One comparison making the rounds is how stocks have fared since Obama's inauguration compared with the change in share prices immediately after Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated for his first term in 1933.

Since Obama took office, the S&P; 500 is down 20%. By contrast, the index jumped 34% in the first seven weeks after FDR was sworn in.

But it isn't a fair comparison. By the time Roosevelt came to power, the Great Depression and the accompanying stock market collapse were three years along.

This time around, the market is still in the process of discounting "a long, severe recession," BB&T;'s Schappe said. "Everyone I talk to, whether people of means or not, is hunkering down," he said.

The harsh reality is that American consumers are facing a long period of working down the debt mountain built up over the last 25 years.

"There is no magic potion to make this go away, but that's what people want," said Dan McMahon, head of stock trading at brokerage Raymond James in New York.

Wall Street knows as much, in its honest moments. Almost no matter what Obama would say or do, the incentive for jumping into stocks isn't there for many investors, even with prices at 12-year lows. Hiding in bonds and cash is a lot safer.

What about the alleged war on capitalism?

Schappe said he has winced at some of Obama's rhetoric against the financial industry.

Politically, he said, "I understand the need to throw some red meat to the populace," given the rage against bankers who now must be saved with taxpayers' dollars after fueling the mortgage debacle.

"But it has felt like a full-scale assault on capitalism," Schappe said.

Mark Foster, chief investment officer at money manager Kirr, Marbach & Co. in Columbus, Ind., said many of his clients have been disillusioned by Obama's proposal to raise tax rates on the highest-income earners and limit their deductions. After the election, Foster said, "there was a feeling that those tax increases would be put off."

Most Americans would probably tell the well-off to stop whining and just pay up. Even so, it's understandable if the prospect of higher tax rates makes wealthy people less interested in risking money in the stock market.

Whatever confluence of factors is driving the market's slump this year, the growing danger for Obama is that the slide, if not arrested soon, could deepen the recession and make it harder for policy moves to pull us out of it.

Already, $2.6 trillion in U.S. stock value has been wiped out this year alone. That is more than three times the sum of the administration's $787-billion economic stimulus plan.

With home prices also continuing to sink, the threat to the economy from the "reverse wealth effect" -- you feel poorer, so you spend less -- is mounting.

That argues for more confidence-building talk, and action, from Obama, and less blasting away at the bankers whom the country already thoroughly reviles.

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tom.petruno@latimes.com

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