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We live in a time of political polarization. Yes, I understand that that is hardly a revelation. It is all too obvious, and all too often stated.
But what is not often talked about is how that polarization can affect our trading and investing decisions. If we allow our political views to color our decisions, whatever those views are, it can result in at the very least some missed opportunities, and often complete disaster.
That potential disaster shows no political bias itself.
There are those on the right that convinced themselves that Barack Obama was an enemy of capitalism and of America and that the recovery from the recession would therefore be mismanaged, or even actively sabotaged.
When he was elected for a second term, stocks fell, and gold soared as those investors followed Glenn Beck and others who convinced them that Armageddon was near. Stocks continued to climb, gaining over 150% from that point in one of the longest, strongest bull runs in history, while that period also marked the top of gold.
Then there are those on the left who convinced themselves that the election of Donald Trump was a disaster for the economy and missed out as the recovery rally entered its strongest period.
In many ways that was even more ridiculous, as whatever you might have thought about him as a politician or human being, he had espoused policies of tax cuts and deregulation that would obviously benefit stocks.
The problem is that simply saying that you will ignore the politics of investing decisions is usually not enough.
Most of the commentary we read, watch and hear comes with a healthy dose of political bias, even if we don’t perceive it that way. If you doubt me, try watching the same story on, for example, Fox Business News, CNBC and Bloomberg. All three are “business” channels and the facts around the story are the same. However, which of those facts are emphasized, sometimes even which are reported, and certainly how they are interpreted, can differ enormously.
In media terms, that is known as “framing” a story. It is a subtle form of bias and is not usually perceived that way by viewers, readers and listeners. I am sure that most people who watch Fox News or MSNBC would say that their choice of political bias is simply somebody “telling it like it is” or something similar, while to the other side, the bias in each is jarringly obvious.
In financial news, framing a story is often even harder to detect. The issues and the stories around them are complex, and we all depend to varying degrees on the analysis of an “expert”.
Those experts, though, are human, and as such have views. Even if they try to be objective, their politics is borne of a certain way of viewing the world, and everything is filtered through that view.
So, what is the poor hapless investor to do? Well, the most obvious way of dealing with the bias that exists is to vary your viewing, listening and reading habits when it comes to financial news and opinion. Often, simply understanding that there is another way of looking at things helps to prompt a degree of self-awareness that will help you to avoid the biggest mistakes.
And sometimes it is important to see that whatever the politics of a situation, only one economic outcome is possible. For example, look at the government shutdown; even if you support the long-term goals of either Trump or Pelosi, it still involves taking a large number of people out of the economy, and there are inevitably knock-on effects too. It will not derail things completely, but it will have a negative effect.
Objective investing isn’t easy. Most of the information and analysis that we choose to consume will confirm our own existing bias as we are drawn to things with which we agree. Logically though, it makes much more sense to listen to the other side of the argument before making any decisions involving money, so as hard as it may be to listen to an opinion with the opposite bias to your own, it is a worthwhile exercise.