What is the key risk for the market ahead of the US election tomorrow?

What are the odds of the election result getting delayed?

Trump Biden

It is finally election week. It has been a long wait but this may not be all over in a jiffy when tomorrow comes. As much as the pollsters are pinning Biden for a win tomorrow, nothing is for certain and Trump may still be triumphant as he was back in 2016.

In my view, the key risk for the market is that we see a tightly contested election where there is no clear winner just yet. That could see neither side submit defeat and there might be a bit of a limbo that could take days – or even weeks – to settle.
It may very well be unlikely, but this is a scenario well worth considering.
In that lieu, let’s keep the focus on the six key swing states that both sides will be contesting tomorrow and branch out from there; that being Florida, Arizona, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Michigan and Wisconsin.

What’s all the fuss about with these states?

Generally, they provide a bellwether for how election night usually plays out when the results are tallied. In terms of electoral college votes, the break is as such: Florida – 29, Arizona – 11, Pennsylvania – 20, North Carolina – 15, Michigan – 16, Wisconsin – 10.

They account for 101 of the 270 electoral college votes needed to win the White House.

For some historical context, the presidential candidate for Florida has gone on to claim the “throne” in 13 out of the last 14 elections.

How is the polling like ahead of tomorrow?

Almost all polls have Biden in the lead, though the margin has decreased over the past few weeks in the lead up to tomorrow. The latest NYT/Siena poll (conducted on 23/10 to 31/10) for the six states above shows that:
  • Florida: Biden +3 (47-44)
  • Arizona: Biden +6 (49-43)
  • Pennsylvania: Biden +6 (49-43)
  • Wisconsin: Biden +11 (52-41)
  • North Carolina: Biden +3 (48-45)
  • Michigan: Biden +8 (49-41)
These are six states that Trump won back in 2016 with Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan being ones he pipped by a <1 margin. That said, the gap has arguably narrowed compared to the same poll when conducted at the start-to-middle of October:
  • Florida: Biden +5 (47-42)
  • Arizona: Biden +8 (49-41)
  • Pennsylvania: Biden +7 (49-42)
  • Wisconsin: Biden +10 (51-41)
  • North Carolina: Biden +4 (46-42)
  • Michigan: Biden+8 (48-40)
The tighter polling in Florida especially could be an indication of a late swing or at least a more even contest, so that is something to be mindful about when looking at tomorrow.

When will we know the results?

There are two things to consider when viewing the results tomorrow, the first being that some states have prepared for tabulating mail-in ballots in advance (so they will be able to count faster) while some states don’t adopt that kind of system.
The second being that some states also allow for mail-in ballots to arrive after election day so that may temper with the timing in which we will know the true winner.
That said, I’d argue the second point is less of a factor if Biden has a sizable lead considering that Trump supporters have been rather vocal about voting in-person instead.
Anyway, back to the six states above, Florida, Arizona and North Carolina are the three that have a system in place to get a head start in counting the mail-in ballots.
Hence, we could likely get a quicker projected winner into the night from them rather than Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan.
That said, in the event of a highly contested race, mail-in ballots could matter and in the case of North Carolina, that may take up to 12 November.
Should we see such a situation, there might even come a point where the court will be involved to assess the validity of mail-in ballots and that may take several weeks to play out; that is if the race is too close to call and it hangs in the balance of these states.
Technically, all states have until 14 December to finalise the count and make it official.
I would argue that the odds are slim for all this to happen but you never really know. If pollsters are just as wrong as they were in 2016, we could see a really tight race tomorrow and these scenarios will start to play into market expectations.