NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
On election night, as you watch the talking heads pontificate and the politicos sweat, there's something you can do, and it may even help the economy and stock market -- pray for gridlock.
Of course, partisan Republicans and Democrats would tell you otherwise, that their agenda is best for the economy, that if and when they take over Congress -- a real possibility for both parties -- things will be better.
Depending on your point of view, that could be a scary thought.
Life under the Republicans
Many Wall Street analysts think Republican control of Congress would be best.
For one thing, they think an anti-business bias that has prevailed in the Senate this year as a result of the corporate accounting scandals at Enron, WorldCom and more would be toned down.
"You can't get a strong economy if everybody's against business," said Mark Vitner, chief economist at Wachovia Securities. "It's awfully hard to create jobs if everybody's anti-business."
With Republicans setting the Senate's agenda, President Bush's corporate-friendly nominees for regulatory agencies would move more quickly toward approval, and several pro-business bills would get moving through the Senate, including:
- an energy bill that would be a boon to various energy stocks;
- a terrorism insurance bill, benefiting insurance and construction companies; and
- a liability lawsuit tort reform bill, benefiting the stocks of companies with exposure to asbestos, malpractice and other suits.
Many economists were most excited, however, by the prospect of easier tax laws under a Republican Congress. For one thing, President Bush would have a better chance of making last year's $1.35 trillion tax cut permanent.
"If Republicans were to regain control of the Senate, the probabilities of some major tax cuts would go up quite dramatically," said Northern Trust economist Paul Kasriel. "If those tax cuts were implemented, this would have a positive impact on both the economy and the stock market."
The dark side of Republican rule
Though Wall Street might salivate at the prospect of a Republican Congress, the rest of the country isn't so sure; in a CNN/Time magazine poll released recently, 44 percent of the more than 1,000 Americans surveyed thought Democrats were better at handling the economy, compared with just 39 percent who thought the Republicans were better.
"Wall Street tends to be predominantly Republican," said Les Alperstein, political analyst and president of Washington Analysis, an independent research firm formerly associated with HSBC. "But Wall Street is not middle America."
Some analysts believe a Republican Congress could worry individual investors, who might want a Congress that will be more aggressive about keeping business leaders from running off with their 401(k) money. Meanwhile, Bush's team of Republican economic advisers has been roundly ridiculed in the press for its apparent ineptitude.
"Right now ... there's the perception out there that somehow the Republicans are taking care of our security a lot more than they are our economy," said Anthony Chan, chief economist at Banc One Investment Advisors. "If we get full Republican control ... we may see it have a negative impact on confidence."
And fears of a return to the deficit spending that has characterized recent Republican presidential administrations could lead to a rise in interest rates, as fixed-income investors seek a greater return to match their expectations for higher inflation. Higher interest rates could put a damper on economic growth.
Life under the Democrats
If Democrats manage to use such fears and recent economic woes to take control of Congress, they would be able to make some economic noise of their own.
Though a Wall Street swoon would almost certainly follow a Democratic sweep, some analysts say Wall Street has overreacted like that before -- when President Clinton was elected.
"Conventional wisdom is not always on the mark," said Alperstein of Washington Analysis. "Markets just went up, up and up because of policies Wall Street didn't like -- they didn't like when the Democrats raised taxes, but they loved when the deficit came down."
And shell-shocked investors might feel more confident that Democrats would keep a tighter leash on businesses.
While squelching efforts to make last year's tax cut permanent, Democrats might also push for temporary cuts in taxes on Social Security or payrolls, and they could extend unemployment benefits and other short-term economic relief.
"I think was Harry Truman who said, 'If you want to live like a Republican, vote Democratic,'" said Thomas Mann, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "The idea that somehow a Democratic majority is harmful for the economy strikes me as fanciful. It's financial fiction."
The dark side of Democratic rule
That may be, but Democrats could still give Wall Street much to groan about.
They could push for a patient's bill of rights, price controls on drugs and other measures that could scare drug and health-care companies to death.
Meanwhile, business-friendly Republican pet projects like energy, terrorism insurance and tort reform would go to the back burner, as would the president's plan to let consumers invest their Social Security money in stocks.
And Democrats could push aggressively for pension reform, which some economists think would be doom for earnings.
"If we had an anti-business Congress that went after pension reform aggressively, it could have a devastating impact on Wall Street," said Vitner of Wachovia Securities.
The sure thing: gridlock
But it's unlikely that either party will be able to get too carried away even if it controls both houses, because their majority will be razor-thin.
"If Tom Daschle [D-S.D.] is Senate majority leader by one vote, or Trent Lott [R-Miss.] is leader by one vote, neither can do diddly-squat," Alperstein said.
And that seems to be the only sure result of this election -- more gridlock, especially if the parties split control of the Senate and House.
Many economists think gridlock is a bad thing during the current slowdown because they'd like to see tax cuts and other stimulative measures pushed through Congress.
But gridlock hasn't always been bad; the divided government of the late '90s, one of the stock market's best periods, meant Democrats couldn't pass new spending programs and Republicans couldn't pass new tax cuts.
"I don't think the economy is more likely to be better under the Republicans or the Democrats; a case can be made for each," said John Davidson, President and CEO of PartnerRe Asset Management Corp. "The importance to the economy is really more with the Federal Reserve [interest-rate] decision that takes place on Nov. 6."