Personal Wealth Management / Politics

The Investing Parallel in Thai and Turkish Elections

Hopeful possibilities aren’t a solid foundation.

Editors’ Note: MarketMinder is politically agnostic. We prefer no party nor any politician and assess developments for their potential economic and market impact only.

Between Turkey and Thailand, Emerging Markets (EM) investors have bought a lot of hope in recent days. Turkish stocks soared 11.2% last week—including an 8.4% jump Thursday—as investors grew optimistic voters would oust its longtime leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in Sunday’s election.[i] Meanwhile, in Thailand, pro-democracy parties won a combined majority in the lower house Sunday, raising hopes that the military junta will soon cede power. But now in both places, reality is setting in. In Turkey, local stocks fell -7.9% Monday after Erdogan beat expectations, teeing up a May 28 runoff in which he seems to have an edge.[ii] Thai stocks fell, too—though by not nearly as much—despite headlines’ cheer over the outcome. We see lessons here for investors, regardless of whether you dabble in EM stocks: Hopes and possibilities are a flimsy basis for an investing thesis.

Given Erdogan has won past elections amid seemingly insurmountable odds—including currency crises, rapid inflation and severe unrest—it might appear odd that markets seemingly spent last week pricing his defeat. Polls might have pointed to a close contest, but observers have long seen the telltale signs of ballot-stuffing and other shenanigans in Turkish elections. Yet optimists have argued that a fractured opposition was the main roadblock to beating Erdogan, so when several opposition parties coalesced around a single challenger—Kemal Kilicdaroglu—and polls gave him a slight lead, investors got excited. Enthusiasm reached fever pitch Thursday when another challenger, Muharrem Ince, withdrew at the last minute, further consolidating the opposition vote. As investors added Ince’s polling percentages to Kilicdaroglu’s, markets seemingly priced in Erdogan’s defeat. To paraphrase Benjamin Graham, in the short term, markets are like voting machines—a comparison with even more meaning than normal here—and they can sway on popularity and hype.

But then came the reality check. Early returns from Sunday show Erdogan with 49.5% of the vote, ahead of Kilicdaroglu’s 44.9%. Presuming neither candidate ekes out 50% in the final results, they head to a runoff Memorial Day weekend. Most presume Erdogan will have the edge. Voter fatigue is one reason. Fiscal policy is another, as Erdogan’s government has used widespread handouts including public sector wage hikes and free gasoline to boost his appeal. For many, this will likely be more attractive than Kilicdaroglu’s economic policy, which hinges on raising interest rates and restoring normal monetary policy.[iii] Then there is the fact that the eliminated, third challenger, Sinan Ogan, will likely play kingmaker as the 5.3% of voters who backed him are now up for grabs. He hasn’t endorsed either remaining candidate yet, but he ran a hard-right campaign, setting expectations that his supporters will gravitate to the conservative Erdogan. Accordingly, Turkish stocks reversed much of last week’s returns Monday, coming to grips with the reality of Erdogan entering his third decade in power.

In our view, this should be a bit of a cautionary tale for those cheering Thailand’s potential change in government now. Yes, pro-democracy parties won over half of the House of Representatives’ seats in Sunday’s election, while military-aligned parties suffered heavy losses. Unofficial results give the grassroots Move Forward party 149 seats, while Pheu Thai—a pro-democracy movement aligned with exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra—won 138. Theoretically, their combined 287 seats in the lower house gives them a comfortable majority to pass legislation, and the two have already agreed to form a coalition. So at first blush, it is easy to see why Thai stocks jumped in pre-market trading Monday as investors cheered the prospect of the military junta stepping aside for the first time since 2014.

But they reversed course and finished the day down -0.8% in USD, as a more complicated reality seemingly began setting in.[iv] For one, 2014’s crisis centered around the ouster of Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck, who military-aligned opponents argued was a figurehead for her brother. The military’s “yellow shirt” supporters faced off against Thaksin’s “red shirts,” and a months-long standoff resulted in a military coup that ousted Yingluck and installed Prayuth Chan-ocha as prime minister. Now Thaksin’s daughter, Paetongtarn Shinawatra, is Pheu Thai’s leader, etching familiar dividing lines.

Paetongtarn took herself out of the running, agreeing to support Move Forward leader Pita Limjaroenrat as prime minister. By Limjaroenrat’s count, their potential coalition has 306 seats including small-party support. But it may not be enough. In Thailand, forming a government requires winning a majority in a bicameral legislative session—House plus Senate. All 250 Senators are unelected military appointees, giving the military the dominant hand and thus complicating the return to civilian government. The civilian coalition is still far shy of the 376 votes needed for a majority, and it isn’t clear that they can form the alliances necessary to overcome potential military opposition.

So we see a high likelihood that investors’ current enthusiasm proves short lived. Soon the initial cheer will probably give way to uncertainty and a clearer view of how complicated it will be to end military rule. At the very least, political uncertainty will probably be elevated until July’s end, when the legislature is set to choose the prime minister. If there is no clear majority at that time, uncertainty could linger—especially when you factor in Thailand’s long history of political discontent and the prospect, which some analysts have mooted, of the military and courts working together to stymie civilian rule. This could delay passage of the 2024 budget and a meaningful return on investment.

In the very short term, markets can move on all sorts of things, including possibilities and irrational hopes. But over more meaningful stretches, they move on probabilities. When you see quick moves up like Turkey’s last Thursday or Thailand’s early Monday morning, it can be all too easy to extrapolate those forward and pencil in good times ahead. But when a rally’s chief fuel is hope, not a reasonable probability of fundamental improvement, it can fade as quickly as it arrives. And not just when EM politics are involved. We showed earlier this month how quickly Energy stocks faded after pricing in hopes that lower OPEC production quotas would turbocharge oil prices.

This sort of thing happens over and over and over. Not only does the great big hope get priced lightning-fast, but it rarely plays out as the proponents say. So if you ever find yourself enticed by a big move and a nice story, remember: Markets are efficient, and you can’t buy past returns.

[i] Source: FactSet, as of 5/15/2023. MSCI Turkey Index returns with net dividends, 5/5/2023 – 5/12/2023 and 5/10/2023 – 5/11/2023.

[ii] Ibid. MSCI Turkey Index return with net dividends, 5/12/2023 – 5/15/2023.

[iii] Turkish inflation tops 40% y/y, and high inflation is a long-running problem. But Erdogan holds the rather unorthodox view that high interest rates cause, rather than fight, fast inflation—and has fired several finance ministers and central bank heads who advocated for higher rates.

[iv] Source: FactSet, as of 5/15/2023. MSCI Thailand return with net dividends, 5/12/2023 – 5/15/2023.

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*The content contained in this article represents only the opinions and viewpoints of the Fisher Investments editorial staff.

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