The Second Worst Trade of 2012: Wall Street's Terrible Election Bet

The financial sector made a collective bet on Mitt Romney. It didn't pan out.

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Sorry, derivatives traders at JP Morgan Chase. Your bank's notorious London Whale will likely retain the dubious honor of being Wall Street's worst trade of 2012. But the financial sector's collective bet on Mitt Romney is going to be up there on the list too.

Folks in the financial industry were decisive in placing their chips on the Republican challenger during this year's presidential race. And, just to be clear, they lost. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign contributions, individuals affiliated with the banking and finance industries overwhelmingly channeled money towards the Romney campaign. Here's a look at sources of individual contributions.

Contributors-Table

From the hedge fund and private equity industries, more than 82% of the donations went to Romney, $5.7 million. From commercial banks, roughly $4.2 million, or 75% of donations, went to the Republican candidate. By comparison, in 2008 hedge funds and private equity sent nearly 60% of their donations to Obama. And just shy of 58% of donations from individuals tied to commercial banks went to the then-Democratic candidate in 2008.

As an aside, it's tough to tell exactly how much companies themselves put into the election. The numbers collected by the Center for Responsive Politics only capture a subset of donations. And many political groups now operate with undisclosed contributions. But the real totals are likely to have been at least as skewed in favor of Romney as those that are public, if not more so.

Why the change of heart? Obviously, the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory overhaul has a lot to do with it. But what's interesting is that a lot of the chatter emanating from these rational, cool-headed masters of mitigating risk has been surprisingly emotional and personal. Anyone supremely confident in the bankers' ability to manage risk through hedging should take a good long look at at their almost unhedged bet on Romney.

And by the look of the stock market, investors are doing just that. The S&P financial sector is taking it on the chin, and was down nearly 3% in New York trading early today. The only sector losing bigger today is energy, another industry that laid down a large bet on Romney. And of course the fiscal cliff which Obama will now have to negotiate with Congress is looming that much closer. Even if, as my colleague Simone Foxman argues, European gloom is also partly to blame for the sell-off, it's a nasty post-campaign hangover.

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Matt Phillips is a reporter at Quartz, where he writes about finance, markets, and economics.

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