How the Trump vs Biden debate played on Wall Street

I'm sorry if this upsets you, I'm just telling you how it is.

The below exchange is the one where a million people turned the TV off and threw their remote at the couch in disgust / incredulity: “I really don’t know what he said at the end of that sentence and I don’t think he knows what he said either.”

Surely this was a terrible night for our country, no? Not necessarily, depending on where you sit.

I explained this to my friends over the weekend because their assumption was that the Trump vs Biden debate was a disaster for America (maybe it was) and that this uneasy feeling might show up in the stock market. I told them they had it backwards. The typical Wall Streeter’s reaction to Thursday night was "Okay, perfect." If you're the average (sorry, they're all above average) investment banker, trader, portfolio manager, managing director or executive on The Street, this event gave you all the cover you could possibly ask for.

What I’m about to say is a gross generalization of how tens of thousands of people feel. I believe it is directionally right, but, of course, it doesn’t accurately portray the feelings of every single individual. Try to understand that I am trying to capture the general feeling, not dwell on every exception. If you work on Wall Street and this doesn’t represent you, that’s great - no worries. But I highly doubt you’d be able to honestly say that this doesn’t represent the majority of your co-workers.

Trump's victory means a higher likelihood that the 2017 tax cuts from his first term will be extended rather than sunset. This is priority one for people who are involved in the stock and bond markets professionally or who cater to wealthy families. "How can they be so cynical and selfish?" You would be too. People mostly vote their own self-interest, yourself included. Teachers vote for what's best for teachers, oil and gas workers vote for what's best for oil and gas workers, let's keep it a buck.

Here’s CNN:

Wealthy donors forked over a record $50.5 million at a recent fundraising dinner for former President Donald Trump, but they could also reap big benefits if he returns to the White House.

At the dinner, hosted by billionaire investor John Paulson, Trump told the crowd that one of his core issues for a second term would be extending the sweeping tax cuts that congressional Republicans approved in 2017. While the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act reduced taxes for most Americans, the rich benefited far more than others.

I guarantee you Trump didn’t use that dinner to talk about abortion or share his thoughts about Pride Month. If there’s one thing he’s really good at it’s knowing his audience. The people in that room don’t have to agree with him on 90% of the issues. They don’t vote (or donate) with their hearts anyway.

The Cover

President Biden's collapse on the debate stage makes it more acceptable for the typical Wall Streeter to pull the lever for Trump - "At least he knows what day of the week it is" - and say so amid the circles they inhabit. They can discuss this over brunch at Sant Ambroeus in Southampton in a way that they couldn’t in 2020.

Now they can say "Man, I wish the Dems would put someone else up, but hey, what are ya gonna do?" and shrug their shoulders. They don't have to get into detailed defenses of Trump's calls for mass deportations or his Supreme Court justices having overturned Roe v Wade with their non-Wall Street New Yorker friends. They can skip all that because no one's talking about it this week. This week it’s all “Can you believe how out of it he was? Can’t they switch him out?”

There are single-issue voters all over the country and from all walks of life. For some people it's guns and for others its women's reproductive rights, for some its LGBTQ and for others it’s bringing back school prayer. It's not that they don't care about anything else at all - it's that this is the thing that most animates them and drives their activity on Facebook and behind the curtain in November. Wall Street people care about the environment, border security, school choice, funding Medicare, etc. But keeping the tax cuts, purging the anti-trust regime at FTC and a continued regulatory rollback (see SEC vs Jarkesy last week, oh boy) is the main thing.

Trump won't win New York City (or Greenwich, Connecticut or Scarsdale, New York or Summit, New Jersey - the towns where Wall Street actually lives). But his economic agenda for the next four years is in perfect sync with what the industry wants. And Biden's isn't. It’s that simple.

What’s At Stake

The Trump tax cuts of 2017 will expire at the end of 2025 if Congress and the White House don’t act. In a second Joe Biden term, they will not be extended.

More than 60% of the benefits were expected to go to those whose incomes are in the top 20%, according to a 2018 analysis by the Tax Policy Center, a nonpartisan research group. More than 40% of the benefits were expected to go to those in the top 5%.

Those making between $500,000 and $1 million were expected to get an average tax cut of about $21,000, lifting their after-tax incomes by 4.3%, according to the center’s estimates. Those who earn $1 million or more would enjoy an average tax cut of about $70,000, raising their after-tax incomes by 3.3%.

The tax cuts don’t exactly hurt people with lower incomes, it’s just that they pay so little in taxes to begin with that it simply doesn’t affect them much. It affects the budget deficit, but we’re not going there right now…

Here’s what’s at stake for Wall Street and its bread-and-butter clientele (chart via Center for American Progress) - this is an estimate for the growth of after-tax income for 2026 by income bracket should the cuts be extended next year:

That’s real money on the line. Multiply it by four years (or more). That’s how Wall Street can live with Donald Trump as president, even though they would never lend him money or do business with his companies or be seen on stage at his rallies. They can make donations to Super PACS supporting the Trump campaign and agenda rather than give directly to him and his own campaign - this layer becomes psychologically important if and when they are ever questioned about it. “I like some of the policies, not the person!” 

Biden, on the other hand, has been proposing things that are completely antithetical to the aims of the capital markets crowd. Here’s William G. Gale writing at the Brookings Institution:

Biden’s proposed alternatives include several programs to lower taxes for those making under $400,000 a year while also raising taxes on corporations and wealthier Americans. Efforts to target corporations include raising the corporate tax rate to 28%, increasing enforcement of tax avoidance by multinationals, and quadrupling the stock buyback tax.

His plan would also affect the highest-earning Americans, including a 25% minimum income tax on billionaires. All together, Biden’s policies would raise about $5 trillion in revenue by 2034.

These things sound terrible to The Street - not just in dollar terms but the ideals themselves - “They’re punishing success!”

Wall Streeters will enthusiastically remind you that their votes don’t count anyway. “Who am I voting for? What’s the difference, I live in New York State, my vote doesn’t matter.” This is a standard non-answer and it’s evergreen. New York hasn’t voted for a Republican presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan in 1984. No one who works in the Financial District or in the hedge fund havens of Park Avenue North ever has to make a meaningful choice on election day.

Okay, You’re Outraged…

"Wait - they’d prioritize making tax cuts permanent when democracy itself is at stake? How do they live with themselves? Trump separated families at the border! He wants to take away everyone's health insurance! He’ll put Donny Deutsche and Don Lemon in jail! He’ll drill for oil in the Grand Canyon!"

You're not going to like this part but it's the true inner monologue that sometimes gets blurted out loud. The Wall Streeter's answer is "Philanthropy. My wife does all these charity things for the women's shelters and the disadvantaged children and, like, the planet. I am constantly writing checks and getting my tux pressed. I do my part."

The debate went perfectly for the people with this mindset. A repeat in the September debate would be even better. They’re not uneasy about Biden’s uneasiness. They love it.

“I don’t really like all the things this Trump guy says and does, but what choice do we have? Anyway, how’s the family, are you guys going back to Italy this summer?”