Commentary

Trump’s Flip Flops

Yesterday, the first full trading day after Donald Trump posted a YouTube video outlining plans for his first 100 days, the Dow jumped to a new record, breaching 19,000 for the first time. Coincidence? Shrewd investor behavior? Insane market euphoria? Several commentators think this rally is nuts, and I never try to predict near-term market moves. But be the rally wise or foolish, it tells us something important about how investors are sizing up Trump. Bottom line, they see him systematically walking back his campaign promises and don’t believe he’ll deliver on them – much to their relief.

Let’s parse the carefully crafted language of his scripted video. Trying to sound tough on trade, he said he’d “issue a notification of intent to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership.” That’s a big yawn, considering that President Obama had already given up on TPP because he knew it could never get through Congress. Trump didn’t even mention Nafta, but other reports this week suggest he’ll renegotiate it rather than withdraw from it. This is a considerable pullback and promises even less than it appears to. In the past week I’ve spoken with former officials from Canada and Mexico, both of whom make the same point: Nafta is over 20 years old, and there are plenty of parts they’d be happy to renegotiate. What would come out of the negotiations? That’s a long way off.

On deregulation, another popular campaign promise, Trump said he’ll “formulate a rule saying that for every new regulation, two old regulations must be eliminated.” The key words are “formulate a rule,” which is easier said than done. For starters, what constitutes “a regulation,” and will any attempt be made to distinguish between piddling ones and gigantic ones? Remember that Dodd-Frank mandated adoption of the so-called Volcker rule, which could be stated in a sentence. But the rule as eventually formulated – it took over three years – is 71 pages long. Investors don’t foresee radical change to the regulatory regime but just figure some kind of deregulation is on the way, and they like that.

Trump saved his most dramatic walk-back for his most popular issue, immigration. He didn’t talk about illegal immigrants. He didn’t even mention deportations or a wall. He didn’t explain how he’d deliver on his campaign promise that “day one, my first hour in office, those people are gone,” referring to illegal immigrants who had been arrested for any reason. He just said he “will direct the Department of Labor to investigate all abuses of visa programs that undercut the American worker.” Read that sentence carefully. He isn’t ordering action of any kind on immigration, just an investigation with no set deadline. Remarkably, he doesn’t say that he necessarily has a problem with visa programs “that undercut the American worker.” He only wants to investigate “abuses” of such programs. He spoke sternly, but the substance of what he said is almost pure air.

For now Trump is speaking loudly and carrying a little stick. Investors heard his broad message: No trade war, a general tendency toward deregulation, and no immediate crackdown on immigration or illegal immigrants. They figure these severely watered down versions of his campaign stances are good for business, and they’re probably right. Whether they will satisfy his supporters, and whether they justify the Dow above 19,000, remains to be seen.

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