President Trump Keeps Taking Credit for the Stock Market. Here’s What’s Really Driving It
President Donald Trump likes to brag about how the stock market is doing.
After reports about problems at the White House in late July, Trump tweeted that things were going great, citing the “Highest Stock Market EVER” and the “best economic numbers in years.”
Trump has a point about Wall Street—the Dow Jones rose to a record-breaking 22,000 last week, the latest in a series of records the market has seen this year. But economists say there’s more to the state of the stock market than just who is president.
Some say Trump’s own presidency has been a good test case of exactly how much—or how little—the president’s actions matter.
“There are certain trends that are built in, and it may be that economists underestimated the strength of these trends,” said Mark Gertler, a professor of Economics at New York University. “There probably was a little overreaction to the uncertainty that would be created by the election.”
Here are five factors behind the recent stock market highs.
U.S. economy continues to be strong
For Gertler, the “lion’s share” of positive stock market outcomes are the result of ongoing economic trends rooted in recovery from the recession. As the unemployment rate hits a sixteen-year low of 4.3% and overseas markets continue to strengthen, the stock market has been granted some immunity to the slow rate of fiscal change coming out of Washington.
Steve Chiavarone, a portfolio manager at Federated Investors, points to especially robust earnings in the last six months—the highest earnings per share growth the nation has seen since 2011—as evidence. “The market can afford to be patient when earnings are growing at that level,” he said. “And all of those earnings have come really without the help of fiscal policy at all.”
Although Trump has yet to deliver on economic promises like tax cuts, the market is in a strong position. “Anything that Trump could do would be icing on the cake, but right now the cake already tastes pretty good,” said Sam Stovall, Chief Investment Strategist at the research firm CFRA.
Republicans control Congress and the White House
Some economists say the fact that one party controls the White House and both branches of Congress has also helped boost the stock market, since many investors believe it will lead to less gridlock.
“The market woke up on the day after election day pleasantly excited about an all-Republican government,” said Chiavarone. The election seemed to signal the arrival of a “unified government that could make progress after years and years of stalemate.”
Perceived political unity, or its lack, can have a deceptive impact on the market. Marina Azzimonti is an economics professor at Stony Brook University who helped design a “Partisan Conflict Index” measuring the impacts of political disunity on the economy. Typically, a higher level of political discord correlates with a chill on investing.
Right now, the strength of the stock market in the face of growing political division in the country contradicts that paradigm. And while the failure of the effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act has led to some concerns about the effectiveness of Congress right now, the market has not yet reacted in a strong way.
The GOP has promised things Wall Street likes
Market-positive hallmarks of the Trump agenda, like infrastructure investment, deregulation, and tax cuts, could be strengthening the market—even if they aren’t actually enacted for some time.
Investors are bolstered by the fact that measures like tax cuts are on the table. “There’s a belief that something will get done on that agenda,” says Chiavarone.
For now, that belief is enough—but that could change if reform takes too long. Stovall says the last six months have been a process of “reducing expectations” as the market-positive legislation that boosted the economy in the spring has not come to pass.
Policies Wall Street doesn’t like haven’t come to pass
Wall Street has some concerns about elements of President Trump’s agenda, such as proposals for reducing legal immigration and raising tariffs, which Azzimonti says economists “tend to agree are not good things.”
But the market has been slow to respond, in part because investors recognize that even brashly promised reforms face an uphill battle in Congress.
“Investors’ job is not only to react … but also to understand the difference between news and noise,” said Chiavarone. For example, a critical tweet directed at a company might have inspired some panic early in Trump’s presidency. But now, investors recognize there may not be any policy teeth to those outbursts. Companies with strong fundamentals are unlikely to be financially perturbed by attacks from the President, as long as those attacks continue to be in word only.
And even sweeping policy proposals that could have significant economic impact, like proposals to dramatically reduce legal immigration, have little sway as long as investors know that legislation is unlikely to get through a skeptical Congress any time soon.“From a market perspective, it’s kind of a non-starter,” said Chiavarone. “It just doesn’t matter because it’s not likely to happen.”
Markets tend to go up after elections
Other economists point out that the market tends to react positively after an election.
“What people forget is that it’s not necessarily about this individual and his actions per se, it’s about the cycle of the elections and the midterms,” said Jeff Hirsch, who edits the Stock Trader’s Almanac. That group has consistently found that a bump to the market in an election year is common.
That also means that we could see some upset after midterms next year. “Any impact on the market from the presidential cycle will come to terms with the 2018 midterm elections,” said Hirsch.
Until then, Stovall says the higher-than-average number of market records this year are a good indicator that the year will finish strong. But a number of uncertainties loom for the market. With earnings over for the quarter, Chiavarone warns that continued holdups to tax changes, a battle over border wall funding, or intensification of the probe into Russian interference with the election could have a temporary dampening effect. Depending on who replaces Janet Yellen at the Federal Reserve, investors could be looking at a significantly different situation.
And it remains to be seen how impactful the President and his policies may be on this economy.
“The effects are going to be seen down the road,” said Azzimonti. “It’s a little bit too early to attribute any good or bad thing to this administration.”