The S&P 500 has chosen an interesting time to set a new record. In one of the most febrile and portentous political moments in at least a generation, stocks have gone 34 straight sessions without moving more than 1 percent either direction. As the fragility of American democracy has become a regular cable news talking point, the stock market has commenced to gaze into its own navel.
It's a moment of contemplation: The speculative post-election Trump rally has given way to the actual Trump era. The transition hasn’t exactly been bullish. Take, for instance, Goldman Sachs’ macro team, which released a policy outlook this weekend signaling a shift in their market outlook under Trump from a subdued “fuck yes” to an even more subdued “...the fuck?”
Even with this latest stance, Jan Hatzius and co. are downplaying very real, very large risks – I’ll get to that later – but it’s still a notable evolution from their position before the inauguration. “One month into the year, the balance of risks is somewhat less positive in our view,” they wrote. They gave three reasons:
- Republican attempts to dump Obamacare have proceeded with all the coordination and decorum of a free-for-all game of grab-ass. This bodes poorly for those once-mouthwatering promises of tax reform and infrastructure.
- Somehow, in spite of the election of Donald J. Trump, “the political environment appears to be as polarized as ever.” This forecloses on the prospect of bipartisan efforts in Congress.
- Trump said he would do a bunch of things during the election – Muslim ban, trade wars, etc – and now he’s actively trying to do those things.
It’s easy to write off the change of heart by invoking animal spirits, eg: Dazzled by the prospect of tax cuts and deregulation, Wall Street conveniently ignored all the bonkers stuff Trump said. But that would be an unfair reading, at least in Goldman’s case. The team’s previous policy outlook, on January 6, was titled “More Activity, More Uncertainty.” While the gist was to expect things like tax reform and infrastructure to pass in 2017, Hatzius et al weren’t blind to the risk of bad trade policy and immigration bans. Now, a month later, Goldman thinks that investors will have to wait until 2018 for a fiscal boost, and possibly even tax cuts.
What’s interesting isn’t that the outlook has changed –to be expected after a disruptive travel ban and shitshow of an ACA-repeal process – but that it hasn’t changed all that much. Goldman has gone from some policy uncertainty to a little more of it. Yet the macro team is still silent on an arguably more serious downside risk: constitutional risk.
In the first weeks of his presidency, Trump seems to be aiming for the record for the shortest time for a president to provoke a constitutional crisis. After the administration placed limits on immigration from Muslim-majority countries, border patrol began prohibiting even lawful, green-card-holding residents from entering the U.S. Then, following court injunctions against the ban, Trump questioned the fitness of the judiciary, scapegoating the “so-called judge” behind the decision.
A quick refresher: Separation of powers makes the president – even a President Trump! – subject to U.S. laws and their interpretation by the judicial branch.
Trump’s distaste for such niceties as the separation of powers has market ramifications as well as political ones. As Dealbreaker alum Matt Levine wrote in a Businessweek cover story last week, “If the president can, without consulting the courts or Congress, banish U.S. lawful permanent residents, then he can do anything. If there’s no rule of law for some people, there’s no rule of law for anyone.” That anyone includes public companies. A U.S. without its vaunted rule of law and relatively stable court system will lose its luster as a site of foreign investment, and even corporate domicile.
It’s unclear whether Goldman’s macro team has worked the constitutional aspect of Trump risk into their analysis. At least so far, it doesn’t appear they have. In January, their policy outlook derived from a combination of “areas of interest from President-elect Trump” and “the [agenda] that congressional Republicans seem to envision.” Where there was uncertainty, it surrounded “what the political dynamic will look like when the agenda moves to areas where the Trump Administration’s views diverge from congressional Republicans.”
In other words, Goldman’s policy outlook confines itself to the system as it stands – a president and a legislature with various agendas and a constitutional framework that constrains them. The fact that the latter part of that formulation might become a risk in itself doesn’t seem to concern Goldman. At least not yet.