Stimulus Deal: Washington Continues to Stall on Pandemic Relief as Leaders Reject Bipartisan Plan

Leaders in both parties are batting down the opportunity to trounce the impasse, refusing to return to the negotiating table and use a bipartisan proposal as the starting point for compromise.
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The election result the stock market is really afraid of
Traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on November 9, 2016, after Donald Trump’s upset White House victory. | Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images “Markets don’t give a shit about who’s president”: Wall Street’s biggest 2020 fear is a contested result. Wall Street’s nightmare scenario on Election Day isn’t really a Donald Trump or a Joe Biden victory. It’s one where there’s no clear winner, or a result one side refuses to accept. “We’re kind of preparing for Armageddon on November 3,” one senior vice president at a major quant firm, who asked for anonymity in order to speak freely about the matter, told me. “If it’s close, there’s a decent chance that, like, who the fuck knows? Are markets going to be down 20 percent on Wednesday?” One of the higher-ups at his firm recently sent an email asking about a what-if scenario where President Donald Trump sends in the National Guard post-election. At the very least, there are some concerns about possible presidential tweets. Investors are bracing for volatility. Most of the time, markets are not super impacted by who is in the White House, at least in the long term. At a press conference in September, President Trump said that a Biden victory for the presidency would cause “stocks to crash like you’ve never seen before.” But many people predicted the same thing about a potential Trump win in 2016, and about Barack Obama years before. Under both men, stocks climbed, and Wall Street did just fine. “Markets don’t give a shit about who’s president,” Barry Ritholtz, the founder of Ritholtz Wealth Management and a columnist at Bloomberg Opinion, told me. In recent weeks, I spoke with multiple insiders, analysts, and experts about their take on Trump vs. Biden. The takeaway is a complex one — after all, Wall Street is hardly a monolith, and they’re not all giving off Gordon Gekko vibes. Most acknowledged that Trump has been largely favorable to the markets because of tax cuts and his administration’s deregulatory bent. A Biden win would likely mean an increase in taxes, which investors wouldn’t love. And even if the anti-billionaire rhetoric hasn’t been flowing from Biden directly, they’ve heard it from other prominent Democrats. “Rich white guys watch way too much cable news and think everyone is after them” “Rich white guys watch way too much cable news and think everyone is after them. I don’t get it, but these guys are all doing fine in the markets and live in their bubble,” one Palm Beach private equity associate said in an email with regard to their bosses’ dislike of Biden. “They really only care about taxes and it’s quite infuriating.” But many aren’t looking at a potential Biden win as a doomsday scenario. There are plenty of sectors that could do well under the former vice president — green energy, for example — and investors think a Biden administration would likely cool it on tensions with China and be more dovish on immigration, both welcome moves. Plus, markets and big corporations like stability, which it’s hard to argue the current administration is consistently delivering. “Wall Street sees advantages and disadvantages to both candidates,” said Kristina Hooper, chief global market strategist at Invesco. “It’s not as clear cut as you might normally see in an election.” What Wall Street is weighing isn’t really “Trump vs. Biden,” it’s “Trump vs. Biden vs. ???,” and that third option is the scariest, though not the likeliest. “A recipe for the market getting shellacked” Wall Street prefers certainty, and an undecided election means anything but. Imagine the United States hits November 4, 14, 24, even December, and it’s still not clear who won the presidential election or which party will have control of Congress. Especially with mail-in voting, it’s a real possibility. Or, say there is an outcome but one side refuses to accept it. Trump and Republicans are already starting to set the stage for casting doubt about a Biden victory, and there are concerns about domestic and foreign actors potentially confusing the outcome of the election. Some Democrats say they won’t trust the results if Trump wins. “One of the foundations of a democracy is fair and objective voting, and if that’s now not perceived to be the case, then who knows,” said Jack Ablin, founding partner of Cresset Capital. There is recent precedent for an uncertain outcome: George W. Bush vs. Al Gore in 2000. The weeks after the election, while the country turned its attention to the outcome in Florida, was not a great time for investors, as Stephen Mihm at Bloomberg recently explained. By the end of November of that year, the S&P 500 was down by 10 percent, though markets were bouncy, depending on the news of the day. Once the Supreme Court issued its decision in the matter, the markets recovered, at least for a while (they later declined, but for other reasons). As Mihm outlines, it sort of comes down to a philosophical divide between risk you can measure and uncertainty you cannot, outlined by economist Frank Knight in 1921. “The first could be calculated and a wager made based on the odds; the second was a genuine shot in the dark,” Mihm wrote. “The stock market would rather be handed what is perceived as bad news so that people can make an educated decision,” said Ken Greene, a financial adviser based in Nevada. In the 2000 election, the issue wasn’t really figuring out the risk of a Gore presidency compared to the risk of a Bush presidency, it was that nobody had any idea what was going to happen day to day or how things might shake out. This time around, we could see something even more chaotic. Isaac Boltansky, director of policy research a Compass Point Research & Trading, told me that he has discussed a number of election-related issues with clients: what’s going on with deal-making and antitrust scrutiny, what to expect from the housing market, how to think about the banking industry and trade and taxes. “The No. 1 worry that I’ve heard over the last few weeks is not knowing who will be the winner,” he said. And it isn’t just the presidency. The outcome of the Georgia US Senate race might not be known until 2021 — and, therefore, potentially which party controls Congress. “The No. 1 worry that I’ve heard over the last few weeks is not knowing who will be the winner” “If everybody is adult and calm and rational and says let’s count all the votes and figure out who won, it will be fine,” Ritholtz said. “If the crazies come out, and there are a lot of crazies … Mr. Market will not be happy with that at all.” His takeaway: “That kind of unrest and turmoil, that’s a recipe for the market getting shellacked.” Donald Trump has been good for the stock market. Joe Biden will probably be fine, too. President Trump would like everyone to believe that he is 100 percent responsible for the stock market when it goes up and that he has nothing to do with it when it goes down. The truth is neither. The market is influenced by a lot of things day to day, some related to politics, some not. Trump, overall, has been favorable to corporate America and Wall Street. In 2017, he signed into law a $1.5 trillion tax cut bill that disproportionately benefited corporations and the wealthy. (After signing the law, he literally told friends at his Mar-A-Lago resort that they “just got a lot richer.”) His administration has also taken a deregulatory approach to most industries. A Biden administration is likely to change course on some of that. He has proposed increasing the corporate tax rate from 21 percent to 28 percent (Trump reduced it from 35 percent) and increasing the top individual income tax rate, among other measures. The former vice president has pledged not to raise taxes on anyone making under $400,000 a year. A Biden administration would also likely bring about tougher regulations on certain industries, such as fossil fuels and coal. “When you implement a higher corporate tax, that means [corporations] are not going to be investing as quickly, which means the multiple on the market might compress,” said Luke Lloyd, a wealth adviser at Strategic Wealth Partners. Ablin estimates that a corporate tax increase of the size Biden is proposing could be worth about 10 percentage points in the market. “That said, if Vice President Biden were to win, he would need Congress’s help,” he said, and it’s not clear Democrats will have a majority. “I think investors are taking more of a wait-and-see approach on that one.” If the market does indeed contract around a Biden win, if past serves as precedent, it will eventually come back and do just fine. In fact, historically, investors have done better under Democratic leadership. Getting past the top line, Trump and Biden mean different things for different sectors. Trump has done a lot of defense spending; Biden would likely be better for green energy. Those in private equity would rather not see an increase in capital gains taxes that could potentially come under Biden. Companies with more exposure to China may also benefit from an administration with a less rocky relationship with the country — Wall Street has reacted negatively to the US-China trade war. “If you look at Chinese equities over the last couple of months, they ebbed and flowed with Biden’s improving or trailing chances,” Ablin said. “Both candidates present risks,” Hooper said. She also noted that much of what’s been driving Wall Street, especially lately, has nothing to do with the president at all but instead has been tied to the Federal Reserve, which has made enormous efforts to boost markets. “It has very little, if anything, to do with the occupant of the White House.” White House chaos is not fun for anyone — and election chaos could be even worse The conventional wisdom is often that Republicans mean good for Wall Street and business and Democrats mean bad, but that’s not necessarily the case. And not everyone in the arena agrees. As some billionaires were lighting their hair on fire over the prospect of a Warren presidency during the Democratic primary, she was amassing plenty of fans in finance, too. Despite his working-class roots,the former vice president was largely Wall Street donors’ preferred candidate among the 2020 Democrats, and he and the Democrats are doing quite well with them in the general election, too. Paul Thornell, a former managing director for federal government affairs at Citigroup, told Politico that part of it is that the big banks, for example, aren’t just worried about taxes. “They’re looking at character and how these two conduct themselves as leaders,” he said. Billionaire hedge funder Leon Cooperman, who during the primary crusaded against Warren, in a recent interview with CNBC said that while he thinks Trump has “good economic ideas,” he also has “limited character.” Cooperman said he hasn’t made up his mind on who to support and added that he’s not sure what Biden stands for — a coded, but not uncommon, sentiment among investors worried about how much progressives have the former vice president’s ear. When I emailed him asking him if he had made up his mind, he responded, “I have a firm view but no need to go public!” The Biden campaign is leaning into the theme that Trump is too erratic for anyone to stomach, rich or poor. “Like everything else that’s been handed to him, Trump inherited a strong economy and squandered it, plunging us into a recession,” said Biden campaign spokesperson Rosemary Boeglin in an emailed statement to Vox. She added that the former vice president “knows that the words of a president matter and have the power to move markets, which is why Americans — regardless of their pocketbooks — are crying out for his stable leadership.” The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment. It’s hard to look at the Trump presidency objectively and think it hasn’t been good for corporate America and Wall Street’s bottom line. It’s also impossible not to recognize it’s been chaotic. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are dead in a pandemic, and the economy is deeply troubled — millions of people are out of a job, small businesses are suffering, and state and local governments are flailing. One investment bank vice president who focuses on commodities and oil laid out how he sees the stakes even for giant oil companies: “A Green New Deal or what have you is an existential threat to the fossil fuels business, but the thing is, what’s much more likely to happen is the pandemic rages indefinitely, and no one goes anywhere,” slowing consumption of those fossil fuels anyway. He is a Biden supporter and has given money to Democrats this election cycle. But a Biden loss isn’t his worst-case scenario. “I would much rather Trump win handily and demonstrably than any kind of ambiguity,” he said. “It is the worst possible thing.” Will you help keep Vox free for all? The United States is in the middle of one of the most consequential presidential elections of our lifetimes. It’s essential that all Americans are able to access clear, concise information on what the outcome of the election could mean for their lives, and the lives of their families and communities. That is our mission at Vox. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone understand this presidential election: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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The Blob Meets the Heartland
For most of my three and a half decades as an American diplomat, the foreign-policy establishment (known unaffectionately in some quarters as the blob) took for granted that expansive U.S. leadership abroad would deliver peace and prosperity at home. That assumption was lazy, and often flawed.Riding the highs of globalization and American geopolitical dominance, we overreached. We deluded ourselves with magical thinking about our capacity to remake other societies, while neglecting the urgent need to remake our own. Unsurprisingly, the disconnect widened between the Washington policy establishment and the citizens it is meant to serve.Globalization and the deregulated flow of goods, services, and capital didn’t lift all boats. Instead, much of the American middle class—the engine of our country’s historic rise—wound up shipwrecked by income stagnation, automation and outsourcing, economic inequality, educational debt, and crippling health and housing costs. The coronavirus pandemic has only deepened these dislocations, making a reset of U.S. foreign policy’s relationship with the middle class even more urgent.By the time I left government several years ago, well before the pandemic broke, it was already well past time to reconnect foreign policy to domestic renewal. Now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, I share my colleagues’ interest in playing a part in this effort. The result is a new report, “Making U.S. Foreign Policy Work Better for the Middle Class,” the culmination of a systematic, two-year survey of three heartland states—Ohio, Colorado, and Nebraska.[William J. Burns: The United States needs a new foreign policy]Led by a bipartisan task force of seasoned policy makers and experts, our team sought to determine what changes to U.S. foreign policy are needed to advance the well-being of America’s middle class. The group’s starting point was something of an unnatural act for Washington’s foreign-policy elite: listening—rather than preaching—to middle-class citizens.The Carnegie Endowment is a venerable institution, but it is better known in foreign capitals and the Acela corridor than in most parts of America. Mindful of the old Ronald Reagan adage that the most terrifying words in the English language are “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help,” we partnered with researchers at public universities to conduct hundreds of interviews across all three states. The team talked with state officials and labor leaders, with small-business owners and mayors. We analyzed the economy and different trend lines. We were well aware that the middle class in each of those states is hardly monolithic, and that economic realities, social structures, and political attitudes vary widely across all of them.The conversations we had showed more nuance, pragmatism, and common sense in the heartland than the hyperpolarized and partisan policy debates display in Washington. People appreciated being asked their views about how foreign policy could serve them better, but many also expressed frustration that reaching out had taken so long. As one straightforward Nebraskan put it, “We didn’t really expect anyone from Washington to pay attention, especially after you folks have screwed things up so badly.”Many of the ranchers and soybean farmers our team interviewed in Nebraska applauded efforts to push back against the predatory trade and investment practices of China, but worried about the damaging impact of tariffs and the loss of overseas markets. Manufacturing workers in Ohio didn’t necessarily see how foreign aid affected them in the abstract but appreciated the importance of U.S. support for Japan after the 2011 tsunami, which badly disrupted the supply chain on which Honda—the biggest manufacturing employer in the state—depended. Many of the Coloradans and Ohioans our researchers spoke with accepted the need for greater restraint in military spending, but people in Colorado Springs (the home of three military bases and the U.S. Air Force Academy) and Dayton (near Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio’s largest single-site employer) saw cuts to the defense budget as existential threats to their local economy.Most of those we interviewed saw the value of America’s allies and our country’s active global leadership, but they expected other countries to invest more in their own military and contribute a greater share of the costs of securing peace. They were also skeptical of Washington’s foreign-policy extremes—its episodic crusading impulses as well as its bouts of isolationism.At a time when nearly 60 percent of Americans expect their children to be worse off financially than they are, the middle-class citizens we spoke with sought practical solutions. They saw the opportunities created by expanded trade and foreign investment, and felt the inevitable effects of technology and automation on traditional manufacturing. What they sought was a level playing field to help them compete. As one woman in Marion, Ohio, put it, “We will do what we can to reinvent ourselves and look to the future, but just let us have a fighting chance.”[Jim Tankersley: We killed the middle class. Here’s how we can revive it.]The Carnegie task-force report offers an array of detailed recommendations to help ensure that U.S. foreign policy delivers for the middle class. Three broad priorities stand out.First, foreign-economic policy needs to aim less at simply opening markets abroad, and much more directly at inclusive economic growth at home. For decades, the economic benefits of globalization and U.S. leadership abroad have skewed toward big multinational corporations and top earners. This needs to change.The U.S. government has to help ensure that the advantages of globalization are distributed more equitably, by supporting industries and communities disadvantaged by market openings. A crucial step is to create a National Competitiveness Strategy to guarantee that government—at all levels—plays a more active role in helping our people and our businesses thrive in the 21st-century global economy. Rather than focus simply on reducing the costs of doing business in the United States, we ought to emphasize enhancing the productivity of our workforce, investing in education, and reinvigorating research and development in biotechnology, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, and other key pillars of our economy in the decades ahead.Another important dimension of this new approach is to think beyond the manufacturing sector—as important as it is—and also address the concerns of the majority of middle-class households whose members work in other sectors, including services. We need to modernize trade enforcement tools to ensure that we can take earlier, faster, and more effective action against unfair trade practices, and put the onus on government—not small and medium-size businesses—to initiate enforcement measures. The objective should be a far more resilient middle class, served by a foreign policy that helps it compete better, and cushions it against the impact of economic shocks overseas. U.S. foreign policy should also look beyond trade and prioritize other issues whose economic and social impacts are acutely felt at home. Diplomacy and international partnerships ought to be the first line of defense against the looming threats of climate change, cyberattacks, and future pandemics. A crucial component of immigration reform is active diplomacy that aims to help ensure border security, create safe gateways for the workers and immigrants who add dynamism to our economy and society, and anchor people in Central America and Mexico to a sense of security and economic possibility.[Read: Immigrants give America a foreign-policy advantage]Second, this is not a time for restorationist fantasies or grand bumper-sticker ambitions in foreign policy. The people interviewed in the Carnegie study had little appetite for a new, all-consuming cold war with China, or a cosmic struggle pitting democracies against authoritarian states. Those impulses would be the best way to widen, not narrow, the disconnect between Washington’s foreign-policy establishment and Americans beyond the Beltway.What the Americans we talked with seem to be looking for is a humbler foreign policy, more restrained about using military force and more disciplined about employing diplomacy first. Values and human rights matter, from their perspective, and America ought to invest in rebuilding the power of its example. But the U.S. should adopt a temperate agenda, forthright in standing up against repression, while honest about the limits of its capacity to transform other societies.Finally, accomplishing this agenda will require breaking down the silos in which domestic and foreign policy have long operated. That will demand organizational and cultural shifts. It will take time and effort to build a generation of practitioners with the fluency in both domestic- and foreign-policy making to manage their interaction effectively. And while efforts to integrate the security and economic dimensions of foreign policy have made some progress, they need to be accelerated and better fused with domestic-policy making.For individual agencies, such as the State Department, opportunities exist to deepen partnerships with state and local governments on global economic issues, as well as on problems of climate change and public health. A State Department urgently committed to diversity and reflecting the society it represents will deepen its domestic roots. And it can further strengthen its connections to its constituents through assignments in the offices of mayors and governors, and in businesses across America.Many years ago, when I was a young diplomat, Secretary of State George Shultz used to invite outbound U.S. ambassadors for a brief, predeparture chat. He would gesture to the large globe in his office and ask the new ambassador to “point to your country.” Inevitably, their mind on their new assignment, the ambassadors would put their fingers on the country to which they were headed. Shultz would gently steer their fingers back across the globe to the United States. He’d remind them never to forget where they came from, or whose interests they served. Not a bad reminder then, and even more important now.
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