Sen. Elizabeth Warren has made no secret of her disdain for Wall Street and the ultra-wealthy. She has proposed a wealth tax as part of her 2020 platform and has for years crusaded against the big banks.
President Donald Trump has been good in some significant ways for the moneyed interests in America, from his tax cuts to his deregulatory efforts. But his trade tactics have been a worrying factor for Wall Street and the wealthy. Plus, his volatility — giving America and the world Twitter whiplash and allowing the government to shut down for a month — have started to wear on markets.
So whom would Wall Street prefer: Warren, the anti-corporate crusader who promises to be a steadier hand? Or Trump, a president who generally tries to keep his friends happy but is so unpredictable that his actions risk blowing up the system?
“I would vote for Trump and hold my nose, and he’s worse than anything I feared,” one fund manager told me. He said in 2016 he wrote in Mitt Romney’s name and told me he believes Warren is a socialist (she’s not). “How you vote in this coming election is voting your pocketbook or the need to have a person in office who is a person of integrity. If you vote your pocketbook, clearly, you’re voting with Trump.”
In recent weeks, I reached out to more than a dozen fund managers, traders, and investors to pose to them a relatively simple question: If in 2020 it comes down to Warren versus Trump, whom do you choose? Many of them preferred not to comment, but about half of the group weighed in — albeit some on the condition of anonymity.
The general response: Many don’t love Trump, but they would largely pick him over Warren — or would write in someone else. It’s a sign of how deeply despised Warren is among the banking industry, even Democrats.
“There are numerous people who I speak to who can’t stand Donald Trump and are eager to vote for a Democrat but who would nevertheless vote for Trump if it’s a choice between him and Warren. She is the one person who is toxic for the business community,” another fund manager and prominent Democratic donor said, though he clarified he would never vote for Trump himself.
One financial services CEO told me if that were the choice, he would write in Michael Bloomberg. Former Vice President Joe Biden’s name came up in other conversations, though that would presumably mean he would be the Democratic nominee, and Warren wouldn’t be.
Trump just presided over the longest government shutdown in US history, centered on his insistence on funding for a border wall that was in large part a campaign trail rhetorical tool. His public comments and interviews often show a president who is in over his head and without an understanding of many policy issues. He’s facing pressure from multiple legal threats, and many people in his inner circle are under investigation or have been indicted. Even for rich people and corporations, his tax cuts and deregulatory push have been good, but the trade war isn’t.
Yet many on Wall Street would prefer him to Warren.
Why Wall Street is so scared of Warren
Warren, a two-term senator from Massachusetts and former law professor, came to national prominence largely because of her focus on financial reform and consumer protection. At Harvard Law School, she conceptualized the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, now the federal government’s top consumer watchdog, and as a lawmaker, she has made a name for herself for her aggressive stance on the financial services industry.
She has, for example, zeroed in on the credit reporting firm Equifax and the chronic misbehaver Wells Fargo. During the shutdown, she pressed banks for specifics on what they were doing to help affected federal workers.
As president, she would almost certainly promote a bigger corporate clampdown. In August, she unveiled the Accountable Capitalism Act, which as Vox’s Matt Yglesias explained would “redistribute trillions of dollars from rich executives and shareholders to the middle class” by requiring corporations to consider the interests of not only shareholders but also consumers, employees, and their communities when making decisions. She has also proposed a wealth tax on Americans with more than $50 million in wealth.
Beyond her legislative proposals — which, depending on which party is in control of Congress, might have a hard time getting through — Warren would also be able to exert control through executive branch appointees and what is likely to be a regulatory push that moves in the opposite direction of what Trump has done. She would be able to appoint the heads of entities such as the CFPB, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Justice Department’s antitrust division, and the Treasury Department, for example. Those individuals would likely be in line with her hardline stance on financial regulation and corporate interests.
“In financial regulations, personnel is policy, and the president gets to pick the people,” said Aaron Klein, a fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution and former Treasury Department aide.
Those are the sorts of things that make Wall Street nervous.
“Her administration would have a very antagonistic approach toward the financial services industry, and it would not be good for the economy or financial markets,” Tim Anderson, the managing director at TJM Investments, told me. A Trump supporter, he said that voting for the president in 2020 would be a “no-brainer.”
Anderson also said he wasn’t buying Warren’s insistence that she is a capitalist, citing a July 2018 interview with CNBC’s John Hardwood in which she said that is the case.
“She will not admit that she’s a socialist,” he said. “I think if she were to become the nominee, somebody will take that five-second sound bite and superimpose it on her plan for … the wealth tax. It’s really a wealth confiscation or wealth redistribution plan.”
Warren’s campaign brushed the criticism off. “Elizabeth is serious about holding bankers personally accountable when they break the law,” Warren spokeswoman Kristen Orthman said in an emailed statement. “She wants to make big structural economic change that takes power away from corporations and gives it to workers. Of course Wall Street is afraid of her — and they are right to be.”
Warren isn’t the only 2020 contender with an anti-Wall Street bent. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who has not yet declared his candidacy but whom many expect will run, is a frequent critic of the billionaire class and last year introduced a proposal that would break up some of Wall Street’s biggest firms. Sens. Kamala Harris (D-CA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) have all sought to distance themselves from their perceived corporate ties and have said they will eschew corporate PAC money in their campaigns.
Even under Trump-induced stress, the market hasn’t broken
The stock market initially welcomed Trump’s presidency, in large part due to the promise of tax cuts and deregulation. Major US stock indexes such as the S&P 500 and Dow Jones Industrial Average rallied during Trump’s first year in the White House. But 2018 was a rockier year for stocks and wound up being the worst year for markets in a decade — some of the turmoil was related to Trump, and some of it was not. This year has started off relatively well for markets.
Traders seem to have largely learned to shrug off a lot of the volatility the president brings with him with off-the-cuff tweets and whiplash decision-making, and generally believe the deregulation and reduced tax bills are worth it. And because Trump has often tethered his presidential success to the markets and the economy, there’s also a sense among some on Wall Street that Trump won’t do anything too bad to put that in jeopardy.
“The people with and without money who are invested are not being scared away,” says Peter Tuchman, a trader at the New York Stock Exchange. For all of Trump’s turmoil, he put it, “the system didn’t break.”
Even those I spoke with who were highly critical of Trump and seemed more open to a Democratic candidate weren’t eager to embrace the possibility of a Warren presidency.
Barry Ritholtz, a commentator and chief investment officer at Ritholtz Wealth Management, said in an email that he would “much rather have a Harvard law professor than a person who has so much difficulty telling the truth respecting institutions and norms and not behaving illegally.” But on Trump versus Warren in 2020, his response was “none of the above.”
Another senior Wall Street executive who describes himself as a Democrat laughed when I asked him if he would prefer Warren or Trump and, again, said neither.
“If I were the image of the mercenary Wall Street trader, I’d probably say Trump, but I think he’s been so bad for markets because of his sort of unconstrained behavior,” he said. “On the other hand, with Elizabeth Warren, while I’m guessing if she were president she’d be more sensible than Trump, I think her attitude toward the entire banking and financial services industry has been really troublesome.”
To be sure, that Wall Street isn’t a fan of Warren isn’t a bad thing for her campaign: She has positioned herself for years as an antagonist to big banks and corporations, and her donor base is grassroots. It also gives her a way to juxtapose herself with Trump, who promised to drain the swamp and fight against corruption and, well, hasn’t.
And if Wall Street is so worried about Warren — and willing to go with Trump, despite everything, to keep her out of the White House — it could mean they think she could make some real progress in clamping down on them if elected. It could serve as another point in her favor among progressives.
Update: Story updated with statement from Warren spokeswoman.