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Why Wall Street was never really afraid of Bernie Sanders

There’s just “more fear of smart-as-a-whip Aunt Warren than of Crazy Uncle Bernie.”

Bernie Sanders greets supporters at a Super Tuesday event in Vermont on March 3, 2020.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Emily Stewart covered business and economics for Vox and wrote the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

Sen. Bernie Sanders has consistently railed against the millionaire and billionaire class and promised to take on Wall Street throughout his career. But the rich-guy freakout over his candidacy never materialized, even during the period when Sanders was surging in the polls.

It might seem strange given how strongly Wall Street reacted to a potential Elizabeth Warren nomination. But there is just “more fear of smart-as-a-whip Aunt Warren than of Crazy Uncle Bernie,” one mid-level hedge fund executive told me. (Some Wall Streeters, of course, were Warren fans.)

There was no hedge funder crying on national television over Sanders, and nobody describing the choice between him and Donald Trump as a “decision between sickness and death.” Big donors weren’t pouring money into Biden’s or anyone else’s campaigns to stop the democratic socialist in his path.

Sanders has now been eclipsed by Joe Biden as the likelier Democratic nominee, and they’ve got to be feeling smug. When I contacted nearly a dozen finance insiders and analysts in recent weeks to talk about a potential Sanders presidency, they essentially reacted with a shrug.

Many on Wall Street don’t think Sanders can win in the general election, even if he did somehow manage to get the nomination. And if he landed in the White House, the Senate would stop him from doing anything dramatic.

“If there’s anything that would hold back a lot of people from freaking out about Bernie, it would be that when push comes to shove, it’s just not going to happen,” Tim Anderson, managing director at TJM Investments and a Trump supporter, told me.

Plus, the contrast with Warren was clear.

“You’d almost have to be in the business to hear the difference in the way they talk — Bernie talks about finance lumped in with all highly profitable and remunerative business, millionaires and billionaires, etc.,” one private equity executive told me. “Warren talks like an insider. Listen to her content for a few minutes as a finance person and you know that she knows all the tricks, all the gray areas, all the loopholes. It lands differently.”

That’s not to say Sanders doesn’t have any tension with Wall Street — he’s been engaged in a years-long feud with former Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein. While there are some nerves, it just doesn’t seem like the financial industry is all that concerned about a self-professed democratic socialist. And it’s not just because they’re banking on Biden.

Wall Street doesn’t think Bernie Sanders will be the nominee — and if he is, they don’t think he can beat Donald Trump

As prediction markets showed the probability of Sanders winning the Democratic nomination going up earlier this year, the probability of Trump winning reelection in November went up, too. That means people betting on the election don’t think Sanders can win, and it’s a comparable crowd to the Wall Street world.

“He is audibly laughed at at work for his repetitive stream of hippie grandpa platitudes that serve as his ‘platform,’” said Emma Johnston, a vice president at asset manager State Street Global Advisors. “Gauging Sanders’s electability has effectively become guessing how many jellybeans are in the jar. Can he break even on the centrists he loses versus those he pulls from Trump’s base? People at my job don’t seem to think he can, and they certainly will not be voting for him.”

The electability question has haunted all the candidates this election cycle, and Sanders isn’t immune. Beyond the ins and outs of the broader debate within the Democratic Party, among many on Wall Street, Sanders just seems inherently less electable. A democratic socialist from Vermont becoming the next president of the United States is hard for them to fathom.

“Bernie has been incorrectly dismissed for two elections in a row now, so there are some who seem to have a structural predisposition to look past his candidacy,” Isaac Boltansky, director of policy research at the research firm Compass Point, told me.

Wall Street thinks Sanders would be constrained anyway

Wall Streeters don’t think Sanders has a clear vision of what he wants to do in terms of financial regulation.

“Bernie likes to complain about billionaires, but he never really accomplished any particular policy or regulation that really got in their way, and I wonder if Wall Street folks kind of think of him as somewhat harmless,” said Charlie O’Donnell, a venture capitalist at Brooklyn Bridge Ventures. “It’s not clear that financial regulation is going to be something that he has a leg up on.”

“Broadly speaking, yes, I know Sanders loathes investment banks, but his subscription to the entire liberal orthodoxy is baked in, versus Warren who speaks with more precision about what she would do to Wall Street,” Johnston said. Though she also noted that in focusing so much on the details, some in the industry might be missing the point: “Bernie is popular precisely because he is imprecise.”

Many in finance can’t imagine a world where Sanders is in the White House, but even if they do, they think there’s a strong chance he’ll be restrained.

“It’s a long shot he wins, but even if he does, the odds are very much against him also leading a ticket that takes the Senate. Not impossible, but improbable,” said Barry Ritholtz, a commentator and chief investment officer at Ritholtz Wealth Management, in an email. “Most of his plans require congressional action, which will never pass a Republican Senate. Heck, it’s doubtful some of his plans would pass a 51/49 Democratic Senate.”

Sanders has said he doesn’t want to get rid of the filibuster, which requires a 60-vote majority for legislation in the Senate to pass. And if he does get a majority, it will include moderate Democrats such as Kyrsten Sinema from Arizona and Joe Manchin from West Virginia, and a Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, from New York. His constituency is, in part, Wall Street.

“Sanders doesn’t have much history of co-sponsoring legislation that has become law either across the aisle or with his fellow Democrats,” Ritholtz said.

Wall Street might be underestimating the popularity of Sanders’s ideas

The thing about Elizabeth Warren is that Wall Street has plenty of reason to fear her, possibly even after she suspended her presidential campaign. She conceived of and set up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, has spent years in the private and public sector going after the industry, and understands how finance — and the regulatory apparatus around it — works. You think Warren isn’t serious about this? Look at what she did to the Wells Fargo CEO in a Senate hearing or to billionaire Mike Bloomberg in Las Vegas.

“While Sanders and Warren share a similar ideological vision, there are a few distinct instances where Warren successfully applied that vision into palpable policy changes for the industry. I don’t think there are as clear a set of examples for Sanders,” Boltansky said.

The people I spoke with agreed that there was likely some level of misogyny and sexism embedded into the Wall Street attacks on Warren. Last year as I was reporting for a story on finance professionals who like the Massachusetts Democrat, one private equity associate told me a story of a private equity CEO referring to her as “Pocahontas,” and another told me a story of a defense contractor investment relations director joking about her and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York being strapped to a jet and dying in a plane crash.

Sexism aside, there’s just a sense Warren really knows what to do. “She may be more dangerous,” said one hedge fund portfolio manager.

But just because some people in finance aren’t setting their hair on fire over Sanders doesn’t mean he’s not having at least some effect. Concerns about him had started to show up in some stocks and sectors, such as health care. And if he were to nab the nomination, the sentiment in the industry might quickly change.

“The only way ... he would have a shot is if this coronavirus stuff spiraled completely out of control and we went into a big recession two to three months before the election,” said Anderson, the TJM Investments managing director and Trump supporter.

Wall Street might underestimate what Sanders would be able to do if he lands in the Oval Office. He has plenty of proposals and ideas to go after the finance industry and the wealthy, including taxing stock trades and reinstating Glass-Steagall, and it’s not like details can’t be filled in. He has an ability to publicly advocate for change and pressure major companies, as he has with Amazon, and he has a motivated and vocal political base behind him. Plus, a Sanders administration could very well include Warren and others eager to go after hedge funds, private equity, and the banks.

Some billionaires may also have realized it doesn’t exactly behoove them to fight with progressive presidential candidates. In all the hypotheses about where Warren’s campaign has gone wrong, her being too mean to some rich guy on CNBC isn’t one of them. “Maybe Wall Street realizes there’s too much self-owning when you see ‘billionaires afraid of Elizabeth Warren’ headlines,” O’Donnell said.

Not everyone is staying quiet about Sanders, and if he were to regain momentum, Wall Street might start to openly worry about him more. Blankfein, the former CEO of Goldman Sachs who has feuded with Sanders for years, seemed quite alarmed about the prospect of a Sanders presidency when he was the frontrunner in February. He has warned that Sanders will “ruin” the economy and said he might “find it harder to vote for Bernie than for Trump.”

Billionaires are only a few votes. The question is what happens with all the others.

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