What a Trump Victory Means for Bankers

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Note: This story originally ran last month, but has been updated following the election.

WASHINGTON — Despite more than a year of campaigning, Donald Trump remains a huge question mark when it comes to banking policies — making it unclear exactly what his priorities will be now that he has upset election forecasts and succeeded in winning the White House.

On the one hand, Trump's victory is what many bankers wanted. As recently as last month, 52% of bankers in a recent poll by American Banker said Trump would be a better choice for the banking industry than Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, who received just 20% of support.

Yet such a view appears to be more an act of faith rather than based on Trump's banking policy positions, some of which are contradictory and all of which are vague.

During the campaign, he's vacillated between populist views like calling for the return of Glass-Steagall and more traditional conservative ones like favoring a reduction in regulation. It makes it hard to gauge his real agenda, observers said.

"Probably the most important thing to say is that Trump clearly has two camps of economic advisers," said J.W. Verret, a professor of banking law at Scalia Law School. "He has the populist camp and he has the Reagan conservative camp.

"On tax policy the Reagan conservatives have mostly won. On trade policy, the populists have clearly won. I don't know which camp he would listen to on banking regulation and that is the big question mark," said Verret.

Trump's economic advisory team includes traditional Reagan conservatives like David Malpass who was Deputy Assistant Treasury Secretary under President Reagan and also served at the Treasury under President George W. Bush. But it also includes populists like Peter Navarro, a professor at the University of California, Irvine who has been a harsh critic of China's trade policies. Trump has also tapped people with Democratic ties, including Steven Mnuchin, a hedge fund manager and former Goldman Sachs banker who has been a Democratic supporter in the past.

"I worry about how much Trump will listen to the Reagan conservatives versus the populists and Democrats he has put on his team," said Verret.

Financial services lobbyists are also in the dark as to what Trump might do.

"We have no idea," said one Republican lobbyist who spoke on condition of anonymity. "We are dealing with a candidate who has not spent a lot of time thinking about public policy. We don't say that in a flippant way, he just isn't focused on our issues, our issues are complex."

One of Trump's most visible economic advisers, Stephen Moore, an economist who founded the free market-promoting Club for Growth, acknowledged in an interview that there's not a detailed plan. But there is at least one clear agenda item that is likely to please bankers.

"We haven't spent too much [time] on [financial policy] except for one issue and that is Dodd-Frank," Moore said. "He wants to roll it back."

Moore said Trump believes the 2010 financial reform law "has had a very negative impact on small and community banks."

"The regulatory costs and compliance costs have contributed to a big consolidation to the industry," he said, adding Trump wants to be seen as the community banking candidate.

Additionally, Trump has called to roll back regulations more generally.

"Overregulation is costing our economy as much as $2 trillion a year," Trump said in August speech. He added that he wanted "every federal agency to prepare a list of all of the regulations" that are "are not necessary, do not improve public safety, and which needlessly kill jobs" and review whether they should be abolished.

That is music to the ears of many bankers.

"Under a Trump presidency, you would see a rollback of some of the excessive regulation, particularly in the financial industry that has really hurt banks and really tethered their ability to do what they do best which is lend out in the community," said Lindsey Piegza, chief economist at Stifel Nicolaus & Co.

Yet all of Trump's views do not line up clearly with the banking industry. For one, the call to restore the Glass-Steagall Act, which would involve an act of Congress and a slew of new rules by regulators, appears to conflict with Trump's his moratorium on new regulations.

Verret said that conflict shows the influence of different sets of advisers on Trump. Moreover, reopening the Dodd-Frank Act could pave the way for other populist measures that might leave some banks worse off.

"I don't think the populists have really thought through the appropriate role of banking regulation or the separation of power issues that are all involved," said Verret. "I am not sure how much of Dodd-Frank they would get rid of and I fear very much about what they would put in its place."

One open question is how wedded Trump really is to restoring Glass-Stegall, a 1930s law that separated commercial and investment banking. The proposal was first floated at the Republican National Convention in July by Trump's then campaign Paul Manafort, who has since resigned. It's possible that idea left with Manafort.

"I honestly don't know what [Trump's] position is on Glass-Steagall," said Moore. "Conservatives are all over the map right now on that."

Piegza said it's actually a positive that Trump has shifted his position on banking issues.

"I actually kind of like there is a little bit of willingness to bend on comments that he has made depending on what his advisers what the industry experts suggest," said Piegza.

The populist overtones of Trump's agenda can also be seen in his view of the Federal Reserve Board. The New York businessman has repeatedly attacked the Fed, accusing it of purposely keeping interest rates low to benefit President Obama and Clinton.

"We have a Fed that's doing political things … by keeping the interest rates at this level," Trump said at the first presidential debate in September.

What actions Trump would seek to take against the Fed as president are unclear. He is unable to shape monetary policy in the near term as the current Fed board members have tenures that run well into Trump's first term. But there are two vacant spots on the 7-member board through which Trump could exert influence.

Whether Trump appointees who agreed with his view would get past the Senate is another question, given likely Democratic opposition.

Many observers also make a distinction between Trump's legislative agenda and his regulatory one. When it comes to legislation, observers predict that the heavy lifting on banking policy will be left to House Speaker Paul Ryan and his allies, including Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling. But the regulatory agenda is up in the air depending on who Trump would nominate for key spots, including Treasury secretary and vacant regulatory positions.

"Paul Ryan would essentially run the legislative agenda even if we lose the Senate," said Verret. "The concern is the regulatory agenda… you can't listen to the populists and the Democrats who he is taking on as advisers, where we would get very much the same as President Obama on banking regulation."

The GOP financial lobbyist agreed.

"We think a lot of the policy is going to originate there," the lobbyist said.

Yet even that may depend on Trump's relations with Ryan, which are currently frosty at best. As Republicans tried to distance themselves from Trump's controversies over the remaining few weeks of the campaign, Trump has openly called Ryan "weak and ineffective."

Trump doubled down on that criticism later, declaring in a separate tweet that Ryan doesn't know "how to win."

Now that Trump has defied expectations and succeeded in winning the White House, he might find it difficult to patch relations with Ryan, making it challenging to implement his agenda.

Overall, many financial services lobbyist are wary of Trump given the unknowns about what he might pursue and who he would appoint.

"We are not going to look at Donald Trump and think we have our best friend in the White House," the lobbyist said.

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