Trump’s Stocks Boost Means You’re Getting Screwed
Wall Street’s giddiness comes at your expense
by ANDREW DOBBS
If you have liberal friends online you may have seen memes bragging about how great the stock market did under Pres. Barack Obama. The numbers are impressive. The Dow Jones Industrial Average gained 11,855 points in his eight years in office, more than doubling.
That meme may not be so comfortable for Democrats now. The day after Donald Trump’s election, the market went up by 257 points. In the four months since then, it has risen more than 2,500 — more than a fifth of what Obama managed in eight years.
Now that rally appears to be stalling out, but the point is not that Trump is a better president than Obama was, or the other way around. It’s that the stock market is a garbage tool for measuring anything other than how rich the richest people are.
Since that wealth is predicated on the exploitation of the rest of us using the stock market as an indicator for general well-being is like using your blood pressure as an indication of your health — the higher the better, right?
The fact is that the destructive, anti-family trends that Obama inaugurated are accelerating under Trump — and the markets are celebrating even while your life keeps sucking.
Let’s start by remembering that “stock prices” are inanimate abstract concepts. They can no more rise or fall or take any other action than a fictional character can. The buyers of stocks pay sellers a certain price, and those real life, flesh-and-blood human actors determine what the stock market does.
One of the factors that make the prices they pay such a bullshit measure of anything — even the health of the companies they are supposed to represent — is that increasingly the buyers are the companies themselves.
These stock “buybacks” are not trivial — Goldman Sachs predicted that in 2017 it would be the single largest cash expense for S&P 500 companies, more than $750 billion-worth.
A corporation doing such a buyback has a strong incentive to pay as high a price as possible, because that drives up the worth of all of its stocks, and since it already hold lots of other stock, this higher valuation makes it even richer.
The sellers, of course, have an interest in selling as high as they can do, so they aren’t going to turn down this boosted price. The only limitation then is how much cash the company has to spend on such buybacks, and near-zero and even negative interest rates have made it easy for companies to borrow from big banks and spend all that money on stock buybacks.
Interest rates have been at that level ever since Obama took office and the stock market rose faster under him than any other president besides Bill Clinton — these facts are related.
These companies also buy back stock with other, non-borrowed cash, and a company that doesn’t do this sees their prices grow at a much slower pace. This means that investors will sell their stocks to get into the ones doing buybacks. This would drive the non-buybacker’s price even lower, creating strong incentives to get with the program and invest in their own stocks.
The good news for them is that the banks are literally giving the money away, comforted by recent history which proves that if they get into any trouble for bad business decisions the government will bail them out at public expense and nobody will do anything about it. It’s all a giant scam.
So none of this has increased since Trump’s election, why the stock boom? While companies are increasingly the buyers of their own shares there are still a large number of other investors. The prices they are willing to pay determine what the buybackers can get away with. These big investors buy based on what they think the companies are worth, and that worth is rooted in profitability.
These investors believe that Trump will make these companies more profitable. They’re paying more for their stocks as a result.
Why would companies be more profitable under Trump? If profit is just income minus expenses, then anything that increases income or decreases expenses — or both — increases profitability. Income-wise, the main sources of cash in the world today come from big banks and the ultra-wealthy individuals and companies that do business with them.
Trump, despite specifically attacking Goldman Sachs by name during the campaign, appointed one of the firm’s top bankers as his treasury secretary and then another as his deputy treasury secretary. A third serves as his chief economic advisor, and others are littered throughout his administration.
The signal is clear — Trump is going to keep the faucet running at the big banks. And if the government has to refill the tank, everyone knows he will. At one point during the post-election stock boom, Goldman Sachs alone made up nearly a quarter of the market’s gains.
The markets — or rather the buyers and sellers participating in the market — probably also thought that Trump would be able to work easily with the Republican Congress to get a big infrastructure bill through, which would provide another useful source of income.
The fact that his healthcare bill blew up in a cloud of blame, animosity and recriminations makes that seem much less likely and might explain the boom’s recent halt.
But it’s not income that really has the markets geeked, it’s Trump’s ability to affect some of the major expenses corporations face. First would be regulatory costs. Businesses spend a great deal of money on totally unnecessary expenses like not poisoning people’s drinking water or making sure that disabled people aren’t forced to piss themselves in public.
Since federal agencies issue and enforce these regulations, a stroke of Trump’s pen can revoke many of the rules, shifting the cost of bad corporate behavior onto the public.
Taxes are similar to the infrastructure stimulus in that the markets — again, those bankers and investors — assumed that Trump and Congress would easily pass them … and now that seems less likely.
There’s probably greater consensus on this topic than there ever was on health care, but the Freedom Caucus may refuse to settle for a package that the rest of the party can stomach.
The bill may also pit anti-tax warriors against budget hawks, and neither Paul Ryan nor the president have shown the capacity to foster compromise. Still, the odds are good that some sort of major tax cut for the wealthy and big businesses is going to come down, shifting the burden further on families and future generations.
One big step toward keeping deficit hawks in the fold will be the austerity measures outlined in Trump’s budget blueprint. Those slash-and-burn takes on federal agencies benefit private corporations by keeping deficits in check. Deficits are covered by the government borrowing money, which in turn drives up the price of debt — that is to say, interest. Austerity keeps down deficits, which helps keep down interest rates.
Government spending also puts cash into the economy somewhere, either in a government employees’ paychecks or checks to contractors and vendors. More cash in circulation means more inflation. Cutting deficits and spending means cutting inflation and interest, both of which eat away at corporate profits.
Another factor driving austerity policies here and abroad is that they have a slowing effect on the economy as a whole. The dirty secret is that fast economic growth not only drives up inflation, it also tends to increase incomes for workers and create new jobs that provide them better bargaining positions.
A slow, steady economic growth just high enough to keep money flowing for the billionaires, but not so fast that families can get their feet underneath them, is what the wealthy really want. Conveniently for them, it’s also what they’ve been getting for almost a decade now.
It’s here that profits really come in, because they are always created by workers adding value that employers don’t pay them for. Workers work all day and generate value for the boss, but are paid only a fraction of what they earn. The less you can pay them, the more surplus you can generate — and the higher your stock price will go.
In the last couple of years, employers across the country have been facing big new pushes for higher wages, but Trump promises a hiatus from those concerns — or so they believe. Add to this the collapse of the Democratic Party at the state level, and they have powerful allies in keeping the working class in check.
For them, that’s cause for celebration, and their fiesta has been on Wall Street.
So tax burdens shifted onto working families, essential programs and benefits cut, intentional slowdowns of the economy, suppressed wages and undermined unions — that seems like a pretty raw deal for everybody who isn’t already set for life.
They’re also all the reasons why the stock market soared for four months. The only reason it may be slowing down now is because employers aren’t sure Trump will get to fuck us that badly, after all.
The stock market is bullshit on the one hand and, on the other, a precise measurement of just how screwed we really are. Liberals should think twice before celebrating just how great their guy did with it.
Intentionally screwing working families isn’t going to make Trump popular, especially in light of his populist campaign messages. It’s here that we see why he screams so much about voter fraud in an election he won. He’s trying to justify the voter-suppression to come — a suppression necessary to counteract the intensely unpopular things he’ll be doing to keep the billionaires happy.
This is why capitalism has abandoned liberalism. It needs to do things nobody will vote for.
This furthermore explains Trump’s appeal to race-hate and fear. They keep the most politically powerful segment of the population — the white middle class — focused on a topic other than their own bottom line.
They also provide a useful scapegoat for people too ignorant or asinine to see what’s really happening and who’s really benefiting. You didn’t lose your white-collar managerial job and have to start working at Target because of immigrants — it’s because the folks that own both your old company and Target all make more money when you make less.
Finally, this fear and hatred pave the way for the war to come, both to justify the crackdowns that keep the elections in hand and to generate yet more income without public investment.
If we are going to prevent this, we need a movement or a network of movements that doesn’t give a fuck about the stock market, that resists all imperialist aggression from the United States, that demands higher taxes for the wealthy, more regulation, more government spending on bigger and better social programs, guaranteed higher wages, a mighty labor movement and that puts working people over profit.
Anything less than this — and the name for such a philosophy is socialism — keeps the door open to the devastation outlined above. Certainly the liberals who pine for a president who will make the Dow Jones soar aren’t going to deliver it, and neither is their preferred political party.
What history has shown, however, is that when people come together and organize on these principles movements are built, and when you build the movement the party follows.
That work is something we can all invest in. Stay defiant.
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