Talking Worried, but Being Complacent

Every summer for the past several decades, I have been organizing lunches for serious investors who spend at least part of their vacation time in eastern Long Island. Those attending include hedge fund wizards, real estate titans, corporate chiefs, thoughtful academics and a few others. Out of the more than 100 who attend the four lunches (25 or so at each) held in different locations, there are more than a dozen billionaires. I moderate a discussion of the major issues facing the financial markets for the better part of two hours, and while the conclusions we reach aren’t always correct, the sessions are lively and stimulating.

Last year we debated the possible conflict with North Korea. Many thought this was a major issue that could disrupt the world order and the financial markets. The group saw Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un as two mercurial and unpredictable leaders who were hurling threats at each other, and worried that their calling each other names like “dotard” and “little rocket man” could ultimately erupt into missiles fired at South Korea, Japan or even Los Angeles. John Bolton, now National Security Advisor, was arguing for a pre-emptive strike against North Korea. Today, few people are worried about war with Kim Jong-Un’s country. Donald Trump went to Singapore in June and came back with the message that North Korea had a denuclearization plan and would not be launching missiles against anyone. Critics claimed there were no specifics and no plans for verification, but the American people were relieved and North Korea disappeared from the front pages and news broadcasts. Trump’s brand of personal diplomacy seemed to have worked here.

That was not Trump’s only success during the past year. The U.S. economy is growing at a real rate of better than 3%. In the second quarter, growth rose to 4.1%, but the spike was because of some pre-emptory buying in anticipation of higher tariffs. Unemployment was 3.9%, both short and long term interest rates were still low even though we were in the tenth year of the recovery, and inflation was tame. The Administration has fostered a business-friendly mood as regulations in a broad spectrum of areas have been dismantled. As a result, the Democrats may have a tougher time getting control of the House of Representatives than is widely believed and little chance of taking the Senate, even though a number of races look close at this time.

As for the 2020 Presidential election, many attending thought Donald Trump would have a second term. The Democratic Party did not have a candidate the group thought could win. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren were too far to the left. Some die-hard Democrats brought up fringe names, but at this stage none of them was believed to have the voter-attracting qualities that could defeat Trump. A few thought the Mueller investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election would uncover clear collusion between members of the Trump campaign team and President Putin’s operatives (or some other impeachable offenses). Others wondered whether Trump voters really care that much about foreign governments trying to influence our election. Everyone agreed we should do everything possible to stop this kind of perversive activity, but few thought Mueller would prove the direct involvement of Trump himself and that what was discovered would have a major impact on the Trump base and the outcome of the 2020 election.

What voters care about is their sense of well-being. If the economy is still doing well in 2020, the Democrats will have to identify a powerful, charismatic candidate to challenge Trump. Any suggestions? Michael Bloomberg’s name surfaced, but he was thought of as too old to run and lacking national appeal. Oprah was mentioned, but she lacked administrative or foreign policy experience – although, so did Trump. Joe Biden was considered to be uninspiring and unlikely to attract younger voters. Howard Schultz was a possibility. Some believed he had star qualities.