economy

‘Trump can absolutely kill him’: Wall Street shrugs off Sanders

The finance world is treating the prospect of a President Sanders much like it generally dismissed a possible President Trump in 2016.

Bernie Sanders

An avowed democratic socialist narrowly won the New Hampshire primary, propelled by promises to jack up taxes on the rich, nationalize health care and take a sledgehammer to the nation’s banking behemoths.

Wall Street has so far reacted to the rise of Sen. Bernie Sanders with a massive yawn — because few in the industry think the Vermont senator has a real shot at becoming president.

Stocks continue to pop to new highs even as Sanders climbs the Democratic field and pledges to come after the wealthy with a zealous passion.

That’s because the overwhelming consensus on Wall Street these days is that should Sanders wind up as the Democratic nominee — sliding past a handful of moderates also at the top of the field — he would get demolished by President Donald Trump in the general election.

“There’s no Bernie fear at all, because I think the general view is that he is just way too far left of a candidate to beat Trump and a more moderate candidate would be much more competitive,” said Steve Massocca of Wedbush Equity Management. “If Bernie becomes the candidate and you assume Wall Street wants Trump to win again — and I think they do — then this is nothing but good news.”

It’s a perspective similar to the stance many held on Wall Street about Trump’s prospects in 2016. And current national polls would seem to rebut the assumption among the Masters of the Universe that Sanders can’t beat Trump.

Many surveys show the Vermont senator leading the president by as many as eight points. Wall Street pros generally blow off these numbers, suggesting once Trump is actually one-on-one with Sanders he’d be able to portray his opponent as an existential threat to the stock market, the economy and the traditional American way of life.

“If you look at the online betting markets, you see they are pretty comfortable with the idea that Sanders could be the nominee. But they are hugely skeptical that he can get elected,” said Steven Englander of Standard Chartered bank.

As of noon Wednesday, the site Election Betting Odds gives Sanders about a 34 percent chance at winning the nomination — down after his narrow New Hampshire win — but just around 15 percent chance of winning the White House, a number that also fell after Sanders secured less than a smashing victory.

Trump’s reelection odds stand at about 58 percent. “There is consensus that Sanders appeals to progressive socialists who are well left of center, but not enough voters over all,” Englander said.

In private conversations, top Wall Street executives, even those who lean Democratic, are far more blunt about Sanders, saying his nomination would essentially guarantee a second Trump term.

“You don’t see any reaction to Bernie in the market because nobody right now thinks he has any chance in hell,” said one top executive at a giant bank who generally supports Democrats. “And it’s just New Hampshire. He’s won it before. So what? If he’s the nominee Trump can absolutely kill him. There will be people even in places like New York and California who will go in the booth and vote for Trump and not tell their spouses about it.”

Another senior Wall Street executive who has worked in Democratic politics said the general election polls showing Sanders on top actually mean little.

“The general view is that these polls haven’t been pressure-tested and nobody has really run hard against Sanders,” this executive said. “He’s got a solid lock on 20 to 25 percent of the Democratic primary voters, but it’s really hard to see how that broadens out to become a national coalition. Still, if it really looked like Sanders was going to get the nomination, I think the market would show at least a little bit of concern.”

That fear would be based less on the idea that Sanders as president could be effective in securing sweeping legislation — enacting much of his sweeping platform of national health care and bank breakups — and more on the idea that he could twist the levers of regulation sharply away from Trump’s aggressively free-market policies that have helped juice stock prices to record highs.

“I think the market’s performance may be more of a signal regarding the Republicans keeping the Senate,” Richard Bernstein, founder of financial firm RB Advisors said in an email exchange. “Even if Bernie wins, the odds of major legislative changes passing (like Medicare for all) would be slim with a Republican Senate.”

There also remains some level of confidence across Wall Street that the eventual nominee will be someone not named Bernie Sanders.

Former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg nearly took Sanders down in New Hampshire and has lots of Wall Street support. Executives who back former Vice President Joe Biden haven’t given up yet, though some are getting close to that point and could bail if Biden fails to win South Carolina.

Executives also note that moderates including Buttigieg, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Biden in total outpolled Sanders and fellow progressive Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) in New Hampshire, suggesting there is a path for an eventual moderate Democratic nominee.

Then there is the great Wall Street hope that former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who is beloved in the industry and rising in national polls on the back of his massive TV spending campaign, could somehow sweep in, consolidate the moderate vote and knock Sanders out, either before or even at the Democratic convention.

Around Wall Street dinners and cocktail parties, the idea of a President Bloomberg has gone from wistful fantasy to cautious belief. “I’d put Bloomberg at like 5 percent,” one executive said a recent dinner party. “Now I’d say it’s 25 percent if not more.”

The basic message from Wall Street on Sanders: It’s just way too early to freak out.

“It feels to me like we are a long way away from understanding if there is a true frontrunner who can coalesce the number of delegates needed to move forward,” said Robert Wolf, founder of 32Advisors, former head of UBS Americas and an influential Democratic donor who helped raise money for former President Barack Obama. “I think it’s less, ‘What if?’ right now than it is, ‘Who knows?’ So why panic? Why would you move around your whole portfolio based on this? I also don’t think it’s top of mind for investors right now.”

That’s another theme circulating widely across Wall Street, that investors aren’t so much blowing off Sanders as they are just ignoring the whole thing and continuing to pile into a relentless market rally that nothing can seem to stop at the moment, including the frightening coronavirus.

But the underlying current across Wall Street is that if Sanders does in fact get the nomination, voters will eventually reject him in favor of Trump.

“Most people are fading the possibility that Bernie can win,” said one former top executive at one of the world’s largest banks. “Most of the people that I know, they want to see the country well-run and admired. They don’t want Trump in the White House. But they’d vote for Trump in a second over any of the left-wing candidates because at least he cares about the economy.”