Even from the hospital, as his doctors were administering a mixture of drugs to battle the coronavirus, U.S. President Donald Trump couldn’t quite help himself.
“STOCK MARKET UP BIG,” he blared in one tweet. “The Stock Market is getting ready to break its all time high,” came another. “NEXT YEAR WILL BE THE BEST EVER.”
Mr. Trump’s relentless cheerleading for the stock market, taking full credit for its gains, has been a hallmark of his presidency, through more than 150 tweets and exuberant rhetoric at his rallies. Yet behind the bluster is a simple fact of which most voters are unaware: Mr. Trump barely has any of his own money in the stock market.
“It’s like Trump Vodka – he wants everyone to drink it, but he doesn’t drink it himself,” said Jack Ablin, chief investment officer of Cresset Wealth Advisors. To have so much wealth and so little invested, he added, is “completely out of balance” and “extremely unusual.”
Deep in The New York Times' recent report on Mr. Trump’s tax returns is the fact that he sold more than US$200-million in stocks and bonds in the three years leading up to his inauguration. And an Associated Press analysis of his financial disclosures since then shows as much as US$8-million more was sold in his first three years in office, even with his investments now in a trust, beyond his direct control.
Significantly, those disclosures – which give figures in ranges, not exact amounts – show no substantial buying to make up for it. That left him a stock portfolio last year that ranged between US$693,000 – less than what many Americans have in their 401(k)s – and US$2.2-million. Even that top figure is less than one-tenth of 1 per cent of his fortune, estimated by Forbes at US$2.5-billion.
“Why would you talk up the stock market and not own stocks at the same time?” said David Rosenberg, former chief North American economist at Merrill Lynch.
What’s behind Mr. Trump’s selloff and lack of buying is not entirely clear, though in a debate during the 2016 campaign, he took a bleak view of the stock market, saying, “We’re in a bubble right now.”
Also, after a large sale of individual stocks before the previous election, Mr. Trump told NBC that he wanted to avoid conflicts of interest while “making deals for this country that maybe will affect one company positively and one company negatively.” (He has continued to hold on to his diversified stock funds, which contain shares from a variety of companies.)
Others, though, have cast doubt on the conflict-of-interest explanation and speculated instead that he sold off stock to raise money quickly and quietly to cover his debts. Mr. Trump poured US$47-million into his previous campaign for president and still owes a sizable amount.
The White House referred queries about Mr. Trump’s stock holdings to the Trump Organization, which declined to comment, leaving financial and political watchers only to speculate.
Whatever the reason for selling, Mr. Trump’s lack of a substantial stake has not stopped him from vigorously touting the run-up in the stock market. Polls consistently show Mr. Trump’s handling of the economy is his strongest issue with voters, and the stock market has withstood the coronavirus crisis better than the economy as a whole. The S&P 500 index has jumped 59 per cent since the 2016 presidential election, recovering all the ground lost during a March plunge.
American families now have an average of 15 per cent of their assets riding on the market, according to Federal Reserve data, and the richest 1 per cent even more: 40 per cent.
Several voters interviewed this week said they were surprised Mr. Trump wasn’t more heavily invested, but that it wouldn’t change their vote.
“He isn’t interested in the people; he’s interested in the stock market,” 79-year-old Ruth Johnson said as she shopped at a Walmart in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
Ms. Johnson, who voted for Mr. Trump four years ago but didn’t again this year, thought about it some more and added: “I think he’s more interested in Donald Trump than anything else.”
Kenton E. Moore said that he doesn’t support the President but that it makes sense for Mr. Trump to avoid stocks, given all the money he has made in real estate.
“The stock market is not a safe thing,” Mr. Moore, 70, said as he fished in the Missouri River in Council Bluffs. “Why play in the stock market if you don’t have to?”
Trump supporter Cindi Holland, who worked in the transportation industry in Michigan, said she doesn’t know much about what Mr. Trump does with his money, but there’s one thing she does know: “I have a 401(k) and it’s doing awesome.”
Some financial analysts warn that ordinary investors could be particularly vulnerable at a time when stocks are overvalued in relation to long-term earnings. They note individual investors and day traders are flooding into the market the way they did before previous market highs, driving the fastest-rising stocks ever higher.
“Momentum investing has run amok here,” said James Abate, managing director of Centre Asset Management. “We’re in a very dangerous time.”
Some have speculated Mr. Trump has sold stocks in recent years because he needs cash to pay his debts or to prop up golf properties that have reportedly lost hundreds in millions of dollars. While selling one of his properties could raise alarm bells, unloading some stock might not.
Mr. Trump’s 2016 selloff leading up to the election involved shares of more than 100 companies, including manufacturers such as Boeing Co. and General Electric Co., tech giants Amazon.com Inc. and eBay Inc., and food makers Kellogg Co. and J.M. Smucker Co. He also dumped oil drillers and refiners and a pair of companies that were involved in the disputed Dakota Access oil pipeline that Mr. Trump backed once he took office.
What he has left now are just stocks in funds. Those include funds that are betting stocks go down as well as up, ones targeting Japan and Canada, and several that are pegged to the S&P 500.
The full extent of Mr. Trump’s holdings and sales is impossible to determine from his annual disclosure reports. The holdings are given in ranges, not precise figures, and some disclosures list just capital gains realized from sales, not the much larger cash total.
Also, when Mr. Trump took office he put his business in a trust managed by his two adult sons, Eric and Don Jr., and his stock funds now reside in three other trusts overseen by JPMorgan.
There are no federal ethics laws barring a president from buying and selling as much stock as he wants.
Mr. Trump has been openly disdainful of some of the rules and norms that have held sway in Washington. His Washington hotel, for example, has become a magnet for foreign diplomats and lobbyists, triggering allegations that Mr. Trump is violating the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution.
“It would be out of character for President Trump to take action to avoid a conflict of interest,” said Kathleen Clark, a government ethics lawyer at Washington University in St. Louis. “It would be great if he acted that way, but it would out of character.”
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