For investors and high-end capitalists, President Trump has been anything but a blessing. Stock markets have reached new record highs. IPOs and M&A activities have reached what seems to be a permanently high plateau. Tax cuts have been given to those that needed it most: Multi-national companies and financial institutions. One could argue that Trump is responsible for the new riches that some gained in the cryptocurrency bubble that started in early 2017 – certainly, President Trump would give himself credit for this! But what do the recent scandalous revelations mean for investors that came out with Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury?
Fire and Fury Book Review
There is one basic problem with the uproar surrounding Michael Wolff’s undeniably extraordinary insight into the anarchic Trump White House (Fire and Fury – Inside The Trump Whitehouse) – which is that we already knew pretty much everything in it.
Calvin Coolidge – one of those obscured pre-World War 2 US presidents no one outside the country really knows about (what exactly did William McKinley get done before he died? Who was Warren G. Harding?) – once commented that ‘the chief business of the American people is business.’ And there’s no doubting that this is true.
Coolidge was seeking at least partly to set America apart – as America’s internal narrative has sought to do since at least the 1770s – from the ‘business’ of Europe: building empires. Empires were creaky, violent, sprawling, and messy. Empires consumed resources and people. Empires were old hat.
Business, on the other hand – now there was something the American people could get behind. It was honest, straightforward, and constructive. Business generated wealth. Business was real work. Business was sophisticated, clever, efficient. The ‘Roaring Twenties’, with its huge conglomerates and its towering figures of finance and its ticker-tape-devouring stock market, were all symbols of this brave new world where the common urge to enrichment would life the world out of its ancient and lethargic ways.
Since then, business has been America’s business. During the Second World War, the nation became the ‘arsenal of democracy’ – out-producing its rivals Japan and Germany as well as its allies Britain and France. In the post-war, a variety of American business spanned the world like colossi. McDonald’s, Coke, MTV, Apple – one after another, these and other corporations proved again and again that one did Business quite like the Americans.
Sure, US businesses could be sneaky. The US car industry strangled the railways in their infancy. US fruit manufactures reduced entire nations to poverty. The zero-hour contract; resistance to environmental legislation; the unsightly vision of doctors in the 1960s recommending particular brands of tobacco – all this was in aid of Business. But it was this same Business that meant that when the Cold War ended, it was because the Soviet people hankered for blue jeans and rock ‘n’ roll. It was this same business that turned the Japanese from purveyors of racial dominance to relentless capitalists. It was Business that won America the world. And now, it threatens to lose it for them.
To those of you investors wondering what sort of effect Michael Wolff’s book Fire and Fury will have on the American political scene – you can relax. The impact will be very little. In the end, liberals will froth at the mouth and pass out in anger. Conservatives will shrug and stab a few erstwhile allies. Trump himself – safely ensconced in bed with a burger and three TVs – will lie and bluster and throw sufficient public shade until it goes away. And eventually, it will go away.
There are far more important things down the road for any true acolyte of anti-Trumpism to relish. The Mueller Inquiry, the mid-terms, the road to 2020 when the Democrats will finally sort their nonsense out and settle on someone them. There are also other more important things to keep an eye on abroad. How will Putin wrest new concessions from a President who doesn’t seem to know what he wants? What silliness will Xi next convince Trump do engage in? Will the bleeding of the State Department continue? Will the American withdrawal from its global responsibilities?
The sad reason for all this is that there is really nothing new in Fire and Fury. So Trump doesn’t want anyone to touch his toothbrush – we already knew he was an obsessive germophobe. So his hair is fake and looks orange because he’s too impatient to wait for his dye to dry. So Melania sleeps in a separate bed, and Steve Bannon hates Jared Kushner, and everyone thinks Trump is an unhinged, megalomaniacal, untrustworthy child. We knew all this already.
More importantly, the man’s allies and supporters knew all this already, and none of them seem to mind then – and they certainly don’t mind now. Witness in particular how quickly ‘Sloppy’ Steve Bannon’s star has fallen. In the end, there is no such thing as Trumpism without Trump – Trump precisely as he is.
What all this means for an investor, though, runs deeper. What revelations like this reveal – along with the profoundly regressive legislation aimed at keeping US coal mines alive, and the withdrawal from a variety of free-trade agreements, and the threatened trade wars with China, and the constant bickering between the US government and its own biggest corporations – is that business is no longer the business of the American people.
In the midst of all this anarchy, the single biggest victim is Brand America. Europe is no longer so sure the US has its back in the event of Russian aggression. Ditto Japan and China. India – another stellar economic performer recently – has never been too keen to cozy up to the City on the Hill. Increasingly, countries which associated the United States with good governance, if nothing else, are coming to doubt that too. [Read some of our forecasts for 2018 here]
Historians have the benefit of hindsight, and this may turn out to be nothing more than a peculiar season of madness, if not anything else. And investors in the States need not worry too much about this mess right now – the US will remain the world’s biggest economy for quite some time. But already, the US’s reputation is at its lowest ebb since the Vietnam War.
The damage done to the vision of the US will take a generation to heal. The long-term danger, and one that we should all keep an eye on is that eventually, people will not want to wear those iconic blue jeans. What on earth will they want to wear instead?
The book, though highly entertaining and somewhat baffling to the more naive reader, has little new to offer. We all knew about Donald Trump’s capabilities of being President; we were all aware of his eccentric style of managing his affairs. Yet, here we are and even though we suspected that all is not well at the White House and many branches of government, Fire and Fury leaves a bittersweet aftertaste with a slight gagging effect to anyone who is worried about the long-term prosperity of the US.
From President Trump’s point of view, it might be a great opportunity to demonstrate force and unity by crushing Steve Bannon’s career and in the process intimidate less loyal followers. However, the damage is done and it might take a generation to heal. Investors have enjoyed a fantastic first year of Trump’s administration, but the clouds on the horizons are getting thicker. It’s time to be more risk-averse and to take chips off the table. Fire and fury is just one of the puzzle pieces of a bleak scenario that will unfold over coming months – Let’s see whether President Trump will take credit for this, too.
Early copies sold out quickly, but there is always Amazon and Amazon Kindle!
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David’s Favorite Investment Books