Bernie Sanders' Run Could Have Long-Term Impact on Wall Street

by Martha C. White /  / Updated 

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The anger directed at Wall Street in the wake of the financial crisis may seem like a distant memory, but the financial industry is again in the hot seat thanks to the surprising stamina of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. The Vermont senator’s populism is making its way into the talking points of Democratic and Republican candidates alike, which means the 1 percent could be a target regardless of who winds up in the White House.

“I think at first people were surprised at how much of a challenge Bernie Sanders was to Hillary Clinton, but then you think back about the days of Occupy Wall Street and you realize there’s still a lot of anger festering and a lot of people still haven’t participated in the economic recovery,” said Mitchell Goldberg, president of ClientFirst Strategy, Inc., an investment advisory firm.

“You definitely get a sense of dread… he’s really going after Wall Street,” said Sam Hamadeh, CEO of PrivCo, a company that researches financial information on private companies.

While most financial professionals initially dismissed Sanders as a serious candidate, they now believe his candidacy will have a lingering effect on public sentiment on topics like taxes and regulations.

“The feeling on the street is not so much that anyone believes Bernie Sanders will take the nomination, it’s how hard Bernie Sanders (will) pull Hillary Clinton to the left and if she is indeed elected… will she stay that far to the left,” Goldberg said.

On the campaign trail, Clinton has been more vocal of late about regulating Wall Street and hardships facing the middle class. On “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” last week, she even took a swipe at ATM fees.

“If beating up on the financial services sector can bring in the vote, they’re going to do that,” Goldberg said.

“I haven’t run across any banker that feels that warmly towards Bernie, even among liberal Democrats,” said banking analyst Bert Ely, who echoed Goldberg’s observation. “I think the concern is on financial issues he’s pulling Hillary to the left.”

What’s even more unlikely than Clinton’s embrace of some main Sanders talking points like higher taxes on the rich and free higher education is that anti-Wall Street sentiment has crept into typically business-friendly Republican territory.

“Even Trump is saying he’s getting rid of carried interest,” Hamadeh said.

GOP hopefuls, eager to court disaffected voters, also are talking about income inequality and taxing investments on the campaign trail, while some nominees, including Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, have railed against the bank bailouts that took place after the 2008 financial crisis.

“It’s completely new … the notion that everyone’s trying to show how middle class they are,” Hamadeh said. “Things have changed,” he added, noting mounting concern within the financial sector about the slumping poll numbers of Republican standard-bearer Jeb Bush.

“I think both Trump and Sanders at the extremes are a reflection of voter dissatisfaction with how effective government is right now,” said Barry Knight, president of wealth management firm Next Financial Group, Inc.

Whoever steps into the White House after the next election might want to bring an extra stress ball for the Oval Office desk, as the economy is sure to be a top contender for the biggest heartburn-inducer for the nation’s next commander-in-chief.

The biggest challenge is going to be budget issues -- getting Congress to deal with Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid,” said Gerald Sparrow, president of investment advisory firm Sparrow Capital Management. “I’m 56 and I know a lot of people in their 60s that are relying on Social Security. That’s going to be an issue.”

Along with entitlements, the next president will need to deal with the nation’s byzantine tax code. “All of the people running for president are proclaiming their tax plan is the best thing since sliced bread,” Goldberg said. “I take it all with a grain of salt.”

The problem, as observers across the economic and political spectrum have pointed out, is that reforms elicit more enthusiasm in theory than practice. “It’s always easy to talk in a general sense about loopholes and it’s always easy to talk about loopholes that belong to somebody else,” Goldberg said.

Some investment professionals who say they’re no fans of Sanders do acknowledge that his candidacy is forcing conversations on important topics.

“His intentions of getting people educated, of everybody paying their fair share… are well-intended — the mechanism to get there I don’t agree with,” Sparrow said. “I think that he’s a good counterweight to the Republicans and Hillary Clinton… He does stimulate thought with regard to his policy initiatives, whether it be taxes (or) social issues.”

If 2017 sees the inauguration of President Hillary Clinton, Wall Street will be bracing to see how much of the Sanders-esque campaign rhetoric she has embraced of late would carry through to the presidency.

“How would that affect everyone from a regulatory standpoint and from a market metric standpoint?” Goldberg said. “The financial services industry is one of the most heavily regulated industries in the country as it is,” he said, expressing concern that a more heavy-handed regulatory environment could discourage investment and curtail growth.

“There’s a lot of resignation — it’s just matter of how bad it will be,” Hamadeh said. “There’s so much momentum Bernie has opened up, there’s no turning back.”

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