President Trump’s beleaguered economic agenda finally caught a break on Thursday. His administration’s efforts to unleash new growth so far have been stymied by Republican infighting on Capitol Hill and a leadership void at the regulatory agencies.
But senators on their way out of town for the August break confirmed dozens of nominees to sub-Cabinet level posts.
An NBC News photographer captured the development:
AND YOU GET CONFIRMED AND YOU GET CONFIRMED pic.twitter.com/1BWkKaCZIX— Paul Rigney (@PaulRRigney) August 3, 2017
That’s good news for financial industry interests frustrated by the administration’s snail crawl toward staffing up, exacerbated by Democratic delaying tactics. Senate Republicans have been in no hurry to ease Wall Street’s regulatory burden by rewriting Dodd-Frank itself. So the sector’s best hope is that Trump’s picks, once on the job, can rewire the post-crisis regime through rulemaking.
Maybe most significantly on Thursday, senators waved through two commissioners for the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and upgraded J. Christopher Giancarlo to chairman. With four of its five commissioner slots now filled, the agency is expected to dive into a revamp of rules on swaps. And Giancarlo, who’d been serving as acting chairman, has grander ambitions. As my colleague Renae Merle wrote last month:
At a March industry conference, Giancarlo announced the launch of Project KISS, or “Keep It Simple Stupid,” an agency-wide review of CFTC rules and regulations to make them simpler, less burdensome and less costly.
“Americans have voted for a change in the direction of the country, a change back toward economic growth and broad-based prosperity,” Giancarlo said during a conference in March. “And our industry has a role to play.”
But such significant changes are not likely until the vacant positions are filled.
Treasury, too, is getting an infusion of high-ranking officials it has so far gone without: David Malpass, as undersecretary for international affairs; Brent McIntosh as general counsel; Drew Maloney as assistant secretary for legislative affairs; David Kautter as assistant secretary for tax policy; and Chris Campbell as assistant secretary for financial institutions. Among other things, Kautter and Maloney could provide a lift for a tax debate badly behind schedule and now looking likely to slide even further, given the pileup of business awaiting lawmakers when they return after Labor Day.
More help is on the way, with Brian Brooks — who once worked with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin at OneWest Bank and now serves as general counsel for Fannie Mae — in line for the No. 2 spot in the department; and Justin Muzinich, a former Wall Streeter serving as a counselor at Treasury, is said to be up for a promotion to under secretary for domestic finance.
And the big deregulatory muscle — Randy Quarles, nominated for Fed vice chair for supervision, and Joseph Otting, for comptroller of the currency — are set for Senate consideration when the chamber reconvenes.
But regulators don’t wave magic wands to grant industry wishes. “These agencies have a lot of matters before them,” says Annette Nazareth, the former SEC commissioner who now heads the Washington office of Davis Polk. “They’re not coming in solely for the purpose of deregulating. They’re coming in to act on the initiatives these agencies have in place, as well.”
Morgan Stanley published a report Thursday that reached the same conclusion. Regulatory fixes, it said, take time, are subject to legal challenge, and typically only succeed at making changes on the margins. “While we don't argue against the notion that deregulation should increase long-term economic potential, there appears far less evidence to suggest its actions boost near- term growth reliably,” the report reads. “Rather, the impact of regulation on the economy is inconclusive and difficult to measure.”
Wall Street will start discovering more agency phones that get answered. But financiers can’t call in to order an immediate boon for their industry.
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— Investors had their eyes on Washington on Thursday, but they weren't focused on the Senate floor. Instead, stocks dipped about a half-hour before the market close when the Wall Street Journal reported that Special Counsel Robert Mueller has impaneled a grand jury in his Russia probe. The Dow recovered sufficiently to notch its seventh straight record high, but its flinch suggests market participants are still on edge about what the drama swirling around the administration could mean for the economy.
So why does the market keep breaking records? The Dow has posted 32 record-breaking days this year. The Wall Street Journal's Akane Otani and Chris Dieterich offer some theories: 1. Stocks reflect the resurgent health of American corporations... 2. The global outlook is looking brighter... 3. The U.S. economy is in a 'Goldilocks'situation, where the economy is expanding but not so fast at the Fed is rushing to raise interest rates... 4. Passive funds are propping up prices... 5. There is no alternative.
— The July jobs report, out this morning, is expected to show 183,000 new jobs and unemployment ticking lower to 4.3 percent, according to Thomson Reuters. That would put hiring last month exactly on par with the 180,000 monthly average for the first six months of the year. CNBC's Patti Domm: "The market and Fed watchers are most focused on the average hourly wages. Since peaking in December at a 2.9 percent annual pace, the gains have dwindled. With inflation weak by other measures, the lack of wage gains in a tight labor market has been a concern."
— Mueller has been using a grand jury in federal court in Washington for several weeks, the latest his team is taking an aggressive approach to gathering evidence and pursuing leads. And Mueller is adding more top-flight legal talent to his team. One recent addition: Greg Andres, a white-collar lawyer from New York who specializes in foreign bribery. The Post's Carol D. Leonnig, Sari Horwitz and Matt Zapotosky report: "Mueller’s investigation now includes a look at whether President Trump obstructed justice by firing FBI Director James B. Comey, as well as deep dives into financial and other dealings of former national security adviser Michael T. Flynn and former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort... In federal cases, a grand jury is not necessarily an indication that an indictment is imminent or even likely. Instead, it is a powerful investigative tool that prosecutors use to compel witnesses to testify or force people or companies to turn over documents
CNN reports that investigators have seized on Trump's financial ties to Russia, and those of his associates, as one of the most promising veins for their probe. Evan Perez, Pamela Brown and Shimon Prokupecz: "The FBI is reviewing financial records related to the Trump Organization, as well as Trump, his family members, including Donald Trump Jr., and campaign associates. They've combed through the list of shell companies and buyers of Trump-branded real estate properties and scrutinized the roster of tenants at Trump Tower reaching back more than a half-dozen years. They've looked at the backgrounds of Russian business associates connected to Trump surrounding the 2013 Miss Universe pageant. CNN could not determine whether the review has included his tax returns."
— Meanwhile, two bipartisan pairs of senators are advancing legislation to protect Mueller from a firing by Trump. It's the latest sign Congressional Republicans are increasingly feeling compelled to confront a president of their own party. The Post's Karoun Demirjian: "While Trump cannot fire Mueller directly, many have raised concerns in recent weeks that he might seek to replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who recused himself from all campaign-related matters, including the Russia probe. Sessions’s deputy, Rod J. Rosenstein, said he would not fire Mueller without cause — but a new attorney general could supersede his authority."
— Trump for his part was up early Friday morning, tweeting about a new joint investment by Toyota and Mazda to construct a $1.6 billion plant somewhere in the United States, and other positive economic indicators:
Toyota & Mazda to build a new $1.6B plant here in the U.S.A. and create 4K new American jobs. A great investment in American manufacturing!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 4, 2017
....and don't forget that Foxconn will be spending up to 10 billion dollars on a top of the line plant/plants in Wisconsin.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 4, 2017
Consumer confidence is at a 16 year high....and for good reason. Much more regulation "busting" to come. Working hard on tax cuts & reform!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 4, 2017
West Virginia was incredible last night. Crowds and enthusiasm were beyond, GDP at 3%, wow!Dem Governor became a Republican last night.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 4, 2017
— House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) told a hometown paper that the tax overhaul he aims to oversee when Congress returns in the fall should be easier to accomplish than the GOP's failed push to remake Obamacare. “We had different opinions on how to advance health care reform,” he told the Wisconsin State Journal in a Thursday interview. “On tax reform, we’re largely in agreement.” He said Republicans will pay a price in the 2018 midterms if they fail to notch some significant legislative victories. Ryan pointed to Senate gridlock and Trump's White House as the culprits blocking progress so far: “We’re pretty frustrated with the slow pace of things (in the Senate), but in the House, we’ve actually done most of our agenda except for welfare reform and tax reform,” he said. “There’s just been a lot of distractions out there, whether it’s Russia, or tweeting, or whatever.”
But, the speaker admitted, his timeline is a bit longer than others have predicted: Ryan "said he plans to introduce a tax overhaul bill in September with the goal of passing it through the House by the end of the year."
— The crush of market-bending, must-pass business that will confront lawmakers returning after Labor Day is blotting out some lower-tier but still critical programs facing September deadlines. Among them: reauthorization of the National Flood Insurance Program, which will expire at the end of next month, in the thick of the Atlantic hurricane season.
The House Financial Services committee approved an extension, but GOP leaders want the measure to pass the chamber with a supermajority that the package so far lacks, on account of some partisan disputes over its approach. The Senate Banking Committee has yet to mark up its own version. Robert Gordon, a senior vice president at the Property Casualty Insurers, tells me his group is will be working with committee staff over the break to forge a breakthrough — and keeping some heat on Congressional leaders to move a package in September’s narrow legislative window. “It’s difficult to juggle so many issues,” Gordon says. “That puts this program in jeopardy, and that’s why it’s so important to keep the pressure on to get it done.”
After West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice announced Thursday he is leaving the Democratic Party, Democrats now hold a record-low number of governorships — and Republicans hold a record high. From The Post's Amber Phillips:
- Congress is officially on recess and will return to Washington on September 5.
From The Post's Tom Toles: "Trump sees the filibuster as being in his way, so now we know his new opinion of the filibuster:"
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