The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Finance 202: Trump won’t necessarily be reelected by a strong national economy

with Brent D. Griffiths


Steve Rattner, the Obama administration’s auto bailout czar, sent chills up the spines of Trump opponents with a Sunday New York Times column arguing the president has an easier path to reelection than many think. 

And he marshaled some compelling data to make the case, citing three economists who, working with different models, have independently reached the same conclusion: History suggests the economy’s strength will provide Trump powerful momentum in 2020. 

Because of Trump’s singular qualities as a candidate — polls show he’s the only president in modern history never to earn a positive approval rating from voters — the analyses Rattner cites deserve a swarm of asterisks. 

Perhaps the most significant, though, is that a national economy that looks to be humming at a healthy clip isn’t distributing its gains evenly. And some of the workers being left behind are the same voters Trump will need to repeat his razor-edge victory from 2016. Will Wilkinson, a fellow at the center-right Niskanen Center, spelled out the case in his own Times piece last week:

Small towns and rural areas, along with some Rust Belt metros, are falling ever further behind booming urban dynamos — leaving many heavily Republican regions in a deepening morass of economic deterioration, joblessness, substance abuse and declining life expectancy. The lower-density places most Republicans call home produce barely half as much wealth as our biggest cities — and it’s showing. 

Wilkinson argues Trump’s trade war, which has prompted partners to retaliate against American farmers, and a restrictionist immigration push depriving smaller farms and factories of workers, amounts to an “anti-rural agenda.” And these communities are already struggling: Wilkinson points to a discovery by the Hamilton Project’s Vitality Index, which found the fifth of the population living in the most rural counties suffered the lowest levels of “vitality,” measured by median household income, poverty, life expectancy and unemployment, among others. 

Other research has reached similar conclusions about the “two economies” phenomenon and how it maps onto an increasingly stark urban-rural divide. An October study by the Economic Innovation Group found that economic distress is increasingly concentrated in rural areas, with the number of rural Americans living in distressed zip codes rising by 1 million over the past decade, even as the overall number of Americans in distressed communities dropped by 3 million. 

Anecdotal evidence suggests that some heartland farmers who backed Trump remain stout supporter, despite suffering trade-war fallout that has driven a number into bankruptcy. Whether those voters remain in his column if their economic pain intensifies remains an open question. But the recent coverage in critical swing states of Trump’s confrontation with China has painted an ugly picture of its local consequences. A sampling: 

Similarly, manufacturing, an industry that Trump promised a renaissance, has hit a skid recently. A survey by IHS Markit earlier this month found new factory orders dropping for the first time in nearly a decade. Hiring in the sector has cooled, too, with manufacturing jobs posting their weakest gains earlier this year since Trump took office — a development some economists chalk up to the effects of the administration’s metals tariffs. 

The question for factory workers who lined up behind Trump is the same one facing farmers: Will they stick with him? If they do, it won’t be because most saw meaninful improvement in their personal financial fortunes. The Times on Sunday profiled Rick Marsh, a 25-year veteran of the GM plant in Lordstown, Ohio who lost his job there this year. Marsh voted for Obama twice, then Trump, but said he finds the president “harder and harder to defend.”

Some pundits are interpreting gains by nationalists in foreign elections as further evidence Trump will have the political wind at his back heading into next year’s reelection fight.

The U.S. midterm results likely have more predictive power. In those contests, measured against the strength of the economy, the Republican Party suffered the worst losses by a president’s party in at least a century, according to an analysis by Michael Cembalest, JPMorgan Asset Management’s chairman of market and investment strategy. 

The results, Cembalest told me in a November interview, point to a failure by the GOP to turn that election into a referendum on the economy. Instead, he said, it became “a referendum on the unusual circumstances surrounding the way this administration functions.”


Investor jitters expand past trade to global growth. Julia Horowitz of CNN Business: "Investor anxiety about trade has quickly morphed into something much bigger: renewed worries about global economic growth. Treasury yields are down, oil is under pressure and global economic data has disappointed. Stocks could face a rocky ride if that fear really sets in. 'When you actually look at some of the major economies outside the United States, many of them have homegrown problems,' said Ed Yardeni, president of investment advisory firm Yardeni Research... 

"Recent economic data has revealed key soft spots. Manufacturing in Europe and China appears weak. Germany's economy appears to have slowed this quarter 'to little more than a crawl,' according to research firm Capital Economics."

Markets mixed after European elections. Bloomberg's Namitha Jagadeesh: "European stocks and U.S. equity futures fell as traders returned from U.S. and U.K. holidays with a cautious outlook. The dollar advanced with Treasuries.

"Banks dragged the Stoxx Europe 600 index lower, with the benchmark paring some losses after data showed euro-area economic confidence unexpectedly improved in May. In Asia, shares climbed in Japan and China. Ten-year Treasury yields fell to their lowest levels since October 2017 as the securities returned to trading, after [Trump] declared that the U.S. was 'not ready' to reach a trade deal with China."



— Trump eyes August for U.S.-Japan deal: “Trump said he may announce something on a U.S.-Japan trade agreement in August, hinting he will push for results well in advance of the six-month deadline he laid out earlier this month,” Bloomberg News’s Jennifer Epstein and Shannon Pettypiece report. “A senior official in Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration told reporters the two leaders had reached no such agreement on timing during their summit in Tokyo Monday, which followed Trump’s threat to raise tariffs on the approximately $50 billion worth of cars and auto parts Japan exported to the U.S. annually.”

— Trump says no deal yet for U.S.-China: ‘I think they probably wish they made the deal that they had on the table before they tried to renegotiate it,’ Trump said Monday at a joint press conference in Tokyo alongside Japanese leader Shinzo Abe," Bloomberg’s Shannon Pettypiece and Iain Marlow report. " ‘They would like to make a deal. We’re not ready to make a deal.’”

“Trump said American tariffs on Chinese goods ‘could go up very, very substantially, very easily.’"

China indicates changes to economy are a nonstarter: “As trade talks between the U.S. and China increasingly center on Chinese treatment of foreign companies, Beijing says major American complaints about structural aspects of its economy are running up against ‘core interests,’ CNBC’s Evelyn Cheng reports. “The implication: Those matters are not up for negotiation.”

"Previously, the vague ‘core interest’ term was generally understood as referring to Beijing’s territorial claims, such as those on Taiwan. But a commentary piece published this weekend by state news agency Xinhua emphasized that China will not yield on its prerogative about how to manage its economy."

Ballparking the trade war's damage. Bloomberg economists have evaluated different scenarios for the future of the U.S.-China trade war and concluded if Trump escalates tariffs to include all Chinese imports, and markets slump as a result, "global GDP will take a $600 billion hit in 2021, the year of peak impact."

— Veteran trade adjudicator says the U.S. is in for a tough fight at the WTO: “The U.S. will find it ‘very difficult’ to defend [Trump’s] proposed car tariff against any challenge at the World Trade Organization, a veteran trade adjudicator who has ruled on a related case told Reuters,” Reuters’s Tom Miles reports. “Trump said this month that some imported vehicles and parts pose a ‘national security’ threat, justifying tariffs under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, the basis for tariffs put on steel and aluminum last year.”

“In a rare comment by a senior trade arbitrator, Georges Abi-Saab, a former chairman of the WTO’s Appellate Body, the world’s top trade court, said he doubted the national security argument for cars would withstand a legal challenge. ‘Frankly I think, if I were a lawyer (working on the case) I wouldn’t accept to take such a case — not only on moral aspects, but I think it would be very difficult to make it prevail,’ he said.”

Trade Tension Deals Tractor Makers a Fresh Blow (WSJ)

Chao still owns stocks she promised to divest. WSJ's Tedd Mann and Brody Mullins: "Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao has retained shares in a construction-materials company more than a year after the date she promised to relinquish them, federal disclosure forms show. Shares of the company, Vulcan Materials Co. , the country’s largest supplier of the crushed stone, sand and gravel used in road-paving and building, have risen nearly 13% since April 2018, the month in which Ms. Chao said she would be cashed out of the stock, netting her a more than $40,000 gain, corporate and government filings show.

"The shares, now worth nearly $400,000, were paid out to Ms. Chao in April 2018, as deferred compensation for the roughly two years she served on Vulcan’s board of directors before being confirmed as secretary of transportation, the company said."


— Fiat Chrysler might merge with Renault: “Fiat Chrysler and Renault, two automakers looking to curb costs producing vehicles and pool resources for developing the next generation of automobiles, are planning a merger to create the world’s third-largest automaker,” CNBC’s Phil LeBeau reports.

“According to a statement from Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, the combined business would be owned 50/50 between shareholders of FCA and Groupe Renault. A board of governors would hold a majority of independent directors.”

— Juul struggles to find scientists to bolster its arguments: “Company representatives have been stalking e-cigarette researchers at conferences, blitzing speakers with emails and phone calls to ask for meetings and slides, and offering tantalizing amounts of money for academics,” the New York Times’s Sheila Kaplan reports.

“But rejections like Dr. Carll’s have created a troubling cycle for Juul, whose popular vaping products have contributed to what health officials have called an epidemic of e-cigarette use and nicotine addiction among teenagers. Because many researchers have spurned the company’s lucrative offers, Juul has had to rely on scientists with tobacco industry ties — further damaging the company’s credibility and making it even tougher to attract independent investigators.”


— Blue-state House members try to address SALT deductions: “ . . . Democrats have a clear political incentive to target the deduction cap. It allows them to criticize Trump’s signature legislative achievement while offering financial relief to their districts, where a significant share of voters benefited from state and local deductions before they went away in the 2018 filing year.,” CNBC’s Jacob Pramuk reports.

“But efforts to hike the deduction limit may not play as well politically nationwide. Democrats have spent a year and a half eviscerating the Republican tax law as a giveaway to the wealthy and corporations that blows a hole in the federal budget deficit. Not only do analyses show high earners would see the most benefits from raising the deduction cap, but doing so is expected to further reduce federal revenues.”

— Something to think about after Memorial Day — the "widows' tax": “When Traci Voelke's husband, Army Maj. Paul Voelke, was killed in action seven years ago, she not only had to deal with losing her spouse, she also had to worry about her family's financial future,” CBS News’s Ed O’Keefe reports. ‘There's an archaic rule on the books that [says], if you get money from the VA, that money offsets any money that's paid by the Department of Defense,’ she said.”

“Voelke said she's missed out on $1,300 every month, for seven years. That's over $100,000 … Now, Senators Doug Jones, a Democrat from Alabama, and Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, are leading a bipartisan campaign to fix the problem. More than 70 senators support the plan. Hundreds of Members of the House back a similar idea.”


Note: Both the House and Senate are on recess until June 4.


  • The Urban Institute holds an event on reforms to GSEs.
  • Booz Allen Hamilton is among the notable companies to reports its earnings, per Kiplinger.


  • The Institute of International Finance holds a symposium on digital finance, which will include an appearance by CFTC chairman Christopher Giancarlo on Wednesday.
  • The Washington Trade Association holds an event on how the U.S.-China trade war is affecting global value chains on Wednesday.
  • Dick’s Sporting Goods, Abercrombie & Fitch, Daktronics, are among the notable companies to reports its earnings on Wednesday, per Kiplinger.
  • Dollar General, Costco, Gap, Dell, Lululemon, Movado Group, Burlington Stores and Game Stop are among the notable companies to reports its earnings on Thursday, per Kiplinger.
  • The Heritage Foundation holds an event on the state of the Chinese economy on Thursday.
  • Big Lots is among the notable companies to report its earnings on Friday, per Kiplinger.
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