Expect the election result to increase policy uncertainty, warns Goldman Sachs, as a result of an increased pace of legislative action in 2017 without clarity, so far, regarding which issues the administration will prioritize. Over the near-term, much will depend on how financial conditions respond to the policy positions of the new administration. Despite today’s favorable market reaction, investors may take a dimmer view on proposals to raise tariffs or otherwise restrict international trade.
Via Goldman Sachs,
Q: Where do the final results stand?
A: Republican sweep. At this point, Mr. Trump is likely to finish with 309 electoral votes but is slightly behind Sec. Clinton in the popular vote (the margin is likely to grow as votes are still being counted). In the Senate, one race has not yet been decided but Republicans look likely to hold 52 seats in the next Congress, two less than the 54 they hold currently. Likewise, in the House, four races have yet to be called, but Republicans look likely to hold 241 seats, down six from the their current level (including one vacant Republican seat).
Q: What does this mean for policy in general?
A: Overall, we think the election result implies greater policy uncertainty, for two reasons. First, the likelihood of significant legislative activity has increased as a result of single-party control for the first time since 2010, and Republican single-party control since 2006. In some areas, like fiscal policy, the question is now less if legislation passes, but what legislation passes. Second, uncertainty also looks likely to rise, at least temporarily, because it is much less clear what the priorities—or, on some issues, even the general views—of a Trump Administration are likely to be compared to most incoming administrations. As a first pass in thinking about policy under the new administration and Congress, we would categorize issues along two dimensions: how much political support Mr. Trump would need from Congress, and which issues have been key to his political success, suggesting a need to follow through directionally though not necessarily on the specifics.
Q: What is likely to be on the Trump Administration’s agenda?
A: The issues on Mr. Trump’s agenda are fairly apparent but it is less clear how priorities will be ordered. The campaign focused on tax reform, trade and immigration restrictions, easing of regulation, repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA, or Obamacare) and increased spending on infrastructure and defense. Some of these issues appear more likely to become priorities for the Trump Administration than others. For example, it is clear that congressional Republicans hold tax reform as a top priority, along with ACA repeal. While both of these issues likely resonated with many of Mr. Trump’s supporters, these are issues that congressional Republicans—and the 2012 Republican presidential candidate—have highlighted in the past, with mixed electoral success.
By contrast, Mr. Trump focused new attention on trade policy and immigration, taking more restrictive stances in both areas than many Republican members of Congress support. While there were several factors behind Mr. Trump’s surprising victory, many of the states where he significantly outperformed were those with some of the highest shares of manufacturing-related employment (Exhibit 1). Given this, it would be surprising to see a Trump Administration distance itself entirely from commitments made on the campaign trail regarding trade. He also appears focused, as do many of his advisors, on reducing regulation, particularly in the energy and financial sectors. Some of these changes could require legislation, but many would be possible through executive action.
Exhibit 1: Trump outperformed in manufacturing-intensive swing states
Q: How much congressional support will President Trump need for his agenda?
A: It ranges from needing bipartisan support to unilateral executive authority, depending on the particular issue. He would need bipartisan support for regulatory-focused legislation, for example. Under current Senate rules, it usually takes 60 votes to pass major legislation dealing with most policy areas, such as regulatory changes affecting various sectors, legal changes (for instance, dealing with immigration or anti-trust laws) or labor laws like a minimum wage increase. In some cases, bipartisan support in the Senate might be possible in light of the fact that 10 Democratic senators representing states that Mr. Trump won will be up for reelection in 2018 (only one Republican senator representing a state that Sec. Clinton won will face reelection in 2018). Coalitions will differ based on the issue, but a deregulatory push in some areas, like energy, could receive sufficient support from these Democratic lawmakers to cross the 60-vote threshold. On many other issues, like comprehensive immigration reform, we expect that reaching a compromise would remain difficult.
Fiscal policies could be addressed with only a simple majority in the House and Senate. Under the budget “reconciliation” process, the majority party can pass legislation to cut or raise taxes with only 51 votes in the Senate, rather than the usual 60 votes needed for most legislation. The two issues most likely to be addressed using this process would be tax reform and changes to the ACA. It is possible that certain aspects of federal spending, like Mr. Trump’s infrastructure program, might be addressed through this process as well.
A third set of issues could be addressed without congressional involvement at all. The president has broad powers related to trade policy, as discussed below. Once in office, President-elect Trump could also reverse the “deferred action” policies for undocumented immigrants that President Obama put in place in 2012. Beyond this, there are a number of regulatory actions that the current administration has taken that could be modified or reversed, related to labor rules, energy exploration and production, carbon emissions and other aspects of environmental regulation, and financial regulation.
Q: What has President-elect Trump proposed on taxes?
A: Mr. Trump has proposed personal and business tax reform that would reduce tax revenues by an estimated $4.4 trillion over ten years, or roughly 1.9% of GDP over that period. Roughly half of this cost is estimated to come from his proposed corporate tax reform plan, which would reduce the corporate income tax rate to 15% and would impose a one-time 10% tax on all foreign earnings not yet taxed by the US. Companies would be free to repatriate earnings without additional tax once this tax has been paid. Like the House Republican proposal, this would involve a transition to a new corporate tax system for taxing foreign earnings. The two plans are similar in several other respects as well, including a top individual marginal tax rate of 33%. However, the House Republican plan is estimated to cost around half as much over the next ten years as Mr. Trump’s plan, at least in part because it proposes to go further in limiting or eliminating existing individual and corporate tax preferences (Exhibit 2).
Exhibit 2: Tax plans compared
Q: Will his tax proposal pass?
A: We expect that significant tax legislation has a good chance of passing in 2017, but we would not expect it to reduce revenues by as much as Mr. Trump has proposed. We note three potential obstacles to passing such a proposal:
First, the cost is likely to be prohibitive for some members of Congress. While the majority party is able to pass tax legislation with only a simple majority in the Senate using the budget reconciliation process described above, it would require near-unanimity among the 52 Republicans in the Senate next year to do so. Our expectation is that some Republican lawmakers would balk at the deficit impact of his proposal.
Second, while the House Republican proposal would increase the deficit less, it has also generally been proposed in the context of the broader Republican budget proposal, which would also reduce spending in several areas. Mr. Trump has not proposed a significant net spending reduction.
Third, tax reform is complicated, and even under a unified Republican government, it may be too complex to resolve in a matter of months.
Ultimately, the outlook for a tax cut depends on how willing marginal Republican lawmakers are to increase the deficit, and/or how willing they are to find offsetting savings elsewhere. Overall, our expectation is that there is a good chance that some type of tax legislation passes next year, but the obstacles to comprehensive tax reform go beyond partisan disputes, so we would expect tax legislation that is adopted in 2017 to be narrower in scope than the campaign proposal, and significantly smaller in its revenue effect.
Q: What has Mr. Trump proposed in terms of infrastructure spending?
A: His infrastructure plan calls for up to $1 trillion in additional spending over ten years, most of it privately financed. A memo released in late October by Mr. Trump’s economic advisors Wilbur Ross and Peter Navarro detailed a plan to finance up to $1 trillion in infrastructure spending over ten years, equal to $100bn per year or about 0.5% of GDP. We previously estimated that a spending boost of this size would reduce the unemployment rate by about 0.3pp and raise inflation a touch, leading the Fed to eventually hike one or two more times by 2019 relative to a baseline without the infrastructure package.
The plan described by Ross and Navarro would be largely privately financed, but encouraged by tax credits. The plan would seek to incentivize the private sector to increase investment in infrastructure projects that would be supported by future usage fees, such as road tolls. Ross and Navarro suggest that 17% of the initial investments could be financed with equity and the remainder with debt. The government would then provide a tax credit equal to 82% of the equity to reduce the cost of financing. The large role of debt-financed private investment in Mr. Trump’s infrastructure plan implies that a significant increase in interest rates could be a hurdle for the plan’s feasibility.
Ross and Navarro argue that the plan would be revenue neutral because the tax credit would be offset by revenue raised from taxes on income earned by workers employed by the infrastructure projects and on profits earned by contractors. However, their calculations both assume that the workers employed would not otherwise be earning taxable income and assume a tax rate that looks somewhat optimistic under the tax plan proposed by the Trump campaign. We expect that the Congressional Budget Office and Joint Tax Committee would find that the plan increased the deficit under their methodologies.
Q: Will it pass?
A: Mr. Trump appears to be more focused on infrastructure than many Republicans in Congress are. That said, his proposal, which relies on tax credits, might attract more Republican support than a spending plan of the same size. Moreover, there is significant Democratic support for additional infrastructure investment, which raises the possibility that it could be combined with the tax reform legislation discussed earlier to increase support for the overall package.
Q: What does this signal regarding overall fiscal policy?
A: We expect fiscal policy to loosen by about 0.75% of GDP, though there would be only a partial effect in 2017. Our very preliminary view is that fiscal policy might loosen by around 0.75% of GDP, with perhaps 0.5% coming through tax reductions and 0.25% through spending. Our expectation is that the effect in 2017 would probably be smaller, for two reasons. First, tax legislation would probably not pass until around mid-year, at earliest. Second, increases in infrastructure spending (or subsidies) and/or defense spending would likely take until 2018 to materially change spending levels.
Q: What has President-elect Trump proposed regarding trade and tariffs?
A: Mr. Trump has opposed existing trade agreements and suggested large tariff increases. He has proposed to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and raised the possibility of withdrawing from the World Trade Organization (WTO). Mr. Trump also opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). In terms of explicit changes, Mr. Trump has suggested imposing a 35% tariff on imports from Mexico and a 45% tariff on imports from China. If tariffs on imports from Mexico and China only were raised to 35 and 45% respectively, the average effective tariff rate would rise by roughly 11-12 percentage points (pp) from 1.5% to roughly 13%, a level not seen since WWII (Exhibit 3).
Exhibit 3: Will tariffs stay low?
Q: What authority does the President have over trade and tariffs?
A: Trade policy is an area of greater presidential discretion. The Constitution gives Congress the power to regulate commerce with foreign nations but as a practical matter Congress has ceded much of this power to the executive branch over the years. Congress approves trade agreements, but the actual legislation that Congress passes usually simply authorizes the president to enter into an agreement that has already been concluded. The consensus among legal scholars is that presidents generally have the authority to withdraw from bilateral and multilateral trade agreements approved this way.
Tariff levels are technically under the purview of Congress, though most levels are governed by commitments in bilateral and multilateral agreements. The executive branch lacks the authority to make broad permanent changes to tariffs on a unilateral basis, such as Mr. Trump’s suggestion that imports from China should face a 45% tariff. That said, the president does have authority to raise tariffs broadly on a temporary basis, or to raise tariffs narrowly on a longer term basis. Regarding the former, authority exists under the Trade Act of 1974 that grants the president power to impose quotas and/or an import surcharge of no more than 15%, though neither could be left in place for longer than 150 days. Regarding the latter, the Department of Commerce and the International Trade Commission oversee anti-dumping and countervailing duty complaints from various US industries seeking relief from import competition. The tariffs imposed in these cases are often substantial, but they are limited to certain narrowly defined products from certain countries, rarely affecting more than 1% of annual imports and averaging less than 0.2% of imports since 1980.
Q: What would be the effects of tariff hikes on the economy?
A: Tariff increases would likely boost inflation, and have mixed short-run but negative long-run growth effects. We estimate that a hypothetical 10pp hike in US import tariffs would 1) depress imports by about 5% and 2) boost the core PCE price level by roughly 0.6% cumulatively. The decline in exports would depend on the extent to which trading partners retaliate.
The growth effects of import tariff increases depend on the horizon. The short-term impact on GDP is uncertain and likely mixed. On the one hand, the shift from imports to domestic production contributes positively to short-term growth, and tariff revenues can finance fiscal stimulus. On the other hand, the real income loss from expensive imports lowers consumption and investment. Other important negative short-term effects include the decline in exports under retaliation, tighter monetary policy, and possibly broader FCI tightening. While trade raises important distributional questions, the long-term aggregate growth effects from trade restrictions are negative in our view. The academic trade literature has highlighted several channels through which trade fosters long-run welfare. Trade can boost output as countries specialize; raise the variety of available products; and increase productivity through larger and more competitive markets.
Q: What are the President-elect’s views on monetary policy and the Federal Reserve?
A: As a candidate Mr. Trump was sometimes critical of the Fed, but his views on the appropriate direction for policy are unclear. On the one hand, Mr. Trump has expressed support for low interest rates, given the current inflation backdrop: “If inflation starts coming in, and we don’t see any signs of that, inflation starts coming in, that’s a different story. You have to go up and you have to slow things down. But right now I am for low interest rates.” He has also expressed concern about excessive dollar appreciation, saying in the same interview: “If we raise interest rates, and if the dollar starts getting too strong, we’re going to have some very major problems.” He added: “While there are certain benefits, it sounds better to have a strong dollar than it actually is.” Mr. Trump has also often noted that, as a developer, he prefers low rates. For example, at the Economic Club of New York in September, he said: “As a real estate person, I always like low interest rates, of course.”
On the other hand, Mr. Trump has said he worries low interest rates are artificially supporting asset prices: “In terms of real estate, if I want to develop … from that standpoint I like low interest rates. From the country’s standpoint, I’m just not sure it’s a very good thing, because I really do believe we’re creating a bubble.” Similarly, he has said Fed policy has created a “false stock market”, that the “only reason the stock market is where it is, is because you get free money”, and that the FOMC “should have raised the rates” at its September 2016 meeting. Many conservative economists favor tighter monetary policy, but Mr. Trump’s views appear more nuanced, and we are therefore unsure whether he would favor a more hawkish Fed stance after taking office.
Similarly, Mr. Trump’s preferences for Fed Chair are still unclear. During the campaign he said clearly that he would want to replace Yellen: “She is not a Republican … When her time is up, I would most likely replace her because of the fact that I think it would be appropriate.” And earlier today, a campaign spokesperson said that Mr. Trump would prefer a Fed Chair “whose thinking is more in keeping with his own”. However, at other times during the last year Mr. Trump said that he has “great respect” for the Fed Chair, and that he is “not a person who thinks Janet Yellen is doing a bad job.” So while unlikely, we would not totally rule out a Yellen reappointment. Several past Fed chairmen have been reappointed after the White House changed parties, including Chairmen Martin, Volcker, Greenspan, and Bernanke (Exhibit 4).
Exhibit 4: Fed Chairs have been reappointed by presidents of the other party
Q: What changes have you made to your forecasts following the election result?
A: We nudged down the odds of a Fed rate increase next month, but have made no other changes at this point. After the tightening in financial conditions immediately following the election results, we lowered our subjective probability of a December rate increase to 60% from 75% previously. Markets have now recovered substantially—the S&P 500 in fact closed 1.1% higher on the day. If financial conditions remain benign in the coming weeks, the odds of a December rate hike would rise.
For now we are sticking with our forecast that real GDP will grow at a 2% pace in 2017. Over the near-term, much will depend on how financial conditions respond to the policy positions of the new administration. Despite today’s favorable market reaction, investors may take a dimmer view on proposals to raise tariffs or otherwise restrict international trade. Beyond the next couple of quarters, increased potential for fiscal stimulus may be a source of upside risk. Given that the US economy is already close to full employment, aggressive fiscal stimulus would also point to upside risks to inflation.