People often refer to the “perfect storm.” A perfect storm is generally understood as two or more events that are independent but converge to produce an outcome much worse than either event alone.
The term is an overused cliché, and as a writer I avoid clichés whenever possible. But though rare, perfect storms do exist. The most common example is the devastating 1991 storm popularized by the book and movie of the same name, although it was initially known as the “Halloween storm.”
In that case, three separate weather dynamics all converged in one place on one day to produce a perfect storm. The odds of all three coming together at once were less than one in 100,000. That’s less than once in 270 years. That’s a perfect storm.
Do metaphorical perfect storms happen in politics and capital markets?
The answer is yes, provided the conditions of the perfect storm definition are satisfied. The multiple events that make up the true perfect storm must be independent and rare and come to converge in an almost impossible way.
Unfortunately, a political and market perfect storm is now on the way and may strike as early as Halloween 2019, marking a new “Halloween storm.” Get ready.
Today I’ll be discussing the components making up this perfect storm, and how I see them all coming together at the same time.
In my 40-plus years in banking and capital markets, I have lived through a number of financial fiascos that arguably qualify as perfect storms. Here’s a partial list:
1970: Penn Central bankruptcy, the largest in history at that time
1973–74: Arab oil embargo
1977–80: U.S. hyperinflation
1982–85: Latin American debt crisis
1987: One-day 22% stock market crash
1988–92: Savings and loan (S&L) crisis
1994: Mexican tequila crisis
1997: Asian financial crisis
1998: Russia/Long Term Capital Management (LTCM) crisis
2007: Mortgage market collapse
2008: Lehman Bros./AIG financial panic.
I was not just a bystander at these events. From 1977–85, I worked at Citibank and dealt with inflation, currencies and Latin America from a front-row seat.
From 1985–93 I worked for a major government bond dealer that financed S&Ls and traded their mortgages.
From 1994–99, I was at LTCM and dealt in all the major international markets. I negotiated the LTCM rescue by Wall Street in September 1998.
In 1999–2000 I ran a tech startup, and in 2007–08 I was an investment banker and financial threat adviser to the CIA.
That’s a lot of action for one career, but it also makes the point that financial perfect storms happen more frequently than standard models expect.
Here’s what I learned: Every one of these episodes was preceded by mass complacency or euphoria.
Before the Arab oil embargo, we expected cheap oil forever. Before the Latin American debt crisis, countries like Brazil and Argentina were “the land of the future.”
No one worried about a stock market crash in 1987 because we had “portfolio insurance.” The S&Ls could not get in trouble because they had FSLIC (Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corp.) insurance.
Mexico could not get in trouble because it had oil. Asia could not get in trouble because it had cheap labor, high growth and “fixed” exchange rates.
Russia would not go broke because it was a “nuclear power.” LTCM would not go broke because it had two Nobel Prize winners. Dot-coms would not go broke because they attracted “eyeballs.”
Mortgages were solid because we had never seen a simultaneous nationwide decline in home values. Lehman Bros. was “too big to fail.” AIG was the Rock of Gibraltar.
In short, the fiascoes I witnessed were “not supposed to happen.” They all did. The worst panics are always preceded by a sense that nothing can go wrong.
We are there again. Stocks are approaching all-time highs again. The bond bust hasn’t happened. Mortgage interest rates are near the lows of the early 1960s. Exchange rate volatility is low.
Unemployment is at 50-year lows. Real wages are rising (at least a little). There are more job openings than job seekers. ISIS is defeated. Brexit is on indefinite hold.
It’s all good. What, me worry?
I saw a recent poll asking investors when they thought a market crash might happen. Something like 80% of the respondents answered not anytime soon.
I cannot imagine a better setup for catastrophe. No one ever sees disaster coming. That’s the point.
I believe a perfect storm is coming. It’s hard to foresee the full magnitude of it, but it will likely be dramatic. It will have a major impact on markets. How it impacts you depends on how far in advance you see it coming.
What are the three elements of the perfect political and market storm I see coming together this fall?
The first is an effort by the Democratic House of Representatives to impeach President Trump.
The second is the socialist-progressive tilt in the 2020 presidential election field.
The third is the fallout from the Mueller report and the Russia collusion hoax — what I and others called “Spygate.”
These components are independent of each other but are at high risk of convergence in the coming months.
Let’s look more closely at the individual elements of impeachment, electoral chaos and Spygate that comprise this new storm with no name.
The first storm is impeachment. Impeachment of a president by the House of Representatives is just the first step in removing a president from office. The second step is a trial in the Senate requiring a two-thirds majority (67 votes) to remove the president. Two presidents have been impeached, but neither was removed. Nixon resigned before he could be impeached.
If the House impeaches Trump, the outcome will be the same. The Senate is firmly under Republican control (53 votes) and there’s no way Democrats can get 20 Republicans to defect to get the needed 67 votes needed. So House impeachment proceedings are just for show.
But it can be a very damaging show and create huge uncertainty for markets. There are powerful progressive forces in Congress and among top Democratic donors who are fanatical about impeaching Trump and will not be satisfied with anything less. One poll shows that 75% of Democratic voters favor impeachment (including almost 100% of the activist progressive base).
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer have both poured cold water on impeachment talk. They feel it’s a distraction from Democratic efforts to enact their legislative agenda. But some of the party’s biggest private money donors, including Tom Steyer, are also demanding impeachment.
If Steyer does not get an impeachment process, he looks to support primary challenges to sitting Democrats who don’t join the impeachment effort. This could jeopardize Pelosi’s speakership in a new Congress. So Pelosi could come under heavy pressure to go along with impeachment.
The final outcome is irrelevant; what matters is the process itself. Impeachment fever is not likely to last long into 2020, because at that point the election will not be far away. Voters will turn their backs on impeachment and insist that disputes about Donald Trump be settled at the ballot box. That’s why you can expect impeachment fever to come to a head by the fall of 2019. And that will create a lot of uncertainty for markets.
The second storm is the 2020 election.
Trump is on track to win reelection in 2020. My models estimate his chance of victory is 63% today and it will get higher as Election Day approaches. The only occurrence that will derail Trump is a recession.
The odds of a recession before the 2020 election are below 40% in my view and will get smaller with time. Meanwhile, Trump will keep up the pressure on the Fed not to raise interest rates and will ensure that the U.S.-China trade war comes in for a soft landing.
This may sound like a rosy scenario for the economy. But it’s not so rosy for the Democrats. Every piece of good economic news will cause Democrats to dial up their political hit jobs on Trump. Each one will try to outdo the next.
There are now 24 declared candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. That’s more than the Democrats have ever had before. Currently Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are out in front. Biden is considered the most moderate of the candidates.
But I don’t expect Joe Biden to stay in front for long, and I don’t believe he’ll win the nomination. But the only way for a Democrat to stay in the race is to stake out the most extreme progressive positions. This applies to reparations for slavery, free health care, free child care, free tuition, higher taxes, more regulation and the Green New Deal.
If Biden does fall away, then the choices are back to Sanders, Elizabeth Warren or maybe Kamala Harris. But one is more radical than the next. So, you could have a shock effect where all of a sudden it looks like the Democratic nominee is going to be a real socialist. And that would rattle markets.
This toxic combination of infighting among candidates and bitter partisanship aimed at Trump will be another source of market uncertainty and volatility until Election Day in 2020 and perhaps beyond.
But the third storm is the most dangerous and unpredictable storm of all: Spygate. It involves accountability for those involved in an attempted coup d’état aimed at President Trump.
The Mueller report lays to rest any allegations of collusion, conspiracy or obstruction of justice involving Trump and the Russians. There is simply no evidence to support the collusion and conspiracy theories and insufficient evidence to support an obstruction theory. The case against Trump is closed.
Now Trump moves from defense to offense, and the real investigation begins.
Who authorized a counterintelligence investigation of the Trump campaign to begin with? Did surveillance of the Trump campaign by the U.S. intelligence community (CIA, NSA and FBI) begin before search warrants were obtained? On what basis? Was this surveillance legal or illegal?
These are just a few of the many questions that will be investigated and answered in the coming months.
These criminal referrals will be taken seriously by Attorney General William Barr along with other criminal referrals coming from Congress. Barr will take a hard look at possible criminal acts by John Brennan (CIA director), James Comey (FBI director) and James Clapper (director of national intelligence) among many others.
At the same time Lindsey Graham, Republican senator from South Carolina, will hold hearings in the Senate Judiciary Committee about the origins of spying on the Trump campaign and lies to the FISA court. These may be the most important hearings of their kind since Watergate.
Trump will be running for reelection against this backdrop of revelations of wrongdoing by his political opponents in the last election. Actual indictments and arrests of former FBI or CIA officials will cause immense political turmoil. Such charges may be fully justified (and needed to restore credibility). They will certainly energize the Trump base.
But they are just as likely to infuriate the Democratic base. Cries of “revenge” and “witch hunt” will be coming from the Democrats this time instead of Republicans. Markets will be caught in the crossfire.
How do these three storms — impeachment, the 2020 election and Spygate — converge to create the perfect storm?
By November 2019, the impeachment process should be well underway in the form of targeted House hearings. The 2020 Democratic debates (starting in June 2019) will be red-hot. Trump’s counterattacks on the FBI and CIA should be reaching a fever pitch based on real revelations and actual indictments.
The impeachment process and Trump’s revenge represent diametrically opposing views of what happened in 2016. The Democrats will continue to call Trump “unfit for office.” Trump will continue to complain that the Obama administration and the deep state conspired to derail and delegitimize him.
The 2020 candidates will have to take a stand (even though they may prefer to discuss policy issues). There will be nowhere to hide. The bitterness, rancor and leaking will be out of control.
Any one of these storms would create enough uncertainty for investors to sell stocks, raise cash and move to the sidelines. The combination of all three will make them run for the hills. That’s my warning to investors.
The next six months will present unprecedented challenges for investors. Markets will have to wrestle with fights over impeachment, election attacks and Spygate. Trump will be trying to improve his odds with Fed appointments and an end to the trade wars. Democrats will be trying to derail Trump with investigations, accusations and leaks.
Some of this will be normal political crossfire, but some of it will be deadly serious, including arrests of former senior government officials and revelations of an attempted coup aimed at the president.
A perfect storm with no name is coming. The only safe harbors will be gold, cash and Treasury notes. And make sure you have a life preserver handy.