How investors might navigate Trump's likely reforms

PHOTO: Steve Mnuchin (R) smiles next to U.S. President Donald Trump after being sworn in as Treasury Secretary in the Oval Office of the White House, Feb. 13, 2017, in Washington. PlayYuri Gripas/Reuters
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It has become something of a parlor game to try to project the likely effects on investment markets of President Trump’s multi-pronged financial initiatives. And even though the GOP now has control of Congress and a president from its own party to push legislation through in concert, the disaffection of some Senate Republicans with the Trump administration and the signs of disarray in the White House complicate efforts to predict policy and legislation.

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Nevertheless, Trump has been proceeding apace on several economic fronts that should come as no surprise given the GOP dominance of the two branches of government. He has instructed his new Treasury secretary to review the complex Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, likely as a precursor to introducing or supporting legislation to alter or repeal the act, which he has called “a disaster.”

To the extent that Trump might be effective in this effort, this could make life easier for banks, perhaps helping their bottom lines and benefiting their shareholders. But a repeal of or a major revision to Dodd-Frank may be tough to get through both the House and the Senate, what with Sen. Elizabeth Warren and other Democrats railing against it as a threat to consumers and mortgage holders.

No clearer is the fate of the Department of Labor’s pending fiduciary rule, which would place new regulatory burdens on financial advisers — chiefly on advisers (including brokers) serving retirement plans. Since Trump assumed office, the department has delayed the rule’s implementation 180 days. Meanwhile, the new administration’s DOL will study the rule, and courts have issued differing verdicts affecting the likelihood of the rule’s implementation. During that 180-day period, the rule could change so much that it might never become reality.

If the rule eventually goes into effect, it would bring some protections for investors. But another effect would likely be to limit the range of financial products available to retirement plan accounts, including 401(k) plans. This might discourage advisers from taking on small plans as clients because they wouldn’t be able to earn enough from them to justify the additional compliance rigors.

In the meantime, as the likelihood of the rule’s going into effect has shifted from almost certain to perhaps never, this twist of fate will probably boost stocks of big firms such as Morgan Stanley, J.P. Morgan and UBS, though some of this impact is already baked into share prices.

Because these firms are leaner and meaner than they were post-recession, any decrease in regulations — or the failure of pending regulations to come to pass — would have a positive impact on the performance of investments in them. Stocks in this sector -- particularly those of large investment banks -- are hardly bargains now, so investors shouldn’t load up on them in any case. There may be more upward price potential for investors who buy shares in many of the regional banks. Heavily damaged by the financial crisis, these still haven’t fully recovered, so they’re nowhere near their price peaks.

The biggest impact of all anticipated Trump-initiated financial legislation would likely come from a corporate tax decrease. The apple of GOP congressional eyes, this cut seems likely, though apparent disarray in the Trump White House could distract attention from tax legislation indefinitely.

Barring these scenarios, and assuming that congressional deficit hawks don’t rain too hard on this parade, Trump has proposed cutting corporate tax rates from 35 percent to 15 percent. Most experts believe this would add at least 10 percent to corporate earnings overall.

The biggest beneficiaries of a cut would be small and mid-size companies, which pay more of their taxes in the U.S. than large multinationals. The very largest companies tend to park their cash in more tax-friendly nations, so a U.S. tax cut won’t affect them as much, though it may encourage them to repatriate funds.

So if your portfolio is light on small-cap stocks (those with total shares outstanding valued at less than $1 billion or mid-caps ($1 to $5 billion), this would be an especially good time to add this diversification to balance out large-cap (over $10 billion).

In particular, look for infrastructure-related firms: think concrete, asphalt and road-building as well as goods manufactured and consumed domestically and that aren’t the province of large, multi-national companies based in the U.S.

Though stocks have surged since the election, prospects for a corporate tax cut don’t seem to be priced in much at this point, meaning more upside potential for those who invest now. And even if any cut is a long way off, the effect of it could, in a way, be more than immediate because of retroactivity.

The backdrop for investments based on Trump administration regulatory and tax initiatives is a stock market that is a mere shadow of its former, volatile self. Volatility is much lower than it was a couple months ago, so there’s less fear and more growth.

Such a market is likely to provide more good days to get in (without regretting it the next day) for those investing based on what’s going on in Washington. But what will actually happen in Washington is anything but clear. Though the GOP congress might be predictable, Trump—and his White House—are anything but.

Dave Sheaff Gilreath is a founding principal of Sheaff Brock Investment Advisors LLC. He has more than 30 years of experience in the financial services industry.

Any opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author.

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