President-elect Donald Trump was the most unconventional candidate in the most unconventional presidential race in history. Because of that, no one trying to determine how his administration will affect the financial services industry can answer that question with any certainty.
But I’m going to make a bet. While Trump’s influence on the financial industry may ultimately be substantial, any change is going to be slow to develop — sometimes agonizingly so.
To be sure, early signs point to the new administration trying to deliver on promises to reduce regulation. The published reports pointing to ex-Goldman Sachs banker and hedge fund executive Steven Mnuchin as potential Treasury secretary, and Mary Jo White stepping down as head of the Securities and Exchange Commission, both suggest a friendlier approach to the industry. So does the news of David Malpass, a former Treasury Department official in Republican administrations, and former SEC Commissioner Paul Atkins being on the transition team.
Still, there are several reasons I believe that change will be slow.
First, with a turnover in political party, the Trump administration will enter a White House entirely devoid of resources or personnel. Even the software is likely to be removed from the computers. With transition teams working on issues and appointees, the vetting process is gradual and uneven. The initial focus has been on filling Cabinet-level positions. Second- and third-level administrative positions will likely go unfilled until key Cabinet officials are in place, which could take until at least the spring of 2017.
Second, major change requires either legislation or changes in key administration leaders. Though Republicans retained control of both the House and the Senate, Trump has done nothing to establish allies in either body, so he is unlikely to ask congressional leaders to develop policy agendas. That means he will need knowledgeable people both in the White House and in the various departments. These appointments take time and often require Senate confirmation.
Another factor will be the extent to which the new president will make financial regulation a priority. Despite the enormous responsibility, the White House is typically populated by a relatively small number of people. And if Trump’s campaign staff approach will be repeated in the White House, his staff complement is unlikely to be large. Thus an important strategic question is how much of the presidential staff’s energy will be devoted to financial issues as opposed to Supreme Court nominations, energy policy, foreign trade, or any other issues that were highlighted during the campaign.
Legislation creating financial services change is always difficult to achieve absent a crisis, though leadership changes can significantly alter direction at the top. But with all the competing priorities of a new administration, finding people to fill positions at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency or the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. will not be priorities. More immediate focus will likely be on the Federal Reserve Board and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
In these and many other areas that will become important as the new administration takes over, relationships with the House and Senate will be key. The Senate is particularly important, because of its role in approving all Cabinet-level positions. In this regard, the relationship Trump develops with presumptive minority leader and fellow New Yorker Charles Schumer will be pivotal.
The biggest unknown is how Trump himself will try to manage the federal government. Our constitutional checks and balances tend to limit excessive exercises in power. Should Trump come to Washington thinking he will be “King of the Hill,” he will find to his dismay that the game is instead “Rock, Paper, Scissors,” where every move is subject to an offsetting force that limits excess.
The result, for the financial services industry, could well be one of incremental change that gradually accelerates.