Curious Capitalist

The Widening Divide Between Wall Street and Washington

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There is much that divides Wall Street and Washington. The cleanliness of the streets. Sartorial daring. And the view on whether or not we’ll fall off the fiscal cliff by year’s end.

Wall Street, which bets on the future for a living, seems sure that Washington will come up with a solution. Markets rose as cliff negotiations between President Obama and congressional leaders commenced. While investors are worried about last minute brinksmanship, the consensus has been that the stock plunge that would surely result is “hardly the holiday gift legislators will want to deliver to their constituents,” as one major bank put it.

But Washington exists on a different planet than Wall Street and that planet has different laws of gravity. The first law is that while finance is global, politics is local. Wall Street looks at Europe and sees what three years of delays and half measures in dealing with the Eurozone budget crisis has wrought — another recession. Surely, the thinking goes, leaders in Washington won’t let that happen here. But a new set of possibly more conservative House Republicans isn’t looking across the Atlantic, but to their home districts, where they’ll be facing the next round of primary elections in two years. They may have taken some Wall Street campaign money, but they aren’t taking orders from the Street on a debt deal, no matter what the markets do. “Policy makers aren’t doing this with a sharp pencil. They are just worrying about slogans,” said hedge fund honcho Ray Dalio at a recent Council on Foreign Relations meeting.

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This underscores the second gulf between Washington and the Street—their time horizons. Sure, traders often bet on changes that happen within milliseconds. But the most successful ones have a worldview that spans centuries. Dalio, for example, is known for pouring over hundreds of years of financial history and decades of data, searching for patterns that mark the sea changes in economic cycles. At the CFR event, he spoke about how the world could very well be entering a new era in which just getting our investment dollars back will be a big accomplishment. Avoiding that fate will require a delicate mix of job-creating spending, deficit reduction, and smart monetary policy orchestrated over a decade. Politicians working on four-year election cycles have little impetus to make those changes fast enough or thoughtfully enough, as the last few years have shown.

Indeed, a new batch of arguably more conservative Republicans in the House has even less impetus than they did before the elections, which took the number of crossover districts down by half. “People who buy the argument that Republicans have been chastised [by Romney’s loss and exit polls blaming them for budgetary standoffs] aren’t following what’s happening at the House on a granular level,” says David Wasserman, the U.S. House analyst for the Cook Political Report. This new set of House members may have taken Wall Street money, but they aren’t taking orders from the Street on a debt deal, no matter what markets do.

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For more on how the fiscal cliff talks are likely to end, and what the market implications could be, pick up my Curious Capitalist column in the latest issue of TIME magazine.