There Is No Trump Economic “Record”
The Market is Doing Fine, but it Did Better Under Obama (and Many Other Presidents)
During this week, I’d like to declare independence from a big myth — that the market and economy under Trump are outperforming.
When you ask Trump supporters what they like about him, they often say something about the rise in the stock market or reduction in unemployment. “What don’t you like about how great the economy is? What are you ‘resisting’?” they ask.
Here, for example, is Fox Business News tweeting about Trump’s big “accomplishments” in his first 500 days.
(Note: before going any further on the ups and downs of the market let me just say that a president does not control the stock market (or the economy). But if that’s the measure Trump supporters want to use, then let’s explore it.)
Ok, so the Dow, Fox shows us, went up 25.1% in Trump’s first 500 days. That’s pretty impressive.
It was also impressive when the Dow went up a nearly identical 24.9% in President Obama’s first 500 days (from 7,949.09 to 9931.97), especially since it dropped more than 10% in his first month as the economy continued to crater.
Trump boosters also tell us that the stock market keeps setting record highs, as if that’s news. Besides during historic recessions, the markets set new highs all the time. The Dow is up 50,000% over its lifetime, and it set 100 new records in Obama’s second term alone.
But that’s enough on the Dow. To look at big trends, it’s better to use the S&P 500 — the companies have a $23 trillion market cap (four times the market cap of the Dow’s 30 members). Here’s how the S&P 500 has done under Trump and Obama (looking at Obama’s first 2 years in office).
So, yes, the stock market is up since inauguration day in January, 2017. But it was up more over the same time period from Obama’s first day in 2009. For context, here are the last 4 presidents.
So Trump has, so far, outperformed Clinton and Bush. But his performance is not particularly special. According to an analysis in Forbes in October 2017 — before the market flat-lined in 2018 — the stock market under Trump would rank him 6th among Presidents since 1897 (behind Clinton, Obama, Ford, Truman, and Eisenhower).
If we extend the data to include the full terms of the last four presidents, we can see that Trump has a hard road ahead to match the performance of the market under the last two Democratic presidents.
During Obama’s 8 years, the market nearly tripled (up 181%). I don’t recall lots of Fox stories about how great Obama was for the economy. And Clinton’s years were even better.
If Trump were president for 8 years, god help us, the S&P 500 would need to rise to 6,400 to match Obama’s (and the Dow under Obama went up 140% — we would have to hit nearly Dow 50,000 for Trump to match that performance).
Now, let’s take a quick look at unemployment. The story for Trump is better in this case of course.
Through June of 2018, the unemployment rate is down 0.8 since Trump took over. In Obama’s first 17 months, unemployment rose 1.6 points. Of course Obama inherited an economy in free-fall — one of the worst recessions in U.S. history. If we look at the full 8 years, under Obama the unemployment rate dropped 3 points (again, I won’t write “Obama brought the rate down” since I don’t believe a President‘s actions correlate perfectly with the hiring levels of a sprawling $17 trillion economy).
Obama inherited an 7.8% unemployment rate, it rose to 10.0%, then fell to the 4.8% that Trump inherited. For the economy to do the same under Trump, unemployment would have to hit 1.8% — that’s basically impossible. In short, Trump has zero chance to match the unemployment or stock performance of his predecessor.
We could keep going with other indicators such as GDP. As with unemployment, Obama started with an economy in contraction so obviously GDP grew more under Trump’s first year-plus. But Obama’s economy started growing within 6 months, at a rate in the range of 0.4% to 1.0%. For Trump, the first 4 quarters grew 0.5% to 0.8% each. About the same. Over the 32 quarters of Obama’s time in office, only 3 quarters saw contraction (including the first one).
So, in total, we have a decent economy overall right now. But the gains are not shared equally by any means — wages are still flat or declining for many groups of American workers (not the wealthiest in case you were worried — they’re doing great).
Overall, there’s nothing all that special about what’s happened in the economy under Trump, given where it started — which was in very good health (Trump talked about carnage in America when unemployment was 4.8%, but apparently 4.7% the next month was the result of his genius).
But all of that said, measuring how well a president — and particularly Trump — is doing based solely on key economic indicators is ludicrous and willfully blind. Looking solely at economic data relies on a fallacy that the only measure of well-being is the stock market or your own personal portfolio.
It also means, in Trump’s case, putting on some enormous blinders. As long as the economy hums along, according to many supporters, all the rest of it is ok — the corruption, the white supremacy, the misogyny, the undermining of global agreements to tackle climate change and other shared challenges, and the human rights violations against those seeking asylum in our country (i.e., ripping their kids from them).
But even without the moral vacuum at the center of Trump’s reign, it’s not even accurate to say he’s been so great on economic terms alone. He’s launched multiple trade wars that are already having negative effects on the economy and millions of Americans that supported him (workers at Harley-Davidson are already feeling it, and GM is warning everyone that its business could shrink soon).
In the end, although taking only the simplest of economic metrics, like the stock market, paints an ok picture, it’s a narrow measure. And it’s a bogus argument either way. Sure, the economy is doing fine, but is it doing any better than it did under other presidents? Not at all.
If we’re going to celebrate Trump for the stock market, we should be putting Clinton and Obama on Mt. Rushmore.
(To avoid nasty commentary, which is unfortunately too common, I generally close comments…but let’s see how it goes. You can also come yell at me, if you must, on Twitter @AndrewWinston (but I block people who love ad hominem attacks). I like to start with the assumption that most people want what’s best for their kids, communities, country, and world…and thus deserve respect. I only ask the same).
Andrew Winston advises many of the world’s leading companies on how to navigate and profit from solving humanity’s biggest challenges. He is a globally recognized speaker and writer on business strategy and mega-trends. Andrew is the author of The Big Pivot and co-wrote the international bestseller Green to Gold.