May 2, 2017 / 6:13 PM / 3 months ago

Wall Street elite find it hard to bank on Trump's breakup talk

Attendees watch conference speakers on television screens outside during the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, California, U.S., May 2, 2017.Lucy Nicholson

NEW YORK (Reuters) - At an annual gathering of the world's most powerful thinkers and trendsetters in Beverly Hills this week, business leaders and major investors said they have gotten used to dismissing most things that President Donald Trump says or tweets.

On panels at the Milken Institute Global Conference, CEOs and billionaires were generally enthusiastic about Trump's mission to reform healthcare, cut taxes, reduce regulations and stimulate the economy. Panelists including JPMorgan Chase & Co (JPM.N) CEO Jamie Dimon and hedge fund billionaire Ken Griffin offered positive remarks about the president and urged attendees to give him more time to accomplish such sizeable goals.

But in interviews on the sidelines, the Wall Street set was far more dubious that Trump can get anything done.

"I don't take Trump seriously," said a senior executive at one of the country's six largest banks. "I'm listening less and less."

Like most who wanted to share their more candid views privately, the executive spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid angering the president, his employer or business associates. But his comments were echoed by at least a dozen institutional investors and bank executives who spoke to Reuters.

While they remain hopeful Trump will be able to get reforms through Congress, the lack of progress combined with conflicting messages coming out of the administration make it hard to put faith in anything, they said.

Several cited comments on Monday from Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who joked on a panel that bank investors should thank him for boosting share prices. Hours later, Bloomberg News published an interview with Trump, in which said he was considering breaking up the country's biggest banks – an idea that is an anathema to shareholders of lenders like JPMorgan, Bank of America Corp (BAC.N) or Citigroup Inc (C.N).

However, few people at the event in the Beverly Hilton Hotel appeared to take the comment seriously.

Attendees look at their cellphones in front of a wall garden during the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, California, U.S., May 2, 2017.Lucy Nicholson

"Until it's signed into law, you can't bank on it," said Aaron Cutler, a regulatory lawyer at Hogan Lovells who lobbies Congress on behalf of banks and hedge funds and was milling about on a sunny terrace. He said his clients are not yet acting on anything the administration says.

A report last week by PwC's financial services regulatory practice echoed that view. Despite Trump's talk of quick action, PwC predicts his executive orders will "yield few results," that plans to repeal a package of financial regulations called Dodd-Frank will not happen, and that any change in Washington will be slow due to a lack of consensus, a slothy appointments process and upcoming midterm elections.

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A spokeswoman for Trump did not return a request for comment for this article by publication time.

Even as Wall Street honchos privately disregard the administration's mixed messages, they were rubbing shoulders with top White House officials around the event and afterwards at swanky parties. Among the guests at one evening soirée was a cheetah from the San Diego Zoo.

In addition to Mnuchin, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos were all featured speakers at the Milken conference. Each has a background in business or finance, something other conference-goers found encouraging.

Ultimately, some said, they have to consider whether Trump is making a statement to win political points or because he truly wants to accomplish a goal. If the former, his remarks can be more easily dismissed, they said. The head of a multi-billion-dollar hedge fund firm said the situation has become "a Rorschach test" where people celebrate or shrug off Trump's comments depending on what they want to see.

Sir Michael Hintze, founder of $12.5 billion investment firm CQS, said people are being too hard on the president. Trump may have a different style because he is not a politician by nature, but has his heart in the right place, Hintze said.

"I'm pretty constructive about the whole thing," he said. "Everyone was there to hate him, (but) Trump's a decent man."

Reporting by Lawrence Delevingne, Svea Herbst and Olivia Oran; Writing by Lauren Tara LaCapra; Editing by Bernard Orr

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