April 27, 2017 / 2:03 PM / 4 months ago

Cox: Proximity to Trump no blessing for stocks

A trader wears a Donald Trump hat while working on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) shortly after the opening bell in New York, U.S., March 16, 2017.Lucas Jackson

NEW YORK (Reuters Breakingviews) - The first 100 days of Donald Trump's presidency are shaping up as either a bust or huge. That's how politics rolls: success or failure is in the eye of the beholder. The stock market offers a bit more precision. One message from the 65-odd trading days since Trump took office decrying "American carnage" is that perceived proximity to the Oval Office is no blessing for companies' stock prices.

Since the day before Trump's inauguration, the S&P 500 Index has gained 5 percent and the Dow Jones Industrial Average is up 6 percent. They've added around 15 percent and 17 percent, respectively, since the day before November's election, reflecting broad optimism about the prospects for lower taxes, deregulation and higher economic growth.

Look more closely at some of the winners and losers during the first 100 days – up on Saturday – and the picture becomes slightly more intricate. Some enterprises that might have been expected to outperform under Trump have not done so. Meantime, some of the president's perceived nemeses have done well. Among the largest U.S. companies on the stock market, Exxon Mobil is one example.

Any investor who thought Trump's choice of former Exxon boss Rex Tillerson as secretary of state would quickly benefit the company was mistaken. Last week, the U.S. Treasury denied Exxon's request for a waiver of sanctions to allow it to drill for oil in Russia. The $348 billion oil giant has seen its stock slide almost 6 percent since the inauguration, wiping out $20 billion of market wealth.

Exxon's share price dip is at least in line with the performance of other large energy companies. By contrast Goldman Sachs, one of the largest providers of talent to the Trump White House, is alone among big Wall Street firms in losing value under the new administration. Shares in the $91 billion investment bank have lost more than 3 percent since Trump put his hand on a bible. Its arch-rival, Morgan Stanley, has seen its shares bounce by nearly 4 percent, with other rivals doing similarly or better.

Goldman executives who have made their way to Pennsylvania Avenue include former President Gary Cohn, now Trump's chief economic adviser. Dina Powell left Goldman for the White House and is now deputy national security adviser. Managing Director Jim Donovan is a nominee for deputy Treasury secretary. Two other former Goldmanites have the president's ear, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and chief strategist Stephen Bannon.

There's no evidence to suggest the Treasury went out of its way to deny Exxon's Russia request because officials were worried about perceived conflicts of interest. Similarly, Goldman reported crummy performance in the first quarter, a sufficient reason for its relatively weak stock performance – though the absence of Cohn on its trading floors could have been a factor.

The cause and effect may be a little more clear-cut for the New York Times. Since Trump took the oath of office, the newspaper publisher's shares have climbed 10 percent amid optimism over digital-subscription revenue, perhaps driven by coverage of the president. The newspaper group, to which Trump applies the modifier "failing" when tweeting about coverage he deems negative, reported 276,000 new digital subscribers in the fourth quarter, its best showing since it started charging customers to access its website in 2011. The run-up in the stock price suggests investors expect the trend to continue when the company led by Mark Thompson reports earnings next month.

Conversely Twitter, the president's favorite medium for reaching supporters directly, has suffered. Even after getting a bump from better-than-anticipated user growth on Wednesday, the company's shares are 8 percent less valuable than when Trump planted himself in the White House. Revenue fell 8 percent from the previous year, a sign some advertisers may be worried about promoting their brands and products alongside the oft-divisive content that appears on the messaging service.

Nordstrom, the upscale retailer, has weathered the first 100 days of Trump with style despite, or perhaps because of, the president's scorn for its decision to stop selling his daughter Ivanka's line of clothing and accessories. Just a couple of weeks into his presidency, the president tweeted that she had been "treated so unfairly." The company's stock is up 8 percent since Jan. 19, while those of its rival department store chain Macy's are flat.

Not all companies run by folks Trump likes for one reason or another are doing poorly. Blackstone stock has matched the broader market since Inauguration Day as founder and CEO Steven Schwarzman has emerged as chair of the president's economic advisory council. Shares of Twenty-First Century Fox, whose chairman, Rupert Murdoch, speaks to the president weekly, are flat.

That said, one of the biggest dogs of the S&P is led by an entrepreneur who proudly hailed Trump "as a real asset to this country" just days into his presidency. The comments by Kevin Plank, Under Armour's founder and chief executive, drew a public rebuke from one of the sportswear maker's sponsored athletes, basketball star Stephen Curry. Under Armour shares are 28 percent poorer in the Trump era.

It may all be coincidence. Yet it's tempting to speculate that being a corporate member of what Trump critics call the resistance may prove a market virtue. By the same token, proximity to the Oval Office could, at least for some, turn into a liability.

Breakingviews

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