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Wall Street Gives Bush a B Rating, but He Tops Kerry

October 21, 2004|Tom Petruno | Times Staff Writer

President Bush's tax cuts have been a boon for high- income stockbrokers and money managers, and his plans for new investment accounts could bring a torrent of money to Wall Street.

Yet an undercurrent of concern exists among the nation's financial elite about the broader consequences of Bush's policies.

Record federal budget deficits -- swelled largely by the tax cuts passed in 2001 and 2003 -- are fueling fears that the economy and securities markets are headed for serious trouble. Those pressures could be exacerbated if Bush makes permanent the tax reductions, as he has pledged.

"There is a day of reckoning out there, and it's closer than a lot of people realize," said Brett Gallagher, who directs stock market strategy for Bank Julius Baer & Co. in New York.

George Mairs, president of money management firm Mairs & Power Inc. in St. Paul, Minn., said he too had been disappointed that Bush allowed the budget deficit to soar by failing to rein in spending.

Nonetheless, both Gallagher and Mairs said they were likely to vote for the president -- though "not with much enthusiasm," as Mairs put it.

For financial professionals, the Nov. 2 election presents a quandary: Although the Bush White House has been good for their pocketbooks, some worry that the administration's policies will hurt the economy and markets over the long term and ravage their clients' nest eggs.

Indeed, some Wall Street Democrats accuse their Republican counterparts of focusing on short-term personal gain in backing Bush, while overlook- ing the risks inherent in the ballooning budget and trade deficits.

"The average Wall Street firm is run by extraordinarily avaricious, greedy people who don't know their own interests," said Seth Glickenhaus, who at age 91 continues to oversee $1 billion at Glickenhaus & Co., a money management company he founded in New York.

"These are salespeople," he said. "They're not thinkers."

For their part, Bush's backers in the financial community say the criticism is unfair. They maintain that the president's tax cuts are good for the economy and that his plan to create expansive new tax-sheltered investment vehicles would benefit the country as a whole.

"We need growth," said Richard Kayne, a principal at money management firm Kayne Anderson Rudnick Investment Management in Los Angeles. "I see the free market as being the best shot that we have" to fix things, including the budget deficit.

Bush supporters also say their votes for the incumbent won't simply be in response to Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry's plan to raise taxes on people earning more than $200,000.

"I'll eat either way," Kayne said.

Whatever the reasons, Wall Street, long viewed as heavily Republican, appears to be solidly in Bush's camp.

Pensions & Investments, a trade magazine for money managers, said 58.6% of 1,700 readers in a September e-mail survey backed Bush, compared with 33.6% for Kerry.

The financial industry also has opened its checkbook for the president. Major securities firms hold seven of the slots on the top 10 list of contributors to Bush's reelection campaign, ranked by total giving by employees, according to Dwight Morris & Associates, which tallies political donations.

Brokerage Morgan Stanley is ranked No. 1; through August its employees had given the Bush campaign $527,030. Merrill Lynch & Co. ranked second, at $495,604.

Kerry has benefited from Wall Street's largess as well but to a much lesser degree. Three securities firms are on his top 10 list of contributors, led by Citigroup Inc., whose employees gave the candidate $212,504 through August, according to data from Dwight Morris.

The industry's support for Bush is more prominent now than it was in 2000. Then, just three brokerages were on his top 10 list of contributors.

The administration's tax reform package in 2003 included a sharp reduction in the top rate on dividend income, something the financial services industry had long had near the top of its federal wish list.

Yet whether Bush's tenure has been good for securities markets is debatable.

Among classic financial yardsticks, the blue-chip Standard & Poor's 500 stock index is 18% below its level when Bush took office. The dollar is worth 26% less against the euro currency, slashing Americans' purchasing power. And the price of oil is 69% higher.

Interest rates are lower, thanks to deep cuts made by the Federal Reserve in 2001 in an effort to end the recession that began that year.

As for the economy, it has enjoyed reasonably strong growth of late but continues to have trouble generating jobs. Soaring energy costs are raising fresh concerns about the risk of a slowdown in consumer and business spending.

It is the budget and trade deficits, however, that trigger the harshest criticism of the administration from Wall Street's traditional Republican base.

The budget deficit hit a record $413 billion in the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, although as a percentage of gross domestic product it was below the peaks of the early 1980s.

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