Wall Street frets about losing White House friends as Cohn exits

Investors worried that free trade proponent Gary Cohn's resignation from the White House could make a global trade war more likely.
Mr Gary Cohn said he was leaving his post as the administration prepares to impose steep tariffs on steel and aluminium that he has opposed.
Mr Gary Cohn said he was leaving his post as the administration prepares to impose steep tariffs on steel and aluminium that he has opposed.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - On Tuesday (March 6) morning in Manhattan, Ms Kathy Wylde sent off an e-mail inviting Mr Gary Cohn to get together again.

She runs a group of well-connected corporate executives, the Partnership for New York City, that met with Mr Cohn and Mr Donald Trump to talk infrastructure last year.

Hours later, Ms Wylde clicked open an e-mail from a colleague with the news that Mr Cohn, former president of Goldman Sachs Group Inc, is resigning as President Trump's top economic adviser.

"So much for that," she said to herself.

Yet as the news sunk in, Ms Wylde grew worried. Mr Cohn's departure "undermines confidence that there's somebody in the White House who understands the financial industry", she said later. "It's concerning."

On the campaign trail, Mr Trump painted Wall Street executives as greedy villains. Then he tapped them for top roles across his administration, where they helped push for hefty corporate tax cuts and deregulation that the industry had craved for years.

Now, with Mr Cohn leaving the White House not long after former Goldman Sachs colleague Dina Powell, the industry is troubled. It's losing friends on the inside.

For more than a year, the nerves of the most powerful people in finance have been soothed by Mr Cohn's presence in the White House.

Days before Mr Trump's inauguration, JPMorgan Chase & Co Chief Executive Officer Jamie Dimon explained in a Bloomberg Television interview why he wasn't worried about the future of the US, despite the incoming president's populist campaign.

Mr Trump was bringing on "very serious people", the banker said, mentioning Mr Cohn.

Mr Dimon went on to say some people were worried about Mr Trump's unusual trade policy, but that it was "blown out of proportion" with such rational people at the helm.

This week, Mr Cohn said he was leaving his post as the administration prepares to impose steep tariffs on steel and aluminium that he has opposed. There was no mention of the dispute in a statement distributed by the White House.

The possibility that Mr Cohn's departure will unleash protectionist policies jarred global markets.

In the hours after his announcement, S&P 500 Index futures dropped more than 1 per cent. Shares of US banks fell too, with Goldman Sachs down roughly 2 per cent in late trading.

Mr Tom Nides, the vice chairman of Morgan Stanley, was sitting alone in his office watching CNN when the news broke.

"Oh, that's a problem," he said out loud.

"You can like Gary or hate Gary, but experience matters and Gary has plenty of experience," Mr Nides, who was a deputy secretary of state during the Obama administration, said later. "And I think that's really important, in both calm markets and choppy markets."

To be sure, banks are still getting their way on many fronts in Washington, especially when it comes to easing rules passed in the wake of the financial crisis.

The Senate is poised to advance a sweeping rollback that will cut the number of lenders considered "too big to fail".

Elsewhere, the Treasury Department has recommended many more tweaks.

Ms Powell, the former deputy national security adviser, is going back to Goldman Sachs. But Mr Steven Mnuchin, a former executive there, is still Treasury secretary.

The timing of Mr Cohn's exit is what worries Mr Tom Herrick, president of asset management firm Luxon Global.

"Coming in the middle of a slippery slope of trade threats is more disconcerting," he said. "What we get next is hard to say."

Mr Lloyd Blankfein, Mr Cohn's long-time boss at Goldman Sachs, said on Twitter that he is "disappointed to see him leave".

And Ms Wylde, whose group is co-chaired by the heads of Citigroup Inc and Mastercard Inc, will miss Mr Cohn.

"Gary," she said, "was one that we counted on."