US politics is raucous, but US markets are calm. Can that be right?
The raucousness first. Even from the distance of London it is clear that America faces some sort of constitutional crisis. That is not to say that heads of the FBI, or holders of other leading offices, should never be dismissed. Remember that the then wildly unpopular President Truman sacked the war hero General MacArthur in 1951, a decision that now seems both inevitable and right but at the time caused outrage among the populace.
But the dismissal of James Comey, its timing and its manner, speaks of something else: disorder within the fledging administration. The US Constitution is both flexible and robust. I can’t pretend to have any feeling for how this story will end, but it has coped with more serious challenges than this. What is abundantly clear however is that the White House is in a mess. One sign of this is the leaks, whereby one faction briefs against another. Another sign is the reports of Donald Trump’s rages. Yet another is the drip-drip of stories that this or the other official is about to be fired – ironically the dismissal of James Comey was one of the few “about to be fired” stories that wasn’t leaked.
Donald Trump's first 100 days: in cartoons
Donald Trump's first 100 days: in cartoons
Donald Trump's first 100 days in office were marred by a string of scandals, many of which caught the eye of the Independent's cartoonists
Trump's first 100 days have seen him aggressively ramp up tensions with his nuclear rivals in North Korea
Mr Trump has warned of a "major, major conflict" with the pariah nation lead by Kim Jong Un
Mr Trump dropped the "mother of all bombs" on alleged ISIS-linked militants in Afghanistan, amid an escalation of US military intervention around the globe
Mr Trump has been accused of falling short of the standards set by his predecessors in the Oval Office, including Franklin D Roosevelt
The tycoon's ascension to the White House came at a time when the balance of power is shifting away from Western nations like those in the G7 group
Western politicians, including the British Conservative party, have been accused of falling in line behind Mr Trump's proposals
Brexit is seen to have weakened Britain, reducing still further any political will to resist American leadership
Mr Trump's leadership has been marked by sudden and unexpected shifts in global policy
Trump's controversial missile strike on Syria, which killed several citizens, was seen by some analysts as an attempt to distract from his policy elsewhere
The President has also spent a large majority of his weekends golfing, rather than attending to matters of state
Though free of gaffes, a visit from Chinese president Xi Jinping spotlighted trade tensions between the two states
One major and unexpected setback came when Mr Trump's Healthcare Bill was struck down by members of his own party
Mr Trump has been a figure of fun in the media, with his approval at record lows
A string of revelations about Mr Trump's financial indiscretions did not mar his surge to the White House
Outgoing President Barack Obama was accused of wiretapping Trump Tower by his successor in America's highest office
The alleged involvement of Russian intelligence operatives in securing Mr Trump the presidency prompted harsh criticism
The explosive resignation of Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who lied about his links to the Russian ambassador, was just one scandal to hit the President
Many scandals, such as the accusation Barack Obama was implicated in phone-hacking, first broke on Mr Trump's Twitter feed
Donald Trump's election provoked mass protests in the UK, with millions signing a petition to ban him from the country
Donald Trump cited a non-existent terror attack in Sweden during a campaign rally
Donald Trump stands accused of stoking regional tensions in Eastern Asia
North Korea has launched a number of failed nuclear tests since Mr Trump took power
Theresa May formally rejected the petition calling for Mr Trump to be banned from the UK
When Mr Trump's initial so-called Muslim ban was struck down by a federal justice, the President mocked the 69-year-old as a "ridiculous", "so-called judge"
A week after his inauguration, Theresa May met with Mr Trump at the White House
Donald Trump's first days in office were marked by a hasty attempt to follow through on many of his campaign promises, including the so-called Muslim ban
Donald Trump's decision to ban citizens of many majority-Muslim countries from the US sparked mass protests
Revelations about Donald Trump's sexual improprieties were not enough to keep him from being elected President
British PM Theresa May was criticised by many in the press for cosying up to the new President
One of Mr Trump's top aides, Kelly Anne Conway, was mocked for describing mistruths as "alternative facts"
British PM Theresa May was quick to demonstrate that her political aims did not hugely differ from Mr Trump's
Donald Trump's inauguration, on 20 January 2017, sparked protests both at home and abroad
It goes deeper. The White House people are either very inexperienced or just not there yet. I was speaking last month in DC with a former staffer who pointed out that normally, at this stage of the handover, many of the appointments would have been made and a core staff would have stayed on to ensure continuity. That hasn’t happened this time. Just about everyone apart from security staff cleared out, either because they were told to or because they did not feel comfortable about staying and refused to do so when asked. This is not a policy issue. It is simply an operational one: this has been a shambolic handover.
Yet no one outside of the political bubble seems to care. The classic measure of concern among the financial community is the Vix, the volatility index traded on the Chicago Board of Exchange, aka the “fear index”. That is at a 23-year low; indeed it is within a whisker of its all-time low. Volatility everywhere is low, with the markets not expecting shocks of any sort anywhere. Maybe there won’t be, but my reaction to this is that line from old Western movies – according to Professor Google first heard in The Lucky Texan (1934), with John Wayne, Barbara Sheldon and George “Gabby” Hayes:
“It’s quiet, too quiet.”
A few seconds later all hell broke loose.
It may be that broad macro-economic forces are more important that US political ones. If so, that would be testimony both to the robustness of the US Constitution and to the inventiveness and energy of American commerce and industry. But the danger is that we have all been lulled into a sense of calm because at last the recovery has broadened and deepened enough to float off almost all ships. It is at this stage of the economic cycle when we drop our guard. Growth is solid and widespread but the stresses that such growth eventually generates, particularly showing in inflation, have yet to become evident.
But governments everywhere make mistakes. This decision to sack Comey feels, from 3,500 miles away, to be a middle-ranking mistake, though that may be cutting The Donald too much slack. It is also an indication of chaos and confusion in the White House, and in particular a President who is finding it difficult to do this job and not eager to learn. Economies can run fine despite such chaos, provided nothing goes seriously wrong. But on the law of averages something will go wrong with the US economy in the next couple of years and we just have to hope that Donald Trump and his colleagues will cope with it well enough. Of course it may be another president by then – but that is another story for another day.Reuse content