Donald Trump's big short: Is the president profiting off the market chaos he creates?

There's a pattern of strange "chaos trades" tied to Trump's "trade war" blurts. It could be epic corruption

Published October 22, 2019 9:10AM (EDT)


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Back in early 2018, I noticed something hinky about the confluence of Donald Trump’s blurts about his trade war with the movement of the stock market. As I wrote in this space back in August, I believe Trump or people close to Trump might be profiting off the volatility of the markets ever since the president first declared a trade war against our allies and frenemies alike.

Since the passage of the 2009 stimulus, and with the exception of 2015, the markets have been mostly climbing steadily, in a relatively smooth upward slope. This ascending trajectory continued through the first year of Trump’s presidency until suddenly we began to observe harrowing single-day declines — volatility in the form of precipitous collapses of as much as 1,175 points off the Dow Jones average. 

In fact, the top five biggest single-day point declines in the history of the Dow have occurred on Trump’s watch, and all have occurred since February, 2018.

Coincidentally — or maybe not quite that — the president issued his first tariffs on Jan. 22, 2018, and the first gigantic market decline of his presidency happened two weeks later on Feb. 5: the aforementioned 1,175-point crash. However, there were smaller declines that began the day after the first tariff announcement. Since then, many of the biggest market gains or declines have occurred within days, sometimes within hours, of Trump’s various statements and tweets. 

When there’s good news from Trump’s yapper, the markets climb. When there’s bad news, the markets take a shit. Scanning the financial sites, traders and analysts alike have been clear about why the markets freaked out on each occasion, for better or worse, and the freak-outs have almost always coincided with a Trump blurt about trade. Hence the ongoing rollercoaster of market volatility since late January of 2018.

Vanity Fair’s William Cohan published a mind-blowing item last week that closely examined several “chaos trades” and the linkage between Trump’s blurts and the movement of the S&P 500. Sure enough, someone — or a connected group of someones — has been making super-colossal trades just prior to Trump’s announcements about the trade war. When I say “super-colossal,” I’m vastly understating the magnitude of the windfalls these trades have produced.

Cohan writes about one trade in which someone bought 82,000 “e-mini” contracts on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) just before the markets closed on Sept. 10. The following day, Trump announced a delay in implementing new tariffs on China, which was received as good news, thus launching the S&P skyward by 47 points to close at 3,016. The trader who ordered the 82,000 e-mini contracts, at $50 per contract multiplied by the 47-point gain, made a profit of around $190 million in one suspiciously miraculous day. If the investor’s last name isn't Kreskin, there’s no way of knowing that Trump would suddenly emerge with that announcement about China, unless the president or someone acquainted with his thinking alerted the investor. If that happened, Trump and the investor could be in a lot of trouble.

A $190 million profit earned on the knee-jerk whimsy of a Trump blurt is pocket lint compared with another suspicious trade that came down on June 28 when another mysterious someone bought a whopping 420,000 e-minis. At the G20 summit the very next day, following a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Trump told reporters that everything with China was hunky-dory. The next week, the S&P jumped 84 points, earning the mystery investor a nosebleed-inducing profit of $1.8 billion — that’s billion with a “b.” 

Then, on Aug. 23, according to Cohan, an unknown investor picked up 386,000 e-minis. On Aug. 26, during the G7 summit, we learned from the president that Chinese trade officials had called and told him they were ready to return to the negotiation table. On that news, the S&P jumped 80 points and the investor raked in a profit of $1.5 billion. It turned out, however, that Trump lied about the phone call. China’s negotiators hadn't called him at all. In other words, someone earned a sum of around half of Trump’s entire net worth based strictly on a Trump lie.

One CME veteran told Cohan, “There is definite hanky-panky going on, to the world’s financial markets’ detriment. This is abysmal.”

The Vanity Fair piece also described a short sale on the S&P that was, yet again, strangely linked to market movement triggered by the president. Briefly put, taking out a short position on a stock is a bet against the success of a stock. Turning a profit on a short sale requires the stock to drop in value. Some shorts end up driving a stock down even more than it would have fallen naturally. It’s a crappy but common investment strategy that frankly ought to be illegal. 

Words like “illegal,” “hanky-panky” and “abysmal” barely begin to describe the possibility that Trump might also be shorting the markets based on his tweets and the erratic fluffing of his trade negotiations. It doesn’t take a Wall Street genius to know that if there’s bad news for the markets, short positions can be quite lucrative. So, when we look at those massive one-day declines, moving on Trump’s unpredictable shrieking, it seems as if short positions, rather than traditional investments such as those immense e-mini orders Cohan described, would be the only investments to make in accordance with bad news from Trump — and the only person who really knows what Trump might say from moment to moment is Trump.

If the president is indeed shorting the markets, what does this say about his stewardship of the economy? Is his disregard for the health and prosperity of the financial markets, businesses and investors alike, so profound that he’s betting against their collective success and potentially profiting from their failure? I find it difficult to believe that the “forgotten men and women” had this in mind when they foolishly set loose such an unapologetic disruption agent upon the world.

Is the president even capable of knowingly manipulating the stock market? You’re damn right he is. You might recall a massive investigation by the New York Times indicating that Trump engaged in a scheme with his dad, Fred Trump, known as “greenmailing”:

During the 1980s, Donald Trump became notorious for leaking word that he was taking positions in stocks, hinting of a possible takeover, and then either selling on the run-up or trying to extract lucrative concessions from the target company to make him go away. It was a form of stock manipulation with an unsavory label: “greenmailing.” The Times unearthed evidence that Mr. Trump enlisted his father as his greenmailing wingman.

So there’s no denying that he’s wired for this awfulness. Additionally, knowing his history with Wall Street combined with the obvious impact of his yawps, he’d have to be in a coma not to notice the power he possesses over the markets. It also goes without saying he’s not personally making these trades. He could merely be tipping off a trusted ally who, him- or herself, might be several hops removed from the actual broker of the trades. Remember: Trump moves like a gangster, and, as we learned in "The Godfather: Part II," the boss has “a lotta buffas.”

Or there’s always the possibility that this is a wild coincidence, and that the one honorable thing Trump’s ever done in his life is to ignore his ability to blurt things that move the markets, whether soaring through the roof or collapsing into the basement. 

Given that he’s been transparently profiting off the presidency by dragging his entire motorcade to his resorts in Bedminster or Sterling or Mar-a-lago on an almost weekly basis; by hosting 500 Saudis at Trump International; by sending Air Force transports to the financially struggling airfield closest to his Turnberry golf resort in Scotland and ordering the airmen to stay overnight at the resort; by announcing that next year’s G7 would he held at Trump Doral in Miami (until be backpedaled), and all the rest of it, does he really seem like a man who’s loath to profiteer off his presidency? 

Bear in mind, too, that Trump referred to the emoluments clause of the U.S. Constitution as the “phony emoluments clause” during remarks in the cabinet room on Monday. Make no mistake: He knows it exists, he just has zero respect for its existence.

It’s impossible to know incriminating details about these trades from public records. So perhaps an entity with subpoena power and oversight of the financial markets, something like Rep. Maxine Waters' Financial Services Committee, or Rep. Carolyn Maloney’s subcommittee, should take a closer look. If it bears out under scrutiny, we’re talking about serious felonies and at least a handful of additional articles of impeachment on the table. 

By Bob Cesca

Bob Cesca is a regular contributor to Salon. He's also the host of "The Bob Cesca Show" podcast, and a weekly guest on both the "Stephanie Miller Show" and "Tell Me Everything with John Fugelsang." Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Contribute through LaterPay to support Bob's Salon articles -- all money donated goes directly to the writer.