Wall Street doesn't fear Hillary...yet

Hillary Clinton gave a much-anticipated economic speech Monday that had Wall Street executives on the edge of their expensive seats. How hard would she come out against the industry? How much heat was she feeling from the socialist insurgency of Bernie Sanders or to a much lesser degree the populist challenge from Martin O'Malley?

Turns out they didn't need to worry very much.

Clinton did turn up the rhetorical guns on Wall Street, promising to jail errant bankers and go beyond the financial reform already on the books in Dodd-Frank. But she had some soothing words as well.

Democratic U.S. presidential hopeful and former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton leaves the podium after she spoke to members of the media July 14, 2015 on Capitol Hill in Washington.
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Democratic U.S. presidential hopeful and former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton leaves the podium after she spoke to members of the media July 14, 2015 on Capitol Hill in Washington.

"As a former senator from New York, I know firsthand the role that Wall Street can and should play in our economy," Clinton said, "helping Main Street grow and prosper and boosting new companies that make America more competitive globally. But, as we all know, in the years before the crash, financial firms piled risk upon risk. And regulators in Washington either couldn't or wouldn't keep up."

Clinton added that "too many of our major financial institutions are still too complex and too risky. And the problems are not limited to the big banks that get all the headlines. Serious risks are emerging from institutions in the so-called shadow banking system—including hedge funds, high-frequency traders, nonbank finance companies—so many new kinds of entities which receive little oversight at all."

Traditional Wall Street could actually take some comfort in this as well. Big, heavily regulated banks would welcome more rules on hedge funds and so-called shadow banks.

Clinton went on to promise plans in the future to "rein in excessive risks on Wall Street."

And that was pretty much it. This was hardly Thomas Piketty charging into the temples of high finance and flipping over tables heaped in gold.

And Wall Street observers pretty much expected the rhetorical tongue-lashing. A senior banker told me Monday evening that nothing in the speech surprised anyone, in part because he said Clinton had been reaching out to executives to preview the message.

This does not mean Clinton could not still strike fear in the Masters of the Universe.

There is a fairly long list of things that would freak people out if Clinton decides she needs to come out with tougher policies to shore up the left flank. And in fact such policies could play well in the general election as well. Hatred of Wall Street is a bipartisan emotion.

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Clinton could still come out in favor of a big financial transactions test; tougher capital requirements; breaking up the biggest banks; raising capital gains rates; and a myriad other policies beloved on the left and abhorred by Wall Street.

Short of any of these actual policy proposals, however, a lot of rhetoric about how more bankers should go to jail doesn't really mean much. "She's going to talk left but so far her policies are mostly just center-left," the banker told me.

As for the rest of the speech, it was also fairly long on gauzy rhetoric and short on policy proposals, which the campaign says will come later. Fair enough, it's still early. One particularly noteworthy section focused on eliminating "short-termism" in a corporate America that focuses on share prices and the next earnings report.

This is a concern shared by many serious investors including Warren Buffett and Blackrock's Larry Fink, to name just a couple.

Clinton remained fairly vague on how she would steer companies away from hitting their next quarterly number. She highlighted her proposed $1,500 tax credit for every worker a company hires and trains. But the rest was mostly aspirational.

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"I will soon be proposing a new plan to reform capital gains taxes to reward longer-term investments that create jobs more than just quick trades," she said. "I will also propose reforms to help CEOs and shareholders alike focus on the next decade rather than just the next day. Making sure stock buybacks aren't being used only for an immediate boost in share prices. Empowering outside investors who want to build companies but discouraging 'cut and run' shareholders who act more like old-school corporate raiders. And nowhere will the shift from short term to long term be more important than on Wall Street."

Clinton also said she would soon propose more ways for companies to share their profits with average workers.

These are lofty and admirable goals. But many politicians and investors before Clinton have talked about these issues without actually doing anything about them. Wall Street will be watching very closely to see just how far Clinton is willing—or feels she needs—to go.

—Ben White is Politico's chief economic correspondent and a CNBC contributor. He also authors the daily tip sheet Politico Morning Money [politico.com/morningmoney]. Follow him on Twitter @morningmoneyben.