November 24, 2016 at 2:06 PM
Wilbur Ross, the billionaire investor considered the "king of bankruptcy" for buying beaten-down companies with the potential to deliver profits, is expected to be President-elect Donald Trump's choice for commerce secretary, two officials with knowledge of the decision said.
Ross helped shape the Trump campaign's economic agenda, particularly its hard-line stance on the need to renegotiate — or even withdraw from — free trade agreements. That position resonated with the working class voters who were instrumental in delivering Trump's upset victory. Elevating Ross to a position in his Cabinet could suggest that Trump intends to nurture the nationalist streak that was one of the hallmarks of his campaign.
In a video released this week, Trump said he is focused on creating jobs and reiterated his pledge to withdraw from the sprawling Asian trade deal known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership that became a flash point during the election.
"Whether it's producing steel or building cars or curing disease, I want the next generation of production and innovation to happen right here on our great homeland, America," Trump said.
In Ross, Trump would have a like-minded businessman who understands the prospects for both profit and peril in restoring American manufacturing. Ross built his fortune buying the distressed companies that were once at the heart of American industry — steel mills, coal mines and textile factories, to name a few — and then selling them in short order, making billions of dollars along the way.
Perhaps his signature investment was the purchase of some of the nation's largest steel mills in the early 2000s, including Cleveland-based LTV Corp. and Pennsylvania's Bethlehem Steel. The move was credited with saving manufacturing jobs, with the United Steelworkers calling Ross "a new ally" in news reports at the time.
Since then, however, many steel mills have shut down amid a glut of foreign production, much of it in China. Ross sold his steel conglomerate to what is now ArcelorMittal in 2004 for about $4.5 billion.
Ross applied a similar strategy to other industries as well. His metallurgical coal company was headquartered in West Virginia, cobbled together from the remnants of bankrupt mining company Horizon Natural Resources and smaller coal companies. Shortly after the company went public in 2005, an explosion at its Sago Mine in West Virginia killed a dozen people. Ross sold the business to Arch Coal in 2011 for $3.4 billion.
And in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, Ross purchased several failed banks, including BankUnited in Florida, as well as some European banks.
More recently, Ross has invested in troubled oil and gas companies, taking advantage of the oversupply and weak demand that have tanked big-name businesses. He remains chairman and chief strategy officer of WL Ross & Co., which is now part of investment firm Invesco.
Trump's aggressive stance on trade includes a promise to label China a currency manipulator on his first day in office, as well as threatening to withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement. In addition, Trump has called for double-digit tariffs on imports from China and Mexico. Many economists have warned that adopting those policies could spark a trade war that could undermine the U.S. recovery.
"It's conceivable that we could engage in some interventionist trade policy through tariffs and other measures that might help some Americans, somewhere, for some period of time," said Michael Strain, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "But certainly the country as a whole would suffer. … As your time horizon extends beyond a few years, it's just going to be harder and harder to find anyone better off by those kinds of policies."
As head of Commerce, Ross would oversee many of the government's disputes with its trading partners, though it remains unclear how much authority over trade policy Trump might provide him. Ross could ramp up the number of cases brought against China, for example, or increase the penalties for dumping, said Gary Hufbauer, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.
"I think they are in broad alignment," Hufbauer said of Ross and Trump's views. But, he added, "Ross is probably more single-mindedly protectionist than Trump."
In an interview with Yahoo Finance just days after the election, Ross appeared to walk back at least some of Trump's remarks. He stressed that withdrawing from trade deals would only occur if other countries refused to negotiate. He also described some more mundane changes, such as relaxation of Chinese quotas on some American imports.
"Everybody says, oh he's going to slap 45 percent tariff on everything out of China," Ross told Yahoo Finance. "That's not what he said, and it's not what he intends."
Previously, Ross warned that the economy could enter another recession within the next 18 months, especially if Trump's Democratic rival Hillary Clinton were elected. He told Bloomberg TV last month that stock markets appeared near a top.
"What we're noticing is there is relatively little demand for any kind of physical product and almost nobody has any kind of pricing power," he said. "At some point, you just can't cut costs anymore and therefore you ultimately need pricing power and physical volume growth, and I think that's what's really lacking in today's world."
Ross is a trustee of the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank, and a noted art enthusiast with a taste for Chinese and Vietnamese works who boasts a $100 million collection of works by surrealist René Magritte.
The Commerce Department is also responsible for compiling crucial data about the health of the economy, including the quarterly estimate of the nation's gross domestic product, or GDP. It also houses the U.S. patent office and the Minority Business Development Agency, among others, and the department has often been led by corporate executives. Current Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker was a wealthy real estate investor whose family helped found the Hyatt hotel chain. Carlos Gutierrez, who served under President George W. Bush, was chairman and chief executive of Kellogg.
No formal announcement about Ross's position has been made, and the team was still discussing how to make one Thursday morning. Trump met with Ross on Sunday at Trump National Golf Course in Bedminster, N.J.
Speaking to reporters after their meeting, Trump said he was considering Ross to lead the Commerce Department. Ross demurred when asked if he wanted the job.
"Well, time will tell," he said.
Meanwhile, internal divisions within Trump's inner circle over whether he should tap Mitt Romney to be secretary of State are becoming more pronounced due to tensions over whether Romney's sharp critique of Trump's career and temperament during the GOP primary ought to disqualify the former Massachusetts governor from a cabinet position.
Conservative Trump supporters Mike Huckabee and Newt Gingrich this week spoke out against the possibility of choosing Romney.
"I'm still very unhappy that Mitt did everything he could to derail Donald Trump," Huckabee said on Fox News Wednesday morning. "He didn't just go after him from the standpoint of 'I disagree with his policy on immigration, I disagree with his policy on taxes.' He attacked him on a personal level about his character, integrity, his honor."
Gingrich said Romney didn't represent "the kind of tough-minded America-first policies that Trump has campaigned on" later Wednesday on Fox.
Trump's campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, advanced those critiques Thanksgiving morning on Twitter, saying she had received a "deluge" of social media and private communications from Trump loyalists warning against the Romney choice, possibly opening the door for former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani or another candidate to be named.
She added that former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George P. Shultz "flew around the world less, counseled POTUS close to home more. And were loyal. Good checklist."
Jonathan O'Connell contributed to this report.