While the business community expressed misgivings during the campaign about Donald Trump’s anti-trade rhetoric, executives are now stepping more cautiously as the president-elect couples his promises to lower taxes and cut regulations with threats to impose a 35 percent tariff for companies that move abroad.
At another time, talk of a steep, punitive tariff would have provoked outrage from U.S. corporations. But faced with an impulsive tweeter-in-chief, corporate America’s response has been muted.
“We are not going to comment on Trump’s comments directly, but in general, the Chamber has always called for pro-growth policies that help American companies succeed globally and welcome foreign investment within our borders,” Chamber of Commerce spokeswoman Blair Holmes said in an email.
Trade experts have been dismayed.
“The business community is supine in responding as they should to the president-elect,” said C. Fred Bergsten, a senior fellow and former director of the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “You would think they would stand up and say, ‘Wait a minute, this is not the way to run a capitalist economy.’ ”
In a December 2009 “60 Minutes” interview, President Obama lashed out at the nation’s “fat-cat bankers.” He drew rebukes for villainizing all financial institutions. But this year, most of the usually outspoken business community has tried to mix praise and critique regarding Trump.
“I think Trump’s actions to balance the scales more evenly with positive steps to encourage companies to produce in the United States is to be welcomed,” said Jerry Jasinowski, former president of the National Association of Manufacturers. But, he added, “We should stay away from any punitive actions to punish companies that eventually make the decision to move abroad.”
J.D. Foster, chief economist at the Chamber of Commerce, sidestepped the question on Fox Business over the weekend. “Lower regulations, rule of law, stable prices, lower and sensible tax rates. If you do those things, companies are going to want to stay here. You aren’t going to need tariffs, which are self-destructive,” he said.
Many U.S. companies that are major importers could end up on the wrong side of Trump’s double-edged policy sword. They include the likes of Boeing, which makes parts in China; automakers, which import components from Japan, Canada, Germany and Mexico; and Walmart, which imports clothing and other goods from a variety of emerging markets.
Many corporations say they must wait and see how — or whether — Trump’s decrees translate into real-world policy. The president-elect on Dec. 4 tweeted that while the United States would cut taxes and regulations, there would be “a tax on our soon to be strong border of 35 percent for” companies that move operations abroad and seek to sell products in the United States.
Yet that isn’t so simple.
“In a way it’s an idle threat,” Bergsten said. He said Trump would have to invoke emergency powers under the Trading With the Enemy Act or the International Economic Emergency Power Act.
The International Trade Commission can impose tariffs on specific companies or industries, but these are usually foreign companies charged with dumping goods in the United States or making excessive use of government credit or below-market prices. The ITC requires a lengthy process that must show injury to domestic firms.
Unreasonable tariffs could provoke countermeasures by the World Trade Organization.
Trump could also fashion legislation to put new taxes in place, but that can’t be done unilaterally. Many companies have refrained from attacking the president-elect because they know Congress will play a large role in translating Trump’s tweets into law.
“There is a lot of understanding that the Hill is going to be where it’s at,” said John Feehery, a director of government affairs at Quinn Gillespie & Associates.
The president-elect’s talk about tariffs has already sparked work at the House Ways and Means Committee on a “border adjustment tax” that would impose a fee on all imported goods. It would raise $1 trillion over five years — and hurt a broad cross-section of corporate America, tripling tax bills in some cases.
One potential victim: the oil refining and marketing business. The United States imported 9.4 million barrels of crude oil and refined petroleum products a day in 2015, according to the Energy Information Administration. A lobbyist for one refining company said that between imports of crude oil and refined products, a border adjustment tax could raise about $600 billion of the $1 trillion amount, a total that would “come from the hide of the oil and gas industry.”
Retailers warn that higher tariffs would likely be passed on in the form of higher prices for shoppers. “From our perspective, the 35 percent tariff is worrisome,” said Hun Quach, vice president of international trade at the Retail Industry Leaders Association. “We want to make sure we’re selling the goods that our customers want to buy at the price they want to pay.”
It is unclear how Trump would treat companies that have been manufacturing abroad for years.
“We’re an industry that’s been global for a generation,” said Stephen Lamar, an executive vice president at the American Apparel & Footwear Association, a trade group. The group says that 98.4 percent of shoes and 97.3 percent of clothing sold in the United States are imported.
In the end, Bergsten said, Trump’s policies — fiscal stimulus, higher interest rates, and a stronger dollar — would probably cost American jobs. Every percentage point increase in the trade-weighted dollar adds $30 billion to $35 billion a year to the trade deficit, he said, adding that Trump “is going to see the trade deficit go up substantially under his watch.”
Sarah Halzack contributed to this report.