Business runs best in calm waters, with clarity, even certainty. Change is fine, but the suits prefer that it arrive by Pony Express.
The directives in the first 12 days of Donald Trump’s presidency have arrived in rapid-fire succession, heavy with Twitter proclamations and light on detailed policy proposals.
In the maelstrom: Trade deals. Threats of border taxes. The wall on the Mexican border. A freeze on federal hiring. A temporary ban on the entry of visitors, migrants and refugees from seven Muslim countries.
All of this has led to a growing uncertainty that is overtaking the early optimism that marked Trump’s transition into office and pushed the financial markets to record highs.
Now companies including Google and Goldman Sachs are openly opposing the president’s immigration order. Others, such as Ford, whose CEO has backed other Trump initiatives, are nonetheless saying this policy “goes against our values as a company.” Washington state companies including Microsoft, Expedia and Amazon are backing a federal lawsuit against it.
The travel industry, for one, is rattled.
“This is not the person the industry was looking for,” said Jason Clampet, editor in chief of Skift, a travel-industry news company. “As with any other kind of business, you are looking for consistency, dependability and being able to plan long-term. We are clearly not getting that.”
Much of this is uncharted waters for companies that have not normally taken public stances against a new president.
But in some of these cases, their moral stances and bottom lines are aligned. Technology executives, many of whom were critical of Trump during the campaign and whose workforces are especially dependent on visas for high-skilled workers, were first out of the gate with criticism about the travel order. Chief executives including Google’s Sundar Pichai, Apple’s Tim Cook and Netflix’s Reed Hastings expressed their concern about the ban. “Trump’s actions are hurting Netflix employees around the world, and are so un-American it pains us all,” Hastings wrote in a statement.
This week, Google co-founder Sergey Brin and a throng of his employees took to the streets to protest Trump’s actions.
The groundwork for speaking out on political issues was laid long before Trump’s travel ban. In recent years, business leaders have increasingly engaged on hot-button social or political issues, whether the topic was gender equity in pay, racial justice or LGBT rights.
Some of the bigger complaints have centered on the immigration order and a border tariff. But beyond specific policies, it is the general atmosphere of chaos and uncertainty that has caught people’s attention.
The president came into office pledging annual economic growth of 4 percent in an economy that has been gasping at half that pace for the past decade. His “can-do” spirit seems to be steamrolling a political process that demands nuance and diplomacy — and old-fashioned politicking.
“When you have four or five shocks to the system in the last week raising doubts about the efficiency of policy-setting in Washington,” said Michael Useem, a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, “the anxieties have to be extremely high about leading an enterprise.”
Trump’s name is now part of the script in 1 in 5 corporate earnings conference calls, according to a report by CNBC.
Not everyone is speaking out. Lobbying organizations such as the Business Roundtable and the National Association of Manufacturers that expressed support for Trump’s campaign promises to cut corporate taxes and ease regulations declined to comment.
Companies may be adopting less-public strategies.
“I think you also want to be saying things in private, directly,” said Sydney Finkelstein, a professor at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business. “This is someone who does not [respond] well to public displays of disagreement or anything that affects his ego. You want to do more of your work behind the scenes and get in a room and talk to him.”
Some said that what Trump is doing is not surprising.
Executive orders in the first days of a presidency are nothing new, said Ed Mills, an analyst at FBR Capital Markets. However, “these executive orders just happen to be more controversial and have attracted more attention,” he said.
Regardless, corporate America may need to adapt to Trump’s rapid-fire style.
“I am not concerned that this is the beginning of something far worse,” said Jamie Cox, managing partner at Harris Financial Group in Richmond. “It’s Trump. He’s a businessman, and this is how he would operate a company. I don’t think this is going to stop.”
Cox said he is watching whether lawmakers implement Trump’s directives.
“I am more interested in the potential congressional action, the tax cuts and the like. That matters more for the markets,” he said. “The executive actions are interesting, but unless you get congressional follow-through, none of them will stay.”
Wall Street shuddered a little as the week opened. The Dow Jones industrial average lost some steam over two days of trading, ending 1.1 percent down from Friday’s close — after crossing the 20,000 milestone last week.
“Between the improving sentiment and actually, quite good fundamentals, we had a very good path forward,” said Brad McMillan, chief investment officer for Commonwealth Financial Network, of the “Trump Rally” following the election. “The risk here is that by introducing as much uncertainty as he has, Mr. Trump might turn that positive sentiment into a head wind.”
Wall Street, which has looked forward to a better relationship with Washington under the Trump administration, also denounced the immigration order.
“This is not a policy we support,” Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein said in a voice mail to employees Sunday night. “If the order were to become or remain effective, I recognize that there is potential for disruption to the firm.”
JPMorgan Chase’s operating committee, which includes chief executive Jamie Dimon, said in a note to employees that “we want every one of you to know of our unwavering commitment to the dedicated people working here.”
Dimon, who was floated as a possible pick for treasury secretary, is a member of Trump’s economic advisory team. He is also the chairman of the Business Roundtable, one of the most powerful lobbying organizations in the country.
Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a professor at the Yale School of Management, said the uncertainty and unease have “been smoldering.”
CEOs, he said, are “worried about this as a precursor of other decisions being made by a small group of people who don’t understand how the arms of government will operate and what expertise is needed to develop the policy and how it will be communicated.”
As Leslie Gaines-Ross, a reputation strategist at Weber Shandwick put it: “Trying to do business when the ground under you is shaking is hard.”
Renae Merle contributed to this report.