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With ‘America First,’ some foreign companies in the U.S. fear Trump is putting them last

GREENVILLE, N.C. — This would seem like a good time for DSM, the Dutch life sciences giant, to expand its sprawling manufacturing complex here.

The company already owns 300 wooded acres right next door, boasts plenty of cash and is producing 24/7 to meet soaring demand for its high-strength materials.

But DSM is not adding to its local plant or workforce. In fact, the company is delaying new investment at all of its 32 U.S. sites while executives try to determine whether they — and other foreign-owned employers — are really welcome under President Trump.

The hesitation to commit new cash to the United States follows what executives say is a troubling shift in the president’s “America First” rhetoric, stressing the citizenship of a company’s owners rather than the location of its workforce.

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In May, Trump went beyond traditional backing for American-made products to declare that "American-owned" operations, at least in the auto industry, are "critical" to U.S. national security.

The unusual statement now is undermining Commerce Department efforts to attract job-creating overseas investment, as many executives worry their foreign enterprises might be discriminated against.

"This is something the administration — and not just the Cabinet, but the president — are going to have to work to clean up," Hugh Welsh, 53, president of DSM North America, said in an interview. "To have anything out there that would draw a distinction between the folks that work in this factory and the ones that work across the street makes no sense."

Any erosion in foreign direct investment would come when total business spending is already falling. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell last monthblamed “trade policy uncertainty” for the first decline in such investment in more than three years, a major worry for the slowing U.S. economy.

An investment hiatus by foreign corporations also could imperil a key tenet of the president’s tariff strategy, designed to incentivize companies to produce in the United States rather than ship goods here from abroad.

On Aug. 6, little more than two months after discouraging cross-border investment, the president celebrated it. “Massive amounts of money from China and other parts of the world is pouring into the United States for reasons of safety, investment, and interest rates!” Trump tweeted.

Much of that investment, though, has gone into financial assets such as bonds and — unlike spending on new factories — could leave the United States as quickly as it arrived.

'It's a difficult environment'

Based on interviews with executives and workers, the idea that foreign companies in the United States threaten national security seems especially misplaced at this plant, where more than 400 American workers produce a specialized material used in body armor worn by American soldiers and law enforcement personnel.

“I feel like I’m still connected to the military. I’m still contributing,” said fiber console operator Rudy Alvarado, 39, a former Marine who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and is among the more than 10 percent of the workforce with military experience.

DSM’s $400 million Greenville plant produces a proprietary fiber called Dyneema, which the company says is 10 times stronger than steel. Along with ballistic vests, plates and helmets, it is used in mooring ropes for tankers and the protective netting that lines Major League Baseball facilities such as Fenway Park.

Inside the highly automated facility, a half-dozen workers clad in light-blue shirts move through what looks like a 21st-century textile mill. Large spools of silvery fiber feed an industrial loom, which converts the threads into flat sheets by mixing them with a creamy resin.

Later, a DSM customer will cut the sheets to the proper size before layering them into protective garb.

DSM, which originated in 1902 as a Dutch state-owned coal-mining company, is located in an industrial park just down the road from several other foreign-owned employers, including Fuji Silysia of Japan, Ceva Logistics of Switzerland and Mayne Pharma of Australia.

DSM employs about 23,000 employees in 45 countries and makes animal feed, vitamins, biomedicine and high-performance materials. Annual revenue last year topped $10 billion.

The company poured $3.5 billion into the U.S. market between 2010 and 2015, snapping up 17 American companies and expanding some existing facilities. After digesting those moves, Welsh said DSM anticipated a renewed bout of spending.

But the president’s trade policies and other factors, including elevated stock prices that make potential acquisition targets expensive, are keeping the Dutch company on the sidelines.

“It’s a bit of a schizophrenic scenario,” Welsh said. “The U.S. is a very attractive market. But this uncertainty, this ambiguity, makes it difficult to make decisions on how and where capital will be deployed.”

Some of the president’s policies have helped DSM, he said. The 2017 corporate tax cut and deregulation campaign have boosted the bottom line, either directly or by aiding customers. The president’s support for ethanol helped validate plans — first announced in 2017 — to add an enzyme production operation to an existing Emmetsburg, Iowa, plant that produces the corn-based fuel.

But Trump’s multifront trade war — which has raised or threatened tariff barriers with China, India, Mexico and the European Union — has made normally routine supply chain planning an industrial puzzle. His recent focus on national ownership has foreign firms worrying they might be disadvantaged by any number of future government policies.

In a new survey, 47 percent of chief financial officers at foreign-owned companies said the U.S. business climate is “getting worse.” That is the highest percentage since 2010, when the economy was climbing out of the worst recession in 70 years, according to the Organization for International Investment (OFII), an industry group that conducted the survey.

Other executives from non-U.S. companies — who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak with the media — say they struggle to reassure their corporate superiors overseas about Trump policies. His tariffs on industrial metals and goods from China have made the United States less attractive for companies that produce here for export.

“When we promote a U.S. investment, we have to compete with every other facility around the world,” said an executive with a European-based multinational. “When we say let’s invest in the U.S., they’ll look at you and say, ‘We invest, and we get tariffed, and we get threatened.’ So it’s a difficult environment.”

The president’s emphasis on “American-owned” companies “definitely puts a chilling effect” on future investments, said an American executive with a foreign-headquartered technology company.

For a manufacturer such as DSM, a new plant can cost $1 billion and must be planned years in advance, Welsh said. Last month, DSM opened a $200 million joint venture plant with Evonik of Germany. The Blair, Neb., facility, which produces nutrients for farm-raised fish, has been in the works for two years.

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It is not just Trump’s rhetoric that is worrying foreign companies. Several prominent Democrats, including Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), also have made recent comments advocating “American-owned” companies at the expense of employers headquartered abroad.

In May, Schumer and eight other Democratic senators wrote Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue opposing the inclusion of “foreign-owned corporations” in a bailout program designed to take the sting out of farm losses from the U.S.-China trade war. The lawmakers, including two presidential candidates, Sens. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), objected to U.S. taxpayer funds aiding foreign companies.

More than 7 million Americans work for foreign companies such as BMW, Airbus, Tata and Haier. A quarter of U.S. exports originate in factories with non-U.S. owners. But in an increasingly nationalistic climate, representatives of foreign companies worry that their contributions to the U.S. economy are being overlooked.

“The only thing worse than being a big company is being a big foreign company,” said Nancy McLernon, OFII’s president.

Rhetorical disconnect

Despite the president’s tumultuous trade policy overhaul, the United States last year attracted $268 billion from abroad, remaining the largest single investment destination.

That was down sharply from $486 billion in 2016. But economists say a strong dollar inflated the figures for 2015 and 2016.

Still, more recent business investment data reflected weakness that many economists attribute to the president’s trade policies. The Commerce Department reported that capital investment fell 0.6 percent in the second quarter, its worst performancesince early 2016.

Likewise, the Federal Reserve highlighted “widespread concerns about the possible negative impact of trade-related uncertainty” in its latest “beige book” summary of current economic conditions. Manufacturers are cutting or delaying planned capital spending as a result, according to regional Fed banks in Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago.

In mid-May, Trump endorsed a Commerce Department finding that rising auto imports indirectly threatened national security by undermining domestic automakers’ ability to finance cutting-edge research. The president, who has threatened to impose tariffs on imported automobiles, directed his chief trade negotiator, Robert E. Lighthizer, to negotiate with Japan and the European Union to boost the fortunes of “American-owned” companies.

The president’s directive drew an unusually pointed rejoinder by Toyota, which said it “sends a message to Toyota that our investments are not welcomed, and the contributions from each of our employees across America are not valued.”

Just a few weeks later, however, the Commerce Department held its annual “SelectUSA” conference to attract foreign investment, with officials including Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and a White House adviser, and National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow making appearances.

“It’s important for you to know that America is and always will be open for business. We are a society that welcomes new companies from abroad in ways that most foreigners find surprising and refreshing,” Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said in a keynote address.

“The United States welcomes foreign companies of all sizes and in a wide range of industries,” he said.

Representatives of foreign companies have asked administration officials to resolve the disconnect between the SelectUSA welcome mat and the president’s “American-owned” policy, but they say they have received no answer.

The Commerce Department’s auto imports finding was based on the industry’s “unique” competitive conditions, and the administration continues to “welcome and actively encourage appropriate foreign direct investment in the United States to create high-paying jobs for American workers,” said Kevin Manning, a department spokesman.

Still, DSM’s Welsh said he hopes the troublesome phrase, which appeared 14 times in a four-page White House statement, was somehow an accident.

“We think what the president meant was ‘American-made,’ and this is all a misunderstanding that we would love for the administration to clear up,” he said.