During a conference call with analysts Thursday morning, Ford Motor Company Chief Financial Officer Bob Shanks was asked how President-elect Donald Trump's trade policies might affect the automaker's decisions on investing in Mexico or in the United States.
Shanks said that he couldn't speculate on trade. He pivoted, instead, to Trump's plans to cut taxes and spend more on infrastructure, saying they could “build a stronger, more vibrant, growing economy and provide an environment where it makes economic sense to build back up manufacturing jobs here.”
Less than 11 hours later, Trump was bragging on Twitter that he helped stop Ford from moving an entire factory from Kentucky to Mexico.
The tweets were exaggerated: Ford's contract with the United Auto Workers prevents it from shutting down the factory in question, the Louisville Assembly Plant, or from laying off workers there without engaging further talks with the union. The company clarified that it had merely decided not to move production of a single vehicle, the Lincoln MKC, out of Kentucky.
At the same time, the company said Friday that the coming Trump presidency did give it an incentive to keep Lincoln MKC in Kentucky. “We are encouraged the economic policies he will pursue will help improve U.S. competitiveness,” Ford spokeswoman Christin Baker said, “and make it possible to keep production of this vehicle here in the U.S.”
The events stirred a flurry of confusion on social media that lasted through Friday, and they underscored two fast-emerging realities for U.S. business in the coming Trump era. It appears that large companies such as Ford could, at least to some degree, be set to invest more domestically if Trump and Congress cut its taxes. It also appears that Trump will seize opportunities to claim credit for those investments, and to cast them as victories even if they result in no new U.S. jobs.
In the case of Ford in Louisville, “No one really thought that plant would close,” said Bernard Swiecki, a senior automotive analyst at the Center for Automotive Research in Michigan, who tracks North American automakers' investment decisions. “These moves are not at all akin to saving the plant. That was never under consideration by anyone.”
What was known publicly before Thursday's developments was that Ford had already announced plans to move production of the Lincoln MKC out of Louisville. Its contract with the UAW called for it to make up that lost production — and ensure no jobs would be lost in Louisville — by producing more Ford Escapes, the other vehicle assembled in the plant. The Escape is the far more popular model: Ford has sold more than 258,000 of them this year through October, compared with just under 21,000 MKCs.
The contract does not say where the MKC production would go. Ford officials said late Thursday that they had intended to move it to Mexico. Union officials said Friday that the company had never indicated that to them. Reports last year suggested a plant in Chicago might pick up the MKC production.
Ford did announce plans to move a different line of production — small cars, including the Ford Focus — from Michigan to Mexico. It said it would ramp up other production in Michigan to ensure no workers lost their jobs from the move. Trump criticized that decision repeatedly on the campaign trail, but the company reaffirmed this week that it is going forward with that move.
So why did Ford cancel a relatively modest, previously unannounced plan to move Lincoln production to Mexico, while maintaining its larger-scale plan to move small-car production there?
Privately on Friday, Ford officials suggested that their decision to keep Lincoln production in Louisville was influenced in part by the likelihood that Trump will sign a large cut in corporate income tax rates and move to scale back fuel-economy standards issued under President Obama, which automakers have called onerous. Those policies would affect the financial calculus the company uses when deciding which cars to produce and where to produce them.
Swiecki suggested another factor: the auto industry's softening sales growth. Sales were down in October for all of the Big Three American automakers. Ford is on track to sell fewer vehicles this year than it did in 2015, a demand reduction that could mean there was no need to move the MKC production to enable the plant to churn out more Escapes.
A joint letter to Louisville plant workers from UAW and Ford officials on Friday seemed to hint at that.
“The company's plan has been to balance out the current model of the Lincoln MKC to allow for additional capacity for the Escape,” it read. “The company has since reevaluated that plan based on changing business conditions.” The letter said the company's chairman, Bill Ford, had spoken with Trump on Thursday and “let him know of the change in plans.”
Some automotive writers suggested that with the move, Ford officials were offering Trump concessions in hopes of dissuading him from following through with a campaign threat to levy tariffs of up to 45 percent on imports from countries such as Mexico and China. In his call with analysts, Shanks, the company chief financial officer, suggested the company does not know how seriously to take those threats.
“I don't want to speculate” on the impacts of Trump's trade policies, Shanks said. “I just don't know, we don't know, none of us know.”
“So,” he continued, “I just keep coming back to the fact that it's clear that at least from the campaign positions that Mr. Trump took that they are focused on growth, they are focused on bringing manufacturing jobs back to the U.S., they are focused on building a stronger, more competitive infrastructure, which I think that's great for the country, as well.”