By Ted Mann
WASHINGTON -- For the corporate executives who gathered at the White House Monday to consult President Donald Trump on his plans to reshape American trade and manufacturing, the audience with the new president was the easy part.
The hard part will be returning in just 30 days with a slate of policy recommendations for the Trump administration on which they can all agree.
Mr. Trump met with a dozen executives of major American manufacturers, including Dow Chemical Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp., to discuss his plans to impose a border tax on companies that ship production of goods bound for American markets outside the U.S.
He also met Tuesday with representatives of the automobile industry, where he maintained his sharp focus on job creation and regulations on business, trying to make good on the "America First" theme he introduced during his campaign and emphasized during his inauguration speech on Friday.
From the executives, Dow Chief Executive Andrew Liveris said, Mr. Trump wants suggestions on how to stimulate manufacturing job growth domestically.
But the exercise could reveal the uneasy tension between the two largest themes of Mr. Trump's economic policy. As a candidate, Mr. Trump campaigned as a businessman familiar with corporate needs who will be able to rejuvenate the economy, a pitch he made again on Monday, including with a promise to cut taxes on business and the middle class and to reduce government regulations by at least 75%. But he has also promised to take the side of workers against management, especially in his attacks on free-trade agreements and efforts to find cheaper sources of labor, that can make some large manufacturers nervous.
The president has said he would impose a selective 35% tax on companies that outsource production to other countries and then import goods back to the U.S. -- a different approach than the "border adjustment" proposed by House Republicans, which has cheered major U.S. exporters.
It also wasn't clear how Mr. Trump's intended border tax would affect companies that already have substantial production capacity outside the U.S., but aren't in the process of outsourcing any additional American jobs.
Executives who met with Mr. Trump on Monday expressed confidence in the president's agenda, and in the notion that he would stop before enacting nationalist economic measures that hurt corporate interests.
"We did talk about the border tax quite a bit, and we did talk about the sorts of industries that could be helped or hurt by that," Mr. Liveris said. "I would take the president at his word here. He's not going to do anything to harm competitiveness."
But there were undercurrents of concern, including from the Business Roundtable, a business group that has generally supported free-trade policies, and which tried to strike a middle ground in response to Mr. Trump's actions Monday. Those included formally withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and repeating his vow to renegotiate or exit the North American Free Trade Agreement.
"We are encouraged by the administration's commitment to pursue trade agreements," said Tom Linebarger, CEO of Cummins Inc., and the business group's current chair. "Business leaders see common ground on advancing key U.S. trade objectives such as opening international markets for American goods and services and developing strong and enforceable trade rules."
Allowing China to help set its own trade agreements with countries around the Pacific region could be detrimental to U.S. interests, the group said. That was also one of the primary arguments the Obama administration put forward in defense of the TPP. But Mr. Linebarger also said it was reasonable to revisit some provisions of Nafta, given that it has been in place for more than 20 years.
The president also found support for his TPP withdrawal, and his intention to seek to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, among labor leaders and workers, with whom he also met at the White House Monday. While the TPP move was largely a formality because of the lack of votes for the agreement in Congress, the action drew quick praise from the AFL-CIO, which has otherwise clashed with the new administration over some of its nominees.
"Today's announcement that the U.S. is withdrawing from TPP and seeking a reopening of Nafta is an important first step toward a trade policy that works for working people," AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in a written statement Monday.
Mr. Liveris said after the meeting that Mr. Trump asked them to come back to him within 30 days with specific ideas to boost U.S. manufacturing. Also in attendance were the CEOs of Under Armour Inc., and Whirlpool Corp., according to the companies, as well as Michael Dell and Tesla Motors Inc. Chief Executive Elon Musk.
But those companies could have divergent interests in recommending policies to the new administration -- and very different concerns about the threats posed by a shake-up in existing trade regulations.
Whirlpool, the market leader in the U.S. appliance industry, is among the companies watching nervously as new entrants increase market share in the U.S., notwithstanding tariffs that are already in place on goods like refrigerators and washing machines. Asian competitors like LG Electronics Inc. and Samsung Electronics Co. are competing aggressively with U.S.-based manufacturers on price, triggering efforts to cut costs, including on labor.
But the kinds of tougher border taxes or tariffs that could help manufacturers like Whirlpool could also trigger retributive gestures from countries such as Mexico that would boomerang to hurt companies that are reliant on a supply chain outside the U.S.
For now, those companies are trying to maintain a delicate balance in satisfying both the new president and shareholders eager to see labor costs held down. This is especially the case in an environment in which the new president will use public platforms like Twitter to browbeat them for outsourcing -- or to celebrate or take credit when companies drop such plans or announce new American hires.
Ford Motor Co. is an example. Mr. Trump celebrated when Ford announced in January that it was scrapping plans for a $1.6 billion factory in Mexico. In this case, Ford has said it can satisfy the same business it sought to address by putting money into a factory in Michigan, while continuing small-vehicle production at an existing plant in Mexico.
But that is in today's trading environment. In one with higher tariffs for goods coming into the U.S., companies could find such moves less workable.
Ford CEO Mark Fields told reporters Monday that he had "a lot of confidence that the president is very, very serious about making sure that the U.S. economy is going to be strong and have policies -- tax, regulatory or trade -- to help drive that."
Whirlpool and U.S. Steel referred questions about the meeting with Mr. Trump to the White House.
Write to Ted Mann at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
January 24, 2017 11:50 ET (16:50 GMT)
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