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CEO Daily: Immelt’s dim view of the election

May 21, 2016, 4:43 AM UTC

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General Electric isn’t waiting for the November election to render a verdict on globalization. With strong protectionist headwinds blowing at home and abroad, the industrial giant is making what CEO Jeff Immelt calls a “bold pivot” to localize operations within its world-spanning footprint. So while the company used to produce locomotives in one only one spot, for example, it now does so at multiple sites, in part to preserve market access and ensure it can weather the anti-trade tide. Immelt described the strategy Friday afternoon in a commencement address to New York University’s Stern School of Business, telling graduates they are entering the most volatile and uncertain global economy he’s ever seen.

As a political commentary, what’s striking about Immelt’s address is that he appears to be taking the new rash of protectionist rhetoric at face value. Some very recent history might suggest that’s a mistake. Recall that the last time Hillary Clinton ran for president, in 2008, she scrapped with Barack Obama over who’d make the toughest opponent of freer trade. But once in office, they worked together to craft the Trans Pacific Partnership, which Clinton belatedly disowned after she became a candidate again. The difference this season — as Immelt noted in his speech, without naming names — is that the presumptive nominees of both parties now agree on the issue. Donald Trump has made his hostility to past trade pacts a keystone of his candidacy, pledging to confront our trading partners and declaring just this week, “Who the hell cares about a trade war?”

Immelt knows Trump is drafting off of a deeper populist animus already convulsing the conservative movement. Last fall, when Congressional Republicans blocked the renewal of the Export-Import Bank, GE blamed the impasse for its decision to move 400 U.S. jobs to France. “Unlike the U.S., most countries are increasing their export financing,” Immelt said Friday. “So we will export turbines to Asia and the Middle East, made in France supported by French financing.” That flexibility, he suggested, needs to be a corporate hallmark for an era in which American-led global integration is no longer assured.

Tory Newmyer

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