Why Donald Trump’s Election Is a Mixed Blessing for Apple

November 15, 2016, 2:57 PM UTC
Apple iPhone 7 And Apple Watch Series 2 Go On Sale in China
A woman and child look at a black Apple Inc. iPhone 7 Plus at the Apple Store inside the IAPM shopping mall in Shanghai, China, on Friday, Sept. 16, 2016. Apple hopes its new iPhone 7 will help to stem a two-quarter decline in iPhone sales by enticing users to upgrade to the 7's faster processor and expanded memory options. Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Photograph by Qilai Shen — Bloomberg via Getty Images

I participated Monday morning on a panel at an investment-banking conference in San Francisco to discuss the future of Apple. Naturally, the conversation turned to Donald Trump.

Specifically, the panelists—the astute researcher Horace Dediu, the journalist Mark Gurman, and Steve Milunovich, the veteran UBS analyst and host of the session—briefly batted about the question of how a U.S. trade war with China might further blunt Apple’s already challenged business in that important country.

First, a step back. With notable exceptions, Silicon Valley was uniformly against Trump, both for his anti-immigrant bellicosity and his anti-elitist posture. The (highly skilled) immigrant-heavy tech industry is nothing if not a bastion of elitism, and it has enjoyed a warm relationship with President Obama. (Farhad Manjoo of The New York Times nicely captures the vibe here. Also, for the record, I am no fan of #Calexit. I love my country.)

A Trump presidency’s economic impact won’t be all bad for tech companies, including Apple (AAPL). Bernstein analyst Toni Sacconaghi published a report Monday that suggests Apple would be one of the biggest beneficiaries of a Trump proposal to lower corporate taxes and allow a one-time repatriation of cash held outside the U.S. Apple pays among the highest tax rates and has the highest foreign reserves of any tech company.

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That’s where the good news ends. The president-elect mouthed electorate-soothing words about forcing Apple and others to move production “back” to the U.S. That won’t happen to any substantial degree in any reasonable timeframe. Once it discovers that fact of life, the new administration may then try to slap tariffs on goods produced in China. That, in turn, could unleash a domino effect of higher smartphone prices and Chinese retaliation. Economic chaos would ensue. As I noted on the panel, the Chinese government wouldn’t think twice about Apple becoming collateral damage in a U.S.-China trade war. And Apple won’t be the only target. (Apple shares have slipped 5% since the election last Tuesday.)

It is early days in terms of translating the results of an election into policy that will determine the world’s economic future. We are unlikely to be talking about much else for months and years to come.

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