For CEOs, Donald Trump’s Deregulation Pitch Comes With One Huge Caveat

Business leaders face a new daily task: deciding how deeply to discount what Donald Trump says. For example, his repeated promises to release his tax returns should have been discounted 100%, as we learned yesterday. On the other hand, his pledges to shred the Trans-Pacific Partnership should have been discounted 0%, as we also learned yesterday. The hardest part of this task is deciding how to discount assertions that are bold yet subject to interpretation, like his statement yesterday to a dozen CEOs that “I think we can cut regulation by 75%, maybe more.”

Making this statement particularly tough to decode is the uncertain meaning of “regulation.” Business people are generally in favor of reducing it, but if they think Trump means reducing Washington’s interference in their business, they may be disappointed. Evidence is accumulating that while Trump may eliminate some written rules governing business, he may replace them with unwritten rules known only to him and subject to his moods and whims.

For example, yesterday he told the CEOs in the White House—including Tesla’s Elon Musk, Under Armour’s Kevin Plank, Ford’s Mark Fields, and Dell Technologies’ Michael Dell—“When you have a company here, you have a plant here.” No such rule exists anywhere in law or regulation—many U.S. companies quite legally outsource all their production—yet it’s now effectively a new regulation, a dictate from the president himself. Ironically, Trump even told the room that keeping operations and jobs in the U.S. was part of the price they must pay for less regulation. But is less regulation really the result?

After the meeting, Dow Chemical CEO Andrew Liveris told reporters that Trump had asked them to come back in 30 days with proposals to boost U.S. manufacturing. What the president meant, clearly, is ideas for increasing U.S. manufacturing employment; manufacturing output is rising, while employment is falling. So here’s the message: Come back in 30 days and show me how many jobs you’re going to add in the U.S., and if it isn’t enough, maybe I’ll shake you down like I shook down Carrier when it said it was leaving Indianapolis for Mexico—a plan by Carrier that was entirely legal and within regulations.

What Trump is doing isn’t deregulation. It’s rule-of-man being substituted for rule-of-law. As onerous and excessive as existing regulations may be, at least they can be influenced through defined processes and, if necessary, litigated. Regulations that exist only as presidential comments cannot be.

Business leaders don’t like regulation, but what they really hate is unpredictability. “Just tell me the rules, and I can compete,” a CEO once told me. “But if no one is sure of the rules, it’s impossible.” Heaven knows we’re early in the Trump presidency, but if he continues his new regime of business regulation by personal fiat, he could damage the economy he’s trying to invigorate.

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