What a Biden administration means for business

November 7, 2020, 4:32 PM UTC

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Only in 2020 would CEOs welcome a new President who promises to raise their taxes, intensify business regulation, and massively empower labor unions. But then this is no ordinary year.

Joe Biden as President will not be much of a friend to Big Business. Exactly what he will do or can do depends heavily on the makeup of the Senate, which is still undetermined. But he has declared several specific actions he will take as President if he can, and after 50 years in public life, his instincts are clear.

The one-sentence description of Biden’s economic inclinations is this: He thinks the middle class and working class should get more, and the wealthy should get less. He’s no socialist; for most of his political career he’s been near the center. But in a major speech last summer in Dunmore, Pa., a former coal-mining borough near his old hometown of Scranton, he was blunt: “Wall Street bankers and CEOs didn’t build this country. You can just look around your neighborhood or your kitchen table and see who built this country.” The people of Dunmore are the kind of voters whose support he has always sought.

Biden’s leanings are apparent in the most important business-related policy changes he has said he wants to make:

Raise taxes on companies

He has been unequivocal on this, saying that raising taxes will be a “day one” priority, effectively undoing Trump’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017—if Congress agrees. The TCJA cut the top corporate tax rate from 35% to 21%; Biden would raise it to 28%. He has also said, “We’re going to double the tax on foreign profits so we don’t encourage people to leave and build abroad.” At the same time, he would offer tax incentives to companies that bring overseas operations to the U.S. and make certain green investments, among other things.

Raise taxes on individuals making over $400,000 a year

Biden would increase personal taxes in multiple ways, starting by raising the top marginal income tax rate from 37% to 39.6%. He’d also increase Social Security taxes on income over $400,000, tax capital gains as ordinary income on income over $1 million, and reduce the value of itemized deductions for taxpayers with incomes over $400,000. He’d increase or create tax credits for those with low incomes. “The guiding principle,” he has said, should be, “we must reward work as much as we’ve rewarded wealth.”

Strengthen labor unions

Of all Biden’s policy prescriptions, this is the closest to his heart. “Unions built the middle class,” he has said. “That’s why we have a middle class. In corporate America, the only way to deal with abuse of power is with power, and labor unions are the only ones that have the capacity to do it.” He has promised to tilt the balance of power by facilitating union organizing in myriad ways and by giving workers new legal protections. He says he will also protect employees—unionized or not—by getting much tougher with employers. “We will increase funding and staffing at the Department of Labor to aggressively enforce wage, hour, health, and safety rules across the economy,” the Democratic platform promises.

Impose new regulations

In addition to union-related regulations, Biden has been clear that he would raise the federal minimum wage to $15; create a public credit reporting agency and require federal lending programs to use it; “reinvigorate” the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which was established in the Dodd-Frank Act; eliminate forced-arbitration clauses in employment and service contracts; and mandate paid family and medical leave for up to 12 weeks. He has also promised to scrutinize mergers and acquisitions much more closely.

Add a public option to Obamacare

Biden’s public option would be available to all. He would allow Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices and would permit importation of lower-cost drugs. The U.S. health care industry—America’s largest industry, accounting for 18% of the entire economy—generally hates those proposals, fearing they’d decimate or demolish wide swaths of the sector.

Increase infrastructure spending by $2.4 trillion during his term

That’s a change business in general would love, and delivering it ought to be easy: Legislators are united in wanting to bring federal dollars back home. But President Trump also wanted an infrastructure bill, and partisan warfare was so fierce that in four years Congress couldn’t agree on the details. Biden will have a tough time doing better.

The big picture

A larger question—how Biden will affect the U.S. economy overall—remains hard to answer. No President alone can significantly change fiscal policy; that’s mostly up to Congress. Monetary policy is almost entirely out of the President’s hands. A study from Moody’s Analytics concluded that a President Biden would produce far more jobs and income than a continuation of Trump, while research from Stanford University’s Hoover Institution found the opposite. Research from Princeton University says there’s little evidence that Presidents influence the economy’s performance one way or the other.

Why do so many CEOs welcome the seemingly hostile Biden’s victory? For a couple of specific reasons and one big general reason. Specifically, Biden is less likely than Trump to escalate trade wars, not just with China but also with U.S. allies, notably Europe, Canada, and Mexico. For every company that benefits from tariffs, dozens of others suffer from the higher cost of imports and from retaliatory tariffs on their own exports. While Biden vows to be tough on China, he’s well positioned to dial down trade combat.

In addition, Biden will likely be less menacing to immigrants than Trump has been. The agriculture, construction, and technology industries in particular rely on immigrants and have suffered from Trump’s restrictions and his bellicose rhetoric that makes immigrants feel fearful and unwelcome. Biden won’t throw open the gates; he doesn’t want immigrants taking jobs away from unionized workers. But he says he’ll provide a road map to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and end workplace and community raids.

The big, general reason many business leaders are fine with a President Biden is that they can’t take the tumult any longer. Business prizes stability, predictability, certainty. Trump’s incessant whipsawing on some of the largest issues—imposing tariffs, closing borders, retaliating against companies, leaving NATO—has exhausted businesspeople. As many of them say privately, they can compete so long as they know the rules, but can’t if the rules are constantly changing.

Biden is far from U.S. business’s ideal President. But after the past four chaotic years, he’ll do just fine.

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