Over the span of a few short days, Donald Trump has given U.S. businesses fresh reason to view his administration with an uncomfortable mix of both excitement and fear.
President-elect Trump, a real estate developer turned reality-television star, has shown a marked preference for investors and executives to help him run the country, including in appointments announced this week. Together with his promises to slash corporate taxes, eliminate a host of government regulations and boost economic growth, business leaders see reason to rejoice.
But beneath the hope is an undercurrent of anxiety. When businesses displease him, Mr. Trump doesn't mind throwing punches or twisting arms. On Tuesday, he started a fight with Boeing Co. over the cost of a government contract. Fears of losing government business also helped Mr. Trump reach a deal last week to save roughly 800 jobs at Carrier Corp. in Indiana.
Meanwhile, Mr. Trump's pledge to make radical changes to the country's trade agreements is unnerving American multinationals. "There's a lot of tension, obviously, in the business community," said Gary Clyde Hufbauer, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington. Some of Mr. Trump's proposals – tax cuts, a large infrastructure package – are welcome, but his stand on trade is "genuinely worrisome."
For now, hope is outweighing worry, judging by the reaction of investors. On Friday, the benchmark Dow Jones industrial average touched yet another historic high. The blue-chip index is up nearly 8 per cent since the presidential election. On Friday, news outlets reported that Mr. Trump will name Gary Cohn, the No. 2 executive at Goldman Sachs Group Inc., to lead his council of economic advisers, making Mr. Cohn the third current or former Goldman employee to join the president-elect's inner circle.
Earlier in the week, Mr. Trump named two business executives to join his cabinet. Andy Puzder, the chief executive of CKE Restaurants Inc., the parent company of several fast-food chains, was nominated to become labour secretary, while Linda McMahon, the co-founder of World Wrestling Entertainment, became Mr. Trump's pick to lead the Small Business Administration.
Mr. Trump has also solicited advice from a variety of business leaders. John Allison, the former chief executive of BB&T Corp., a major bank based in North Carolina, and the former president of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, met with Mr. Trump in New York last month for about an hour and discussed economic policy.
Mr. Allison said the two men bonded over their shared experience in commercial real estate in the 1990s, when Mr. Allison was a banker making property loans and Mr. Trump was a developer deep in debt. Mr. Allison said that Mr. Trump showed a strong desire to revamp corporate taxes, eliminate financial regulations and rein in the Environmental Protection Agency, which he considered damaging to economic growth.
Mr. Allison doesn't agree with Mr. Trump's approach to situations such as the one at the Carrier furnace plant in Indiana. Singling out individual companies rather than focusing on policies that apply to all firms "looks a lot like cronyism," he said. But he praised Mr. Trump's pro-business orientation, in contrast to what he called an "anti-business" stance by President Barack Obama.
At the same time as Mr. Trump has made unabashedly pro-business appointments, he has also demonstrated an unpredictable streak. On Tuesday morning, he launched a broadside against Boeing, first on Twitter and then in remarks to the media. He claimed the company was inflating the costs of building new versions of Air Force One, the presidential jet, and wanted the contract cancelled. The company's shares dropped, then recovered.
(It's unclear what prompted Mr. Trump to seize upon the issue in the first place. His tweet came out shortly after an article appeared in which Boeing chief executive Dennis Muilenburg voiced restrained concern about Mr. Trump's trade policies. The following day, Mr. Trump told CNBC he had not seen the article. He added that he had later spoken with Mr. Muilenburg, found him to be a "terrific guy" and said the two men would "get the prices down.")
The Boeing episode will make corporate leaders reluctant to discuss Mr. Trump's policy moves in public, predicted Ron Culp, a former public-relations and government-affairs executive at Sears who now teaches at DePaul University. "It serves notice to others that this, too, could be you, so be careful," he said. Mr. Trump's effective use of social media "has changed the game entirely for corporations and individuals that he might decide to challenge."
Mr. Hufbauer of the Peterson Institute said presidents often single out companies for praise when they have done something positive for the U.S. economy. The last president to use his bully pulpit to issue forceful criticism of a company's behaviour, Mr. Hufbauer said, was John F. Kennedy. In 1962, Mr. Kennedy took on U.S. Steel and other steel companies when they instituted a price increase across the industry, with the president calling such actions contrary to the public interest.