How businesses are faring after four months of Trump

The businessman in chief rode into office amid high hopes that he could reinvigorate the economy.

Now, four months in, business leaders are giving President Trump and the Republican Congress high marks for heading in the right direction on policies that could help companies of all sizes prosper.

The Washington Examiner checked in with representatives of the city's top business lobbies across eight economic sectors, from agriculture to retail. These leaders represent the engines of the American economy, and although their interests sometimes differ, they all seem upbeat about what they have seen so far.

They like the pro-business tone. They appreciate the smackdown of Obama-era regulations. And though it is still early, they are waiting hopefully for bigger, broader successes in Congress that would keep up momentum.

"Small-business owners are cautiously optimistic," said Jack Mozloom, spokesman for the National Federation of Independent Business, in an assessment that is representative of the industries surveyed. "They like the direction, and now they are waiting for the results."

That optimism is reflected among investors, who have sent stock indexes to record highs this month. There's plenty to like in the Trump economy, some of which is a holdover from the Obama years. Consumer and business confidence is high, jobs are being added at a steady clip and unemployment hit a 10-year low in April. But there are warning signs, too. Economic growth is sluggish, retail chains are filing for bankruptcy at a near-record pace and rising interest rates could slow business expansion and consumer spending.

With no major legislation emerging from Congress, business leaders have cheered smaller steps that have undone some of the more aggressive executive interpretations of laws. Some of those came about through executive orders, but other rules were voided by Congress, then signed by Trump under the Congressional Review Act.

Many sound minor or failed to crack through the constant news coverage of Russia, intelligence leaks and presidential tweets. One is the executive order revisiting an expanded definition of what constitutes bodies of water that can be regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency. Yet several business leaders cited that re-examination of the "Waters of the U.S." rule as emblematic of the new approach.

"The biggest change for us has been the sea change in the attitude of the regulatory machine," said Stephen Sandherr, CEO of Associated General Contractors of America, which represents 26,000 construction companies. "We are now playing offense rather than defense."

Many are eyeing upcoming legislative battles, especially tax reform. But they are also watching what happens with healthcare and any revisions to the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reforms.

Here are the eight industries, summaries of how they are faring in the economy, and a look at the major federal policies they find important:


Status: Farm income is expected to drop for the fourth straight year in 2017 as farmers struggle with low prices for crops.

Review: Trade has been an early flashpoint for farmers. Withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Trump's recent talk of quitting the North American Free Trade Agreement has some worrying about export markets for American crops. But life on the farm is made easier by rolling back onerous regulations and ensuring consistent and commonsense enforcement. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, with a background in veterinary medicine and agribusiness, is seen as a strong choice who understands the effects of regulations on farmers.

Outlook: The farm lobby is hopeful that tax reform will include elimination of the estate tax, which helps farmers leave property to their heirs. It also wants Congress to continue allowing interest deductions, as farming is capital-intensive. Farmers are hoping for further regulatory reprieves and need ways to solve a worker shortage. They're also looking to build support for another farm bill.

Quote: Working with the government is like farming. "We're getting the fields ready and the seeds in the ground. Now we're in the season where we hope Mother Nature cooperates and there aren't too many x factors popping up to spoil the crop." — Dale Moore, executive director, public policy, American Farm Bureau.


Status: rising interest rates are good news for banks, and bank stocks are up big since the election because of hopes for regulatory relief. Profits were up in the first quarter for most big banks, such as Bank of America, Morgan Stanley and JPMorgan, though many financial stocks have leveled off lately.

Review: The banking industry welcomed a pair of executive orders: one delaying the so-called "fiduciary rule," an Obama labor department regulation that would hold investment advisers to high legal standards but could lead to more lawsuits and another directing a review of financial regulations that hinder Economic growth while providing little benefit. Bankers also liked the appointment of Goldman Sachs alumni Steven Mnuchin as Treasury secretary and Gary Cohn as Trump's chief economic adviser.

Outlook: Banks are hoping for an overhaul of the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform law, an effort that received a boost when Trump called the law "a disaster" in February and vowed to cut a lot of its regulations. They would like to see less-burdensome capital and liquidity standards and more transparent rules regarding "stress tests," among other changes.

Quote: "President Trump's early executive actions are a welcome set of initial moves in the direction of reducing regulatory overreach, duplication and overgrowth. The hard work of getting into the details remains." — Wayne Abernathy and Shaun Kern, American Bankers Association, writing in ABA Banking Journal.


Status: Construction added 94,000 jobs (+1.4 percent) in 2017, and spending on residential and commercial construction is up, while spending on public projects such as roads is flat. Most firms are small, family-owned enterprises, but there are big players, too, such as Bechtel Corp. and Fluor Corp.

Review: Contractors are heartened by some quick moves by Trump and Congress to roll back Obama-era regulations they found burdensome. Using the Congressional Review Act, Congress and Trump overturned the so-called "blacklisting rule" that required companies bidding on government jobs to report accusations of labor violations. They also repealed a rule giving the Occupational Safety and Health Administration more time to cite companies for recordkeeping infractions. Not having to fight multifront battles on expansive new regulations is a welcome change.

Outlook: Contractors would like to see other regulations repealed as well, but focus should turn soon to pushing for increased infrastructure spending, a key Trump campaign promise that could have rare bipartisan appeal. They also favor pro-growth tax reform and support tax rates that create parity between large corporations and small businesses.

Quote: "Generally, the attitude and outlook is one of relief for not having to deal with additional costly and burdensome regulations. That is a major attitudinal change for our members." — Stephen Sandherr, The Associated General Contractors of America.


Status: The success of the energy sector tends to fluctuate with the price of oil, which is down slightly in the first few months of the year but still 50 percent higher than a year ago. Exxon Mobil's profits doubled in the first quarter, and utility companies such as Duke Energy saw revenues rise.

Review: Quick work by the new Trump administration to clear the way for the long-delayed Keystone XL pipeline and Dakota Access Pipeline helped set the tone that the administration is friendly to energy. The industry counted five executive orders, six memorandums and four Congressional Review Act resolutions that supported U.S. energy development in the first 100 days.

Outlook: In addition to the focus on beating back restrictive regulations, the energy industry is closely eyeing tax reform, especially provisions related to the treatment of overseas earnings and the continued support of investment incentives.

Quote: "We are heartened by the president's emphasis on right-sizing America's energy policy to encourage responsible domestic energy development that creates well-paying American jobs and helps to lower costs for consumers." — Jack Gerard, CEO, American Petroleum Institute.


Status: Factory output is high, and historic job losses have stabilized, with manufacturing employment up 41,000 jobs in 2017. Not all factory jobs will return, but high-tech plants with skilled workers have the best shot. Some big manufacturers such as General Motors Co. and Carrier Corp. have announced hundreds of new jobs, for which Trump has claimed credit. Manufacturers' optimism is at a 20-year high.

Review: Manufacturers are heartened by Trump's promise of a "great revival" in U.S. manufacturing. Trump has met several times with manufacturing executives and signed a pair of executive orders in March aiming to end unfair trade practices.

Outlook: Manufacturers are closely watching tax reform and infrastructure efforts in Congress, and they are pushing for worker training to address shortages of labor in skilled jobs as well as reductions of onerous regulations. They continue to be hopeful that the reality will match the rhetoric.

Quote: "In his first 100 days, President Trump has kept his promise to manufacturers in the United States in historic ways. … He has paved the way to reduce the job-crushing regulatory burden in America unlike any previous president. And his bold actions to promote investment and create jobs are lifting more Americans up and restoring confidence to those who have felt left behind." — Jay Timmons, CEO of National Association of Manufacturers, in a news release.


Status: Just a few months into 2017, most of the major housing indicators — sales of new and existing homes and housing starts — are near post-recession highs. It's not a housing bubble, but houses are being built and are selling, and prices are rising. Big builders such as Toll Brothers and KB Home report strong sales.

Review: With many of the key executive-branch offices related to housing still unfilled, the real estate industry is focusing most of its attention on Capitol Hill.

Outlook: High on the agenda is ensuring that the forthcoming tax reform bill retains incentives that encourage home ownership and, in turn, stronger communities. That means keeping the deduction for mortgage interest and ensuring that other changes don't dilute that advantage. The industry also wants to hang onto like-kind exchanges that allow real estate investors to defer capital gains taxes. Those could both be on the chopping block. Can Trump's real estate background help save them?

Quote: "Realtors are optimistic about the possibility for reform on our key issues. It's clear from the first few months of this administration that they have an understanding of what's at stake and a strong desire to knock down some of the regulatory hurdles we've highlighted for years. That's a good thing, but of course change in Washington doesn't happen overnight." — William E. Brown, president, National Association of Realtors.


Status: Consumer confidence is at a 10-year high, and solid retail sales numbers to start 2017 are helpful for the retail sector. At least nine big chains such as The Limited and RadioShack have filed for bankruptcy protection, as some struggle with the surge toward online sales, benefiting online retailers such as

Review: Retailers are generally encouraged by what they have seen so far out of Washington. Retail companies often manage international supply chains, so they were disappointed with the early withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multinational trade agreement. Since then, though, there has been steady momentum on some of the issues important to retailers, such as reducing expensive healthcare mandates and moving forward on pro-growth tax reform.

Outlook: Retailers still have plenty of questions on issues important to them. They are carefully watching Dodd-Frank regulatory reform, because of proposals to repeal regulations on debit card swipe fees charged by banks, which could result in higher fees paid by merchants (and consumers). They are also waiting to see if the Trump administration and recently confirmed Labor Secretary Alex Acosta will roll back Obama labor regulations that require more retail employees to be eligible for overtime pay.

Quote: "President Trump is intentionally disruptive. Some of that disruption causes unease. I encourage our members not to focus so much on the disruption but to keep their eyes on the long-term goal: If the Trump administration can achieve growth in the economy and a less burdensome regulatory agenda, our members will be very pleased." — David French, National Retail Federation.

small business

Status: Surveys show that small-business owners' optimism is riding high, with many saying they foresee higher sales and the need to expand. About two-thirds say there's never been a better time to own a small business, according to a February survey by USA Today and Allstate.

Review: The cost of complying with federal regulations hits small businesses hard, so recent moves to repeal or pause burdensome Obama-era rules have come as welcome relief. small businesses gave a thumbs-up to executive orders halting crackdowns on coal-generated electricity, which should keep energy costs low, and they cheered the order requiring two regulations be eliminated for every new regulation.

Outlook: small businesses are hopeful that the rollback of harmful regulations continues, including a 2016 Labor Department rule requiring companies to expand which workers are eligible for overtime pay. They also like what they see so far on efforts to rewrite the tax code to make it fairer for small-business owners. And they are optimistic that Congress can agree on a plan that lowers healthcare costs.

Quote: "According to surveys of our members, our three biggest areas of concern have always been taxes, regulations and the cost of healthcare. On every one of those fronts, the administration has done something positive." — Jack Mozloom, media communications director, National Federation of Independent Business.

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