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What CEOs expect from Biden presidency: more predictability

  • Corporate leaders foresee more traditional relationship with White House, with fewer surprises, and urge next administration to prioritize pandemic

Chief executives say they expect that the biggest change with Joe Biden’s administration won’t be sweeping new policies but a more predictable relationship with the White House.

Many corporate leaders view Mr. Biden as a centrist on business issues and foresee a quieter, less publicly turbulent relationship with the White House over the next four years—even if they don’t always agree with the administration’s policies.

That dynamic would be a switch from the Trump years, a period in which CEOs got much of what they wanted from Washington, along with no small amount of agita from swings in trade policies and occasional lashings from President Trump’s Twitter feed.

“It’s going to be easier because it is going to be more stable," said Peter Anthony, CEO of UGN Inc., an auto-parts supplier with about 2,200 employees based outside Chicago, who added that he sees Mr. Biden as a centrist. “Business leaders are going to know what they’re going to get when they meet with him. If you know the rules of the game, you can play the game."

Executives expect the public scars of the 2020 election to linger for some time. The divisive race, capped by several intense days as the nation awaited results, prompted a number of business leaders to call on Mr. Biden to focus his first months in office on bringing the country together.

“The primary job of the new president will be to change the mood in the country from what I consider to be fear and anxiety and divisiveness to a mood of hopefulness and inclusion," said Robert Rosenberg, who served for 35 years as CEO of Dunkin’ Donuts, now known as Dunkin’ Brands Group Inc. “A leader casts a massive shadow over the entire institution."

Others echoed the call. “The most important thing we need to do is come together," said Daniel Lubetzky, chairman of snack-bar maker KIND.

“Now is a time for unity," said James Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase & Co. “We must respect the results of the U.S. presidential election and, as we have with every election, honor the decision of the voters and support a peaceful transition of power."

CEOs say additional stimulus to support consumers and businesses hurt by the pandemic, along with measures to stop the spread of the virus, should top Mr. Biden’s priority list. Many business leaders also called for increased government spending on infrastructure to create jobs and for the administration to work with other countries on matters related to climate change and the coronavirus.

“More and more of the issues of our day require stronger collaboration between the United States and the rest of the world," wrote Brad Smith, president of Microsoft Corp., in a blog on the company’s site.

Republicans’ strong showing in Congress signaled to some CEOs that voters didn’t want a dramatic turn from some of Mr. Trump’s pro-business policies.

“They voted for his [Trump’s] agenda and threw him out, that’s the way I read this," said Mr. Rosenberg.

Other company leaders said divided government is often good for business. Charles Watson, CEO of private-equity backed Tropical Smoothie Café, who describes himself as “purple" politically, said checks on each party’s power can weed out extreme policies and force both sides to compromise. As the CEO of a franchised company, he is particularly worried that Democrats will pursue labor policies that are costly for his business.

“My hope and prayer is that good legislation gets passed," Mr. Watson said.

Foreign chief executives said they are encouraged by Mr. Biden’s promise to rethink the Trump administration’s use of unilateral trade sanctions. Japanese brewer Suntory Holdings Ltd., owner of Jim Beam, was caught up in reciprocal tariffs between the U.S. and Europe. Chief Executive Takeshi Niinami said Mr. Biden is “unlikely to use tariffs as a shield."

Mr. Niinami, who is also an adviser to Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, said higher corporate taxes pledged by the Biden campaign could weigh on its U.S. business, if the new administration can get them through Congress. Still, he said Mr. Biden’s unifying message could be a “medium- to long-term" positive if it helps ease social tensions in the U.S.

Nicole Wolter, CEO of HM Manufacturing Inc., of Wauconda, Ill., which makes metal gears and other products, said she is holding back from buying a $250,000 piece of machinery until she knows how tax and economic policy will play out with a Biden administration and new Congress.

“We want things to remain the same, for policy’s sake," she said. “I don’t want to get taxed any more. I don’t want to feel like I have to cut my staff or cut their wages or look to different solutions like automation. That’s what’s nerve-racking."

CEOs might disagree with Mr. Biden’s administration more vehemently once he is sworn in and begins pushing the platform on which he ran. Still, business leaders who have worked with Mr. Biden said they viewed the former vice president as more business-friendly than others in his party, which they partly attribute to his roots in Delaware, the country’s incorporation capital.

“I don’t always agree with him, but I do have respect for him," said Ellen Kullman, a former CEO of Delaware-based DuPont who has known Mr. Biden for years and attends the same Wilmington-area Catholic church as he does.

When she ran DuPont, from 2009 to 2015, the company briefed Mr. Biden or his staff annually, and Ms. Kullman served on a jobs and competitiveness council in the Obama administration. “I always found him to be very straightforward, no nonsense: ‘Let’s talk about it. Let’s put facts on the table,’" said Ms. Kullman, who is now CEO of 3-D printing startup Carbon.

Ms. Kullman said Mr. Biden would seek compromise with a likely Republican-controlled Senate, though he will have to overcome a partisan climate in Washington. “For me the question is: How does he use his history of uniting, and his knowledge of the players—and there are a lot of new players—how does he use that to bring the country together?" she said.

Many CEOs are working to assess how a Biden administration might affect their companies. In earnings calls throughout the week, business leaders speculated on Mr. Biden’s potential to reshape everything from energy policy to support for private prisons.

Marathon Oil Corp. CEO Lee Tillman said on an earnings call last week that drilling on federal land could become more difficult during a Biden presidency. Craig A. Merrill, chief financial officer of GCP Applied Technologies Inc., a Massachusetts company that sells chemicals and materials used in construction, looked to more infrastructure spending.

“There’s no question: If that [an infrastructure bill] happens, we’re in a much better position over the next two to three years," he said to analysts and investors Friday.

Snap-on Inc. CEO Nicholas Pinchuk, who hosted Mr. Trump in a visit to the tool maker’s Kenosha, Wis., factory in 2017, said he was optimistic Mr. Biden would promote technical education to address pandemic-related unemployment since his wife, Jill Biden, is a community-college professor and advocate.

Like other CEOs, he said the Biden White House should first contain the pandemic and help those economically hurt by it. “If President Biden can get us through the Covid problem and get us back on our feet, that would be a good-enough accomplishment for a whole administration," he said. “Everything else is secondary."

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text

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