Thoughts & Takeaways from the SelectUSA Investment Summit: How proposed changes to U.S. economic policy could impact business decisions to invest in the U.S.

By Brandon Talbert, Austin Consulting

Recently, Austin attended the fourth annual SelectUSA Investment Summit in Washington, DC, where we met with prospective clients interested in expanding business operations in the U.S. This was Austin’s third year attending the Summit, which is the highest profile event organized by SelectUSA, a federal program with a mission of promoting foreign direct investment in the United States. 

The SelectUSA initiative was created under the Obama administration and is housed within the International Trade Administration at the U.S. Department of Commerce. The Summit facilitates networking opportunities between companies interested in investing in the U.S. and state and local economic development organizations, service providers and various Federal Government support agencies.

The event includes a range of sessions that cover various topics related to doing business in the U.S. Over 3,000 people reportedly registered for the Summit, which included approximately 1,200 business representatives from 64 foreign markets. 

This year’s Summit featured an impressive lineup of speakers, including keynote speaker Wilbur Ross, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce; Steven Mnuchin, Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Treasury; Alexander Acosta, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor; and executives from major global companies, including Oracle, BMW, ABB, General Motors, General Electric, Siemens and others. 

Secretary Ross was prominently featured throughout the Summit agenda. In addition to providing the keynote address, the savvy investor (estimated by Forbes to be worth approximately $2.5 billion) moderated a lively panel discussion with Jeffrey Immelt, Chairman and CEO of General Electric; and Mary Barra, Chairman and CEO of General Motors. He was also seen frequently at various networking events and fielded questions from reporters throughout the course of the event.  

This was the first Investment Summit held under the Trump administration, so it provided attendees the opportunity to hear directly from the head of the Department of Commerce and other administration officials about what the new administration is doing to make the U.S. an attractive place for foreign companies to invest.

Key economic policy priorities discussed by Secretary Ross and other administration officials at the event that could impact business location decision making in the U.S. included:

  • Trade reform
  • Business tax reform
  • Infrastructure
  • Regulatory reform
  • Energy policy

The panel discussions provided an opportunity for business executives to weigh in on these issues and other issues affecting business decisions including, globalization, workforce, technology, and a host of other topics.

We at Austin are closely monitoring these issues as they have the potential to play a critical role in how global businesses evaluate the U.S. for location decisions. 

Trade Reform

Most of the national discussion around U.S. trade reform has focused on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between the U.S., Canada and Mexico. In May, President Trump provided the required notice to Congress that the administration intends to renegotiate the terms of NAFTA. With the close economic ties between U.S., Canada and Mexico, any changes to NAFTA could have significant impacts on existing business supply chain networks. Many companies have already begun looking at hypothetical scenarios to position themselves to respond more quickly. From Austin’s experience, the uncertainty over potential changes to NAFTA is holding up decisions on some location projects. During a separate interview at the event, Secretary Ross indicated that the NAFTA renegotiations may take until 2018 to complete, which could further delay decisions.

In addition to NAFTA, the administration has stated that it would evaluate other trade agreements as well. China has been another target of criticism by administration officials. In fact, Secretary Ross alluded to Chinese steel dumping during one of the panel discussions and said the administration is looking at ways to prevent steel dumping. China is the largest trading partner of the U.S., with over $578 billion in total trade between the two countries in 2016. Chinese imports to the U.S. far exceed U.S. exports to China, resulting in a $347 billion trade deficit last year.  

Business Tax Reform

Business tax reform is another major issue that could impact how global companies evaluate the U.S. market. With one of the highest corporate income tax rates in the world – 35% at the federal level for the highest taxable income bracket – any significant reduction in the federal corporate income tax rate could make the U.S. a more attractive place for foreign investment. President Trump has called for a reduction of the corporate income tax rate to 15%, while some leaders in Congress have called for more modest cuts. At one point during the Summit, Secretary Ross hinted that this topic probably won’t be addressed by Congress until the conclusion of the current healthcare debate. 

Infrastructure

The current administration has promised to invest in U.S. infrastructure, which it claims is no longer the best in the world. In May, the Trump administration released a fact sheet that summarized their vision for the Federal Government’s role in infrastructure improvements and included a proposed $200 billion of federal outlays for infrastructure over a 10-year period starting with the 2018 budget. The President’s target of $1 trillion in infrastructure investment would “be funded through a combination of new Federal funding, incentivized non-Federal funding, and newly prioritized and expedited projects” according to the plan.

In April, President Trump signed an executive order intended to strengthen the application of Buy American laws that give preference to U.S. manufactured good in federal procurements. The executive order requires federal procurement agencies to examine procurement procedures and close loopholes that give preference to foreign-made products. This could potentially spur some companies to think about shifting or expanding production to the U.S. for certain products. 

We spoke with several companies at the Summit who expressed interest in expansion opportunities connected to U.S. infrastructure projects. 

Regulatory Reform

The Trump administration has taken significant actions aimed at reducing regulations on businesses in the U.S. In the infrastructure budget fact sheet referenced earlier, the administration calls for changes to the federal environmental review and permitting process to improve the delivery of infrastructure projects. 

Several other notable actions and directives include:

  • In February, the President signed an executive order that created a Regulatory Reform Task Force and Regulatory Reform Officers at each federal agency. The Task Force is charged with reviewing existing regulations and making recommendations to their agency head regarding necessary changes based on the criteria outlined in the executive order. 
  • The administration has also proposed changes within the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that include budget cuts, reductions in regulatory oversight, and other changes, which are not without controversy. Recently, the President also directed the EPA to rescind the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan. 
  • In April, President Trump signed an executive order directing U.S. Department of the Treasury to review certain regulations created by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Act on financial institutions. Earlier this month, the Treasury issued its first report in response to the executive order, focusing primarily on depository institutions. The report also includes recommendations to increase foreign investment in the U.S. banking system. 

Energy Policy

Another featured speaker at the Summit was Energy Secretary Rick Perry, former Governor of Texas. Secretary Perry reiterated during his speech that the U.S. would pursue an energy policy inclusive of all types of energy sources and focused on domestic production and expanding foreign exports. 

In March, the Trump administration issued a key federal permit for the Keystone XL Pipeline, a project that was rejected by the previous administration. Other key policy changes include the aforementioned EPA regulatory changes and a break away from clean energy initiatives. Most recently, the U.S. pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord. 

The Summit included a sizable number of foreign companies that we spoke with who are interested in energy-related investments in the U.S., including new energy technologies, chemicals and other manufacturing operations that are heavily dependent on energy. 

The SelectUSA initiative continues to generate interest from foreign companies looking to invest in the U.S. The administration’s proposed economic reforms have the potential to impact how favorably global companies look at the U.S. as a location for new facility investments. We’ll continue to monitor any progress or changes on these issues over the coming months and share updates and perspectives on how they’re impacting corporate location decision-making and capital investment by both foreign and domestic organizations. 

Please contact me if you have any questions, comments or perspectives that you would like to share: brandon.talbert@theaustin.com