President Donald Trump hit the ground running after being sworn in, but just where he’s leading the country remains a big question mark, and a source of serious agita, for many in the fashion industry.
As the new administration enters its third full day, the key question is whether the 45th President of the United States will go through with more of his sweeping pre-inauguration pledges after the flurry of executive orders he signed within hours of taking office. Those changes — and what no doubt will continue to be Trump’s pugnacious style in pushing them through — will help shape the future of the fashion industry even as the massive crowds that gathered throughout the U.S. and elsewhere in the world on Saturday showed there will be a vibrant opposition.
Trump has vowed to impose a tariff of up to 45 percent on goods from China, slash the U.S. corporate tax rate to 15 from 35 percent and reshape the workforce by bolstering the manufacturing sector and imposing stricter immigration rules. (On the broader scene, he has moved to strengthen ties with Russia, questioned the need for NATO, challenged the bedrock One China policy, suggested moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem — all dramatic shifts that could have far-reaching and unforeseeable consequences in the global order).
After a steep decline in the hours immediately following his surprise election win, Wall Street pivoted and rallied strongly on hopes of business-friendly policies. The Dow Jones Industrial Average has gained 8.2 percent since the election and finished up 0.5 percent at 19,827.25 on Friday after he was sworn in. And his assumption to power has already helped one fashion stock: Shares of Ralph Lauren Corp. rose 0.8 percent on Friday to $88.90 after First Lady Melania Trump donned an outfit by the designer for the inauguration.
As happy as the financial types are (for now), many in the fashion industry still bristle at the thought of Trump as commander in chief, with some declaring themselves “in mourning” following his swearing in.
Others, though, struck a more hopeful note.
“What makes our country great is its diversity,” said Gary Wassner, chief executive officer and principal of fashion investment house Interluxe Holdings. “We must continue to celebrate it. The right to vote and the right to dissent are endemic to our way of life. I marched on Washington countless times in my youth and I understand the passion of protest. But we need to embrace one another now and deal with this dangerous world as one nation. I maintain my hope that we will come together as an industry and as a country and create opportunity for everyone.”
All parties have been forced to take a wait-and-see approach.
Alibaba executive chairman Jack Ma tried to give the concept of globalization a shot in the arm with a speech at the 2017 World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland, last week and urged people to give Trump a chance. “Give President Donald Trump some time,” Ma said. “He has an open mind.”
The tech mogul and Chinese e-commerce king also echoed Chinese President Xi Jinping’s comments earlier at Davos, noting that a trade war, which a big jump in tariffs could spark, “would be a disaster for the two countries and the world. I would do anything to stop it.”
U.S. retailers, already struggling with sweeping technology change, flagging foot traffic and a consumer apathy toward fashion, could be both helped and hurt by Trump’s proposals.
A lower corporate tax rate would certainly be welcome and could give many ailing companies a big bottom-line boost, but most fashion retailers primarily sell goods made oversees and are subject to tariffs or trade agreements (that could now be renegotiated).
The picture is more complex, particularly for companies based in China or those with businesses that depend on warm relations between Beijing and Washington (as Trump moves to bring the U.S. closer to Russia).
Mariana Kou, an analyst at CLSA, advised investors to sell shares of sourcing giant Li & Fung given both the weakness at traditional retailers like Kohl’s Corp. and Macy’s Inc. and questions about Trump’s orientation to the rest of the world.
“There is significant uncertainty on policies of the Trump administration,” Kou said. “While we may see some support for domestic consumption, the destocking cycle and the smaller-order size amid a fast-changing retail industry mean that we may not see a pickup at Li & Fung in the next nine to 12 months. Trump’s rather protectionist stance could further hurt Li & Fung’s trading business.”
While international trade is by its very nature a series of business transactions, the rules regulating cross-border trade have long been used as leverage by nations pursuing broader strategic goals, including for defense or coalition-building.
In the view of Wilbur Ross, the turnaround specialist who has in the past invested heavily in the textiles industry and is Trump’s pick to head the Commerce Department, trade is an area in which the buyer has a lot of leverage.
“On the topic of retaliation [to U.S. punitive tariffs], my mind-set will be that the world’s largest customer is dealing with its vendors,” he said at his Senate confirmation hearing. “I view these other countries with whom we have trade as vendors. While you need to treat the vendors with respect, they must also treat you as their largest customer both with respect and more importantly, playing by the rules of the road. To the degree they don’t, it must be enforcement.”
In times of great disruption, companies often look to strengthen their hands through mergers and acquisitions, but the landscape needs to be settled enough to get the deal done.
“Global geopolitical changes — a new U.S. presidential administration, upcoming European elections, the persisting threat of terrorist activity and the Brexit referendum — along with a strengthening U.S. dollar, will impact transaction activity, as well as consumer spending,” wrote Cathy Leonhardt and David Shiffman, co-heads of Peter J. Solomon Co.’s global retail advisory group, in an analysis.
“In the United States, uncertainty surrounding policy decisions the Trump administration will make with respect to key matters such as corporate taxes, tariffs, foreign investment and trade agreements will result in a ‘wait-and-see’ approach to deal-making, as potential acquirers await clarity on policy direction and the impacts of such policies both on the acquirers’ businesses and those of potential targets,” the bankers said.
Just how long the industry will have to wait for that clarity is anybody’s guess.