In a year of disruption that has ranged from container shipping consolidation to radical changes wrought by e-commerce, few shippers and transportation providers planned for billionaire businessman, reality television star, and Republican nominee Donald Trump winning the US presidential election.
Like the political experts and pollsters who saw Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton as the solid favorite to win the presidency, shipper executives — even those who supported Trump — planned for a continuation of President Barack Obama’s legacy. The Trans-Pacific Partnership might have been shelved under a Clinton administration after the former secretary of state flip-flopped on the issue, but free-trade policies and regulations already on the books likely would have survived.
Yet shippers now face a brave new world in which they try to gauge whether the Trump administration will make good on its promises to deliver $1 trillion in infrastructure investment; reset — or withdraw from — trade deals, most notably NAFTA; and repeal regulation or at least curb new rules. In addition to the challenge of assembling a team to implement these goals, Trump faces strong corporate pressure to avoid a trade war or do anything too radical to hurt already fragile US consumer spending. The reworking of trade deals is onerous, and politicians generally support freight infrastructure spending until they have to figure out how to pay for it — typically a career-killing vote to raise fuel taxes. Trump’s foreign policy also will determine the direction of trade as sanctions on Iran, Russia, and Cuba are now in play.
Even so, Trump, a former Democrat who has consistently defied expectations, may be able to draw more concessions out of trade partners, give shippers and transportation providers some regulatory relief, and rally a much-needed improvement in the roads, highways, and ports that shippers depend on to move their goods predictably, efficiently, and without higher costs.
Meanwhile, US-flag proponents say Trump’s emphasis on national security and growing jobs could boost US shipbuilding and strengthen the Jones Act. More traditional free-market conservatives in the Republican-controlled House and Senate, however, could marshal curbs on the maritime law requiring US-built ships manned by Americans to move oceangoing goods within the United States.