The financial services industry is raising red flags about President Trump’s protectionist stance on trade.
Bankers voiced concerns about Trump’s plans to reshape U.S. trade policy during quarterly earnings calls over the past week. Since taking office, the president has promised to renegotiate trade agreements, with the goal of boosting domestic manufacturing. He has also floated the idea of taxing goods imported from Mexico and China.
The stakes are high for banking. In recent years, lenders have flocked to the business of trade finance, looking to court commercial clients that sell goods — from machinery to medical devices — to China and other key markets. The value of imports and exports with China alone — the country’s largest trading partner — totaled $598 billion in 2015, according to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.
Imposing trade barriers could dampen economic growth, both in the U.S. and other key markets, executives said. Revenue from trade finance could take a hit — and banks could face pressure down the line to divest assets abroad, according to industry analysts.
While the details of the president’s trade agenda have yet to be fleshed out, some bankers are already making their concerns known to investors and policymakers.
“If there is a trade war, and then maybe some political or military maneuvering, I think that is going to cause the entire global markets to kind of have a meltdown,” Dominic Ng, CEO of the $34.8 billion-asset East West Bancorp in Pasadena, Calif., said in discussing U.S.-China relations during a conference call Thursday.
Trade finance-related loan balances at East West were $1.3 billion as of Dec. 31, down slightly from the prior quarter, executives said. The company provides trade-finance-related loans and other products, mostly to U.S. companies that trade with China and other Asian countries.
Still, while Ng expressed confidence in the president’s economic advisers, the East West chief warned that any move to tax Chinese goods — even on specialized products, such as steel — could hurt major U.S. companies. He cited Boeing, a top U.S. exporter, as an example.
“The Chinese government may have to counter-react, and put in some sort of tariff” or ban certain U.S. goods, Ng said.
Other bankers struck a cautious-but-concerned tone. “There will be a more challenging environment,” Ana Botin, chairman of the Spanish banking giant Banco Santander, said when asked Wednesday about the potential for changes to trade and immigration policies in the U.S. and Mexico.
Santander has subsidiary banks in the U.S. (Santander Holdings USA) and in Mexico (Grupo Financiero Santander Mexico).
The president has promised to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada among other cross-border policy changes.
Botin said “there’s no question” that restrictions on trade would have an impact across Latin America, affecting both exchange rates and regional growth.
She emphasized, however, that Santander still has “room to grow” in Mexico and will continue to make investments in the country. Santander announced in December that it would invest over $730 million in upgrading and expanding its Mexican retail business.
To be sure, the executives’ comments are a departure from the industry’s otherwise rosy outlook about what’s in store in the Trump era. Financial stocks have soared since the election as bankers have expressed optimism about Trump’s promises to cut corporate taxes and take a lighter touch on regulation. The KBW Bank Index has climbed 21% in the past three months.
But when it comes to the administration’s anti-global talk on trade, unqualified praise from bankers is harder to come by.
“I would tell you that I’m putting aside the one-liners, and the election rhetoric and some of that,” Jamie Dimon, the chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase, said when asked about Trump’s protectionist rhetoric during a Jan. 17 earnings call with reporters.
“I’m comforted by the fact that he’s putting some real professionals on the playing field who have real experience and knowledge,” Dimon said. “Give it some time.”
The landscape for trade has shifted dramatically in the past year, of course, following the U.K. referendum in June to leave the European Union.
Meanwhile, the surprise election of Trump has created uncertainty about future U.S. trade policy. The administration on Monday officially withdrew from the 12-member Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Across the globe, trade finance activity at banks had already tightened in the past couple of years, due in part to a slump in commodity prices, according to a 2016 survey from the International Chamber of Commerce.
More than 20% of 357 banks surveyed in 90 countries reported a decline in trade-finance credit lines in 2015 compared with a year earlier, the ICC survey said.
Since taking office nearly two weeks ago, Trump reiterated his criticism of Nafta and also floated the idea of imposing a 20% tax on imports from Mexico to pay for the construction of a wall along the border.
U.S. imports from Mexico totaled $295 billion in 2015, roughly the same as a year earlier, and 73% higher than in 2007, according to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. Cars and machinery accounted for the bulk of the goods.
Any policy changes that impose barriers to trade would likely result in a slowdown in businesses that rely on letters of credit, said Charles Peabody, an analyst with Compass Point Research & Trading.
Peabody said that facilitating transactions for importers and exporters is a “growth business” at some big banks. At Citigroup, for instance, fourth-quarter revenue from its treasury and trade solutions division — which includes a host of trade-related commercial products — grew 3% year over year to about $2 billion.
As trade negotiations with Mexico, in particular, take shape in the months ahead, banks with direct investments in the region could come under scrutiny, analysts said.
Among U.S. banks, Citi has made the biggest direct investment in Mexico, according to Fred Cannon, an analyst with Keefe, Bruyette & Woods. The New York company in October announced it would invest $1 billion to upgrade technology and provide new services at Citibanamex, its Mexican retail bank.
Citibanamex has more than 1,500 branches in Mexico.
If trade negotiations with Mexico break down, growth in the country could take a hit. Under such a scenario, Citi could face pressure from investors to divest assets, according to Fred Cannon, an analyst with Keefe, Bruyette & Woods.
Citi last year exited its retail businesses in Brazil, Argentina and Colombia.
“If you get into more isolationist policies, Citi shareholders might be interested in a sale or [initial public offering]” of Citibanamex, Cannon said, though he noted that the company currently views the division as an integral part of its business.
Asked during a Jan. 18 conference call about looming trade policy changes with Mexico, CEO Michael Corbat emphasized that Citi has helped its commercial clients maneuver through trade wars and other major economic events during its two-century-long history.
Corbat also said it is too early to predict how trade policy will develop in the years ahead, though he welcomed the administration’s focus on domestic job creation.
“I think a lot of it depends on what form any type of tariffs may take, and that’s tough to tell,” Corbat said.
Allison Prang contributed to this report.