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Experts try to Clear the Fog on the Nation’s Economic Future

Salt Lake City—With the nation’s future murkier than the thickest Salt Lake Valley inversion, it’s tough to say just what the new presidential administration’s policies will be or how they’ll affect Utah’s economy. On Wednesday morning, five experts in various fields gathered to discuss the opportunities—and challenges—potentially on the horizon.

Speaking as part of the World Trade Center Utah and Zions Bank Thought Leader Symposium, Derek Miller, President and CEO of WTC Utah; Robert Spendlove, Economic and Public Policy Officer for Zions Bank; Natalie Gochnour, Director of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute; Dr. Laura Nelson, Executive Director of the Governor’s Office of Energy Development; and Rich McKeown, CEO of Leavitt Partners, speculated on what an administration of President-elect Donald Trump would do to Utah’s economy.

In terms of the stock market, the nation is seeing a surge of new financial excitement on Wall Street as the DOW nears 20,000, said Spendlove. Mortgage rates have also increased, from 3.5 percent to 4 percent.

“What those numbers indicate is a change in the expectancy of future economic growth,” he said. “We’re seeing the proposition of lower regulation, lower taxes.”

Nelson was also encouraged by the potential for more flexibility for states in regards to energy regulation and usage—especially considering Utah’s many energy initiatives and proactive work in that sector.

“I think [Trump] will look to the states to provide leadership. I think Utah is incredibly well positioned to provide that leadership,” she said.

McKeown also noted the state’s better-than-average position in the healthcare industry, which would help ease transitions in the repealing and replacement of the Affordable Care Act, in whatever form the Republican-promised reform would take.

Miller, however, was apprehensive about the forthcoming presidential administration, particularly where trade is concerned. Utah has many companies that rely on importing and exporting, and introducing high trade tariffs, or dissolving or getting into a dispute over existing trade deals, could be very damaging to the state’s economy, he said. While others, such as areas in the “Rust Belt” have struggled with outsourcing and foreign competition, Utah has thrived, Miller said, noting that the state has seen an 11 percent growth in that sector over the last few years.

“When you talk about protectionism, you’re really saying ‘I can’t compete,'” Miller said. “What we’ve done in Utah is taken advantage of the free market, taken advantage of capitalism. We’ve done exactly what the free market requires: innovate, reduce costs, found niche markets, expanded our customer base.”

Miller said he did take comfort in the knowledge that Trump, a highly-regarded businessman, was intimately familiar with how markets work, and acknowledged that some trade deals might need retooling to benefit the U.S. Because of this, he said he didn’t think it was very likely Trump would enact stiff tariffs or take other actions that could incite a trade war.

“The potential risk is so great and the consequences so bad it’s unlikely it will happen,” Miller said. “He doesn’t seem to feel bound by what he said yesterday for what he’ll do tomorrow. […] That’s a good thing in this realm.”

Gochnour said she remained open-minded about the coming administration, but was apprehensive about some of the policies and promises Trump touted on the campaign trail. The very increase in the stock market that bode well for the short-term economy could very well lead to another recession down the road. Of particular concern was his dual promise of making significant tax cuts and an overhaul of the country’s infrastructure.

“It’s not like the federal government has lots of extra money that it’s going to give back to us. This is a federal government that will borrow money to give us money back, along with a massive infrastructure plan upwards of $1 trillion,” Gochnour said, noting that the influx of spending for infrastructure and tax cuts could lead to an economic surge followed by an increase of debt within a few years.

While infrastructure does need to be repaired and updated, she said, it should be done more moderately, and not in conjunction with steep tax cuts.

Spendlove did have concerns about the country’s banking future when it came to small community banks, which he said are getting swallowed up by larger banks at an alarming rate—about one per day. A partial culprit lies in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, passed in 2010 as a reaction—or, as Spendlove said, “an overreaction”—to the financial meltdown. Spendlove said community banks are harder to regulate, which makes them less popular with regulators, and community banks also have a harder time following regulations tailored for larger banks.

“It’s really not the banks that are [failing]—it’s over-regulation,” Spendlove said. “The more we rescind some of Dodd-Frank, the better the economy will be.”

The panelists agreed that unified party control in Washington—Republicans carried the Senate and House, in addition to the election of Trump—but also noted that the cabinet positions Trump has filled with people with little or no political experience could cause some friction between them and career employees. McKeown also warned that presidential transitions mark a particularly vulnerable time for the country, so the Trump administration should be extra vigilant for potential terror attacks.

The five panelists were also in agreement with their concerns about Trump’s tendency to speak or tweet, at times, recklessly. One such example was a Dec. 6 tweet alleging that Boeing, an American company that has a lot of export business to China, was making too much from supplying the government with Air Force One aircrafts. Boeing stock fell sharply, though it later recovered.

“I am stunned that we have a president-elect that is taking on American businesses,” Gochnour said, noting that in her prior experience working on issues that could have an effect on stock prices, she and her compatriots were very careful to make as few ripples as possible. “Maybe Boeing is taking too much profit and there’s a way to go around that. The way he is saying things and making their stock fall because of it … I’m very disappointed.”

To an audience question specifically asking for reasons to be optimistic, the panelists did offer a brighter outlook: From McKeown, a hope that the healthcare conundrum would be closer to being solved; from Gochnour, encouragement for a unified-party government that would likely to be able to move policy through—with a Senate led by Utah’s own Sen. Orrin Hatch; from Spendlove, the promise of having more power returned to individual states.

Nelson said as a resource-based state, Utah has a leg up on much of the competition by being resource-based and having proactive leadership that has embraced those resources.

“No state is better positioned than Utah,” she said.