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U.S. Companies Uncertain Of NAFTA Trading Under Trump Administration

The Dow Jones Railroad Index has climbed about 25 percent since the election, but many U.S. companies have cross-border trade accounts that could be affected by policy changes that President Donald Trump might make regarding the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Steve Helber

President Trump's threats to disrupt trade with Mexico aren't just worrying people south of the border.

Each time Trump attacks the North American Free Trade Agreement, known as NAFTA, the executives at a 130 year-old railroad company in Kansas City, Mo., hold their breath. Like a lot of U.S. companies, cross-border trade accounts for a lot of Kansas City Southern's business.

As the trains depart, they head south to Mexico, carrying American corn, chemicals and car parts. When they come back, they're loaded with items such as refrigerators, finished cars and beer. This is the daily scene for Kansas City Southern trains as they continue the old-school, steel-in-the-ground, heavy industry that was built slowly over decades and centered largely around trade with Mexico.

"They are the NAFTA railroad, so anything that's going to negatively affect potential trade with Mexico is going to be a negative for Kansas City Southern," says Jason Seidl, a railroad analyst with Cowen and Company.

Seidl says Trump's presidency threatens that trade. Trump has targeted the nearly $60 billion trade deficit with Mexico by threatening to punish companies moving production there, and adding a tariff. As he told Scott Pelley on 60 Minutes, he's taking a hard look at NAFTA.

Pelley: But there is a North American Free Trade Agreement.

Trump: And there shouldn't be. It's a disaster ... we will either renegotiate it or we will break it.

The stock market is up, sharply, since Trump's election, with investors betting that lower taxes and less regulation will boost most companies' bottom lines. The Dow Jones Railroad Index has climbed about 25 percent since the election. But, Seidl says Trump's protectionist threats have pushed down the price of Kansas City Southern stock.

"Uncertainty is sort of the No. 1 killer for stock performance, and that's what we have right now," Seidl says. "We're one tweet away from it underperforming the group that day, and based on the president's current tweet rate, that could be a lot of tweets between now and the end of the year."

And it's not just tweets.

In January, Ford Motor Company executives announced they were canceling a $1.6 billion plant in Mexico.

"This was a big plant and it was going to be served by Kansas City Southern," says Tony Hatch, a senior transportation analyst with ABH consulting. "It had business going north and south. And that would have been a minor blow — I think the symbolism makes it a major blow."

Hatch says Kansas City Southern serves about a dozen other Mexican auto assembly plants, so losing one new one isn't crushing. But he says Trump is upending carefully laid plans, on both sides of the border.

"For Kansas City Southern, it's been very painful," Hatch says. "They've done everything they could. They've invested a lot of money. They've created a really good network. So, all of the sudden, you're playing some kind of complicated game, and you get right to the point where you're going to be a leader in the game, and they say, 'Ah, sorry, here's a new set of rules.'"

Of course, NAFTA has long inspired fierce opposition, traditionally from the left, and opponents argue that a "new set of rules" is long overdue. NAFTA's been in place for almost a quarter of a century. Its critics say the agreement has cost hundreds of thousands of American jobs, and depressed American wages.

Supporters say the trade agreement has boosted trade with Mexico enormously, and kept prices down for consumers. Andrew Selee, vice president at the Woodrow Wilson Center, argues that the free flow of capital and goods has actually preserved a lot of North American manufacturing.

"Getting closer together in trade is a good thing for all the economies," Selee says. "We're able to compete against Europe and Asia, and other parts of the world.

Few think trade between the U.S. and Mexico will shut down forever, but it's likely to change under this administration, in ways that seem increasingly hard to predict.

Copyright 2017 KCUR 89.3

I’ve been at KCUR almost 30 years, working partly for NPR and splitting my time between local and national reporting. I work to bring extra attention to people in the Midwest, my home state of Kansas and of course Kansas City. What I love about this job is having a license to talk to interesting people and then crafting radio stories around their voices. It’s a big responsibility to uphold the truth of those stories while condensing them for lots of other people listening to the radio, and I take it seriously. Email me at frank@kcur.org or find me on Twitter @FrankNewsman.
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