What’s on CEOs’ Minds as the Trump Presidency Begins?

Many are hoping he’ll stick to his promises on cutting taxes and scrapping regulations. But they’re also worried about tweets.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

If Donald Trump’s first days in office have been any indication, the 45th president wants to keep business leaders on his side. During his meetings with the executives of some of the country's largest firms, Trump said that he would roll back regulations (an executive order signed on Monday will require the elimination of two existing regulations for every new regulation that is implemented) and cut the corporate tax rate—both of which were promises he made on the campaign trail.

Trump keeps focusing on this combination—paring away regulations and lowering taxes—for a reason. Whether such actions will actually result in more jobs or better prices for consumers is a point of contention, especially among politicians and economists. But these issues matter a lot to business leaders, according to a survey done by the financial-services company PricewaterhouseCoopers, or PwC. The survey asked almost 1,400 executives from around the world what their greatest concerns are when it comes to the future of their companies. Around 80 percent of the CEOs surveyed cited uncertainty about economic growth and overregulation, and nearly two-thirds said that reducing costs was one of their main goals for the next 12 months.

It makes sense, then, that business leaders are feeling optimistic about the Trump presidency. “I think there’s a belief—whether it proves true or not, I'm unsure—that the current administration will have a direction around taxation and regulation that will benefit business growth, job creation, top-line growth and bottom-line growth,” says Bob Moritz, the global chairman of PwC. “They feel a little bit more confident than before.”

There’s some early evidence that Moritz is right about executives’ rising confidence. As my colleague Bourree Lam wrote, earnings reports released in January showed that many major banks fared well during the final weeks of 2016, on the heels of the broad market growth after the election. Ed Bastian, the CEO of Delta Airlines, told me that the future is looking encouraging for his company. “We have seen a renewed sense of confidence in the business community as well as the consumer, to travel and to invest more in their travel dollars and travel experience,” Bastian said. “Can you call it a specific effect of the new president? I don't know. But there's no question that it had a benefit for us.”

Whether or not he can directly connect Delta’s promising fourth quarter and the new president, Bastian says he can see why business leaders would be optimistic. “The policies he's advocating—the infrastructure investments, the lower tax rates, the ability to get after regulations and make it easier to do business—all of those are very business-friendly policies and practices,” he said. “And the business community is very excited about that.”

Still, a rollback on regulations and cutting the corporate tax rate won’t solve all of the challenges that business leaders told PwC that they’re facing, which include skills shortages, increased protectionism, the advance of automation, and the speed of technological change more generally. But even in the face of challenges like these, the executives I spoke with remained optimistic that the administration—and their businesses—can adapt. Bastian says that despite Trump’s pledges to step up antitrust enforcement, for example, he’s unconcerned about the loss of the airline industry’s antitrust immunity, and, more specifically, on deals such as Delta’s partnership with Aeromexico. “Antitrust immunity in our industry has proven to create jobs, create growth for the businesses. It's a necessary requirement,” he said.

When I asked Moritz about how Trump’s proposed changes to visa, immigration, or passport programs might impact his firm’s ability to move people around to other global offices, he said that it was a concern, but that ultimately the company would learn how to redeploy resources in order to cope—and perhaps would end up relying more heavily on virtual technology.

The PwC survey brought up other dilemmas that can’t be easily solved with government policies. Among the issues that CEOs are most worried about is consumers’ declining trust in brands. According to PwC, in 2013 only 37 percent of CEOs worried that a lack of trust in a business could hurt company growth. In this year’s survey, 58 percent believed that lack of brand trust could hamper growth. This is, in part, due to just how seamlessly social media has connected companies, employees, and consumers (and, not to mention, presidents). And in some ways, that can seem risky. “In today's world, with technology, with data, with social media, I can take a picture put it on the web, get 10 million hits and I have a market-capital implication in an instant,” says Moritz, referring to how a single viral post can instantly generate national (and sometimes unwelcome) attention. “That's the world of complexity that the business community is interacting with, and the challenge is, how do you learn to be agile enough to react to that?”

Delta has had some firsthand experience with that. In recent months, the company was criticized after a black doctor, Tamika Cross, wrote a post on her Facebook page alleging that flight attendants did not believe she was a doctor and prevented from attending to an ailing passenger. I asked Bastian if he was concerned that a situation like this could impact the public’s trust in Delta, but he said he wasn’t. “It's how you deal with issues when they come up that defines the trust with the public when things happen. We were very public with Dr. Cross and brought her in, and we learned from the experience,” he told me. “I think the thing that's different today is social media [being] an amplifier on everything that happens, and all of a sudden everyone is given a foghorn to promote whatever they want to promote.” He added that amplification can be a bad thing when people make accusations for the sake of attention—which Delta maintains was the case in the instance when a recent passenger, the YouTube performer Adam Saleh, claimed his ejection from a flight constituted discrimination. Social media also led to the lifetime ban from Delta of a Trump supporter who was caught on video yelling and using offensive language during a Delta flight.

And with President Trump’s penchant for targeted tweeting, it’s not just customers that companies have to worry about. On Monday, the president responded to criticism about the impact of his immigration ban by tweeting that Delta’s computer glitch was responsible for much of the upheaval at airports. (The claim that airport upheaval was mostly due to Delta’s computer troubles, not the immigration ban is a dubious one given the fact that protests and airport disruptions also occurred at locations where Delta doesn’t have a large presence. Questions also remain about the numbers cited in the president’s tweet.) A spokesperson for Delta did not respond to request for comment on the president’s tweet, but at the time of publication, Delta’s stock had declined just over 4 percent during trading.

Overall, it seems to be that despite a surprising outcome in the presidential election, businesses and their leaders are happy to be moving forward with a better sense of what’s ahead, even if they can’t be certain how it will all shake out.