The impact on business of political uncertainty in countries that are seized by revolution can be substantial—so much so in fact that CEO’s and board directors are motivated to avoid the uncertainty itself. I submit that business analysts of political risk tend unwittingly to routinely overstate the uncertainty arising from incoming U.S. presidential administrations. If I am correct in this claim, CEO’s and board directors pay too much heed to political uncertainty itself in the making of major strategic decisions involving operations in the American context.
Although American culture welcomes and even encourages leaps in technological development capable of transforming daily life, another sort of change—one more subject to societal control—is tolerated only if made incrementally. Otherwise, the change is dubbed as radical, which is a charge made more out of fear than according to any objective measure. Clutching at the status quo unduly translates politically into the tyranny of the status quo as powers both in business and government that profit as things are hold back all but incremental change that does not threaten the current basis of benefits. The many points of access into the federal legislative and executive machinery enable the stultifying influence a virtual veto over proposals of serious, or “real,” change. Such change tends to be pulled back until only the tolerated incremental change remains.
A few examples reveal the pattern. In 1986, amid large budget deficits caused in part by the tax cuts of the early 80’s, Ronald Reagan pushed for a wholesale change in the federal income tax, ridding it of its myriad of deductions. Yet as the U.S. Senate debated the tax code, individual senators came forward with rationales for all of the major deductions. The “powers that be” were exercising their prerogatives to continue their respective benefits, which Reagan’s vision for change would put at risk. Business practitioners anxiously pointing to the political uncertainty of a revised tax code were in retrospect overreacting, and thus putting too much emphasis on the uncertainty itself.
In 2008, Barak Obama campaigned under the slogan of “real change.” After his election, political risk analysts were doubtlessly impressed with the sheer uncertainty latent in the very notion of real change. Yet when Congress was considering the Affordable Care Act, Obama dropped his proposal for a public option, which would be useful should private insurers leave the planned exchanges. The president gave into pressure from the insurance industry lobby, the members of which stood to lose benefits should Obama’s healthcare plan instantiate real change even just in terms of there being a public health-insurance option. The resulting law was incremental because the private health-insurance companies were still to be relied on. The anticipated uncertainty regarding the American health insurance system turned out to be much less. The analyses of CEO’s making strategic decisions based in part on avoiding the American context due to the uncertainty would have been distorted, and thus not optimal.
In 2016, when Donald Trump was elected president, the uncertainty in terms of political risk must have been palpable in corporate boardrooms. Trump’s proposal of a substantial tax, or tariff, on American companies that take advantage of lower labor-cost countries and import the resulting products back into the large U.S. domestic market undoubtedly stocked the uncertainty without much thinking-through of how political compromise could take its toll on the proposal as it moves through Congress. Similarly, fears of trade wars resulting from the proposed tariff may have been overblown. That American companies would be subject to the penalty means that foreign companies manufacturing outside of the U.S. and importing into the large domestic market would have a competitive advantage. Pressure from Chinese companies could mitigate the likelihood of a Chinese-stoked trade war even though the pulling out of American companies (i.e., the loss of some manufacturing plants) would have a detrimental impact on the Chinese economy. Of course, such a scenario assumes that the actual tariff is enough to motivate American CEO’s to return their manufacturing to America; the political compromise that may be needed to pass such a tariff might reduce it to an insufficient level and thus effectively discredit the very idea of using public policy to alter the financial calculus of American companies such that they have a financial incentive to return voluntarily in line with maximizing profit.
The American preference for incremental over systemic change puts any genuinely new political proposal at risk of being shrunk to fit through the contours of the status quo, which is so dear to the vested interests. The uncertainty typically thought to exist in the advent of a new presidential administration tends to be overblown in retrospect. The American economy suffers from this bloated condition to the extent that CEO’s and corporate board directors move operations away from the geographically delimited hyper-uncertainty.