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U.S. Presidential Election

As Trump’s nomination moved from likely to near certainty and the political pundits seemed on the verge of conceding Hillary Clinton similar status, so much about the general political outlook in the U.S. remains highly uncertain.

The U.S. presidential campaign lurched forward towards greater clarity last week as the front-runners in both parties moved to secure their pole positions for the general election this fall. But even as Trump’s nomination moved from likely to near certainty and the political pundits seemed on the verge of conceding Hillary Clinton similar status, so much about the general political outlook in the U.S. remains highly uncertain.

Donald Trump literally represents something of a wild card in American politics, ready and willing as he is to upset the card table and insist on play by his own unique set of rules. After a primary season dominated by unusual theatrics and frequent knocks to conventional wisdom, it appears much more difficult to predict the ultimate decision of an angry and frustrated electorate. As Andrew Sullivan commented in a recent article in New York Magazine, given the recent history and the narrow margins of victory in key swing states along America’s rust belt, the U.S. may only be one terrorist attack away from electing Trump as the nation’s 45th president.

A Clinton-Trump match up highlights the clear and widening rift in the way the American public sees and thinks about itself and America’s role in the world. The centrist consensus of America’s long established governing class (of which Hillary and Bill Clinton are both established members) has been knocked back on its heels by the electorate’s embrace of the economic populism of Bernie Sanders and the xenophobic demagoguery of Trump. For the rest of the world, perhaps the most significant consequence of this shift is the emergence of strong opposition among both Democrats and Republicans to U.S. participation in further free trade agreements.

However the general election plays out, it seems unlikely that sufficient Congressional support will be forthcoming any time soon for approval of the Trans Pacific Partnership – the free trade agreement that President Obama has positioned as one of the signature foreign policy accomplishments of his second term. Similarly, the TTIP, which is the companion free trade agreement between the U.S. and the European Union, is facing deadlocks on a number of key issues as the negotiations head into the 13th round.

This turn in U.S. political sentiment, just as the TPP and TTIP are on the verge of finalization and adoption, is not without irony. These free trade agreements have long been a key part of U.S. foreign policy agenda, and enjoyed broad support among the U.S. political leaders, corporate interests and multi-nationals corporations generally. For the better part of the last two decades the North American public has also seemed favorably disposed to a free trade agenda, driven largely by the proliferation of low-cost merchandise from Asia that has stocked the shelves of Walmart and other mass market retailers. But now the worm is turning and political support for free trade support is evaporating in the U.S. in the face of continuing manufacturing job-losses and the erosion of middle class economic security.

With this dramatic shift in U.S. sentiment underway, it’s hard to imagine passage anytime soon for either the TPP or TTIP. And given the negligible to negative growth in global trade in traditional goods ever since global financial crisis, it appears this shift in U.S. political sentiment may come at a high price to the overall global free trade agenda.

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