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Trump's protection policies could cost jobs in Republic

US companies which play a vitally important role in the Irish economy are now being urged to come home by the President-elect

By Dan O'Brien

The role of American companies and the US economy in sustaining standards of living in the Republic of Ireland simply cannot be overstated in terms of employment, exports and taxes. Around a quarter of a million jobs in Ireland are the result of the presence of American companies, directly and indirectly.

Well over half of the €7bn (£5.9bn) in corporation tax that was collected in the first 11 months of the year is likely to have been from US companies. In 2015, exports of goods and services from Ireland to the US were worth €39bn (£32.7bn).

Donald Trump has pledged to take measures that would negatively affect current and future US investment in Ireland and trade between here and the US. He promised to "bring American jobs home" and stop others going abroad.

One way he intends doing this is to slash the federal corporation tax rate from 35% to 15%. He has also pledged to tear up international trade agreements.

If he goes ahead with all of these measures, and if his actions towards Europe cause a deterioration in transatlantic relations, Ireland will suffer more than most.

Of immediate concern will be his stance on the Apple tax case. Just before the European Commission announced its findings in the case in August, the US treasury department issued a detailed and unusual paper slating Brussels' moves towards clamping down on tailored tax deals for individual companies as a form of State subsidisation. Rarely in the history of Brussels-Washington economic co-operation has a dispute become so fraught. If the Trump administration seeks to escalate the dispute, it will, at the very least, bring further unwanted attention in the direction of this country.

If that dispute escalates, or if others do - the regulation of personal data is another contentious issue - there is a danger of spillover. That could lead to tit-for-tat measures aimed at EU companies by Washington and American firms by Brussels.

Restraint will be needed by both sides if the Apple case, and others like it, are not to cause wider damage. Trump is not known for restraint. His actions, statements and tweets since winning the US presidential election do not suggest that the septuagenarian has acquired that virtue.

It is of course possible that Trump will leave the Apple case to those in his cabinet who would normally deal with such matters.

From an Irish perspective that would probably be the best outcome, not least because his two most important cabinet choices of relevance from an economic perspective are relatively conventional. They are the secretaries of the treasury and the commerce department.

Billionaire Wilbur Ross has been appointed commerce secretary. The 79-year-old is best known in Ireland for his involvement in the purchase of a large stake in the Bank of Ireland in 2011. He sat on the board of the bank for three years and came to Ireland regularly for board meetings.

Ross has made a fortune specialising in high-risk investments in businesses that are on the brink of bankruptcy. In the case of Bank of Ireland, his investment paid off handsomely. The Irish economy benefited not only in so far as such an internationally well-known investor was prepared to put money into the country just after it had been bailed out, but also because he talked up the economy very publicly in the US and elsewhere while he invested here.

One of those who had dealings with him at the time makes the point that Ross knows Europe well and, despite lacking any experience in economic diplomacy, is the sort of person who chooses his advisers well. All that augurs reasonably well for Ireland and wider transatlantic relations. Auguring less well is that Ross, like Trump, blames free trade for a decline in American manufacturing jobs.

He holds this view despite most economic studies showing that technological change, rather than off-shoring, is overwhelmingly the reason for fewer production line jobs in the US and other developed economies. This suggests a protectionist instinct in line with the same instinct his boss has shown since the 1980s.

Although neither Trump (nor his appointees to cabinet) has yet made statements on the EU-US trade deal known as TTIP, he has said that on the first day of his presidency he will pull America out of another major trade deal already agreed with Asia. He has also said that he wants changes to the decades-old agreement with Mexico and Canada. It is very unlikely that Ross will be the commerce secretary to sign the TTIP deal with Europe.

The man who will deal most directly with the Apple tax case is the treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin. He is somewhat more unconventional than Ross as a finance minister. The 53-year-old has spent the most recent part of his career financing Hollywood films. If that is an unusual background for a treasury secretary, the early part of his career was anything but. By the age of 31 he had been made a partner in Wall Street's most prestigious financial institution, Goldman Sachs. Although the bank is not without its own controversies, the people it employs are invariably smart and able. A line of Mnuchin's predecessors are also Goldman alumni.

Among his most immediate tasks will be to work with the US congress to introduce tax reform, and it increasingly looks as if a substantial cut in America's unusually high corporation tax rate will be passed by next summer.

Although that may not be as straightforward as it appears (because Democrats still have a blocking minority in the Senate), there is now clear momentum for reform of the tax code. That is likely to reduce the incentive for American companies to invest abroad.

Another more targeted danger for Ireland is if Trump targets specific American companies so that he can show that he is keeping his pledge to "bring jobs home".

Populists like Trump are inclined towards the grand gesture. Two weeks ago in Indiana, Trump and the vice-president-elect both made much of one company's decision not to re-locate 1,000 jobs to Mexico after they intervened with offers of tax breaks. More worrying was the phone call Trump made to the CEO of the company to pressure him to abandon the move south. According to the Wall Street Journal, when the executive told the President-elect that the company had already built a facility in Mexico, Trump replied: "Rent it, sell it or knock it down. I don't care." If the bosses of US firms with operations here get such a phone call demanding that jobs be brought home, will they be able to resist the pressure?

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