Forget the opinion polls, President-elect Donald Trump appears to feel like he has a very good thing going with the continuing list of corporate CEOs coming to Trump Tower and then making announcements about boosting jobs and/or investments in the U.S. He even tweeted about it again Wednesday morning, insisting these deals are indeed because of his efforts and not the result of previously arranged agreements.
But this trend could turn sour for him, the country, and the markets if he isn't careful. And it can happen fast. And the proof comes from a historical source that may surprise you: President John F. Kennedy.
Trump may seem like a reckless trailblazer, but at least half of that characterization is wrong. He's not the first of our nation's leaders to single out a company or industry with a public comment and send that company or industry's shares into a major tailspin. The all-time champion in that regard was President Kennedy, who went to war with the American steel industry in 1962. And it was a war both sides, and the country basically lost.
It started when Kennedy leaned on the steelworkers unions to accept a smaller pay raise so the White House could help keep steel prices down. Kennedy thought that when the unions agreed, U.S. Steel would uphold its end and hold prices steady. But it didn't. Just after the union agreement, U.S. Steel announced a $6 per ton price increase. An infuriated Kennedy responded with a decidedly non-Camelot-sounding tirade against the company at a news conference a day later. A massive retaliation effort by what seemed like the entire Kennedy administration followed, and four days later U.S. Steel backed off its price hike decision.
But it was Pyrrhic victory. The extraordinary interference in the steel industry by the White House chilled many other industries, the markets, and even led to cautionary comments about that interference from organized labor. A month later, that angry and frightened sentiment hadn't abated and it led to a major stock market selloff that was the worst since the 1929 market crash. Steel shares fell 50 percent and it seemed like the entirety of corporate America had turned against the White House in despair. Kennedy's push by the end of the year to cut and simplify tax rates helped to improve White House-business relations just a bit, but not completely.
And what made the Kennedy spat with the steel industry so unique was the fact that both sides were blindsided by each other's actions. Kennedy was shocked when U.S. Steel raised prices because he mistakenly thought he had struck a deal with the company. And U.S. Steel was shocked that Kennedy singled them out in a news conference a day later because presidents simply didn't do that. Obviously, Kennedy's assassination makes it impossible to truly gauge the full political damage caused by his fumbled interference with U.S. Steel. But we do know that more than a year after it began, there were still open self-inflicted wounds in Washington, Wall Street, and steel country.