The Big Crunch

Trump shows up in 1 in 5 corporate earnings conference calls

President Donald Trump delivers opening remarks during a meeting with (L-R) Wendell Weeks of Corning, Alex Gorsky of Johnson & Johnson, Michael Dell of Dell Technologies, Mario Longhi of US Steel, and other business leaders and administration staff in the Roosevelt Room at the White House, Jan. 23, 2017 in Washington, DC.
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If you follow the news, it may seem like President Donald Trump is everywhere. Now he is appearing somewhere else: in public company earnings.

Trump has shown up in 32 companies' quarterly earnings conference calls this month, according to a CNBC analysis. That means the new president has been mentioned by name in over 20 percent of calls for the 148 companies from the index that have reported earnings so far this year, as of the end of last week.

While companies often address how a new administration will affect their company in the quarter after an election, Trump has already been mentioned more than President Barack Obama was at the beginning of 2009.

After the 2016 election, executives at some companies, like American Electric Power, expressed enthusiasm for how Trump's infrastructure promises, regulatory reductions and tax code changes might affect their companies.

Others brought up concerns that isolationist policies might change their business operations abroad.

"Our perspective is that the United States is tightly woven with its trading partners," said Union Pacific CEO Lance Fritz in its January call. "Our consumers benefit greatly from free and open international trade."

Many of the Trump mentions in earnings calls came not from the executives, but from analysts and reporters looking for answers to how the new president's policies might make a difference for a company.

"I'm going to ask the Trump question since I get it five or six times a day," said a Citigroup analyst in an earnings call for Analog Devices after the election. "So who knows what this guy is going to come up with policy-wise, but maybe (you could) share with us your thoughts on how you think this impacts you."

Executives at told analysts they didn't think that Trump's support for the Keystone XL pipeline has had much effect on the company's own Trans Mountain pipeline business. TE Connectivity said that it might see some benefit from Keystone and EPA changes floated by Trump, but "that's not assumed right now."

Other companies, like Dow Chemical and Wynn Resorts, simply wanted to point out that they have a connection to the new administration. Wynn CEO Stephen Wynn said he has reason to believe that the White House shares the company's desire to build trade relationships in China.

"As you know, I am acquainted with the administration," Wynn said. "Several of us in our business were sitting within 30 feet of President Trump when he took his oath of office on the platform last Friday."

Moving manufacturing

Trump campaigned on a platform of increasing jobs, especially for manufacturers, and they continue to look for opportunities within the new political landscape. He was mentioned in a number of manufacturers' calls in January, including Rockwell Automation, Corning and Whirlpool.

Executives from Milwaukee-based Rockwell suggested that an improved tax environment could lead the company to expand operations in the United States. The company makes systems to help advanced manufacturers operate, so an increase in U.S.-based manufacturers would be a boon for the company.

A little more than half of Rockwell's 2016 sales were to U.S. customers, with the balance spread around the globe. The company has at least 772,000 square feet of manufacturing space in Mexico and 745,000 square feet in the U.S., according to a November filing. A border-adjustment tax, like the one Trump has championed, could lead the company to relocate some of its operations north of the border.

"It's very important to note that we've got flexibility in our global supply chain," said Theodore Crandall, who at that time was Rockwell's CFO. "We believe we could make adjustments if there were changes in the tax law that made that appropriate."

Contractors in conversation

Since the election, defense contractors have found themselves in the crosshairs of Trump's frequent Twitter attacks, often to the detriment of their stock prices. Executives from Boeing, Lockheed Martin and United Technologies all tried to ease concerns about how Trump's brash public rhetoric will affect their business.

"It's not about slashing our profit; it's not about our margins when we have those discussions. It's about how do we get the cost of the aircraft down today and in the future," Lockheed CEO Marillyn Hewson said of her meetings with Trump on the cost of the company's F-35 fighter program.

Despite harsh words from Trump on China, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg said the president understands the importance of trade with China. He suggested that opening a finishing center in China — the plant has been planned since 2015 — could fit with Trump's "America First" rhetoric. Each plane that's "finished" in China is built mostly in the U.S., he said.

"As we increase sales in China, we increase building airplanes here in the U.S.," he said. "It's a great example of how growth in China creates growth in U.S. manufacturing jobs." About 13 percent of the company's 2015 revenue came from China, according to FactSet. China is likely to buy more than $1 trillion worth of planes over the next 20 years, Boeing said in September.

Twice, Muilenburg was asked by reporters about Trump's use of social media to go after companies he wanted to shame. He pivoted from describing "what it was like to be the target of critical tweets" about the company, saying that he was encouraged by the fact that Trump was "engaging" government contractors.

"We had some targeted discussions," he said. "I think having direct, open dialogue is productive and very good for the future."

Boeing's stock dropped about 1 percent following Trump's Dec. 6 tweet, which said an order for a new Air Force One should be canceled because of its high cost.

Time to take things seriously

One of the first mentions of Trump in a conference call in a political context came in January 2016, long before Election Day, when an analyst joked about whether Trump would have an impact on Eli Lilly's performance.

"I was just wondering — If Donald Trump is elected, would that impact your long-term margin guidance?" asked the analyst. Then he walked it back: "That's not a serious question."

But by March, with Trump in the lead in the primaries against only a few remaining opponents, analysts starting taking the prospect more seriously.

"This isn't a joke," said a Morgan Stanley analyst in that quarter's H&R Block earnings call. "What do you think would happen to your business if Donald Trump becomes president?"