State of Union: For Business, Plenty Of Winners and Losers

Ethanol producers and health-care service providers are among the potential corporate beneficiaries of policies proposed by President Bush, while domestic automakers and oil companies could get slightly stung.

Ethanol companies' stocks fell Wednesday afternoon, however, signaling investors' skepticism about whether the proposals laid out in the State of the Union address are achievable politically, and even technologically. Economists said they expect few drastic changes in the Democrat-controlled Congress between now and the 2008 election.

"The business community is quite skeptical that much, if anything, will be produced out of the Congress in the run-up to the 2008 presidential election year," said Allen Sinai, chief global economist at Decision Economics.

The president's domestic moves toward bipartisanship are "marginally positive for stocks, but the proof is in the pudding and there's a long way to go," Sinai said.

Bush's proposals on energy and health care, including a call for a tax deduction of $7,500 for individuals and $15,000 for families regardless of wether they buy their own health insurance or receive medical coverage at work, were not overly ambitious, Sinai said.

Ethanol Producers May Benefit

But Archer-Daniels-Midland, along with US BioEnergy, VeraSun Energy and other ethanol producers nevertheless stand to benefit from Bush's all to raise consumption targets for ethanol and other alternative fuels to 35 bllion gallons by 2017. More than five billion gallons were produced in the U.S. in 2006. The long-term technological challenge, experts say, will be finding inexpensive ways to use feedstocks other than corn to meet the higher targets.


"What we're seeing today is the normal motion of the markets," Sinai said.

Automakers said they were open to the president's goals of increasing fuel economy standards.

The proposal could benefit Japanese automakers such as Toyota Motor and Honda Motor, which have higher fleetwide fuel economy levels than domestic manufacturers. The proposal also includes a system of trading or "banking" credits to meet new standards, which could lead to Detroit's automakers buying fuel credits from Toyota and Honda, both of which were trading up more than 2% Wednesday afternoon.

But General Motors and Ford Motor have pledged to build two million flexible-fuel vehicles by 2010, so they too could benefit by an influx of ethanol and other renewable fuels. GM said it wanted to ensure, however, "that any fuel economy increases are technically achievable."

Energy analysts said the call for a sharp escalation in the use of ethanol will have little immediate impact on major oil companies such as Exxon Mobil and Chevron., primarily because it'll be used as a partial substitute and not a replacement for gasoline.

Health Plan Appeals to Private Sector

The health-care taxation plan is the most appealing to the private sector, analysts said. Specifically, the second part of the provision that would curb health care spending by taxing any benefits over the $7,500 and $15,000 marks, and could drive many Americans to the individual-oriented plans offered by UnitedHealth Group, Wellpoint and Aetna.

Business leaders welcomed Bush's tax proposal because anything that can help lower the number of the uninsured benefits the private sector, said John J. Castellani, president of the Business Roundtable, which represents the CEOs of 160 corporations.

Companies shoulder some of the expense of the uninsured, because part of the rates they pay to hospitals and other health care providers goes to the cost of uncompensated care.

"The fear shouldn't be that Bush's plan will push business out of providing health care," Castellani said Wednesday. "'Cost is the greatest threat to pushing businesses out of providing health care."

That's good news for GM, the nation's largest private provider of health care, and other big businesses. And the potential health care benefits should outweigh the hit domestic automakers would take if Bush is successful in raising fuel economy standards for passenger cars, economists said.

The president devoted roughly 20 minutes of his speech to the global war on terror, with seven of those minutes spent on Iraq.

The defense industry outlook is dictated primarily by policies in Iraq and Bush's recent call to increase U.S. troops there by 21,500 elicited fierce opposition on Capitol Hill, said David Resler, managing director and chief economist at Nomura Securities International in New York.

But since Bush's troop announcement on Jan. 10, the stock prices of defense contractors like Hartford, Conn.-based United Technologies, Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman and Bethesda, Md.-based Lockheed Martin, are up and the Pentagon's fiscal year 2008 budget request could reach more than $600 billion.