President Trump on Monday outlined his objectives for renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement, rather than tossing it out completely, which he regularly called for on the campaign trail. The change in tone has been widely lauded by the business community--particularly those that manufacture or generally do business outside the U.S.
"Working with industry, agriculture, and our partners in Canada and Mexico, we can keep the current benefits of NAFTA, enhance them with modern, new provisions, and proceed in a way that avoids disrupting the flow of trade and the millions of jobs it supports," said Myron Brilliant, executive vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation's largest business lobby. "The Chamber and its members are ready to roll up our sleeves and get to work," he said.
Still, the decades-old trade pact would see some significant changes, should Trump get his way. The 17-page document outlines the U.S.'s key priorities for renegotiating the agreement. Among other things, it would attempt to reduce the overall U.S. trade deficit, which in 2016 exceeded $500 billion, according to recent data from the Commerce Department.
The government says a new NAFTA must also include provisions to eliminate unfair subsidies, and give the U.S. more authority to crack down on the dumping of products. It also aims to establish core labor standards that NAFTA countries would need to meet, as well as "strong and enforceable environment obligations."
"It is my privilege to bring NAFTA up-to-date through renegotiation," the President said in a statement last night. Trump had vowed on the campaign trail to withdraw from NAFTA entirely, lambasting the pact as among the "worst deals ever made." He ultimately gave notice in May that he would favor renegotiating the terms, with the aim of putting U.S. businesses and jobs first.
Ari Ginsberg, a professor of entrepreneurship at New York University's Stern School of Management, characterizes the new proposals as encouraging. In particular, he cites a section of the outline devoted to small and medium-sized enterprises, which calls for the establishment of a special committee "to ensure that the needs of SMEs are considered" in the broader agreement. "The signals are much more positive than before for small businesses," Ginsberg says. "Before, economists were fearful that the baby was being thrown out with the bath water," he adds. "Now some of the dirty bath water can get thrown out, but the basic tenets that make the NAFTA agreement a good one are still in place."
Causes for concern.
Of course, entrepreneurs may not be happy with all of the administration's proposals. Syama Meagher, the founder of a Los Angeles fashion consultancy, Scaling Retail, is concerned that enforcing higher labor standards might cause labor costs in Mexico to surge. That would lead her clients, which tend to be apparel companies that manufacture outside the U.S., to raise prices, which hurt their bottom line, and by extension, her own.
"Startups would have to re-look at their profit margins and their pricing strategies in order to remain profitable," Meagher tells Inc. "How then are small businesses going to be able to compete?"
Some policy experts also argue that the new proposals do not go far enough to secure U.S. interests. "This document does not describe the promised transformation of NAFTA to prioritize working people that some voters were expecting based on President Trump's campaign pledges," said Lori Wallach, the director of the left-leaning consumer advocacy group Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, in a recent statement.
Still, nothing about the future of trade in the Americas is certain. As soon as next month, the U.S. will enter negotiations with partners Mexico and Canada, who are sure to demand concessions of their own. "As of now, I can't imagine that Canada or Mexico would do anything that's not in their best interest," noted Scaling Retail's Meagher. "I'm not telling my clients that labor costs are going up," she adds.
Another wildcard is Congress. Trump will need the support of lawmakers to pass any new agreement reached with Canada and Mexico, which the administration hopes to bring forward as soon as January 2018.
Mostly, Meagher says, this is good news. "It's not time to jump ship."