Billionaire investor Wilbur Ross, known on Wall Street as the “king of bankruptcy” for his record of buying failing companies, will be tapped as Donald Trump’s commerce secretary, putting an advocate of renegotiating US trade pacts in a key economic post.
Mr Ross was a close adviser to Mr Trump during his campaign and helped develop the president-elect’s policies for corporate tax cuts, increased infrastructure spending and international trade.
Mr Ross declined to comment when contacted by the Financial Times on Thursday, but his nomination would be the latest sign Mr Trump has no intention of backing off from some of his more controversial economic policies when he moves into the White House.
A former investment banker who specialised in corporate turnrounds, Mr Ross has been particularly outspoken on the need for overhauling business taxes, advocating sharp cuts in corporate rates and incentives for US companies that have parked profits overseas to bring them home.
“Trump is putting fiscal policy to work … there is a real limit to what monetary policy can do,” he told the FT this month. “Tax cuts will boost earnings by 30 per cent.”
Mr Trump has reached out from his immediate inner circle in recent days to pick outsiders for education secretary, UN ambassador and housing secretary.
We should treat ourselves as the world’s biggest customer and treat nations that are selling to us as suppliers to us
But all three have relatively little power in Washington — key education and housing decisions are made by local governments — and Mr Ross’ nomination comes amid signs he will give top economic posts to loyalists. Steven Mnuchin, a former Goldman Sachs banker who served as Mr Trump’s campaign finance chairman, is seen as frontrunner for Treasury secretary.
Although he has strong free market views and long experience in one of the more ruthless corners of finance, Mr Ross is known for his low-key, self-effacing style, in stark contrast with other high-profile Wall Street players.
Speaking to the FT a week ago, Mr Ross said he is not antitrade and is keen to encourage international commerce. However, echoing the arguments advanced by Mr Trump, he insisted any trade deals needed to be carefully structured to benefit America. “Free trade doesn’t mean dumb trade.” he said.
“Cutting our balance of payments deficit doesn’t mean slapping on 45 per cent tariffs on everything from China,” he added. “But here is the key issue: we should treat ourselves as the world’s biggest customer and treat nations that are selling to us as suppliers to us.”
He set up his own firm WL Ross in 2000 and did a number of deals with struggling companies in the industrial Midwest, an area that was crucial to Mr Trump’s election victory. A New Jersey native based in New York, Mr Ross, 78, also has a house in Palm Beach near Mr Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate.
“We are tying to spur more investment — the big lagging thing in our economy has been the shrinkage of gross private sector investment,” Mr Ross said of his support for corporate tax cuts. “I think it’s one of the reasons why productivity gains have not been so strong.”
He is also a strong backer of allowing companies to write off capital investments against their tax bill as a way to spur investment.
To avoid any suggestion the new policies were aimed at helping highly leveraged companies — such as the private equity vehicles that Mr Ross has run — he argued that companies should either be allowed to take tax deductions on debt payments, or capital expenditure — but not both.
“Companies would have a choice between either getting the interest they pay deductible or immediately writing off their capital investment — it would be an either/or, not both,” he said.
His most unorthodox views, however, have been in trade, where he has been a harsh critic of the way that the US negotiates international deals. He has played down the prospect of a Trump administration imposing large tariffs on Chinese companies. “There aren’t going to be trade wars,” he told US media last week.
He has extensive experience outside the Americas, having cut deals in Asian markets such as Japan and Korea. His purchase of Kofuku bank in Osaka is considered one of the most successful transactions conducted by any western group in the 1990s.
Perhaps Mr Ross’ best-known business deal was the acquisition in the early 2000s of a number of then struggling US steel companies, including Bethlehem Steel in Pennsylvania and LTV Corp in Cleveland. He sold the steel businesses to Mittal Group for around $4.5bn in 2005.
He adopted a similar strategy with a series of small coal mining companies that were eventually sold to Arch Coal in 2011 for $3.4bn. However in 2005, a dozen workers at Sago Mine in West Virginia, one of the assets his group had acquired, were killed in an explosion.
This background could set up a complicated confirmation hearing for Mr Ross, who is viewed in some quarters as a hero for reviving companies in the Rust Belt that would otherwise have gone out of business but who has also been accused of cutting wages, pensions and health benefits at many of those businesses.
Additional reporting by Gillian Tett in New York