The winner of Tuesday’s presidential election can change a lot of things for business leaders and employees. But the president can’t change some of the biggest forces and challenges they face.
With taxes and regulations, the U.S. president could reshape the reach of the tech industry or the role of U.S. producers in global trade. He could speed up or slow down the response to the coronavirus, the amount of pollution the country produces or its response to climate change.
But there are still larger forces beyond his control that business owners and executives follow closely because of the opportunities and constraints they create.
Here’s a look at just five of them:
Slow population growth
The U.S. population is growing more slowly in the 2020s than in any period after World War II. And Minnesota’s population will grow at the slowest rate in state history.
In most rural counties, the slowdown is actually a downturn. Fifty of the state’s 87 counties are projected to have fewer people in them 10 years from now than they do today.
For businesses, that means it’s harder to grow simply by adding new customers, since fewer of them are coming along. It also makes it harder for businesses to find workers, even in the pandemic recession. Because of birth patterns about 20 years ago, Minnesota’s labor market will experience the pain even more in the first half of the decade than the second.
The recession drove the Federal Reserve and other central banks around the world to drop interest rates to near zero. And Fed policymakers in September said they anticipate interest rates to remain at that rock-bottom level through 2023 and perhaps longer. That’s into the start of the next presidential election cycle.
But even before rates fell — and even as President Donald Trump broke precedent before the pandemic by pressuring the Fed to drop them — the cost of money in the U.S. was low relative to historic norms. The prime rate for banks during the 2010s never reached the 3 to 5% range that it moved from in the late 1980s to the 2008 recession.
For borrowers, especially businesses trying to get off the ground, low rates keep a fixed cost in line. Low rates send investors looking for assets with the prospect of higher return, including taking a chance on new businesses.
Strong housing demand
This force is affected by the first two. Across the country, particularly in metro areas, demand for real estate accelerated throughout the economic recovery of the past decade, helped by low rates, retiring baby boomers eager to downsize and the rise of millennials with enough money to buy their first homes.
In the Twin Cities, demand for residential real estate was also shaped by another force: scarcity. For nearly a generation, apartment and condo construction sagged. Even as construction picked up over the past five or six years, demand continued to outpace supply and pushed rental prices higher.
Business owners, executives and investors watch the health of the home real estate market as indicator of broader consumer sentiment and spending, which is the biggest driver of the U.S. economy.
Fading fossil fuels
One of the main clashes in the second presidential debate came when Democratic nominee Joe Biden, in what many saw as a slip, said he would “transition the oil industry” to combat climate change. But a more telling sign of the industry’s future came last week when ExxonMobil reported another loss and showed it may need to slash dividends or sell assets to preserve cash levels.
The nation’s largest oil company seven years ago was the world’s most valuable company. Now, it’s not even in the top 40. The company and industry are managing not just a cyclical downturn in prices but secular change in overall demand.
That is being driven by the rapidly declining costs of renewable sources of energy, particularly solar. A second Trump term may slow the change and a first Biden term may speed it up. But neither can stop the innovative and economic forces driving it. And investors have already shown what they think is the future of the auto industry, the group of companies most closely affected by energy: They have made electric-vehicle manufacturer Tesla more valuable than all other carmakers.
This sweeping change in energy production matters to other business sectors, particularly manufacturing, because power and transportation is another sizable fixed cost.
Growth of the rest
As the world’s biggest economy and one that is shaped by consumption, the U.S. plays a big role in trade. But the president and the nation’s trade policymakers can only go so far in creating demand in other countries, which combine to account for three-fourths of the global economy.
Recovery from the pandemic will be uneven around the world, of course. Even worse, the crisis itself is a setback to living standards and advancements in the less-advanced countries, which always tend to have higher growth rates, before it hit.
Every U.S. company trying to export goods and services will see their prospects shaped by decisions and behaviors in places beyond the reach of the U.S. president.