Friday 20 April 2018

Former Bank of Ireland investor Wilbur Ross slams China's free trade claims

Wilbur Ross with his wife, Hilary Geary Ross, after being picked as commerce secretary
Wilbur Ross with his wife, Hilary Geary Ross, after being picked as commerce secretary

Sean Duffy

The man who made a killing when he bought Bank of Ireland shares during Ireland's banking collapse went before the US Senate last night ahead of his appointment as Donald Trump's new Commerce Secretary.

US billionaire Wilbur Ross was one of the few global investors who backed the Irish financial sector at the height of the recession. He bought shares in Bank of Ireland in 2011 when there was little appetite for the stock among global investors, as part of a consortium that kept the bank from full nationalisation.

He later sold the shares in a series of deals that tripled his money, handing him a €500m profit. Donald Trump's presidential campaign was marked by protectionist language deep antagonism to China over trade.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Chinese President Xi Jinping made an outspoken defence of globalisation in an historic speech seen as a rebuke of the Trump campaign.

However, in his testimony before the US Senate, Wilbur Ross rejected the idea of China as a free trade champion. "China is the most protectionist country of very large countries. They have both very high tariff barriers and very high non-tariff trade barriers. So they talk much more about free trade than they actually practise.

"We'd like to level that playing field and bring the reality a bit closer to the rhetoric," Mr Ross said.

He poured scorn on the economic performance of the US over the past number of years, noting it should be referred to as "The New Dismal".

Ross, 79, would be one of the most seasoned business leaders on Trump's economic team. As a private-equity investor, he restructured companies across a range of industries including steel, banking and textiles. Bloomberg values his fortune at $2.9bn, and in financial disclosures released Tuesday, he revealed assets topping $336m, including at least $150m held in bank accounts and an art collection worth more than $50m

In Wednesday's prepared statement, Ross said the companies he's invested in operated in 23 countries.

He said he's probably had more direct experience than any cabinet nominee with unfair trade practices such as non-tariff barriers and state subsidies of foreign exports. "I am not anti-trade," he said. "I am pro-trade. But I am pro-sensible trade, not trade that is detrimental to the American worker and to the domestic manufacturing base."

Ross's vast business holdings may open him to the same line of attack Mitt Romney faced when he ran for president in 2012 - that he was a corporate raider who flipped companies for profit while laying off American workers.

(Additional reporting by Bloomberg)

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