WASHINGTON The U.S. economy will fall short of the Trump administration's goal of 3 percent growth this year and will only achieve that when its regulatory, tax, trade and energy policies are fully in place, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said on Tuesday.
The GDP target "is certainly not achievable this year," Ross told Reuters in an interview. "The Congress has been slow-walking everything. We don't even have half the people in place."
But Ross said it ultimately could be achieved in the year after all of Republican President Donald Trump's business-friendly policies are implemented. He noted that delays were possible if the push for tax cuts was slowed down in Congress.
Ross also signaled the Trump administration would try to use existing tools to aggressively enforce trade rules and insist on fairer treatment for U.S. goods, rather than adopt the slash-and-burn approach Trump discussed on the campaign trail in 2016.
The comments appear to represent another move to the center by the administration, with Ross acknowledging that trade deficits for things like imported oil are "blameless" and not inherently bad.
Ross, a billionaire investor, said the Commerce Department is working on some "self-initiated" anti-dumping and anti-subsidy cases on behalf of private industries that could help shield them from unfairly traded imports.
"I believe that enforcement will be one of the major tools for fixing things," he said.
FEARS OF PROTECTIONISM
U.S. trading partners have been spooked by Trump's vow to renegotiate or pull out of trade deals, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, which he considers unfair to U.S. industry and workers.
Ross said that the administration was still undecided on whether to split NAFTA into parallel bilateral deals with Canada and Mexico or stick with the current trilateral format.
A possible rise in the use of U.S. tariffs to punish foreign companies deemed to be competing unfairly also has raised concerns of a wave of protectionism.
Ross, however, insisted that the Trump administration was not aiming to restrict trade with its actions.
"What we are restricting is trade that violates trade agreements or violates WTO rules. Not much point of having trade agreements if you are not going to enforce them," he said.
He said World Trade Organization rules were slow to punish trade violators and singled out its most-favored nation clause as a problem for Washington because it allows widely divergent tariffs.
The United States, for example, has a 2.5 percent tariff on vehicle imports for countries without U.S. free trade deals, while the European Union has a 10 percent tariff and China collects a 25 percent tariff.
"The reality is from the point of view of the U.S., the most favored nation clause is actually an impediment to freeing up trade," Ross said, adding that tariffs would come down if reciprocity was respected.
But how such a change could be made to equalize tariffs within the organization "remains to be seen," he added.
Ross also said that not all U.S. trade deficits are necessarily bad or the result of trade agreement violations, as there are some "blameless" deficits such as those caused by the U.S. need to import oil.
Ross also acknowledged that the Trump administration's announcement that it wants to renegotiate NAFTA had contributed to the Mexican peso's decline and "misalignment" against the dollar.
He said this was a "bizarre" situation that made Mexican goods cheaper and increased the U.S. trade deficit, adding that it was worsened by congressional delays in launching the start of NAFTA talks and confirming the nominee for U.S. Trade Representative, Robert Lighthizer.
"Congressional delays are actually causing more of an import problem from Mexico than we had before," he said.
Asked if he thought that the dollar's strength was a problem for achieving U.S. trade goals he said: "I don’t think it is so much that the dollar is too strong as that the other currencies are too weak."
He added the Commerce Department would focus on "the things we can fix", such as battling foreign state subsidies and the dumping of products below cost in U.S. markets.
(Reporting by David Lawder, Kevin Krolicki, David Chance, Jennifer Ablan and Howard Schneider; Editing by Paul Simao and Tom Brown)