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Ross targets export expansion, regulatory reform at confirmation hearing

Wilbur Ross, President-elect Donald Trump's choice to lead the Department of Commerce, outlined a wide-ranging platform aimed at boosting economic growth during his Senate confirmation hearing Jan. 18.

Ross, who is well-known in financial circles for his private equity firm WL Ross & Co. LLC, took issue with the sluggish economic growth in the U.S. characterized by some economists as the "new normal" in the wake of the financial crisis.

"During the campaign, I characterized 1.5% to 2% growth not as the new normal, but the new dismal," Ross said. "I don't think we need to have the new dismal."

While testifying before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, the cabinet nominee laid out a four-plank plan he believes will push the U.S. to annual economic growth above 3%. In particular, Ross emphasized the importance of stimulating exports in order to combat a trade deficit that the U.S. Census Bureau said reached $45.2 billion in November 2016. Ross also highlighted broad regulatory reform, a revamped energy policy and a "sensible" infrastructure package as avenues for spurring further growth.

If gross domestic product growth fails to reach 3% in fiscal year 2016, President Barack Obama could become the first president in history not to hit the threshold in a single year, Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., noted at the hearing.

Ahead of the hearing, Ross said in a letter filed with the Office of Government Ethics that he plans to divest from 40 entities within 90 days of his confirmation, including holdings in Invesco Ltd., Sun Bancorp Inc. and the Bank of Cyprus, where he intends to resign from his position as vice chairman of the board. In addition, Ross disclosed 40 other stakes he expects to divest within 180 days of his confirmation. Ross acknowledged at the morning session of his hearing that he plans to retain his stake in Diamond S Shipping, a New York-based global refined oil shipping company. In 2011, Ross and a group of other investors including China Investment Corp., a Chinese sovereign wealth fund, made an equity investment in the company totaling approximately $1 billion, Reuters reported at the time.

Ross was also repeatedly pressed by Senate Democrats on whether Trump should divest his interests in foreign holdings.

"I'm not familiar enough with the exactitude of his holdings to have any judgment on how easy or hard it would be," Ross said in response to a question from Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.

The nominee fielded several questions regarding President-elect Trump's trade policies with China, the world's second-largest economy, as well as a plan proposed by Trump to impose tariffs on imports such as vehicles and air conditioning units. Ross accused China's protectionist stance of creating an unfair playing field in international trade, pointing to China's high tariff barriers and sporadic currency manipulation. The practices, Ross testified, conflict with pledges by China to work bilaterally with partners to bring about free trade.

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