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A man enters a Staples Inc. store in Clawson, Michigan, on Feb. 29, 2016.

U.S. retailers are coming off one of the worst Christmas-shopping seasons in recent memory, and now they have to deal with Paul Ryan.

The Republican House Speaker is pushing a corporate tax overhaul that would make imports more expensive, according to the retail industry. If that comes to pass, it would drastically cut into the already-thin profit margins of chains like Best Buy Co. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. that sell loads of foreign-made goods.

“That’s all they need,” said Ken Perkins, president of researcher Retail Metrics Inc. “Things are already difficult.”

That’s putting it mildly. Retailers are getting hammered on multiple fronts. States have been passing minimum-wage increases that are putting pressure on labor costs. Inc. and other Web players continue to take market share, leading to dramatic declines in visits to many malls. Shoppers also have shifted spending toward their homes and experiences while becoming better bargain hunters.

The fourth quarter, which for retailers runs from November through January, was the third time in four years that the industry’s earnings declined for that period, according to Retail Metrics. Not even the highest consumer confidence in more than a decade, rising incomes and a surging stock market could save retailers’ Christmas.

J.C. Penney and Macy’s announced massive store-closure plans, which will ripple throughout the industry because their locations anchor shopping malls. Target’s stock fell the most since the depths of the recession in 2008 after the company said it would cut prices to win more customers. Even L Brands Inc., often considered one of the better-performing U.S. retailers, isn’t immune as its flagship business, Victoria’s Secret, struggles.

Ryan’s tax plan, which includes the border-adjustment provision that has the retail industry so worried, is just a blueprint. President Donald Trump hasn’t said whether he supports the idea. Within the White House, there is division with a contingent led by top strategist Steve Bannon in favor and National Economic Council director Gary Cohn and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin opposed, according to a senior administration official.

There has been a lot of debate among corporations about how the border-adjustment tax, or BAT, would work. Supporters, which include net exporters such as General Electric, say a rise in the value of the dollar would offset the increased costs of imported goods. Opponents, which range from retail to autos to shoemakers like Nike, counter that a move in the dollar is more economic theory than a given.


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