Mnuchin, Ross stake claim as Trump treasury, commerce picks

Mnuchin, 53, will be the second Goldman Sachs alumnus with a key role in the incoming administration

Gulf News

New York: Former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. partner Steven Mnuchin said Donald Trump plans to nominate him as the next US Treasury secretary, a key cabinet decision as the president-elect assembles a team to fulfil his campaign pledge to boost the world’s largest economy.

Mnuchin confirmed his selection for the Cabinet in an interview Wednesday on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” programme. Billionaire investor Wilbur Ross also confirmed on the cable network that Trump will nominate him as Commerce secretary.

Mnuchin, 53, will be the second Goldman Sachs alumnus with a key role in the incoming administration, following Stephen Bannon’s nod as chief strategist and senior counsellor. If confirmed by the Senate, Mnuchin would become the third former Goldman Sachs executive to head the Treasury Department since the mid-1990s.

With the Mnuchin and Ross selections, Trump’s economic team is taking shape. As Treasury chief, Mnuchin would be a crucial player in carrying out Trump’s campaign pledges to quickly tackle some of the nation’s most contentious political and economic issues. Those include overhauling the tax code, reconsidering a deal that lifted some sanctions on Iran, renegotiating trade agreements to help American manufacturers and designating China a currency manipulator.

Trump on Tuesday picked former US Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, the wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, to be transportation secretary, and Georgia Representative Tom Price, a leading critic of Obamacare, as the nominee to head the Department of Health and Human Services. The president-elect had dinner in New York Tuesday night with former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, a vocal Trump critic during the campaign but a candidate for secretary of state.

Earlier Tuesday, the president-elect met with Goldman Sachs President Gary Cohn, and a person familiar with the transition said Trump and his aides are discussing what role Cohn might play, with potential jobs including other posts at the Treasury or at the White House’s Office of Management and Budget. He also may be considered for the Federal Reserve, the person said.

Ross, 79, backed Romney’s presidential bid in 2012. He emerged as an advocate for Trump’s economic agenda when the real-estate developer was still seen as a long shot against Democrat Hillary Clinton, and denounced Romney for criticising Trump.

The choice of Mnuchin, who served as national finance chairman in charge of fund-raising for Trump’s winning White House run, illustrates the extent to which Trump is relying on Wall Street executives as he prepares to take office, even after decrying the influence of big banks during the campaign.

 

Dollar policy

Little is known about the views of Mnuchin regarding interest rates, fiscal policy, or whether he would continue the strong-dollar mantra of his predecessors. Mnuchin, who spent 17 years at Goldman Sachs and later ran a hedge fund, comes from a pedigree of Wall Street elites: His father was on the management committee at Goldman Sachs before founding an art gallery on New York’s Upper East Side, while his brother Alan’s resume includes now-defunct financial companies Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. and Bear Stearns Cos.

Inauguration Day is scheduled for Jan. 20, and hearings for cabinet-level positions like Treasury secretary typically occur in the weeks after the new president takes office. Given his Goldman Sachs roots and his dealings during the financial crisis, he may face sharp questioning during his Senate hearing.

 

IndyMac role

The Mnuchin family pocketed about $3.2 million (Dh11.7 million) in fake profit from an account with convicted con man Bernard Madoff. It was money that didn’t have to be returned to victims because it had been removed before Madoff’s Ponzi scheme was exposed. The Treasury nominee himself profited from the housing market crash in 2008 when he and a group of investors bought a failed California mortgage lender and, after recapitalising and renaming it, sold it for more than double the purchase price.

Mnuchin’s role in buying the bank, then called IndyMac, may hold clues to what his leadership at the Treasury Department means for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The two companies have been under US control since 2008, sending almost all of their profits to the Treasury. Just before the crisis hit, Mnuchin was financing movies, including “Avatar,” at 20th Century Fox.

In the new job, Mnuchin would inherit an era of rising government debt just as the Treasury will need to finance Trump’s expansionary fiscal plans. The US budget deficit is forecast to widen and may go higher if Trump needs to finance a wall at the US-Mexico border, cut taxes and spend $1 trillion on infrastructure. Investors say the new era of steep increases in debt issuance could cause market turbulence.

Currency Policy

While traditionally a Treasury secretary with Wall Street experience has been associated with dollar strength, Mnuchin inherits a list of campaign promises filled with trade policy rhetoric that could collide with currency policy, said Alan Ruskin, head of currency research at Deutsche Bank Securities Inc.

“It’s possible that that the strong dollar will be worn by the coming administration as a badge of honour — a signal of global confidence in ‘Trumpism,’” he said. “You need a stronger exchange rate, otherwise you’re going to have too much inflation pressure, meaning the bond market would blow up.”

Ruskin sees room for the dollar to appreciate at least 5 per cent given the prospect of fiscal expansion under Trump.

The president-elect’s pledge that he’ll direct the Treasury to designate China a currency manipulator as one of his first official acts could also impact the US’s financing outlook. The US has long relied on insatiable demand from international investors for its debt. China is the largest foreign holder of US debt. Although the stockpile is at the lowest level in nearly four years, it’s still a massive $1.16 trillion.

Dodd-Frank Views

As Treasury chief, Mnuchin would lead the Financial Stability Oversight Council, established under the Dodd-Frank Act that Trump wants to unwind. The 2010 law aimed to prevent future crises similar to those of 2008-09 with an overhaul of US financial regulation. Asked about Dodd-Frank before the election, Mnuchin said there are good and bad things about it, without elaborating.

He also would chair the Committee on Foreign Investment in the US, through which he could raise protective barriers by rejecting Chinese investments.

Mnuchin stands to save millions in taxes should the Senate confirm his nomination. A 1989 rule would allow him to sell stock tax-free if he reinvests in Treasuries or government-approved funds. Mnuchin owns $97 million of CIT Group Inc., according to a February ownership filing.

Mnuchin, who donated to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaigns but backed Romney in 2012, also worked for a time with George Soros, and cofounded the hedge fund Dune Capital Management LP.

Criticism of Mnuchin came quickly Tuesday from at least one Democrat.

“Bad choice,” Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon, a member of the Senate Banking Committee, wrote on Twitter. “We need a Treasury secretary who will stand up to predatory lending, not one who practised it.”

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