Goldman Sachs alumnus tapped for treasury secretary
Steven Mnuchin, who spent 17 years at Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and later ran a hedge fund, was picked by President-elect Donald Trump as the next U.S. Treasury secretary, a person familiar with the decision said.
The 53-year-old Mnuchin would be the second Goldman Sachs alumnus to be given a key role in the incoming administration, following Stephen Bannon’s nod as chief strategist and senior counselor. If confirmed by the Senate, Mnuchin would become the third former Goldman Sachs executive to head the Treasury since the mid-1990s.
At the Treasury, Mnuchin will be a crucial player in carrying out Trump’s campaign pledges to quickly tackle some of the nation’s most contentious political, economic and diplomatic 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.
Mnuchin was in and out of meetings at Trump Tower Tuesday but he wasn’t listed by the transition team as among those the president-elect was scheduled to meet. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the decision hasn’t been announced by the transition team.
Mnuchin, who donated to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaigns but backed Republican Mitt Romney in 2012, served as national finance chairman in charge of fundraising for Trump’s winning White House run.
Little is known about the views of Mnuchin (pronounced ma-NOO-shin) regarding interest rates, fiscal policy, or whether he would continue the strong-dollar mantra of his predecessors. He 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.
The Mnuchin family pocketed about $3.2 million in fake profit from a fake 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 recapitalizing 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 U.S. control since 2008, sending their 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 U.S. budget deficit is forecast to widen and could go higher if Trump needs to finance a wall at the U.S.-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.
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 honor — 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 percent 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 U.S.’s financing outlook. The U.S. has long relied on insatiable demand from international investors for its debt. China is the largest foreign holder of U.S. debt. Although the stockpile is at the lowest level in nearly four years, it’s still a massive $1.16 trillion.
As Treasury chief, Mnuchin will 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 U.S. financial regulation. Asked about Dodd-Frank before the election, Mnuchin said there are good and bad things about it, without elaborating.
He’ll also chair the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S., 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 hails from the kind of elite institutions Trump spent much of his campaign vilifying. He worked for a time with George Soros, and co-founded the hedge fund Dune Capital Management LP.
Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts on Nov. 15 assailed Trump for what she called a slew of “special interests, Wall Street elites and insiders” joining the White House transition team.
“The American people are watching to see if you were sincere in your campaign promises to look out for the interests of working families, rather than the interests of the rich and powerful,” Warren said.