By Simon Johnson
Antonio Weiss has been nominated by President Obama to become the next Under Secretary for Domestic Finance at the U.S. Department of the Treasury. Mr. Weiss’s supporters argue that he is highly qualified for this senior fiscal policy job. They are wrong. Mr. Weiss has no known relevant qualification or experience for this position.
In the organizational structure of the Treasury Department, the Under Secretary for Domestic Finance is “primarily responsible for policy formulation and overall management” at the Office of Domestic Finance – a very important role. This Office is central to our debt management policies, but the Under Secretary also guides the administration’s fiscal policies much more broadly,
“Domestic Finance advises and assists in areas of domestic finance, banking, and other related economic matters. It develops policies and guidance for Treasury Department activities in the areas of financial institutions, federal debt finance, financial regulation, and capital markets.”
Here is the detailed org chart of Domestic Finance. On paper, this Under Secretary is the third most senior official in the executive branch with regard to fiscal decision-making. Given the way the Treasury Department works, along with the position of the United States in the world economy, on a day-to-day basis, this person is effectively the number two on many budget- and debt-related issues.
There is no disagreement on what Mr. Weiss has been doing for the past 20 years. Writing recently in the New York Times, Andrew Ross Sorkin said, Antonio Weiss is “a longtime adviser on mergers at the investment bank” [Lazard]. And “He has spent his career whispering strategic advice in the ears of corporate leaders.” (More detail on his career advising corporations is in the New York Times news coverage.)
Bloomberg reports his title as global head of investment banking at Lazard. For more details of the firm’s activities and clients see this Lazard page on their “M&A and Strategic Advisory” and their most recent results. You can also search the Lazard website for mentions of Antonio Weiss. Or look at Mr. Weiss’s job description, from Lazard’s press release on his March 2009 promotion to his current position. Without question, Mr. Weiss is experienced in advising companies how to buy other companies, particularly across international borders.
Mr. Sorkin thinks Mr. Weiss is the right pick because, “the job requires deep experience in the capital markets and global relationships.”
But Mr. Weiss’s “high profile M&A activities” are completely unrelated to the central task of this position: running responsible federal government finances. The Under Secretary for Domestic Finance does not typically buy and sell companies – or engage in any activities remotely related to advising companies on acquisitions. The treasury job requires knowledge of sovereign credit, experience with the practicalities of public debt sustainability, and an understanding of the intricacies of our national budget. From the public record and otherwise available information, Mr. Weiss has no substantial knowledge or expertise on any of these issues.
Mr. Weiss was one of 12 people who signed a paper on fiscal issues published by the Center for American Progress in 2012 (co-authored with Robert Rubin, among others). However, Mr. Weiss’s role in formulating ideas or writing that paper remains unclear. This is the only paper Mr. Weiss has written with CAP or, as far as can be determined, elsewhere on this topic (or on anything else to do with economics or public finance.) There are also no other publicly available speeches, op eds, or other writing by him on issues that might touch on the substantive duties of the Under Secretary position.
Mr. Sorkin suggests that failing to immediately confirm Mr. Weiss could have serious negative implications for our national cash flow. Citing Ben White of Politico (who got this from an anonymous “Wall Street exec”), Mr. Sorkin says,
“if the interest on the securities the Treasury sells was just 20 basis points higher for a year because of uncertainty or mismanagement, it would cost taxpayers $32 billion — more than it would cost to fund the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau for 50 years.”
To suggest that the interest rate paid by the U.S. Treasury would in the short term increase due to any part of the nomination process for this specific candidate is absurd. Mr. Sorkin fails to provide any evidence or logic to support his assertion that Mr. Weiss’s confirmation (or not) would affect the full faith and credit of the U.S. government – and how that is perceived by the market.
The Washington Post editorial page then weighed in last week along the same lines as Mr. Sorkin:
“The 48-year-old Mr. Weiss would bring much in the way of relevant experience to the job, having graduated from Harvard Business School and gone on to a successful career in finance, most recently as head of investment banking for the venerable Lazard firm.”
Again, Mr. Weiss simply has no relevant experience. Working in corporate M&A is profoundly different from managing public (government) finance.
Bill Cohan, who used to work at Lazard, adds further detail in another New York Times column that is strongly supportive of Mr. Weiss, “In addition to being a much-respected global M.&A. adviser, he [Antonio Weiss] has supervised bankers who worked for Detroit pensioners, the National Association of Letter Carriers and the American Airlines pilots.” Important work, no doubt, but again not something that could fairly be regarded as qualifying someone to become Under Secretary for Domestic Finance.
And, importantly, the New York Times felt the need to add a significant correction at the foot of Mr. Cohan’s column:
“An earlier version of this column described imprecisely part of the work history of Antonio Weiss, based on a document prepared by the Treasury Department. While he supervised bankers who advised Detroit pensioners, the National Association of Letter Carriers and the American Airlines pilots, he did not advise them directly himself.”
This suggests that the Treasury Department has been stretching its facts regarding Mr. Weiss’s experience in an inappropriate manner – to make him look more qualified for the job than he really is. (My understanding is that the work in question was actually done by Ron Bloom.)
Announcements about further scrutiny or appropriate pushback regarding the qualifications of Mr. Weiss have not and will not move the market for U.S. Treasury debt.
Interest rates are influenced by many factors including – in the first instance these days – by Federal Reserve policies, but also by the balance of global savings and investment, as well as inflation expectations and views on how quickly the US economy (and, to some extent, the global economy) will make a full recovery. Threats of a government shutdown or a confrontation over the debt ceiling might also play a role – at least, that has been the experience in recent years.
In coming years, the overall stance of US fiscal policy will matter a great deal for long-term interest rates, with one key issue being whether domestic and international investors remain convinced that our debt-GDP ratio is on a sustainable path. (James Kwak and I wrote a book on this topic.)
Based on the record, there is no indication that Mr. Weiss has the skills likely to help put us on such a path (yes, fiscal policy is determined by Congress as much as by any administration – but the Under Secretary is an important part of the decision-making mix).
And there is a legitimate concern about Mr. Weiss’s qualifications which, ironically and perhaps inadvertently, was raised by Mr. Sorkin himself, when he conceded, “that Mr. Weiss doesn’t have a lot of experience in the regulatory arena, and at least part of the role he is nominated for involves carrying out the remaining parts of the Dodd-Frank overhaul law.”
The negative fiscal implications in that statement are potentially first-order. Ineffective financial regulation increases the probability of a serious crisis. And such crises have major negative effects on the public balance sheet – the near-collapse of the financial system in 2007-08 caused a recession that will end up increasing our debt-to-GDP ratio by about 50 percentage points (this is based on the Congressional Budget Office’s analysis.)
Having the experience, commitment, and world view necessary to ensure this never happens again should be essential background for whoever might become the next Under Secretary. Regrettably, this critical responsibility is too often an afterthought – when it should be a priority. Given the cost of the crash and the lasting economic wreckage of the Great Recession, this is indefensible.
It’s hard to think of any senior fiscal official from a serious country with qualifications as weak as those of Mr. Weiss.
Mr. Weiss might be qualified for other positions, for example in the Commerce Department. Based on the available facts, he is simply not qualified for the post of Under Secretary for Domestic Finance in the Treasury Department.