Although White House Chief of Staff Jacob J. Lew has relatively little experience dealing with the financial industry, that may not matter all that much if, as widely reported, President Barack Obama intends to nominate him on Thursday to be the next Treasury secretary.
Outgoing Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, like most of his recent predecessors, brought to the job deep familiarity with financial markets. But with budget negotiations — rather than responding to financial crises or crafting new banking laws — the order of the day for the next Treasury head, many on and off Wall Street view Lew as a sound choice.
“The focus is the federal debt and the nation’s fiscal issues,” said Isaac Boltansky, an analyst at the financial services firm Compass Point Research & Trading. “The environment calls for a different type of Treasury secretary.”
That point of view is not unanimous. “His lack of deep knowledge of the financial markets is a concern,” said one financial industry lobbyist.
Lew, who got his current job a year ago after serving as Office of Management and Budget director for Obama, is widely expected to be nominated soon. Geithner has signaled an intention to step down by the end of this month.
Boltansky said his clients and colleagues are unconcerned that Lew, a Clinton administration veteran and former House staffer, is not steeped in the minutia of the financial world. “It is not a primary concern of the financial market participants that we speak to largely because the overarching concern of 2013 is budgetary and fiscal policy, and his bona fides in those departments are well known,” Boltansky said.
A Georgetown University-trained lawyer, Lew first made a name for himself as domestic policy adviser to former House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill from 1979 through 1986. In the Clinton White House, he helped negotiate the 1997 bipartisan agreement that led to a balanced budget and served a first stint as budget director from 1998 to 2001.
Lew began the Obama administration as deputy secretary of State for management and resources, before becoming OMB director in November 2010. He has been one of Obama’s chief budget negotiators with congressional Republicans and has the reputation of a thoughtful but fierce defender of social safety net programs.
Lew does have Wall Street on his resume. He worked for Citigroup from 2006 until joining the Obama administration in 2009, but his jobs — including chief operating officer for Citigroup Alternative Investments — involved balancing the books rather than making trades. But some liberal lawmakers reviewing his expected nomination may point out that the unit he helped lead engaged in the kinds of lucrative but risky trading that critics say fueled the 2008 financial crisis.
Lew’s professional experience with finance pales in comparison to that of Geithner, who was president of the Federal Reserve Board of New York. And Geithner succeeded Henry M. Paulson Jr., a former chief executive officer of Goldman Sachs.
Still, if dealt a financial crisis like the 2008 calamity faced by Paulson, Lew could rely on trusted lieutenants including Mary J. Miller, undersecretary of Treasury for domestic finance, and Lael Brainard, undersecretary for international affairs.