New U.S. budget chief is nod to markets

July 13, 2010

After spending all year reforming Wall Street, it now looks like President Barack Obama wants to reassure it. At the very least Jacob Lew, the newly nominated White House budget chief, reminds investors of better days. The last time he had the job, the budget was in surplus. And as an ex-Citigroup executive, he brings needed real-world experience to Obama’s team. But while the fiscal stakes are high, his profile probably won’t be.

Deficit vigilantes and bond and currency traders will be watching the new director closely, assuming he’s confirmed by the Senate, to see what magic he can work to help put the federal government on a path to solvency. There is little doubt Lew is a budget hawk. But he faces a far different set of challenges than when he was OMB director for President Bill Clinton from 1998 to 2001. Back then, he presided over four years of budget surpluses totaling more than $500 billion. During the coming four years, however, deficits could total $4 trillion, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Lew is currently ensconced at the State Department. But before returning to government, he was a managing director of Citi Alternative Investments, which runs private equity, hedge funds and real estate investments.

Of course, that stint will predictably draw complaints by bank bashers of a conflict of interest, just as it did when Lew got his current job. But it is no handicap for Lew to have some intuitive feel for how financial markets will interpret his handiwork. For an OMB director these days — especially given a sense in boardrooms that Obama has undermined business interests — generating confidence is just as important as crunching the numbers.

But not generating tabloid headlines. Lew’s predecessor Peter Orszag has been the most high-profile budget chief in a generation — as much for his messy private life as for fiscal pronouncements. Orszag was also closely involved in healthcare reform, damaging his credibility with Republicans who argue he broke his promise to “bend the curve” on health costs.

Lew, on the other hand, helped hammer out a balanced budget agreement with Republicans in the 1990s. A fresh headline like that is something both Washington and Wall Street would love to see again.

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