Treasury Nominee Has Ties to China
Tuesday, June 6, 2006
In an administration with just 2 1/2 years to go, Henry M. Paulson Jr., President Bush's nominee for Treasury secretary, may have little chance to make a mark on many economic issues. The administration's tax policies were pretty much set in Bush's first term, and its more recent big economic initiative, aimed at revamping Social Security, is moribund.
But one issue on which Paulson can surely exert influence is the U.S. relationship with China. The Treasury secretary has formal responsibility for some major decisions to be made in coming months, such as whether to label Beijing a "currency manipulator." And when it comes to cutting deals with Beijing, few U.S. business executives can match Paulson's record.
As chairman and chief executive of Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Paulson has aggressively led the firm's foray into the Chinese market, where it has become a dominant player in selling the securities of China's biggest companies to investors abroad. He takes pride in having visited China more than 70 times since 1992 and has cultivated relationships with Chinese officials at the highest levels. President Hu Jintao, for example, chose Paulson as his host when he visited the New York Stock Exchange in 2002.
To supporters of warm relations between Washington and Beijing, a Paulson-led Treasury bears the promise of a heightened level of sophistication in dealing with thorny transpacific problems, especially China's policy concerning its currency, the yuan. The administration has had only limited success in persuading China to allow a rise in the exchange rate of the yuan, which U.S. manufacturers complain is artificially cheap, giving Chinese exporters an unfair competitive edge. With his deep knowledge of China's financial system and long experience dealing with the country's officials, Paulson is ideally suited to bring Beijing around, according to many experts.
"He knows the people. They've trusted him. He can draw on that in the national interest," said C. Fred Bergsten, director of the Institute for International Economics, who is one of the most outspoken advocates among economists for a change in China's currency system. "This is exactly why you want somebody like that for a job like this."
But the U.S. Business and Industry Council, a group with a history of agitating for tough policies toward Beijing, is arguing that Paulson's associations pose a conflict of interest. Although Paulson is expected to sever his links to Goldman by disposing of his stock in the firm -- presumably by putting the shares in a blind trust, which would then sell them -- he would still feel obligated to Chinese officials, in the view of Kevin L. Kearns, the president of the group, which represents about 1,500 small and medium-size companies.
"Mr. Paulson has actively courted Beijing during his tenure at Goldman Sachs," said Kearns in a statement. "His key clients have included the Beijing government and several state-owned Chinese firms. Are we to believe that Mr. Paulson will do a sudden about-face and crack down on many of Beijing's aggressive violations of internationally accepted trade law?"
Kearns noted that as Treasury chief, Paulson would chair the interagency task force that scrutinizes foreign acquisitions of U.S. businesses for national security problems -- the panel that drew widespread criticism during the controversy over Dubai's proposed takeover of terminal operations at U.S. ports. "Would Mr. Paulson act to block Chinese attempts to purchase strategic American assets?" Kearns asked, adding that the answer is probably not because Paulson would be inclined to "use his position in the cabinet to urge continued appeasement of China." He was on Capitol Hill yesterday, hoping to drum up opposition to the nomination.
A Goldman spokesman, Peter Rose, said Paulson would not comment pending his Senate confirmation hearing, but he scoffed at the conflict-of-interest accusation. "When Mr. Paulson becomes secretary of the Treasury, he will have totally divorced his interests from those of Goldman Sachs," he said. "The claim that he has a conflict would mean that only the ignorant could be appointed to a Cabinet position."
Goldman officials readily acknowledge that the firm has managed -- usually together with one or two other major firms -- nearly every important international securities offering by big Chinese companies.
In 1997, the firm was lead manager for a $3 billion stock sale of the country's major cellphone company -- the first issuance of shares by a big, high-tech Chinese company to investors overseas. Another, similar-size deal in which Goldman played the lead role was the 2000 sale of shares in PetroChina, the nation's flagship oil company. Just last week, Goldman co-managed the $9.73 billion sale of shares in the Bank of China -- the world's biggest initial public offering in six years. Goldman was also the first Western firm to be allowed to gain a controlling interest in a Chinese investment bank.
Paulson's role in negotiating those transactions was "very crucial," said Robert D. Hormats, vice chairman of Goldman's international business, adding that Paulson "really immersed himself in a lot of activities in China." Those include serving as chairman of the advisory board of the management school at Tsinghua University, one of the country's most prestigious institutions.
"There's a difference between having a good relationship with the Chinese and being cozy with them," said Hormats, who said Paulson "is as good as anyone around in negotiating with them." Hormats said, "I've been going to China since the early '70s, and if there's one thing I've learned, it's that you get more progress from the Chinese if they respect you and think you understand them."
So far, there is little evidence that the issue will cause Paulson problems in his confirmation. Even Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), one of the most militant lawmakers on the currency issue and a member of the Senate Finance Committee, which will consider the nomination, said he was more impressed than bothered by Paulson's business ties.
"My view is, he will understand the need to get results," said Schumer, who has spoken many times with Paulson. "And he will have a good chance of getting it done."