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Treasury undersecretary wanted, must love Wall Street

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Fresh off their stand against rollbacks to the Dodd-Frank act in the recently passed government spending bill, liberal Democrats are displeased with President Obama’s pick for a Treasury undersecretary job  investment banker Antonio Weiss .

Speaking about Wall Street’s influence on economic policy late Friday, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren said, “Enough is enough with Wall Street insiders getting key position after key position and the kind of cronyism that we have seen in the executive branch.”

But the White House has called Weiss a “highly qualified nominee.”

So just what does this job entail?

If the U.S. Treasury were to draft a job description for the current vacancy, it might list a set of skills that included “understanding of very high level and sometimes very complex finance,” says Kevin Jacques, a professor at Baldwin Wallace University who spent 14 years at Treasury. Potential hires should also be able to translate wonky economic papers into policy and work across different government agencies, he says.

“Absolutely critical is an ability to talk [and] negotiate with Wall Street,” says Jacques, which is partially why he says so many candidates come to the job from financial institutions. It gives them credibility with the industry.

Lawyer Jerry Hawke held the post in the ’90s, but has never worked on Wall Street and doesn’t think that should be a must. It does help, he says.

But “the process of treasury issuance of bonds and notes and so on, that was an area I didn’t have any real experience in,” he says. “Someone who understood bond trading and Wall Street could make a great contribution.”

But Wall Street isn’t the only source of these skills, says Daniel Carpenter, a professor of government at Harvard University. “There’s a lot of alternative sources of expertise that are used by Wall Street banks themselves,” he says, “including the legal academy, the business academy, consumer financial organizations, and state government officials.”

It might be worth sacrificing some financial acumen, Carpenter says, for the fresh perspective a Wall Street outsider would bring.

“There’s too many people who think that just because somebody worked on Wall Street, they literally are a financial master of the universe and can do any finance job,” says Dennis Kelleher of Better Markets, Inc., a nonprofit that seeks to promote the public interest in the financial markets. “That’s just objectively false.” He suggests drawing from large global corporations instead. 

Of course, in the end, the final must for this undersecretary? Confirmation by the U.S. Senate.

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