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Yellen sticks to tough China line in confirmation hearings

(ATF) Janet Yellen criticised Chinese policy towards American companies in a Senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday January 19 ahead of her expected appointment as US Treasury Secretary. She also warned trading partners against currency manipulation, but her main message was a call for the US to “act big” with swift implementation of a $1.9-trillion stimulus package.

Yellen is likely to be confirmed as Treasury Secretary with no meaningful opposition in Congress, so her testimony on Tuesday was the first indication of economic policy under the Biden administration.

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She took a tough line on China, in a stance that retained bargaining strength for the new administration and avoided giving Republican critics a chance to accuse Biden and Yellen of weakness.

“China is undercutting American companies by dumping products, erecting trade barriers and giving illegal subsidies to corporations,” Yellen said, adding that China has been “stealing intellectual property and engaging in practices that give it an unfair technological advantage, including forced technology transfers.. And these practices, including China’s low labour and environmental standards, are practices that we’re prepared to use the full array of tools to address.”

Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a late attempt to complicate relations with China for the incoming Biden administration by defining Chinese treatment of Uighurs as “genocide” in a statement on Tuesday.

Yellen declined to endorse the use of the term but did say that China was guilty of “horrendous human rights abuses”, when questioned in her confirmation hearing.

Although Yellen stuck to a tough line on China and reiterated American opposition to what it views as currency manipulation by trading partners ranging from Vietnam to Switzerland, she also stressed that the US would aim to work “with our allies rather than unilaterally”.

Other contrasts in approach to the Trump administration are likely to emerge gradually as key Biden officials such as Yellen and incoming Secretary of State Antony Blinken begin to interact directly with their peers in other countries.

‘Urgent need’

Yellen’s main message in her confirmation hearing on Tuesday was the urgent need for stimulus spending by the US to combat the economic effect of the pandemic and reduce inequality.

She strongly endorsed the proposed $1.9 trillion stimulus that will come before a Congress that will have a narrow Senate majority for Democrats after Biden takes office at noon on January 20.

“Neither the President-elect, nor I, propose this relief package without an appreciation for the country’s debt burden. But right now, with interest rates at historic lows, the smartest thing we can do is act big. In the long run, I believe the benefits will far outweigh the costs, especially if we care about helping people who have been struggling for a very long time,” Yellen said in her opening remarks to the Senate finance committee.

She also addressed concerns on the progressive wing of the Democratic party that the sharp revival in asset prices since central banks bailed out markets during the Covid crisis in 2020 were exacerbating inequality.

“People worry about a K-shaped recovery but well before Covid-19 infected a single American, we were living in a K-shaped economy, one where wealth built on wealth while working families fell further and further behind. This is especially true for people of colour,” Yellen said.

“At the Fed (which she chaired), I became accustomed to the institution’s dual mandate – to promote stable prices and maximum employment. As Treasury Secretary, I think there will be a dual mission, too: helping Americans endure the final months of this pandemic; keeping people safe while getting them back to work. That’s our first task. But then there is the longer-term project. We have to rebuild our economy so that it creates more prosperity for more people and ensures that American workers can compete in an increasingly competitive global economy,” she said.

Treasury to monitor climate threat

Yellen also called climate change an “existential threat” to the US economy and said she would appoint a senior official at Treasury to oversee the issue and assess systemic risks it poses to the financial system. She said investment in clean technologies and electric vehicles was needed to cut carbon emissions, keep the US economy competitive and provide good jobs for American workers.

Biden’s transition team urged the Senate to move swiftly to confirm Yellen. Democratic Senator Ron Wyden, who will lead the Finance Committee after Biden’s inauguration on Wednesday, said he would push for a confirmation vote on Thursday. Republican Senator Mike Crapo said he would work towards an “expeditious” confirmation for Yellen.

She also received the endorsement of all former Treasury secretaries, from George Schultz to Jack Lew, who urged senators in a letter to swiftly confirm Yellen’s nomination to avoid “setting back recovery efforts.”

Yellen’s testimony did not provide any surprises for key US markets, which had already digested the potential impact of a higher than initially expected stimulus plan. The 10-year US Treasury yield ended up slightly to close the day at 1.1% after Yellen spoke, while the S&P 500 stock index was up by 0.8%.

With reporting by Reuters


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Jon Macaskill

Jon Macaskill has over 25 years experience covering financial markets from New York and London. He won the State Street press award for 'Best Editorial Comment' in 2016


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