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Ex Goldman banker Mnuchin installed as Treasury secretary


´╗┐President Donald Trump swore in former Goldman Sachs banker and Hollywood financier Steven Mnuchin as Treasury secretary on Monday, putting him to work on tax reform, financial de-regulation and economic diplomacy efforts. The U.S. Senate voted to confirm Mnuchin 53-47, with all but one Democrat opposing him over his handling of thousands of foreclosures as head of OneWest Bank after the 2007-2009 housing collapse. At a White House swearing-in ceremony, Trump said Mnuchin would be a "great champion" for U.S. citizens."He will fight for middle-class tax reductions, financial reforms that open up lending and create millions of new jobs, and fiercely defend the American tax dollar and your financial security," Trump said. "And he will also defend our manufacturing jobs from those who cheat and steal and rob us blind."Lawmakers, lobbyists and business groups have been nervously waiting for Mnuchin to take office and fill in the many blanks on how he will pursue tax reform and handle delicate economic cooperation efforts with China, Mexico and other trading partners worried that Trump's "America First" strategy will upend decades-old trade rules and currency practices. Mnuchin, 54, provided no details of his plans as he was sworn in."I am committed to using the full powers of this office to create more jobs, to combat terrorist activities and financing, and to make America great again," Mnuchin said. Trump has pledged to roll back the stricter financial regulation under the Dodd-Frank reform law enacted after the financial crisis, pursue tougher trade policies on China and Mexico to reduce U.S. trade deficits, and reduce business tax rates.

CHALLENGES COMING UP FAST Mnuchin faces immediate challenges with the March 15 expiration of a U.S. debt ceiling suspension, ushering in the threat of a new default showdown, and a March 17 meeting of finance ministers from the Group of 20 major economies, where he will face tough questions about Trump's plans to increase trade protections. In April, Mnuchin will have to determine whether to declare China a currency manipulator as part of Treasury's semi-annual currency report."There is a real open question as to whether this administration is going to cut itself off from international monetary cooperation, whether it's exchange rate policies or attitudes towards multilateral institutions or international regulatory policy," said Edwin Truman, a former Treasury and Federal Reserve official now with the Peterson Institute for International Economics

Among Mnuchin's biggest jobs is managing a sprawling congressional tax reform effort that seeks to slash business tax rates and enact a new border tax adjustment system aimed at boosting U.S. exports. Mnuchin will quickly need to build a core management team to handle such challenges. Treasury and White House representatives did not respond to requests for comment on Monday on reports that Trump would soon nominate David Malpass, a former economist at failed Wall Street bank Bear Stearns, as Treasury undersecretary for international affairs, the agency's top economic diplomacy job. Malpass, a Trump campaign adviser who had been leading Treasury transition efforts, was seen as a leading candidate for the job, with experience from international economic posts in the Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations. Other names that have been floated for senior posts include Goldman Sachs banker Jim Donovan for deputy Treasury secretary and Justin Muzinich, a former Morgan Stanley banker, for undersecretary of domestic finance.

"FORECLOSURE MACHINE" Mnuchin, a second-generation Goldman Sachs banker who led the firm's mortgage bond trading but left the bank in 2002, came under fire from Democrats over his investor group's 2009 acquisition of another failed lender, IndyMac Bank, from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. The bank, rebranded as OneWest, subsequently foreclosed on more than 36,000 homeowners, drawing charges from housing advocates that it was a "foreclosure machine."Mnuchin grew OneWest into Southern California's largest lender and sold it for $3.4 billion in 2015. He has also helped finance Hollywood blockbusters such as "Avatar," "American Sniper" and this past weekend's box office champion, "The Lego Batman Movie," which took in $55.6 million. The Senate on Monday also unanimously confirmed David Shulkin as secretary of veterans affairs, putting the only holdover from the Obama administration in charge of the second largest federal agency. Shulkin had been in charge of the VA's sprawling health system for the past 18 months.

U.S. retail sales beat expectations in January


´╗┐WASHINGTON - U.S. retail sales rose more than expected in January as households bought electronics and a range of other goods, pointing to sustained domestic demand that should bolster economic growth in the first quarter. The Commerce Department said on Wednesday retail sales increased 0.4 percent last month. December's retail sales were revised up to show a 1.0 percent rise instead of the previously reported 0.6 percent advance. Last month's fairly upbeat sales came despite motor vehicle purchases recording their biggest drop in 10 months. Compared to January last year retail sales were up 5.6 percent. Excluding automobiles, gasoline, building materials and food services, retail sales increased 0.4 percent after an upwardly revised 0.4 percent gain in December. These so-called core retail sales correspond most closely with the consumer spending component of gross domestic product. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast retail sales ticking up 0.1 percent and core sales gaining 0.3 percent last month. January's fairly solid retail sales supported views that economic growth will accelerate in the first quarter. The economy grew at a 1.9 percent annualized rate in the fourth quarter. Consumer spending is being supported by a tightening labor market, which is gradually boosting wage growth.

That in turn is underpinning economic growth, paving the way for at least two interest rate increases from the Federal Reserve this year. Fed Chair Janet Yellen told lawmakers on Tuesday that "waiting too long to remove accommodation would be unwise." The U.S. central bank has forecast three rate increases this year. The Fed hiked its overnight interest rate last December by 25 basis points to a range of 0.50 percent to 0.75 percent.

Last month, sales at electronics and appliances stores jumped 1.6 percent, the biggest rise since June 2015, after falling 1.1 percent in December. Receipts at building material stores increased 0.3 percent. Sales at clothing stores jumped 1.0 percent, the largest rise in nearly a year. Department store sales climbed 1.2 percent, the biggest increase since December 2015. Department store sales have been undercut by online retailers, led by Amazon.com (AMZN. O).

That has led to some retailers, including Macy's