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EDITIONS
Monday, 29 July, 2002, 13:51 GMT 14:51 UK
Critics target Bush economic team
George Bush names Paul O'Neill treasury secretary
George Bush and Paul O'Neill: reluctant partners

As stock markets have continued to fall, there has been increasing criticism of the Bush administration for its lack of economic leadership.

It's an election year, and some of the talk - especially by Democrats - is attempt to pin the blame on both corporate scandals and investors' loss of wealth on the Republicans.

But there is a deeper malaise, that could affect confidence among market traders and consumers alike, the fear that no one seems to be in charge of the economy - in contrast to the strong signals coming from the White House on foreign policy issues.


My conviction is this, the US economy is without any doubt the strongest economy in the world

US Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill
At the weekend, both Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and economic advisor Lawrence Lindsey appeared on television to talk up the economy.

Mr O'Neill said that there was "good news that the fundamentals of the American economy are strong, we continue moving in a positive way toward an end of year growth rate of 3% to 3.5%.

"My conviction is this, the US economy is without any doubt the strongest economy in the world."

Lawrence Lindsey: architect of tax cuts
Lawrence Lindsey: architect of tax cuts
But it was the absence of Mr O'Neill during the big stock falls that has attracted the most attention.

The Treasury Secretary was travelling in Central Asia, and told reporters he was surprised that anyone noticed his absence.

Market gaffes

It was just the latest in the series of market gaffes that have led many on Wall Street to question his ability to provide leadership.

Mr O'Neill has also told Congress that the fall of the US dollar didn't matter, that the downfall of Enron was an example of the "genius of capitalism," and that markets would go higher after the 11 September attacks.

While in Africa, he questioned whether additional foreign aid would make any difference.

Bush economic team
Treasury Secretary: Paul O'Neill
Commerce Secretary: Don Evans
Economic Advisor: Lawrence Lindsey
Trade Representative: Robert Zoellick
Budget director: Mitch Daniels
Mr O'Neill and Mr Lindsey both believe that the key to a strong US economy is tax cuts, and they defended the Bush administration's ten year, $1.35 trillion tax cut that was put into place last year.

Mr O'Neill - who is now facing a massive Budget deficit rather than the surplus once forecast - has warned Congress not to increase spending any further, in case taxes would have to rise.

But Mr O'Neill, on the defensive over his absence, said he could not influence markets.

"I would challenge the notion that when the markets are doing their thing. that someone can say some words that will somehow be a magic elixir."

His attitude is in sharp contrast to his Democratic predecessor, Robert Rubin, who appeared in public during the 1998 financial crisis.

Corporate reform

Mr Lindsey and Mr O'Neill also backed President Bush in his strong words about the need to punish corporate wrong-doers.

Mr Lindsey also criticised the head of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Harvey Pitt, who is under fire for regulatory failures, for his request for a higher salary and Cabinet status last week.

Mr Lindsey said it was the "wrong time" for such a proposal.

But the Bush economics team was more reluctant to endorse further corporate reforms, including the curbing of share options.

Many observers, including Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan and Republican Senator John McCain, worry that the huge gains made by executives who were given the option to buy shares - at no cost to the company - gave them an incentive to over-state their profits to boost its share price.

Mr O'Neill - who himself benefited from executive share options as head of the aluminium giant Alcoa - said that "it was time to tell the truth" and stop criticising share option schemes.

And Mr O'Neill at least took one lesson of the crisis to heart.

He has postponed a trip to Latin America to help the Administration push its key economic legislation through the Senate before it adjourns at the end of the week.


Analysis

IN DEPTH
The Markets: 9:29 UK
FTSE 100 5760.40 -151.7
Dow Jones 11380.99 -119.7
Nasdaq 2243.78 -28.9
FTSE delayed by 15 mins, Dow and Nasdaq by 20 mins
Launch marketwatch
View market data
See also:

14 Dec 00 | Business
18 Dec 00 | Business
08 Mar 02 | Business
24 Jun 02 | Business
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