Thursday, Feb 22, 2024

What Washington can expect from Rishi Sunak

What Washington can expect from Rishi Sunak

Britain’s new prime minister has American roots — but D.C. is still getting to know him.

Most of Washington doesn’t know Rishi Sunak. But there’s one sector of the nation’s capital that is quite familiar with him — financial regulators — and those relationships give a glimpse of how he may deal with D.C.

Even though the new British prime minister lived in the U.S. for five years, the networks he built in California — as a student and hedge fund partner — rarely extend to Washington. Sunak, 42, joined the British Cabinet in February 2020, just as Covid began to disrupt travel. And unlike his predecessor Liz Truss, Sunak hasn’t cultivated a conservative network in Washington.

That means he’s got a lot of work to do in D.C..

The U.K.-U.S. “special relationship” depends on actual relationships. Sunak’s dearth of them means that — beyond the Treasury — he will have to build those bonds on the fly as he confronts enormous challenges, from the West’s strategy on Ukraine to calming global financial markets.

POLITICO contacted more than a dozen senior American officials, think tankers and bankers: most had nothing to share about Sunak — because they’d never dealt with him before.

While Sunak is a conservative and the Biden administration prides itself on its progressive policy positions, those who know Sunak best in Washington — Treasury officials — are emphatic in their praise. They cited Sunak’s willingness to overcome policy differences, and to solve thorny problems to justify their views.

When Janet met Rishi

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen first met Sunak in London, during the U.K. G-7 presidency in 2021, maintaining a rhythm of regular contact until Sunak resigned from his own treasury post in July, helping to force Boris Johnson out of Downing Street.

A person familiar with Sunak’s relationship with Treasury officials said he and Yellen “developed a very, very warm and friendly relationship, but also very business-like: they accomplish things.”

That’s the type of relationship the White House is looking for from London: no more market chaos, and fewer confrontations with the EU over Irish border arrangements.

“I think people actually see this as a settling down and getting back on an even track after some fairly interesting and momentous events this year,” U.K. Ambassador Karen Pierce said in an interview.

After this year’s revolving door in Downing Street and other British ministries, U.S. officials say they’ll be happy if Sunak and his team stick to a predictable line.

“They will expect an inward focus from Sunak, especially to try and get the economic basics back on track,” said Ivo Daalder, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO during the Obama administration. “U.K. policy on Ukraine will remain the same, which is good, and for the rest they have to have a predictable G-7 partner.”

The Yellen-Sunak relationship was forged during tense negotiations last year to establish a global minimum tax for large international companies and efforts to punish Russia for invading Ukraine.

Yellen and Sunak worked hand-in-hand during the tax talks which involved more than 130 governments, and dragged on throughout 2021, “Many countries had red lines, but they were determined to find a way through,” said the person familiar with the efforts to fend off defections and win over holdouts including Ireland, which had made a 12.5 percent corporate rate the foundation of its national economic model.

The individual, who has participated in meetings with Sunak, said the new PM’s relationship with Yellen extended to dinners and a private tour of the Treasury building. The person and others were granted anonymity to allow them to speak freely about Sunak.

With the global tax deal done, Yellen and Sunak teamed up to deal with Moscow via sanctions, and mechanisms to limit the fallout from the energy market chaos Russian President Vladimir Putin unleashed this year.

“He had his staff dedicate a huge amount of time to welcome [U.S.] Treasury staff at low, medium and high levels to make sure we got outcomes,” the person said.

London vs. New York clash looming

For all the personal bonhomie between Sunak and Yellen, the pair may yet end up at odds over one of Sunak’s passions: making London a cryptocurrency and blockchain hub.

Sunak is the most influential world leader to publicly embrace blockchain technology to remake financial markets.

Where the Biden administration talks about “responsible digital asset development,” Sunak — a Goldman Sachs alum and the first former hedge fund partner to lead a major economy — is less cautious, focusing on innovation and global leadership.

Washington’s crypto approach remains stuck at the stage of executive orders and policy frameworks, while the House of Commons this week voted to recognize cryptocurrencies as a regulated financial asset.

While Britain is choosing to go its own way on crypto, Sunak showed his cooperative spirit by working with G-7 financial authorities on developing central bank digital currencies, a crypto-adjacent asset class.

With financiers in London now facing extra paperwork to operate in the EU because of Brexit, Sunak’s overall instinct is to do what it takes to help London catch up to New York in the race to be the world’s financial capital.

A Conservative British member of parliament said Sunak lacks international financial connections that might move the needle for London’s competitive position: “He has hedge funds and that’s it.”

A bit of American ideology

Sunak has credited the time he spent getting a Stanford MBA — obtained in 2006 — with teaching him to “think bigger” about the world — and bring a “start-up mentality” to governing, as demonstrated by his approach to blockchain and crypto.

Through his finance career, Sunak either worked for or invested in major American companies — including some that would later shape his political fortunes.

Between 2001 and 2004, Sunak worked as a junior analyst at Goldman Sachs, focusing on U.S. stocks concerning railways and media. He was later involved in a campaign against the management of U.S. rail freight group CSX, while a junior partner at The Children’s Investment Fund Management, or TCI — a London-based activist hedge fund.

In 2010 Sunak returned to California as a co-founder of Thélème Partners, which invested in companies including News Corp — which owns Britain’s highest circulation newspaper The Sun, and The Times, generally considered London’s paper of record. Thélème invested more than $500 million in Moderna, and Sunak refused to disclose during the pandemic if he was receiving a cut of Moderna’s Covid vaccine profits.

He and his wife still own an apartment in Santa Monica and he kept his green card, allowing permanent residency in the U.S., and paid U.S. taxes until October 2021, 18 months into his role as U.K. chancellor. Those U.S. ties drew criticism that he wasn’t fully committed to continuing to live in the U.K.

Delivering a lecture at Bayes Business School in London in 2021, Sunak cited Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Romer as one of his “inspiring” Stanford professors. Sunak absorbed those professors’ capitalist ethos and the folklore of the American Dream.

His message to MBA students back in London as chancellor: “The free market provides the best possible route to achieving the most happiness and security for the greatest number of people.”


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