The Trump administration’s tech-savviest pick yet is coming from an unlikely place: Wall Street.
Gary Cohn, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to head the National Economic Council, spent more than 25 years in the investment banking industry, a sector that, until recently, was widely rejected by Silicon Valley tech startups hoping to keep their companies private for as long as possible.
But the Goldman Sachs’ president and chief operating officer has strong relationships with tech-giant clients like Uber’s co-founder Travis Kalanick and Tesla Motors’ CEO Elon Musk. And his experience overseeing technology integration into his investment bank’s operations has given him first-hand knowledge of the issues facing the industry.
Trump’s selection of Cohn follows a string of nominations for Cabinet and other high-level posts from traditional industries and the military. That left the tech industry with potentially little representation in the new administration, but bringing in Cohn changes the balance. The 56-year-old banker built Silicon Valley ties in recent years, as growing tech companies in need of capital overcame their historic distaste of Wall Street and the notion of taking on shareholders.
Trump said Cohn will serve as his top economic advisor. Traditionally, the head of the National Economic Council advises the president on domestic and international economic matters, coordinating the development of policy across agencies.
Cohn’s tech knowledge is also a result of the financial industry’s shift out of analog. He has worked to develop Goldman Sachs’ digital banking services, including an online lending platform. Cohn also touted the benefits of open source software and cloud computing as a way to reduce costs, free up capital and create new revenues for the bank at investor conferences.
“We are in many ways a technology firm, with about one quarter of our employees in the technology division,” Cohn said at a June 2015 presentation.
Cohn seems to grasp some of the issues facing tech. As far back as 2009, he questioned Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg at a Goldman Sachs technology and internet conference about Facebook’s strategies in such areas as women in tech, virtual reality, artificial intelligence and advertising.
The tech industry’s ever-present cry for light-touch regulation is also likely to resonate with Cohn, considering he told a Deutsche Bank conference in May 2016 that regulatory hurdles have slowed his own bank’s build-out of new platforms since 2015.
“Those bars just continue to get higher and higher,” Cohn said, adding that encryption, data retention and regulatory approvals were adding up to six months to a product’s time-to-market.
To be sure, as a presidential advisor, Cohn wouldn’t actually write any new rules or regulations in the Trump administration. But he would work across many agencies and Cabinet departments, including Treasury and Commerce, both of which are involved in crafting guidelines and regulation for tech industries, including financial technology. And the fintech world of using computers and other technology to provide banking or other financial services is a place Cohn knows well.
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