WHEN: Today, Monday, November 20, 2023
WHERE: CNBC’s “Squawk Box”
Following is the unofficial transcript of a CNBC interview with United States Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” (M-F, 6AM-9AM ET) today, Monday, November 20. Following are links to video on CNBC.com: https://www.cnbc.com/video/2023/11/20/treasury-secretary-yellen-biden-xi-summit-was-an-opportunity-to-deepen-their-communications.html and https://www.cnbc.com/video/2023/11/20/treasury-secretary-yellen-were-making-considerable-progress-in-bringing-inflation-down.html.
All references must be sourced to CNBC.
ANDREW ROSS SORKIN: Let’s get, Joe, straight our big interview of the hour. She joins us to talk about the economic takeaways from last week’s meeting between President Biden and China’s President Xi Jinping. We want to welcome Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, who was also at San Francisco’s APEC Summit last week. And Madam Secretary, we appreciate you joining us. I wanted to just start with that meeting and what your, what your impressions were going into it but also what your impressions were really coming out of it.
JANET YELLEN: Well, clearly this was an opportunity for President Biden and President Xi to deepen their communication to try to make some concrete progress on things we can work on together. Coming out of the bilat, there was an important agreement concerning working on fentanyl, which is killing 100,000 Americans a year, and importantly military-to-military, direct communication, which had lapsed and is extremely important. President Biden expressed the importance of avoiding conflict that we want healthy competition but want to avoid conflict and President Xi certainly agreed with that approach. Both presidents expressed concerns over some economic policies and actions of the other. But importantly, there was a recognition that we have an opportunity to work together on things of mutual concern, and concern to the globe. Things like climate change and debt and constructive collaboration, I believe, will be in coming going forward.
SORKIN: Right. Do you feel any more confident coming out of this around the future of Taiwan and Taiwan’s independence? And the reason I ask this question is, from the readout that came out from that meeting there was a suggestion that President Xi still does have every ambition to, one way or the other, take over that country, but at the same time that he doesn’t necessarily want to do that militarily. He said publicly with the, some of the CEOs, he does not want to have some kind of military confrontation. But how do you square those two ideas and how do you think western and U.S. businesses are supposed to think about that?
YELLEN: Well, President Biden made clear that our China policy, our Taiwan policy, has not changed at all, and that we want to see a peaceful relations continue and certainly to avoid military action. This is clearly a very important issue from China’s point of view. And President Xi did express the view that it’s important for Taiwan and mainland China to unify. He certainly expressed the desire to have that occur by peaceful means. But President Biden said our policy remains unchanged from what it’s always been with respect to Taiwan.
SORKIN: Was there any additional conversation about companies like TikTok? I know the, and ByteDance, that owns TikTok, there’s been real questions about the national security concerns that it may represent and some of the things that are pouring through social media at Americans now over the last month as it relates to the attack in Israel and the like. And I’m just curious, what kind of conversation, if there was, might have related to that?
YELLEN: This wasn’t an explicit matter of discussion between Presidents Biden and Xi. I met with my own Chinese counterpart, Vice Premier He, for two days preceding the Biden-Xi meeting. And we did discuss issues concerning China’s investments in the United States and the CFIUS process when we review investments. But there’s legal action that is currently pending in regard to TikTok. And we’re not really able to pursue further CFIUS actions while that legal issues are pending.
SORKIN: I want to turn to the U.S. economy domestically in just a moment, but I have one related follow-up on TikTok. There’s a number of U.S. Wall Street banks that are thinking about whether they should be trying to underwrite a ByteDance IPO if, in fact, it goes public. Should they? What do you think the issues are around doing something like that given the concerns that I think you and others around Washington have expressed around that company?
YELLEN: Well, look, we do have concerns around the potential issues with privacy and social media, but I’m really not at liberty to discuss on the TikTok case in detail. I want to the avoid giving advice to investors. This is a matter that has not yet been resolved.
SORKIN: Let’s turn to the domestic economy. Thanksgiving is coming up. And some good news, at least that we’re hearing in terms of inflation and the price of turkey and what it’s going to cost people at home to buy it, to get through Thanksgiving has come down, but it is still more expensive than where we are in 2021. How do you think about where we are in this inflation battle?
YELLEN: So, I think we’re making considerable progress in bringing inflation down and we saw this clearly in last week’s news, 12-month headline, inflation is down to 3.2 percent. That’s down almost 6 percentage points from its high. But although prices in general are rising much less quickly, Americans still see increases in some important prices, including food, from where we were prior to the pandemic. And this remains notable to people who go to the store and shop or rents, although they’re rising less quickly now, are certainly higher than they were before the pandemic. So, I do think we’re making considerable progress in bringing inflation down. But Americans do notice higher prices from what they used to be accustomed to.
YELLEN: And, importantly, you know, we’re making this inflation progress while maintaining a strong economy and a strong labor market. So, that’s good news for Americans.
SORKIN: Madam Secretary, it may be good news for Americans, but it doesn’t seem to be showing up in the polls for President Biden. And I also want to read you something. A recent poll by The New York Times and Sienna College finding 59 percent of voters under 30 rate the economy as poor. So, you know, philosophically and sort of intellectually you can look at a lot of these numbers and say this, man, this is a great economy in so many ways on a relative basis to history and the like, but at the same time you have poll numbers and others saying that they don’t feel it.
YELLEN: Yeah I’m aware of that, and I think it’s our job to explain to Americans what president Biden has done to improve the economy. I think as inflation comes down, prices stop rising, and the labor market remains strong, Americans will begin to see that we have made meaningful progress. And, importantly, the administration is making investments in America that will show up and improve conditions and more availability of good jobs in many parts of the country that have not seen a lot of progress. We’ve had good economic results on the coasts. Many parts of the country over the last several decades have been left behind. And now, as a result of the trifecta of legislation that’s been passed, the infrastructure bill, the Chips and Science Act, the Inflation Reduction Act, we’ve had over $500 billion in manufacturing investments that have been announced. We’re beginning to see some of those come to fruition. A new battery belt in the middle, in the middle of America, in places that really need good jobs.
YELLEN: And I think this is really improving America’s prospects over the medium term and over time Americans will see that and feel more hopeful about our prospects.
SORKIN: Madam Secretary, also want to turn our attention to some of the geopolitical issues that we are all facing. Ukraine and Israel, the Biden administration has this $105 billion security aid package on the table. What’s the chance that it gets passed before the end of the year?
YELLEN: Well, it’s a critical priority for the president, and critical to the national security of our country. I can’t prognosticate about the timetable on this. I’m pleased that Congress has passed legislation to keep the government open and running. But it really is essential that this aid be provided both to Israel and to Ukraine. We can’t allow Ukraine to lose a battle on the home front because it lacks enough money to keep schoolteachers in the classroom and first responders on the job when it’s fighting valiantly on the battlefield. So, Ukraine is utterly dependent on this aid. We need to join others, the, our European friends are providing, have provided 50 billion euro of aid to Ukraine over the next four years. The IMF has provided over 15 billion. They need us to do our part for this to hold together as a package. And, of course, Israel urgently needs aid as well. And these, this aid is critical to the national security of America. We, if Putin were to win this brutal war in Ukraine, next we might see him attacking a NATO ally of ours. We need to stop this.
SORKIN: Well, let me ask you this though. The other piece of this on the other side is that we are having our debt and deficit go up and up and up and up and up. We had Stan Druckenmiller on our program recently. He said, “we are spending like drunken sailors. Don’t forget, pre-Covid, the federal government was 20 percent of GDP. Now it’s 25 percent of GDP. My father told me, if you’re in a hole, stop digging, Stan.” And so the question is, if we’re going to be spending this money, are there offsets? Should we be thinking about offsets? Or is that the wrong way to think about it in the context of war and national security?
YELLEN: Well, I don’t think we need to have offsets for what is an emergency, a national security situation. But we certainly do need a fiscally responsible and sustainable path for spending and taxation in our economy. President Biden has signed bills that result in a trillion dollars of deficit reduction over the next ten years. We have had responsible investments in the U.S. economy that will have a payoff. And we’ve provided additional money to the Internal Revenue Service, which will have an enormous payoff in closing the $7 trillion tax gap that we have in the United States. We’re simply not collecting the taxes that people owe. And this will have a huge payoff as well. And President Biden’s last budget proposed an additional $2.5 trillion of deficit reduction—
YELLEN: While continuing to invest in the economy. So, we need to work with Congress to put some of this into effect. And, of course, the higher interest rate environment does pose additional challenges that we need to address.
SORKIN: Right. Madam Secretary, finally, I wanted to get your thoughts on what we’ve been all watching over the weekend. The moves around OpenAI and Sam Altman, the move to Microsoft. I’m so curious how you think about that, the governance of it, and its importance to the United States. OpenAI probably considered one of the most important companies or organizations in the world right now giving its lead in artificial intelligence, the future of it, both the innovation of it, but also the dangers of it?
YELLEN: Well, as you know, President Biden issued an executive order on AI. We, the administration, obviously, sees enormous potential benefits from AI, but dangers as well that clearly need to be addressed. In fact, this was one of the topics that President Biden and President Xi discussed, the importance of responsibly using AI, and formed a work group to further consider what policies should be in place to accomplish that. But I really don’t have a comment for you on what is essentially a personnel issue with OpenAI. So, I don’t have a comment on what’s happened over the weekend, although clearly we have taken note of it.
SORKIN: Madam Secretary, we appreciate your time this morning, your perspective, and look forward to talking to you again very, very soon. Thank you.