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Lew calls for sweeping business tax reform

Congress needs to pass sweeping tax measures to keep companies from moving their operations overseas, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said Wednesday.

Speaking about so-called inversions, in which companies change their domiciles to other countries with more favorable tax structures than the U.S., Lew said action has to be taken soon.

"We should have some economic patriotism here," he said during the Delivering Alpha conference presented by CNBC and Institutional Investor.

"We cannot afford to wait," he added during a question-and-answer session with CNBC's Jim Cramer. "We need to send a signal. I think we can get comprehensive business tax reform done."

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew (l) talks with CNBC's Jim Cramer at the Delivering Alpha conference, July 16, 2014.
David A. Grogan | CNBC
Treasury Secretary Jack Lew (l) talks with CNBC's Jim Cramer at the Delivering Alpha conference, July 16, 2014.

The Obama administration has been at odds often with Congress over any number of issues, but Lew said he thinks progress can be made.

Specifically, he advocated attention to issues such as infrastructure improvements, immigration reform and worker training programs that he thinks are more important than dealing with deficit reduction.

"There are things even in the difficult political environment that we can do to make progress," he said. "If we can get some points on the board dealing with those things in the next few years, there's time to deal with the fiscal challenges."

Lew also spoke about cybersecurity. The U.S. financial system, finally recovering from the crisis of 2008 and 2009, faces another perilous challenge in the form of cyberattacks, he said.

Lew said digital threats lurk that could cause serious damage.

"Cyberattacks on our financial system represent a real threat to our economic and national security," Lew said in prepared remarks. "But a malicious cyber actor can cause catastrophic damage to our financial system without directly attacking a bank."

He called for Congress to pass regulations to address the myriad aspects of cybersecurity.

"As it stands, our laws do not do enough to foster information sharing and defend the public from digital threats," Lew said. "We need legislation with clear rules to encourage collaboration and provide important liability protection. ... And we need legislation that protects individual privacy and civil liberties, which are so essential to making the United States a free and open society."

This marks the second appearance of Lew, who spoke at Delivering Alpha in 2013 just a few months after being confirmed as the first post-financial crisis Treasury secretary.

The remarks come as several companies have experienced high-profile data breaches.

In a similar vein, he said companies that come under threat on social media, such as from false statements on Twitter and other sites, need to act quickly when that happens.

—By CNBC's Jeff Cox

Contact Delivering Alpha