Federal Reserve leaders for the past quarter-century have made decisions about interest rates without being pressured by the president.
President Trump has broken that streak, calling the central bank “crazy” for raising rates and more than once saying the Fed is damaging the economy. That has prompted Fed Chairman Jerome Powell to update playbook rules for dealing with a president annoyed by America’s central bank.
Rule 1: Speak not of Mr. Trump.
Rule 2: When provoked, don’t engage.
Rule 3: Make allies outside the Oval Office.
Rule 4: Talk about the economy, not politics.
.. Mr. Trump blamed the Fed for October’s stock market selloff, calling the central bank “out of control.” The president told The Wall Street Journal Oct. 23 that Mr. Powell seemed to enjoy raising rates.
Not since the 1990s has a president leaned so hard on the Fed chief and never so publicly. On Monday, Mr. Trump told the Journal: “I think the Fed right now is a much bigger problem than China.”
.. The Fed’s benchmark interest rate is now in a range between 2% and 2.25%, well below long-run averages. The central bank is expected to raise rates by a quarter-percentage-point at its Dec. 18-19 meeting.
Mr. Powell says he is raising rates to return them to a more normal setting and avoid the type of boom-and-bust economy that ended in past recessions.
.. Mr. Trump has said he doesn’t plan on firing Mr. Powell, and it isn’t clear he could. The Federal Reserve Act states a Fed governor can only be removed for cause, a high bar that courts and legal scholars have interpreted to mean malfeasance or neglect.
.. The Fed’s credibility could suffer
- if investors believe its commitment to guard against inflation has been compromised by politics, or
- if Mr. Trump’s attacks sour the public’s view of the central bank.
“At some point, it becomes very damaging to the institution to be perceived as not acting in the best interest of America,” former Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen said in an interview.
.. Mr. Powell has told others that he knows the president’s criticism could make his life unpleasant, but that he wouldn’t respond to political pressure. People close to Mr. Powell said he understood that history would judge him on policy decisions made over his four-year term.
- President Lyndon B. Johnson once summoned Fed Chairman William McChesney Martin to his Texas ranch to berate him for raising interest rates, saying it was despicable, according to Mr. Martin’s account.
- One low point for the central bank came when President Richard Nixon privately pressured Fed Chairman Arthur Burns to keep rates low before the 1972 election, according to Oval Office recordings. Mr. Burns kept rates low and inflation accelerated.
.. Shortly after President Reagan’s inauguration, a White House staffer asked Fed Chairman Paul Volcker if he wanted to host the new president at the Fed. Mr. Volcker declined, but replied he would be happy to meet the president anywhere else. They settled on the Treasury Department as a neutral ground.
Top Reagan administration officials frequently criticized Mr. Volcker, who presided over rate increases that triggered recessions in 1980 and 1981. But President Reagan refrained. “He just never did it,” Mr. Volcker said in an interview last year.
.. President George H.W. Bush’s Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady cut off regular breakfasts with Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan to show his disapproval of tight-money policies in 1992. Mr. Brady stopped inviting Mr. Greenspan to dinner parties and golf dates at Augusta National.
“Our decisions can’t be reversed by the administration,” Mr. Powell said earlier this month in Dallas. “Of course, Congress can do whatever it wants.”
.. Messrs. Coons and Sen. Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.) later decided to send Mr. Trump a letter telling him to lay off the Fed.
“You appear to be telling the Fed what to do with interest rates, which we believe is unconstructive and dangerous,” the senators wrote the president.
.. In his new memoir, Mr. Volcker described how White House chief of staff James A. Baker III, with President Reagan watching silently, ordered the Fed chairman not to raise interest rates before the 1984 election.
Mr. Volcker, who wasn’t planning to lift rates anyway, didn’t tell colleagues or lawmakers about the episode. Mr. Baker has said he didn’t recall that.
NBC News and the Wall Street Journal polled his job approval. There was no appreciable change.
.. Why? The most important reason has to be the remarkable state of the American economy. On Election Day 2016, the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed at 18,332.43. On August 29, it closed at 26,124.57. That is an increase of some 40 percent. Other indices show similar gains. Growth in GDP went from 1.5 percent in 2016 to 2.3 percent in 2017 and, helped by the excellent 4.2 percent number in the second quarter, is forecast for around 3 percent in 2018.
.. The fact that presidents are not responsible for the economy does not stop the public from assigning them blame or credit. And Trump deserves some credit. His pro-business attitude stirs the bulls’ animal spirits. His deregulatory and tax policies contribute to growth. Trump understands that he is riding the bull — and that his following will be strong for the duration of the journey... The economic boom is crucial in understanding why Trump enjoys the 88 percent approval among Republicans that keeps him politically viable... Trump continues to goad, highlight, and benefit from an antagonistic news media. The overwhelmingly negative coverage of Trump paradoxically works to his advantage by driving his supporters to rally to his side. When the press gets a story wrong, Trump is vindicated. His voters have less reason to trust the elite media institutions they see as allied against them in a struggle over American identity... Media obsession with Trump and scandal helps the president in other ways. For one, the scandals are confusing and increasingly self-referential. Only political professionals and junkies can keep track of them. The headlines run together. The talking heads are background noise to men and women outside the bubble... The media fixation hands Trump the initiative. Because so much of the news is based on his Twitter feed, he can create storylines — and spark confusion and outrage — with the push of a button. This ability lets him shift attention from current controversies by creating fresh ones. The ongoing hysteria lessens the cost to Trump of each bad story. It also allows him to portray media institutions and figures as insiders contemptuous of Trump voters and eager to overturn the result of a presidential election.
Democrats — and most Republicans for that matter — have yet to grasp the ideas of political economy that Trump intuits: government that privileges American citizens through
- tight labor markets,
- border security,
- trade reciprocity, and
.. Nor do Democrats understand that American populism is not simply economic. It is cultural. It has long been associated with traditional values and practices, an unreconstructed patriotism, and support for law and order. No matter how well Democratic proposals might test, the party will not succeed at the national level unless it addresses and mollifies the social concerns of the white working class. Pelosi, Schumer, and Sanders have not tried.
“The tax cuts and jump in federal spending will keep the economy buzzing for another 12 months,” said Bernard Baumohl, chief economist of the Economic Outlook Group. “Beyond that, however, I expect to see dark clouds forming that would signal a recession is near.”.. Mr. Baumohl isn’t alone in a dour outlook after the boost from last year’s tax cuts begins to fade and because rising tariffs between the U.S. and its trading partners could lead to repercussions for the economy. Businesses that were enthused about the tax relief could hold off from hiring and investing in the face of trade uncertainty, several economists said... The average forecast for growth in 2019 was 2.4%, little changed in recent months. By 2020, the average forecaster projects economic growth will slow to 1.8%, down from estimates earlier this year of 2%... Inflation, as measured by the consumer-price index, is forecast to remain above 2% through 2020.. While the immediate outlook for the rest of 2018 is strong, economists see an 18% chance of a recession beginning in the next 12 months. Those are the highest odds since President Trump’s election 21 months ago.
.. The economists in the survey placed the odds of a Nafta pullout at about 29% and the odds of auto tariffs at 31%.
The “best” outcome of President Donald Trump’s narrow focus on the US trade deficit with China would be improvement in the bilateral balance, matched by an increase of an equal amount in the deficit with some other country (or countries). In fact, significantly reducing the bilateral trade deficit will prove difficult.
.. macroeconomics always prevails:.. if the United States’ domestic investment continues to exceed its savings, it will have to import capital and have a large trade deficit... because of the tax cuts enacted at the end of last year, the US fiscal deficit is reaching new records – recently projected to exceed $1 trillion by 2020 – which means that the trade deficit almost surely will increase, whatever the outcome of the trade war. The only way that won’t happen is if Trump leads the US into a recession, with incomes declining so much that investment and imports plummet... The “best” outcome of Trump’s narrow focus on the trade deficit with China would be improvement in the bilateral balance, matched by an increase of an equal amount in the deficit with some other country (or countries). The US might sell more natural gas to China and buy fewer washing machines; but it will sell less natural gas to other countries and buy washing machines or something else from Thailand or another country that has avoided the irascible Trump’s wrath... But, because the US interfered with the market, it will be paying more for its imports and getting less for its exports than otherwise would have been the case. In short, the best outcome means that the US will be worse off than it is today... The US has a problem, but it’s not with China. It’s at home: America has been saving too little. Trump, like so many of his compatriots, is immensely shortsighted. If he had a whit of understanding of economics and a long-term vision, he would have done what he could to increase national savings. That would have reduced the multilateral trade deficit... There are obvious quick fixes: China could buy more American oil and then sell it on to others. This would not make an iota of difference, beyond perhaps a slight increase in transaction costs. But Trump could trumpet that he had eliminated the bilateral trade deficit... As demand for Chinese goods decreases, the renminbi’s exchange rate will weaken – even without any government intervention. This will partly offset the effect of US tariffs; at the same time, it will increase China’s competitiveness with other countries—and this will be true even if China doesn’t use other instruments in its possession, like wage and price controls, or push strongly for productivity increases. China’s overall trade balance, like that of the US, is determined by its macroeconomics... China has more control of its economy, and has wanted to shift toward a growth model based on domestic demand rather than investment and exports. The US is simply helping China do what it has already been trying to do. On the other hand, US actions come at a time when China is trying to manage excess leverage and excess capacity; at least in some sectors, the US will make these tasks all the more difficult... if Trump’s objective is to stop China from pursuing its “Made in China 2025” policy – adopted in 2015 to further its 40-year goal of narrowing the income gap between China and the advanced countries – he will almost surely fail. On the contrary, Trump’s actions will only strengthen Chinese leaders’ resolve to boost innovation and achieve technological supremacy, as they realize that they can’t rely on others, and that the US is actively hostile... If a country enters a war, trade or otherwise, it should be sure that good generals – with clearly defined objectives, a viable strategy, and popular support – are in charge. It is here that the differences between China and the US appear so great. No country could have a more unqualified economic team than Trump’s, and a majority of Americans are not behind the trade war.Public support will wane even further as Americans realize that they lose doubly from this war: jobs will disappear, not only because of China’s retaliatory measures, but also because US tariffs increase the price of US exports and make them less competitive; and the prices of the goods they buy will rise. This may force the dollar’s exchange rate to fall, increasing inflation in the US even more – giving rise to still more opposition. The Fed is likely then to raise interest rates, leading to weaker investment and growth and more unemployment... Trump has shown how he responds when his lies are exposed or his policies are failing: he doubles down. China has repeatedly offered face-saving ways for Trump to leave the battlefield and declare victory. But he refuses to take them up.Perhaps hope can be found in three of his other traits:
- his focus on appearance over substance,
- his unpredictability, and his
- love of “big man” politics.
.. Perhaps in a grand meeting with President Xi Jinping, he can declare the problem solved, with some minor adjustments of tariffs here and there, and some new gesture toward market opening that China had already planned to announce, and everyone can go home happy.
.. In this scenario, Trump will have “solved,” imperfectly, a problem that he created. But the world following his foolish trade war will still be different: more uncertain, less confident in the international rule of law, and with harder borders. Trump has changed the world, permanently, for the worse.
Even with the best possible outcomes, the only winner is Trump – with his outsize ego pumped up just a little more.