WASHINGTON — A former top Federal Reserve official implied that the central bank should consider allowing President Trump’s trade war to hurt his 2020 election chances, an assertion that drew a firestorm of criticism and a rare pushback from the Fed itself.
William Dudley, the former president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and now a research scholar at Princeton University, said in a Bloomberg Opinion piece that “Trump’s re-election arguably presents a threat to the U.S. and global economy.” Mr. Dudley added that “if the goal of monetary policy is to achieve the best long-term economic outcome, then Fed officials should consider how their decisions will affect the political outcome in 2020.”
It is a controversial statement, particularly coming from an official who ranked among the Fed’s most powerful policymakers as recently as 2018. It also comes at a sensitive moment for the Fed, which has been under attack from Mr. Trump and trying to assert its independence from the White House and politics in general.
“The Federal Reserve’s policy decisions are guided solely by its congressional mandate to maintain price stability and maximum employment,” Michelle Smith, a Fed spokeswoman, said when asked about the column. “Political considerations play absolutely no role.”
Mr. Trump has waged a yearlong campaign to pressure the Fed to cut rates, accusing the central bank of hurting the economy by keeping rates too high and putting the United States at a disadvantage to other nations, like China and Germany.
“The Federal Reserve loves watching our manufacturers struggle with their exports to the benefit of other parts of the world,” Mr. Trump said in a tweet on Tuesday. “Has anyone looked at what almost all other countries are doing to take advantage of the good old USA? Our Fed has been calling it wrong for too long!”
The attacks have put the Fed on the defensive, prompting top officials including Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, to insist that the central bank sets policy to achieve economic goals without taking politics into account.
The Fed cut rates for the first time in more than a decade in July and has kept the door open to future cuts, with Mr. Powell saying the central bank is prepared to act to protect the economy against slowing global growth and as Mr. Trump’s trade fights stoke uncertainty.
Mr. Dudley essentially said the Fed should wade into politics, arguing that the central bank should consider the political ramifications of the policy decisions it makes. By lowering interest rates to offset economic harm caused by Mr. Trump’s trade war with China, Mr. Dudley said the central bank could give the White House room to ramp up trade tensions.
“The central bank’s efforts to cushion the blow might not be merely ineffectual,” he wrote. “They might actually make things worse.”
Fed watchers responded to Mr. Dudley’s piece with widespread concern, asserting that it could feed conspiracy theories that the central bank is trying to influence political outcomes.
“The Fed for decades has scrupulously avoided doing that, and has tried to avoid giving that perception,” said Adam Posen, the president of the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “And this isn’t some ‘deep state’ fake: They genuinely don’t want to get into it, because ultimately they are accountable to Congress.”
Mr. Trump announced an escalation of the trade war with China just a day after the Fed cut rates in July, and the concern that Fed policy is enabling the tariffs is often repeated by analysts. Michael Strain at the American Enterprise Institute said it was a valid point to raise and consider.
But Mr. Strain pushed back against the idea that the Fed’s policymakers should try to guide political outcomes.
“It’s wildly irresponsible,” he said. “The Fed is not elected; it is appointed. It has a responsibility to adhere to a narrow reading of its mandate.”
The central bank’s leadership consists of 12 regional presidents, who are selected by businesspeople and community leaders from their districts and who share four annually rotating votes on interest rates. The New York Fed president is the most powerful regional leader and has a constant vote on policy.
The rate-setting committee also includes seven governors who are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Only five of those positions are currently filled, although Mr. Trump has said he intends to nominate another two members to the Fed.
The Fed does not answer to the White House by design: It is removed from politics so that it will make better long-term decisions for the economy, rather than trying to goose the economy going into election years. It is, however, responsible to Congress, which can change the rules that govern it.
That insulation has, historically, helped to fuel criticism that the Fed is removed from the public and in the pocket of bankers. The central bank has long been the target of conspiracy theories, and popular books about it have borne titles like “Secrets of the Temple.”
More recently, the president has placed the central bank firmly in political cross hairs. In a Twitter post last week, he asked whether Mr. Powell or President Xi Jinping of China was a “bigger enemy” of the United States. Mr. Trump has reportedly considered firing or demoting Mr. Powell in the past, and he recently told reporters that he would accept Mr. Powell’s resignation if it were offered.
Despite that pressure campaign, Fed officials have repeatedly pushed back against the idea that they would in any way take the White House’s comments or potential actions into account when setting policy.
“We’re never going to take political considerations into account or discuss them as part of our work,” Mr. Powell said at a news conference in January. “We’re human. We make mistakes. But we’re not going to make mistakes of character or integrity.”
President Trump on Monday called for the Federal Reserve to cut its benchmark interest rate by 1 percentage point, a move that would typically be considered only when the U.S. economy is on the brink of a recession, and again criticized his own central bank chairman for a “horrendous lack of vision.”
In a pair of tweets Monday morning, the latest in a series of attacks Mr. Trump has levied against Fed Chairman Jerome Powell, the president said a combination of a reduced interest rate and a resumption of the Fed’s crisis-era bond-buying stimulus would improve the economy both in the U.S. and globally. “Good for everyone!” Mr. Trump tweeted.
Mr. Trump, who returned Sunday from a 10-day vacation at his golf course in Bedminster, N.J., has repeatedly attacked Mr. Powell for the state of the economy, even as he and his advisers have projected optimism that the decadelong economic expansion will continue. Mr. Trump has repeatedly called on the central bank to lower interest rates more than it has, saying that would further boost growth. U.S. economic growth slowed to 2.1% in the second quarter from 3.1% in the first three months of the year.
Last Wednesday, on a day when the Dow Jones Industrial Average slumped 800.49 points, or 3%, the president spent much of the day attacking the Fed chairman on Twitter.
White House and campaign aides acknowledge privately that a recession would threaten Mr. Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign, which has made a booming economy a central selling point. On Tuesday, the White House has arranged a call in which National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow is expected to reassure state and local officials about the state of the economy.
Asked in an interview on Fox News about possible economic alarm bells, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway on Monday played down the chance of a slowdown.
“It’s nice to have the mainstream media finally covering the economy, but they only cover it when they can use Sesame [Street’s] Grover word of the day, ‘recession,’ ” she said. Pointing to strong employment numbers, she said the economy’s “fundamentals are very strong.”
The last time the Fed reduced rates by a full percentage point was during the 2008 financial crisis.
Despite gyrations on Wall Street this week and an associated rise in recession fears, Donald Trump is still ballyhooing the state of the U.S. economy. In private, however, the President sounded “nervous and apprehensive” when he called a number of business leaders and financiers from his New Jersey golf club to get their opinions, the Washington Post reported.
Small wonder. With his personal-approval ratings stuck in the low forties, Trump’s 2020 reëlection campaign hinges on a healthy economy. He can be pretty confident that his core supporters will turn out for him, but he also needs to win over some less committed voters. His pitch to them is one that the British Conservative Party used successfully in 2015, during a general election, when it talked up the U.K. economy and issued dire warnings about the consequences of a victory for the opposition Labour Party.
One of the Conservatives’ campaign slogans was “DON’T LET LABOUR WRECK IT.” Substitute “THE DEMOCRATS” for “LABOUR” and you have Trump’s campaign strategy in a nutshell. Addressing a campaign rally in New Hampshire on Thursday night, he portrayed the Democratic candidates for President as “a bunch of socialists or communists” and asked the crowd, “Does anybody want to pay a ninety-five-per-cent tax?” He also suggested that a Democratic victory would lead to a crash in the stock market, adding, “You have no choice but to vote for me, because your 401(k), everything is going to be down the tubes. Whether you love me or hate me, you have got to vote for me.”
The mere fact that Trump’s strategy is based on scaremongering (under Barack Obama, the Dow more than doubled) and outright lies (Joe Biden is a socialist?) doesn’t mean that it can’t work. In 2015, the British economy wasn’t doing great at all. Held back by five years of Conservative austerity policies, it hadn’t even fully recovered from the Great Recession. But the Conservatives, aided by their allies in the British media, managed to raise enough doubts about Labour’s economic competence to gain an over-all majority in the House of Commons. As long as the U.S. economy looks strong, the possibility of something similar happening in November, 2020, can’t be ruled out entirely, despite Trump’s unpopularity.
But, if the economy turns south between now and the election, Trump will almost certainly be defeated, and he knows it. Hence his delay, earlier this week, on expanding tariffs on Chinese imports, and his increasingly frantic efforts to scapegoat the Federal Reserve and its chairman, Jerome Powell. As the Dow plunged on Wednesday, Trump took to Twitter, calling Powell “clueless” and retweeting guests on Fox Business who were criticizing the Fed’s recent policy moves.
In the two days since the big fall in the stock market, we’ve received some new economic data, and it has been mixed. On Thursday, the Commerce Department reported that retail sales expanded by 0.7 per cent in July, the strongest figure since March. Economists responded by raising their estimates of third-quarter G.D.P. growth to about two per cent. That’s a long way short of the four-per-cent growth that Trump promised, but it’s also well above recession levels.
At the same time, the Fed confirmed that the manufacturing sector is in a slump. Manufacturing output fell 0.4 per cent in July, the central bank said, and it is now about 1.5 per cent below its December, 2018, level. For a President who promised to restore manufacturing to its former position of prominence, that can hardly be reassuring. Neither can the news, on Friday, that the University of Michigan’s survey-based index of consumer confidence fell sharply in August, reaching its lowest level since 2016.
The fall raised concerns about whether strong consumer spending will continue to underpin the economy, and it also illustrated that Trump’s aggressive tactics in the trade war are backfiring. “Consumers strongly reacted to the proposed September increase in tariffs on Chinese imports, spontaneously cited by 33% of all consumers in early August,” Richard Curtin, the chief economist at the Michigan survey, noted. The White House has now postponed the higher tariffs until December. That may reassure some consumers, but this week’s fluctuations in the stock market are likely to add to their jitters.
To be sure, none of this means that a recession is imminent. Most economists are predicting that the G.D.P. will continue to rise, albeit at a modest pace. Citing continued growth in jobs and household incomes, Curtain said “it is likely that consumers will reduce their pace of spending while keeping the economy out of recession at least through mid 2020.” The most recent statements from the Fed indicate that it agrees with this assessment.
Despite all his bluster, Trump seems spooked. According to the Washington Post report, he has been “telling some confidants that he distrusts statistics he sees reported in the news media and that he suspects many economists and other forecasters are presenting biased data to thwart his reelection.” These sound like the ravings of an egomaniac who sees the world closing in on him.
The hardened battle lines were prompted by Beijing’s decision to take a more aggressive stance in negotiations, according to the people following the talks. They said Beijing was emboldened by the perception that the U.S. was ready to compromise.
- In particular, these people said, Mr. Trump’s hectoring of Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell to cut interest rates was seen in Beijing as evidence that the president thought the U.S. economy was more fragile than he claimed.
- Beijing was further encouraged by Mr. Trump’s frequent claim of friendship with Chinese President Xi Jinping and by Mr. Trump’s praise for Chinese Vice Premier Liu He for pledging to buy more U.S. soybeans.
An April 30 tweet, in which Mr. Trump coupled criticism of Mr. Powell with praise of Chinese economic policy, especially caught the eye of senior officials. “China is adding great stimulus to its economy while at the same time keeping interest rates low,” Mr. Trump tweeted. “Our Federal Reserve has incessantly lifted interest rates.”
“Why would you be constantly asking the Fed to lower rates if your economy is not turning weak,” said Mei Xinyu, an analyst at a think tank affiliated with China’s Commerce Ministry. If the U.S.’s resolve was weakening, the thinking in Beijing went, the U.S. would be more willing to cut a deal, even if Beijing hardened its positions.
That assessment, however, flies in the face of a strong U.S. economy. Gross domestic product in the first quarter rebounded from the end of 2018, with growth clocking in at a seasonally adjusted annualized rate of 3.2%, up from 2.2% the prior quarter. The jobs report for April, released on Friday, showed the unemployment rate falling to 3.6%, the lowest in nearly 50 years.
But at the same time, China’s economy has stabilized this year following months of weakness. Although China’s exports dropped unexpectedly in April, its first-quarter growth came in at 6.4%, beating market expectations. The generally improving economic picture gave Beijing more confidence in trade talks, as did a recent conference on the country’s vast infrastructure-spending program, called the Belt and Road Initiative, which was attended by about 40 heads of government and state.
Chinese leaders saw the conference turnout “as China has more leverage to improve relations with other countries and with the U.S. business community,” said Brookings Institution China specialist Cheng Li. “It made them play hardball.”
If China misread the signals—and vice versa—it wouldn’t be the first time.
The history of U.S.-China trade negotiations is filled with misunderstandings, as the two nations, with very different political systems, struggle to figure out each other’s intentions.
.. In another apparent sign of mixed signals, Trump administration officials had thought they had made it clear that they were weary of negotiations and that it was time for Beijing to make specific commitments to change laws, including adding protections for intellectual property and barring the forced transfer of U.S. technology.
As talks resume Thursday, one big question mark is whether China will agree to U.S. demands for changes in Chinese law to implement the trade deal. Beijing maintains this would impinge on Chinese sovereignty and take too long to implement, but Beijing had made similar commitments in prior trade deals, including those it signed to join the WTO in 2001.
U.S. officials say Beijing has failed to make good on those commitments, while China has promised to further liberalize its economy.
“The U.S. is correct to seek a multiprong approach of not relying solely on commitments but also actually changes to the laws, so as to ensure Chinese leadership intentions are fully conveyed down to all local levels of government,” said Harvard Law Professor Mark Wu.