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Fed Chair Powell avoided triggering a market reaction — then came Trump

“Trump wants the Fed to use low interest rates to help him in his battle with China. But the Federal Reserve is not in existence for political expediency,” said one economist.
Image: Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell and New York Federal Reserve President John Williams walk together in Jackson Hole
Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell and New York Federal Reserve President John Williams walk together, ahead of the Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank's annual conference on monetary policy, in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Aug. 22, 2019.Ann Saphir / Reuters

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell recommitted the Fed’s commitment to its dual mandate on Friday in a highly scrutinized speech about policy challenges — although he didn’t explicitly commit to more interest rate cuts or other measures of quantitative easing. These omissions enraged President Donald Trump, with his outburst triggering a slide on Wall Street that Powell himself managed to avoid.

At the Fed’s annual gathering in Jackson Hole, Wyo., Powell said, “It will at times be appropriate for us to tilt policy one way or the other because of prominent risks,” during a speech heavy on policy history titled, “Challenges For Monetary Policy.”

Steven Elwell, chief investment officer at Level Financial Advisors, said emphasizing that reliance on data was the only way for Powell to successfully balance conflicting opinions among market participants and even the Fed’s Board of Governors. “You don’t want to ensure a cut without that supporting data,” he said. “There’s a fine line there.”

Powell specifically cited the risks of escalating trade tensions in his speech, saying, “Trade policy uncertainty seems to be playing a role in the global slowdown and in weak manufacturing and capital spending in the United States.” He added, “The Committee must attempt to look through what may be passing developments and focus on things that seem likely to affect the outlook over time or that pose a material risk of doing so.”

In other words, “The Fed has room to move, but it cannot treat every ratcheting up of the trade war as reason to keep cutting rates without regard to the medium-term inflation picture,” Pantheon Macroeconomics chief economist Ian Shepherdson said in a client note.

Just a month ago, markets had priced in a 72 percent probability of a rate cut in September; on Friday, that probability was at 100 percent. “He needs to be very clear that the Fed sees that continuing to ease is necessary and I don’t think he should try to disguise it… since the cuts are already priced in to the marketplace,” Bob Phillips, managing principal at Spectrum Management Group, said of Powell.

But although markets are anticipating that the Fed will lower rates, and soon, this did not appear to be quick enough for Trump.

The President blasted Chairman Powell in a pair of tweets, including misspelling his name (in a tweet that was deleted and subsequently reposted with the correct spelling), in response to his remarks. “As usual, the Fed did NOTHING! It is incredible that they can “speak” without knowing or asking what I am doing, which will be announced shortly. We have a very strong dollar and a very weak Fed. I will work “brilliantly” with both, and the U.S. will do great......My only question is, who is our bigger enemy, Jay Powel or Chairman Xi?"

Following those tweets, along with a longer thread assailing China for retaliatory tariffs announced earlier in the day, the market plunged, with the Dow Jones down more than 500 points by early afternoon.

“Markets liked what he said in his speech — the S&P rose 0.6 percent from the moment he released his speech until the moment news broke that President Trump plans to respond to new Chinese tariffs,” said Chris Zaccarelli, chief investment officer at the Independent Advisor Alliance.

“The President’s constant criticism of Powell appears to be a poorly veiled attempt to shift blame for the trade war and economic fallout that he began and has not been able to resolve… [and] seems to be more of a talking point for the election cycle,” said Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst at “Powell himself is not to blame for the fact that monetary policy, as mandated and defined by law, is not suited to address the tensions related to trade disputes and costly tariffs,” he said.

In that vein, former Philadelphia Fed president Charles Plosser said in a CNBC interview that Powell should be careful to avoid giving Wall Street a false sense of security that monetary policy will be able to sufficiently contain or mitigate the fallout of the trade war.

“The Fed needs to be careful about assuming responsibility for things they can’t control,” he said. “I think that sets up a really bad expectation.”

“The trade war Trump initiated is of his own making,” said Mitchell Goldberg, president of ClientFirst Strategy. “Trump wants the Fed to use low interest rates to help him in his battle with China. But the Federal Reserve is not in existence for political expediency,” he said.

“[Powell] needs to take a stand and say, ‘We’re not going to finance your trade war.’ The Fed needs to hold its own because it doesn’t have a mandate that extends to what the president wants them to do,” said Jamie Cox, managing partner at Harris Financial Group.

Economists pointed out that Powell’s Fed already is a scapegoat in the eyes of the President, who has blamed it for market volatility and slowing growth. “I expect Trump’s next move would be to probably try to make a change that the top of the Fed,” Goldberg said, although he noted that any such attempt would likely backfire by triggering a negative market response.

The Washington Post reported Thursday that the White House was considering implementing a system to rotate power among the Fed governors, thereby weakening Powell’s leadership power. But Trump couldn’t do this unilaterally, according to Karen Shaw Petrou, managing partner of consulting firm Federal Financial Analytics, who said such a plan “needs to go through Congress” to be valid.

This willingness to interfere in the Fed’s independence is reflective of an administration operating at cross purposes — a disconnect that is becoming increasingly clear, Goldberg said. “It basically shows you that the Trump administration has no true coherent economic plan. They tried to show a lot of bravado with China… Their credibility on the economy is starting to wane,” he said.

The upshot is that Wall Street fears the worst, Cox said. “Markets price in what the worst-case scenario is [and] we have no basis to believe the worst-case scenario isn’t happening.”