Did President Trump’s open season on the Federal Reserve and Chairman Jerome Powell work?
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U.S. stocks surged on Wednesday after Powell, in prepared remarks at the Economic Club of New York, said, “We know that moving too fast would risk shortening the expansion. We also know that moving too slowly – keeping interest rates too low for too long – could risk other distortions in the form of higher inflation or destabilizing financial imbalances. Our path of gradual increases has been designed to balance these two risks, both of which we must take seriously.”
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The Dow Jones Industrial Average jumped over 617 points, or 2.5 percent, registering the best three-day gain since 2016, with the addition of 111.22 points, or 4.22%, according to the Dow Jones Market Data Group. The S&P 500 and the Nasdaq Composite also jumped over 2 percent a piece. Investors celebrated on the refreshed view that the remarks signal a less-hawkish tone on rates. Powell’s speech follows months of “Fed bashing” by Trump, most recently on Tuesday.
“I’m doing deals, and I’m not being accommodated by the Fed,” Trump said during an interview with the Washington Post. “So far, I’m not even a little bit happy with my selection of Jay. Not even a little bit. And I’m not blaming anybody, but I’m just telling you I think that the Fed is way off-base with what they’re doing,” he added.
Trump’s criticism of Powell, who he appointed in 2017 to head the Fed, is not new but the frequency is on the upswing and could have consequences down the road.
“The Fed may need to work harder to be more hawkish to maintain its independence,” warned Sebastian Mallaby, author of “The Man Who Knew: The Life & Times of Alan Greenspan,” during an interview with FOX Business ahead of Powell's speech.
U.S. stocks, having given up the bulk of the gains for 2018 earlier this month, could resume a rally based on Powell’s new comments, even though investors are seeming to expect policy makers to make good on their planned fourth rate hike of the year in December, and another three that are expected in 2019.
Former Fed Chair Alan Greenspan, who spent 19 years as the head of the central bank serving presidents including Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, weighed in on Trump’s tactics last month.
“I think he did the right thing with cutting taxes and, as I said, with deregulation,” Greenspan said during an interview with Fox News host Dana Perino. “I think he should stand pat with that, because that has created a very obvious change in the quality of the economy. But to continuously comment, after he’s talking about the independence of the Fed, sounds to me a bit awkward.”
Higher interest rates raise borrowing costs to consumers for items such as mortgages and credit cards. While rate hikes generally signal an economy that is improving, it could slow growth, which has been a bright spot for Trump’s presidency. On Wednesday, the Commerce Department announced that third-quarter GDP remained unrevised 3.5 percent, less than the second quarter’s 4.2 percent. The president is also dealing with a looming trade war with China.
“Well, let’s see what happens with Jay Powell. So far, I can tell you – I said it the other day, and I’ll say it again: I think the Fed right now is a much bigger problem than China. I think it’s – I think it’s incorrect what they’re doing. I don’t like what they’re doing,” Trump said earlier this week, during an interview with The Wall Street Journal.
Despite Trump’s displeasure, Mallaby is impressed with Powell. While many former Fed chairs, including Ben Bernanke and Janet Yellen, were known as “intellectual heavyweights," he says Powell is surprising as a “skilled political maneuver." Powell has already scored several key allies, including shifting former San Francisco Federal Reserve President John Williams to oversee the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the most powerful of the regional banks. He is also credited with helping secure Trump’s nomination of Nellie Liang, of the Brookings Institution, to the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors.
Powell likely won’t be asked about the Trump kerfuffle during his Q&A at the Economic Club of New York on Wednesday, but investors will be listening just in case.
Suzanne O'Halloran is Managing Editor of FOXBusiness.com and is a graduate of Boston College. Follow her on Twitter @suzohalloran