Trump attacks on Fed raise specter of political meddling

WASHINGTON: President Donald Trump on Friday (Jul 20) doubled down on his attack on the Federal Reserve for raising interest rates – a shock criticism of the central bank that US presidents traditionally avoid and one economists say is dangerous.

He also lambasted China and the European Union for keeping interest rates low and manipulating their currencies to gain a trade advantage.

A police officer keeps watch in front of the U.S. Federal Reserve in Washington

Central banks in all advanced economies and many emerging market countries are kept insulated from political influence and allowed to determine monetary policy independently.

Governments that have violated that independence for short-term economic gain have done so at their peril, including the last US president to do so: Richard Nixon.

Trump said the Fed was undermining economic progress by raising the benchmark lending rate.

In a pair of tweets, Trump said "China, the European Union and others have been manipulating their currencies and interest rates lower, while the US is raising rates while the dollars gets stronger and stronger with each passing day."

That is "taking away our big competitive edge," he said. "As usual, not a level playing field."

After criticizing the Fed in an interview with CNBC on Thursday, Trump was even more harsh on Twitter, saying "Tightening now hurts all that we have done."

And he noted the impact of higher rates on debt payments: "Debt coming due & we are raising rates – Really?"

"The United States should not be penalized because we are doing so well," he tweeted. Instead, the US "should be allowed to recapture what was lost due to illegal currency manipulation and BAD Trade Deals."

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Rising borrowing costs can slow economic growth and generally boost the value of the currency since it attracts more funds into the country in search of higher yields from investments.

Since the United States has recovered faster than other major economies, the Fed is raising rates faster than other central banks as well, making the US a more attractive investment destination. That has caused trillions of dollars to flow out of emerging market economies.

The Fed has raised the benchmark lending rates twice this year, after three increases in 2017, and two more rate hikes are expected this year as the central bank removes stimulus from the economy to keep a lid on inflation.

The chance inflation might accelerate has increased after the massive tax cut last year that Trump championed, which has raised the US debt and budget deficit.

Trump said he was unconcerned that his remarks might spark criticism as he was merely stating long-held personal views.

"I couldn’t care less," he told CNBC.

But simply "jawboning" the Fed with such comments, even without overt pressure, in itself undermines confidence of financial markets that policymakers will be able to stay the course and keep prices from accelerating.

The dollar is up from April against a basket of currencies, but is below the peak hit in Dec 2016 just after Trump was elected.

The Fed chairman, Trump-appointee Jerome Powell, has repeatedly stressed the commitment to an independent central bank.

Powell said in an interview last week that "nothing has been said to me publicly or privately that gives me any concern about our independence."

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But he cautioned in a speech in May that "trust in government and public institutions is at historic lows" so "central banks cannot take our measure of independence for granted."

In the early 1970s, President Richard Nixon pressured Fed chief Arthur Burns to keep interest rates low ahead of the 1972 presidential election, when Nixon won a second term. He said he preferred inflation to unemployment.

But as Oxford Economics recalled, "Loose monetary policy implemented by the Federal Reserve along with the oil price shocks in the 1970s would eventually push inflation to nine per cent in late 1973 and 12 per cent in late 1974."

Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers warned of the dangers of undermining the central bank.

"This is as old as the history of banana republics," Summers said Friday on CNBC. "It does produce results and looks good for a while but ultimately it leads you into real trouble."

He called Trump’s comments "a gross mistake," and said they also were counterproductive because it could force the Fed to raise rates more aggressively just to prove it is not swayed by political pressure.