WASHINGTON — President Trump on Monday urged the Federal Reserve not to raise interest rates, but Fed officials are widely expected to do so this week despite the president’s ongoing public effort to dissuade the U.S. central bank from putting any brakes on the economy.
“It is incredible that with a very strong dollar and virtually no inflation, the outside world blowing up around us, Paris is burning and China way down, the Fed is even considering yet another interest rate hike. Take the Victory!” Trump wrote Monday in a Twitter post.
Fed officials will conclude a two-day meeting on Wednesday, and Wall Street traders predict nearly an 80 percent chance the Fed raises rates a quarter point this week, setting them at a range of 2.25 percent to 2.5 percent. That hike would keep rates low by historical standards but put them at the highest level in a decade.
The president's repeated exhortations against the Fed raising rates break with his predecessors, who generally avoided commenting publicly on the central bank's policies to protect its credibility and independence.
Interest rate increases are meant to check inflation, but they can also slow the economy, adding another challenge to Trump's efforts to deliver on his promises of booming growth. A slowing economy — or a recession — could damage Trump's reelection efforts in 2020.
While the U.S. economy looks strong right now, there are signs of a potential slowdown. The Dow Jones Industrial average is on track to end 2019 in the red, potentially notching the worst performance in a decade and erasing one of the president's top talking points that the market has thrived in his tenure. The housing market has also been weak and business investment, which bounced earlier this year, dried up in the third quarter.
Still, the Fed is worried about the economy overheating and says small, gradual interest rate increases are the best way to tap the brakes a bit to ensure inflation doesn't rise too quickly and bubbles don't form.
Unemployment remains at an almost 50-year low and growth is expect to be around 3 percent this year, well above the 2 percent that the Fed thinks is normal for the U.S. economy. Wages are also growing at their fastest pace in a decade in nominal terms, a sign more inflation could be coming.
Investors and the White House will be watching carefully Wednesday for what the Fed and leader Jerome Powell indicate is likely to happen in 2019. The Fed had predicted three more rate hikes next year, but many economists now think that is too many, especially with many experts predicting that the U.S. economy will start slowing next year and could end up in a recession by 2020.
"Our gradual pace of raising interest rates has been an exercise in balancing risks. 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," Powell said on Nov. 28.
Powell caused the stock market to rally on Nov. 28 when he added that he thought the Fed had taken rates to "just below" the so-called neutral rate of interest, which is a "Goldilocks" level that doesn't stimulate or contract growth. The Fed is widely expected to stop hiking rates once it hits the neutral rate.
The expectation for this week is that the Fed will revise its predictions for next year down to two rate hikes and Powell will try to signal in his news conference that the Fed will be “data dependent” and more open to changing course as needed.
"We see the December (Fed) meeting producing a dovish hike, where the Fed further affirms a shift to a nimble regime, while also shifting its projected hiking path and economic projections downward," wrote the BNP Paribas economics team in a note to clients.
In recent months, Trump has lashed out at the Fed and its leaders, calling the central bank "loco" and "out of control" and saying he is "not even a little bit happy" with Powell, whom Trump appointed to the top job just over a year ago after he decided not to reappoint former Fed chair Janet Yellen, who is known to be cautious about rate hikes.
In recent days, Trump tried to take a slightly softer tone, telling Fed leaders Monday to “Take the victory!” of a solidly growing economy with “virtually no inflation” and not ruin all the good by raising interest rates. And last week Trump told Reuters that Powell is a “good man” who is “trying to do what he thinks is best,” one of the more complimentary statements he’s made about the Fed chair in months.
Fed officials continue to deny that Trump's tweets and criticisms are having any impact on monetary policy.
"I just don't think of it," said Mary Daly, president of the San Francisco Fed, in an appearance last week on PBS NewsHour. "The great thing about the Fed is we have been given independence. There are no politics at the Fed."
Some argue that the only impact Trump is having on the Fed is to make the central bank more likely to hike since the Fed doesn't want to appear to have lost its independence from politics. But while economists don't like Trump's Fed bashing, there are some who are starting to agree with the president that it's time for the Fed to hit pause on the rate hikes.
“Allowing lower-interest borrowing to continue could keep the economy steady, bringing more people back to the labor market and potentially raising real wages even higher‚” wrote Jason Furman, the chief economist for former President Barack Obama, in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed. “The Fed’s governors might have thought in September that another increase would be needed by year’s end, but they should acknowledge that the market beat them to it.”