Fed officials will conclude a two-day policy meeting on Wednesday, and Wall Street traders predict nearly an 80 percent chance that the Fed will raise 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 2018 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. Business investment, which bounced earlier this year, dried up in the third quarter. Growth is widely expected to slow next year as the effects of the Republican tax cuts and extra government spending diminish.
Perhaps the biggest red flags are the signs of trouble abroad, especially in Europe and China, where there’s been a noticeable downturn in economic data since the summer. Trump’s trade war with China is likely playing a role in worsening the slowdown that was already underway overseas.
Still, the Fed is worried about the U.S. economy overheating and says that small, gradual interest rate increases are the best way to tap the brakes a bit to ensure that inflation does not rise too quickly and that bubbles do not form.
Unemployment remains at an almost 50-year low, and growth is expected to be about 3 percent this year, well above the 2 percent 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 that more inflation could be coming.
Investors and the White House will be watching carefully Wednesday for what the Fed and its chair, Jerome H. Powell, indicate will probably 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 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,” Powell said on Nov. 28. “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 triggered a stock market 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.” He has said 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 L. 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. 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 has made about the Fed chair in months.
Fed officials deny that Trump’s tweets and criticisms are having any impact on monetary policy.
“I just don’t think of it,” Mary Daly, president of the San Francisco Fed, said in a segment 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 central bank does not want to appear to have lost its independence from politics. “When I saw Trump’s tweet, the feeling I had is that it increases the odds the Fed tightens this week to assert their independence,” said Carl Tannenbaum, chief economist at Northern Trust and a former Fed economist. “But even if our president wanted to, it would be very hard to sway our central bank.”
But while economists do not like Trump’s Fed bashing, there are some who are starting to agree with the president that it is 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‚” Jason Furman, former chief economist to President Barack Obama, wrote 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.”
The Fed’s Federal Open Market Committee, the body that sets interest rate policy, will announce its decision at 2 p.m. Eastern time on Wednesday. Powell will speak at a news conference at 2:30 p.m.