Trump and Powell have been locked in a standoff for months over what kind of stimulus, if any, is needed to shield the U.S. economy from the forces that are eroding global growth. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reported Thursday that the U.S.-China trade war had dragged growth to its lowest level since the financial crisis.
The law gives Trump the authority to fire Powell “for cause,” but the courts do not generally consider policy differences as “cause.” For his part, Powell said he intends to serve the entirety of his four-year term and that he would refuse to leave his post even if Trump demanded it.
Last week, Trump derided Powell and other Fed leaders as “boneheads” for not slashing rates to zero or even into negative territory as the European Central Bank has done for the past five years — a controversial move that is without precedent in the United States. Trump maintains that Europe is using negative rates to gain an unfair advantage over the U.S., but experts are stymied as to why the president is calling for emergency measures at a time of relative economic strength.
“Look, we have a great economy, and that’s not going to make the difference,” Trump told reporters Wednesday during a visit to the U.S.-Mexico border near San Diego, expressing his frustration that the rate cut wasn’t bigger. “But it would have given us an edge, and instead, somebody else has an edge, but they’re so far behind us they can’t catch us.”
When asked whether Powell’s job was safe, Trump responded: “Yeah, it’s safe. I mean, sure. Why not?”
When a reporter said Trump had paused before answering, Trump denied it. Then he reiterated his disappointment in Powell.
The Fed’s rate cut was only the second since the Great Recession, but it did little to excite markets, which barely reacted to the news. The Fed trimmed its benchmark interest rate by a quarter-percentage point despite dissent from three officials, two of whom deemed the cut unnecessary and one who said a bigger one was needed.
After the meeting, Powell was noncommittal about future cutbacks: “There will come a time, I suspect, when we think we’ve done enough,” he told reporters. “But there may also come a time when the economy worsens and we would then have to cut more aggressively. We don’t know.”
Powell declined to respond to Trump’s attacks but emphasized the importance of maintaining an independent Fed, adding that the central bank “will continue to conduct monetary policy without regard to political considerations.”
But conducting policy with a steady hand is challenging even without the president’s very public criticism, as recession warnings flash domestically and other central banks around the world press for stimulus to head off a global slowdown.
“The Fed doesn’t exist to prop up the financial markets, but to facilitate a healthy economy — and financial markets are, in the long term, built on a healthy economy,” Michael Farr, president of Farr, Miller & Washington said in a statement to The Washington Post. “There are plenty of things for the long-term investor to be concerned about, but the Fed is concerned as well.”
On Thursday, the OECD said the trade war had dragged global growth from 3.6 percent in 2018 to 2.9 percent this year; that’s the lowest level since the 2008-2009 financial crisis. The year-long conflict between the United States and China has obliterated trade growth, which had pumped up the global economy after the crisis, and significantly dampened business confidence, the OECD reported.
“What looked like temporary trade tensions are turning into a long-lasting new state of trade relationships,” OECD chief economist Laurence Boone told Reuters. “The global order that regulated trade is gone and we are in a new era of less certain, more bilateral and sometimes assertive trade relations,” she added.
The OECD also cut its expectations for U.S. growth for this year and 2020, citing the trade war’s toll on manufacturing and farming. The U.S. manufacturing sector, which is seen as a barometer of economic health, contracted in August for the first time since 2016.
Trade negotiations between the White House and Chinese trade deputies will take place Thursday and Friday in Washington, and chief negotiators are slated to continue talks in mid-October, Trump’s top economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, said Thursday in an interview on Fox News.