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Fed’s Powell brushes aside Trump’s call for negative interest rates

Central banker says idea is “certainly not” appropriate one day after Trump said “I want some of that money”

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell has attributed some of the economy’s recent strength to the Fed’s decision to lower interest rates three times this year. (Susan Walsh/AP)
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Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell told Congress’s Joint Economic Committee on Wednesday that he saw “no reason” the economic expansion can’t continue and that the central bank has no imminent plans for further interest rate cuts, despite ongoing pressure from President Trump.

Powell’s comments came 24 hours after Trump bashed the Fed for not slashing interest rates more. Trump suggested the Fed lower interest rates so much that they would effectively be negative, a rare phenomenon that could lead banks to pay people for taking out loans. Asked about this, Powell largely dismissed the idea and said it would “certainly not be appropriate” in the current economic environment.

The last time the Fed cut rates to zero was during the Great Recession, and it has never adopted negative rates, even during the 1930s when one-quarter of the labor force was idle.

“You tend to see negative rates in larger economies at times when growth is quite low and inflation is quite low,” Powell said. “It’s just not the case here.”

The contrast between the approaches that Powell and Trump have with the Fed were on vivid display. Fed officials have lowered interest rates three times this year in what they hope will encourage more economic activity, but they are now pausing in part because they believe the economy has stabilized. Trump wants interest rates to be lower because he thinks it will make the economy even stronger, and he said there is no sign that the economy is facing the prospect of inflation from low rates.

The Dow Jones industrial average hit its ninth all-time high of the year yesterday, and is up 51 percent since Election Day 2016. Trump claimed the markets would have risen by an additional 25 percent if the Federal Reserve had kept interest rates lower.

"We are actively competing with nations who openly cut interest rates so that now many are actually getting paid when they pay off their loan, known as negative interest,” Trump said in remarks at the Economic Club of New York.

“Give me some of that money," he continued. "I want some of that money.”

Banks are paying people to borrow money. That’s alarming news for the global economy.

The economic outlook has changed significantly since Powell’s last appearance on Capitol Hill in mid-July. In late summer, some models were predicting a 50/50 chance of a U.S. recession in 2020. But the recent upswing has shored up faith in the expansion, and many top Wall Street firms are telling clients the risk of a recession next year is modest. Goldman Sachs puts the risk level at 24 percent. Morgan Stanley says “around 20” percent. Barclays says less than 10 percent.

In his assessment of the economy, Powell cited historic low unemployment and strong consumer spending as factors that are keeping his outlook upbeat. He did flag some risks, however. Trade uncertainty has eaten into business investment and manufacturing, and sluggish global growth continues to be a head wind. Weak business investment has created a drag on growth this year, but Powell said he doesn’t expect a downturn. He attributed some of the economy’s recent strength to the Fed’s campaign to lower rates this year.

Powell’s appearance Wednesday was the first of two consecutive days on Capitol Hill. On Thursday, he is expected to face even more questions about his economic outlook. He cautioned Wednesday that the Fed would be willing to adjust its approach if the economy showed signs of stress in coming months.

“Policy is not on a preset course,” Powell said.

The recent spate of benchmark rate cuts has left the Fed’s hands somewhat tied if the country does face another downturn, Powell said. He said the Fed has less flexibility to continue cutting if Fed officials are looking for ways to juice the economy. On average, the Fed has cut rates 5 percent in post-war recessions, Powell said. But in the “new normal” of lower rates, lower inflation and lower growth, the Fed doesn’t have “that kind of room.”

The Fed is the U.S.'s central bank, a government agency that influences interest rates and the money supply. Although top officials are selected by the White House and must be confirmed by the Senate, it was designed to be independent so that people don’t question the integrity of its decisions.

Trump selected Powell to run the Fed, but has expressed regret for much of the past year. The president has frequently blamed any problems in the economy on the central bank or its leader. A recent paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests Trump’s near-constant attacks on the central bank and its leader are influencing market expectations for lower interest rates, at the expense of the bank’s independence.

"Our findings that market participants do not perceive the Federal Reserve as independent from the executive branch has indirect, but important, consequences for the actual autonomy of the central bank,” researchers wrote in the paper.

When asked about this phenomenon, Powell emphasized that politics have “absolutely no role” in dictating Fed policy.

“We’re human. We make mistakes, but we won’t make mistakes of character and integrity,” Powell said. “It’s absolutely essential that everyone understands that we’re doing our jobs as we always have, without regard to politics.”