The Fed now has to raise rates to prove it’s independent from Trump, investment manager says

  • In an interview with CNBC at the White House on Thursday, Trump lamented Fed Chairman Jerome Powell’s plan to raise interest rates in response to strong economic growth.
  • Trump’s implication that he favors holding rates down in the face of economic growth defies the convention that monetary tightening is necessary to temper inflation.
  • The dollar fell and Treasury yields dipped lower on Trump’s comments Thursday, with the greenback losing about a half percentage point from its one-year high of 95.65.
Jerome Powell, chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, speaks during a news conference following a Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, June 13, 2018.
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Jerome Powell, chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, speaks during a news conference following a Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, June 13, 2018.

The Federal Reserve has no choice but to raise rates in defiance of President Donald Trump’s criticism of its monetary policy, an investment manager said Friday.

In an interview with CNBC at the White House on Thursday, Trump lamented Fed Chairman Jerome Powell’s plan to raise interest rates in response to strong economic indicators for the U.S., such as increasing wages and record-low unemployment.

“I don’t necessarily agree with it, because he’s raising interest rates. I’m not thrilled, because we go up and every time we go up they want to raise rates again,” the president said, referring to the Federal Open Market Committee’s (FOMC) four-hike interest rate path for 2018, determined in the wake of positive economic data.

This is worrisome because it signals Trump’s desire to influence monetary policy and threatens the perception of the central bank’s independence, said Giles Keating, chairman of digital investment manager Werthstein Institute. Now more so than before, the Fed has to prove its agency to the markets.

“The Fed has to raise rates,” Keating told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Europe.” It might be different in the case of some financial disaster, he said — but short of that, “they can’t be seen to be responding to what the president says, so they have to go ahead.”

‘Economics 101’

Trump’s implication that he favors holding rates down in the face of economic growth defies the convention that monetary tightening is necessary in an expanding economy to prevent overheating and excessive inflation.

“It’s simple enough — if you have a fiscal expansion, then a central bank doing its job properly puts interest rates up to balance that when the economy is close to full employment. It’s economics 101,” said Keating, who previously served as global chief economist and global head of research at Credit Suisse’s investment bank and wealth management branches.

Trump also voiced his frustration that rate rises were strengthening the dollar and therefore making the U.S. “less competitive” versus the euro and Chinese yuan.

“You look at the euro, what’s going on with the EU, they’re not doing what we’re doing,” he said. “They’re making money easy and their currency is falling, China’s currency is dropping like a rock, our currency is going up, and it puts us at a disadvantage.

“Somebody would say maybe you shouldn’t say that as a president; I couldn’t care less what they say.”

The president added, in reference to the Fed’s policymakers, “I am not happy about it, but at the same time I’m letting them do what they feel is best.”

Currency intervention?

The dollar fell and Treasury yields dipped lower on Trump’s comments Thursday, with the greenback losing about a half percentage point from its one-year high of 95.65.

But the immediate market reaction isn’t expected to last, analysts say. Fed tightening and a strong economy is expected to keep the dollar on its current bull rally, particularly against other currencies like the euro and yuan, which have been weakening due to inaction on rate hikes from their central banks and trade war fears.

Currency intervention by the president, executed by the Treasury, would be “pretty extraordinary,” Keating said. “You cannot technically rule it out, but I certainly wouldn’t predict it. In terms of actually interfering with the Fed, that would require legislation, you’re not doing anything.”

While the investment chief dismissed the likelihood of intervention, further influence in words, whether intentional or not, wasn’t impossible, he said. “Could they be thinking of intervention? No. But could they be thinking about verbal intervention again? Yes, they could.”