Wall Street's view on Trump's talk of firing Fed Chair Jerome Powell: 'Utter madness'

  • Late Friday, Bloomberg News, citing four unnamed sources, reported that Trump has discussed firing the central bank head.
  • With the Fed embarked on a campaign to tighten monetary policy, the president has repeatedly attacked Powell.
  • In an email to CNBC, Greg Valliere, chief global strategist at Horizon Investments, branded the idea as "insane" and "utter madness."
President Donald Trump (R) introduces his nominee for the chairman of the Federal Reserve Jerome Powell during a press event in the Rose Garden at the White House, November 2, 2017 in Washington, DC.
Drew Angerer | Getty Images
President Donald Trump (R) introduces his nominee for the chairman of the Federal Reserve Jerome Powell during a press event in the Rose Garden at the White House, November 2, 2017 in Washington, DC.

President Donald Trump's growing dissatisfaction with Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell could be veering into dangerous territory: Late Friday, Bloomberg News, citing four unnamed sources, reported that Trump has discussed firing the central bank head.

With the Fed embarked on a campaign to tighten monetary policy, the president has repeatedly attacked Powell, reportedly fearful that a volatile market – and the attendant possibility of an economic downturn – could endanger his reelection prospects.

The president – prone as he is to Twitter tirades and harshly criticizing his antagonists – has been extremely vocal about his displeasure with rising interest rates. In October, Trump even went as far as to brand the Fed his biggest threat. In the wake of those remarks, White House Economic Advisor Larry Kudlow downplayed the idea that Trump would move against the Fed chair.

The Fed declined to comment to CNBC on Saturday when asked about the latest development. In response to an inquiry, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee-Sanders said: "I'm aware of no plans to fire Powell."

According to experts, it's unlikely that Trump has the legal authority to hand the Fed chair a pink slip even if he wanted to, absent the incumbent committing a serious crime, or being unfit for office. Yet on Saturday, some prominent Wall Street investors had no reservations about weighing in on the suggestion that Powell could be shown the door.

In an email to CNBC, Greg Valliere, chief global strategist at Horizon Investments, lambasted the idea as "insane" and "utter madness."

The entirety of the Fed's Open Market Committee, the central bank's policy-setting body, "voted unanimously to raise rates. Would Trump try to fire the entire board?," Valliere wrote, calling the Bloomberg report an "incredible trial balloon."

The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 7 percent this week, its worst week in 10 years, on fears the Fed is unnecessarily slowing the economy as the central bank on Wednesday raised its benchmark interest rate for a fourth time this year. Trade war and government shutdown concerns also weighed on the market.

After weeks of extreme volatility that has driven major U.S. benchmarks to the brink of a bear market, "the market reaction would be catastrophic if he tries to fire Powell," Valliere said. He also suggested that perhaps Kudlow or even Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin could resign in protest.

'What is this guy doing?'

Trump could be merely blowing off steam, or his comments could be indicative of something more serious. The Federal Reserve Act specifies that a president can remove governors — which presumably includes the Fed Chair — but only "for cause" and not over policy differences.

While it's far from clear what would constitute just cause, market observers suggest it would have to rise to something unethical, or outright illegal.

Geoffrey Miller, a legal scholar and the founder of New York University School of Law's Center for Financial Institutions, told CNBC on Saturday that "the ordinary interpretation would be some sort of malfeasance in office." That criteria could include the unauthorized disclosure of confidential information, serious personal misconduct or failing to perform the duties of his office.

Miller, however, cautioned that there was "a lurking constitutional issue in the form of the argument that the Fed is part of the executive branch. and the president as head of the executive branch can fire any of his or her top officers, even if Congress says otherwise."

With markets already in turmoil, "President Trump would be unwise to fire the Fed Chair, as the political consequences and impact on markets would be dire."

At present, Trump appears to have his hands full, wrangling with Congress over a federal government shutdown provoked by a fight over funding for a border wall.

That fight, which threatens to extend into Christmas, means it may be a less than ideal time shop for a new Fed chair, analysts told CNBC.

"Trump's more pressing problems are the government shutdown and mounting political opposition," Ian Lyngen, head of rate strategy at BMO told CNBC.

Sam Stovall, chief investment strategist of U.S. Equity Strategy at CFRA Research, drew an analogy between Trump's reality television show, "The Apprentice," and his fight with the Fed Chair.

"I guess he keeps thinking he's back on his TV show because if he hired Powell, he thinks he can technically fire Powell. Obviously, that's not the case," Stovall said.

"It certainly would undermine investor confidence even further because I think it would cause people to say 'What is this guy doing?'" he added.

--CNBC's To m Franck and Yun Li contributed to this article.