Opinion - Markets

Ron Insana: Fed chairman faces what may be a no-win test

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell reacts during a press conference in Washington D.C., the United States, on July 31, 2019.
Liu Jie | Xinhua | Getty Images
Key Points
  • Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell may face a no-win test on Friday when he speaks at the central bank's annual symposium in Jackson Hole, Wyo.
  • President Trump is calling on Fed for a large interest rate cut, heaping pressure on Powell.
  • It may be a test Powell can not survive.

Fans of "Star Trek," in particular those who saw the film, "The Wrath of Kahn," may recall the Kobayashi Maru scenario, a Starfleet training exercise for cadets that they routinely failed.

The scenario tested cadets, including Lt. Saavik (a Vulcan Kirstie Alley), accessing their ability to respond to a distress call from an allied ship. It was designed as a no-win scenario for whomever sat at the helm of a Starship. It was not only a test of skill but of character, as well.

Our hero, Captain James T. Kirk, as the film later revealed, never believed in the no-win scenario and, as a cadet, re-programmed the simulation's computer so he could win, earning him a commendation for creative thinking.

Federal Reserve Chair Jay Powell may well be facing his own Kobayashi Maru moment on Friday when he speaks about Fed policy at the central bank's annual symposium in Jackson Hole, Wyo.

His approach may well require a great deal of creative thinking, as pressure continues to mount that he do even more to stimulate the U.S. economy.

Just Monday morning, President Trump called on Powell to lower interest rates by a full percentage point, a dramatic move normally reserved for an emergency.

Indeed, the last time the Fed cut rates by that much was in late 2008, lowering them all the way to zero at the very depths of the Great Financial Crisis.

The U.S. faces no such crisis now.

The President, himself, has declared the U.S. economy to be the strongest in the history of the United States, suggesting that the media and others are conspiring to paint a picture of anything but such a rosy scenario.

The President has rejected the notion, accepted by most credible economists and business leaders, that his trade war with China is weakening not just China, but global manufacturing and, potentially, U.S. economic growth in the relatively near future.

His chief advisors, appearing on weekend talk shows, adamantly claimed, however, that there is no recession in sight, noting that an inverted yield curve is no longer as reliable indicator of impending recession as it once was.

As the Washington Post's Catherine Rampell recently pointed out, Peter Navarro, one of the President's spokesman on the economy and trade, once hailed the yield curve inversion as a nearly 100% accurate indicator of a coming recession. He failed to make that point over the weekend.

Powell is in, arguably, the toughest spot of any Fed Chair since Paul Volker, who was at odds with the Reagan Administration over existing policy in 1987.

Eventually, Volcker resigned, rather than face the ignominy of not being re-appointed. Alan Greenspan replaced Volcker in August of 1987.

I've discussed the yield curve numerous times over the last year, or so, pointing out that the New York Federal Reserve's studies on inversions (when long-term interest rates fall below short-term rates during a Fed tightening cycle) have shown that every recession, since 1967, has been preceded by such a bond market signal.

The most reliable of these inversions is the relationship between the 10-year note and the 3-month T-bill, which has been inverted since April, according the the New York Fed studies.

In fact, the 30-year bond now yields less than the Federal Funds Rate, which is the shortest-term rate at which banks lend each other money overnight to square their books.

The 30-year bond currently yields 2.08% while Fed Funds are marked between 2-2.25%. That's a full-scale inversion of the curve no matter what anyone says.

This leaves Powell in the lurch. Clearly the market expects him to suggest that more rate cuts are coming.

The futures markets have fully priced in a quarter point cut in September, with a smaller number of investors betting on a half-point cut, according to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange's "Fed Watch Tool."

The President wants a full percentage point cut at the Fed's meeting next month. No one but the President has expectations for such a bold, but unnecessary, move.

Jay Powell may well have to assume the persona of Captain James T. Kirk and re-program expectations to avoid his own Kobayashi Maru. But re-programming this President is hard, if not impossible

The Trump Administration has no Mr. Spock to provide wise and unemotional advice to a President who thrives on moments of pique.

Chair Powell may face the no-win scenario far sooner than he expected. And unlike Captain Kirk, this may well be a test that Powell cannot survive.