Trump knows more than the Fed — according to him

Trump knows more than the Fed — according to him
© Getty Images

What a shame that the Fed controls interest rates! President TrumpDonald John TrumpNASA exec leading moon mission quits weeks after appointment The Hill's Morning Report — After contentious week, Trump heads for Japan Frustration boils over with Senate's 'legislative graveyard' MORE knows more about it than they do! I know, because he said so.

OK, I cannot resist a good laugh at this one. The president has turned to Fed bashing with great enthusiasm in the last day or so.

ADVERTISEMENT

Never mind the tradition that presidents do not comment on central bank decisions or the notion that an independent central bank can make decisions that are good for the economy as a whole, unaffected by political pressure.

Trump, after all, does everything better than other mortals. And we should be happy to have his “on the spot guidance," to borrow a phrase from his new-found best friend, Kim Jong Un.

Is it just another tempest in a teapot, one of Trump's endless stream of outrageous eruptions that will disappear from view when the next eruption takes its place? Should we just wait for the next commercial, or, even better, change the channel?

As usual, one can take several tacks in responding. One approach would be to take the comments at face value. What about the merits of the case? Has the Fed “gone crazy”? These sober economists in dark suits hardly seem to be candidates for the looney bin. But have they raised interest rates too fast?

Fed Chairman Jerome Powell asserts that the Fed’s policy is still accommodative, meaning that interest rates are still so low that they are stimulating the economy. He also points out that inflation is about where the Fed would like it to be. That means that the Fed should no longer be stimulating the economy.

However, the debate does continue about one major set of issues: If the economy is so strong and the labor market near full employment, why has inflation stayed so stable and why are wages growing so slowly? These puzzles continue to bedevil economists and the Fed itself.

However, the Fed’s policy of cautious, small increases in the federal funds rate are aimed at keeping the economy from going from a trot to a gallop. Unlike a horse, economies cannot be restrained with a quick tug of the reins.

The case in favor of the Fed’s sanity, and more importantly, its interest rate policies, is that this small dose of prevention will decrease the need for a more drastic cure later on. The Fed is hoping to extend the economic expansion by keeping it within some limits. There are reasonable arguments to hold off a bit, but the scales are closely balanced.

Going back to the president’s comments, however, we can take an entirely different tack. The steep fall in stock markets must be unwelcome to the president, who has, with characteristic modesty, taken credit for soaring stock prices since his election. Blaming the Fed must be convenient.

To be fair, the president did note that a correction was to be expected after such substantial and sustained increases in the market. However, stock markets tend to peak before the peak of the business cycle.

The president may suspect that the stock downturn is in fact an early harbinger of an upcoming recession, and he may be eager to find a scapegoat in the Fed.

Recessions are a fact of life. Their timing can vary a little, but one is certainly in our future. President Trump the politician certainly will not want to tarnish his image of economic competence. Since his mindset always must find blame for whatever goes wrong, the Fed may just be the most attractive target.

Which brings me to the last tack one can take in discussing the Fed-bashing spree. Some commentators have remarked that the Fed is often a scapegoat for politicians. But is this merely routine political grousing, or something worse?

Will these presidential comments be discounted as routine bluster, or are they part of a larger pattern of undermining faith in U.S. institutions?

In the broader sweep of things, this bit of Fed bashing probably is not one of the most significant threats to the stability of our economy and government. The Fed itself is widely respected and strongly protected by legislation and congressional support.

But the matter cannot pass unnoticed either. Attacking the Fed is attacking a pillar of our economy. We cannot be happy about that.

Evan Kraft specializes in the economics of transition, monetary policy and banking issues as a professor at American University. He served as director of the research department and adviser to the governor of the Croatian National Bank.