Barney Frank to Fed: Don’t raise rates before election

Barney Frank, the architect of the landmark 2010 Wall Street reform law and a staunch supporter of Hillary Clinton, says it would be a mistake for the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates before the election.

Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen roiled markets Friday by announcing that a rate hike is coming soon, sparking sell offs in the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500, which recovered some of their losses later in the day.

{mosads}Frank advised the Fed board not to risk destabilizing markets and perhaps the broader economy a few weeks before Election Day.

“I think it would be a mistake to do it this close to the election,” Frank told The Hill. “It will be interpreted, over interpreted.

“What the Fed should do this close to the election is make no waves,” he added. “Unless there was some totally off-the-charts jobs number, doing something this close to the election I think roils the waters unnecessarily.”

Frank’s comments are notable because politicians are watching the Fed’s actions almost as closely as Wall Street.

It is generally thought that a rate hike before the election could be risky for Clinton, who is seeking a third term for Democrats in the White House. A rate hike could make it more expensive to borrow money and could slow the economy and cause stocks to fall.

Indications by the Fed’s board of governors at the year’s start that 2016 would see multiple rate increases set off a mini panic, plunging the Dow to a low of 15,450 — and the S&P 500 to 1,850 — in February. Since Yellen reined back the looming cuts, the markets have rallied to 18,395 and 2,169, respectively.

Frank said a blockbuster jobs report showing the creation of something on the order of 400,000 new jobs might justify action but anything in line with recent job gains would argue in favor of keeping rates level.

While the unemployment rate stands at a healthy 4.9 percent, participation in the job market is only 63 percent — well below norms of the 1990s and 2000s – and earnings for S&P 500 companies have shrunk for six straight quarters.

Some Wall Street heavyweights say Yellen shouldn’t let political considerations interfere with her decision-making.

Jacob Frenkel, the chairman of JP Morgan Chase International and a former Bank of Israel governor, told CNBC Thursday that Yellen would risk politicizing the Fed by waiting until December to hike rates only because of the potential impact on the presidential and congressional races.

“I think it will be a mistake to take into account the political process not because it is irrelevant to the economy but because this will actually be the politicization of monetary policy,” he told CNBC’s Steve Liesman while attending the Fed’s Jackson Hole summit.

Other observers think the Fed will wait because board governors are leery of wading into a political controversy.

“If you want to take politics into account, you probably want to wait until after the election,” said Axel Merk, the president and chief investment officer of Merk Investments.

“Fed officials, especially former ones more than current ones, will tell you that you don’t want to hike just before an election because it’s kind of political,” he added.

He said the Fed “has been looking for every excuse in the book not to raise rates and this may be one of them.”

But Merk said he thinks the Fed will be more motivated by economic factors than political ones in its decision to postpone a rate increase until December or later.

He pointed to the rising Libor rate — the London Interbank Offer Rate — which makes borrowing more expensive for financial institutions that don’t have access to Fed funds to borrow money.

Merk described it as indicative of a tightening of financial conditions that Fed officials will be well aware of and may disincline them to make money lending conditions any tighter.

But some analysts, such as Dick Bove, vice president of equity research at Rafferty Capital Markets, thinks the rising Libor rate will spur the Fed to raise rates sooner rather than later.

He recently told CNBC that “all indications are the fed funds followed Libor rather than the other way around.”

Frank said that decades ago a rate increase before the election might not have mattered so much. But in recent years the financial markets have come to be seen as more and more driven by the actions of central bankers, among whom Yellen is the most powerful.

Raising rates in the midst of conflicting signals on the strength of the economy could spark a frenzy of speculation, Frank warned.

“The economic data is still uncertain. The job numbers are very good but some of the other numbers are not. The downside of a premature increase at this point with an economy that may not have fully recovered is greater than the upside of [raising rates] now,” he said. “If in fact things are very strong, you don’t lose anything by doing it in December.”

Tags Federal Reserve Hillary Clinton

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