Economic angst rises at bad time for Trump

President TrumpDonald John TrumpLawmakers prep ahead of impeachment hearing Democrats gear up for high-stakes Judiciary hearing Warren says she made almost M from legal work over past three decades MORE is scrambling to quell questions about his stewardship of the economy as the rising odds of a recession pose a dire threat to his reelection campaign.

After more than two years of touting a strong economy under his watch, Trump and his top economic aides are now on the defensive after signals hinting at an impending recession flashed across the world this week.

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Trump has denied his policies have played any role in slowing the global economy even in the midst of a trade war with China. During a Wednesday night rally, he argued that a Democratic president would bring greater turmoil.

“You have no choice but to vote for me, because your 401(k)s, down the tubes. Everything’s going to be down the tubes. So, whether you love me or hate me, you gotta vote for me,” Trump said.

And in tweets during the week Trump has pointed the finger at both the Federal Reserve and the news media for the recent turbulence, particularly after stock markets fell sharply.

On Wednesday, Trump said "clueless" Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell had been more damaging than China by not lowering rates more aggressively. "China is not our problem," he tweeted. "Our problem is with the Fed."

And on Thursday, Trump targeted the press.

"The Fake News Media is doing everything they can to crash the economy because they think that will be bad for me and my re-election," the president tweeted

Trump's fierce pushback has highlighted the political risks he faces. A recession ahead of the 2020 election could spell political doom for Trump, who has made the strength of the economy a centerpiece of his reelection bid. Without steady growth and job gains, Trump will lose his most appealing argument to the swing voters crucial to his bid for a second term.

“The President and the White House have every reason to be concerned, no matter who it is that ends up being the Democratic nominee, that this is something that can trip up his reelection hopes,” said Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst for Bankrate.com.

A shrinking economy is a daunting obstacle for any incumbent, and few presidents have clinched a second terms after the economy receded in their first. For Trump, the political risk of a recession is far greater given his broad unpopularity beyond his base.

Just 43 percent of Americans approve of Trump’s presidency, according to a RealClearPolitics average of polls conducted between July 25 and Aug. 15, while 53.5 percent disapprove.

Even so, Trump receives much higher marks for his handling of the economy. In an Economist-YouGov poll conducted July 27-30, 53 percent of respondents approved of Trump’s economic record while 41 percent disapproved.

Trump’s positive economic reviews are likely being driven by the soaring stock market, accelerating growth and near-record joblessness throughout his first term. But the president may not be able to count on that prosperity to continue until Election Day after two weeks of economic red flags.

Financial markets plummeted Wednesday after yields for short-term U.S. Treasury bonds fell below yields for longer-term bonds. Known as an inverted yield curve, such a change typically previews a recession within 12 to 18 months. U.S. stocks suffered their worst day of losses in 2019 on the news.

Trump's trade battles with China and Europe have also taken an unmistakable toll on the already weakening global economy. Data released Wednesday also showed the German economy shrinking and Chinese industrial production slumping to a 17-year low. 

Worries about an impending recession are multiplying.

The University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment Index, a closely watched gauge of optimism, fell in August to its second-lowest level since late 2016.

And a survey released by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York on Friday found that 79 percent of Empire State manufacturers reported higher costs due to Trump’s tariffs, while 45 percent said they were forced to raise prices.

“It’s a little like being in a building where the fire alarm has been going off, and people think they smell smoke, but they're not quite sure where the fire is,” Hamrick said.

Economists had already been increasing their odds of a recession after Trump announced on Aug. 1 that he would impose new tariffs on Chinese goods.

More than $300 billion in Chinese products will face a 10 percent tariff by the end of 2019 after Trump previously imposed 25 percent tariffs on $250 billion in goods from China.

“Businesses are starting to be reluctant in spending. We think that's because the outlook has become much more cloudy,” said Beth Ann Bovino, chief U.S. economist at S&P Global Ratings.

Trump and his top aides have argued for more than a year that China would suffer under his tariffs while the U.S. would remain unscathed. Even so, Trump on Tuesday delayed the effective date for the next round of tariffs until Dec. 15, to lessen the impact over the crucial holiday shopping season.

With a deal between the U.S. and China far from reach, the costs of Trump’s tariffs, Chinese retaliation and global uncertainty will only grow as the U.S. nears Election Day.

Bovino said while consumer spending remains strong, the uncertainty driven by Trump’s trade war with China has stunted business growth and expansion, which risks hurting the strong U.S. labor market. 

“Business hiring is slowing, but we haven't seen anything dramatic in terms of any kind of decline, or a real sharp slowdown in jobs,” Bovino said. 

“If we start to see businesses shed workers?” she continued, “That will be a whole different story for 2020.”