A 48-hour effort by the Trump administration to soothe jittery financial markets did little to reverse the free fall in stocks Monday, as the president’s renewed attack on the Federal Reserve and the specter of a prolonged government shutdown further rattled investors already worried about a global economic slowdown.
With a single tweet Monday, President Donald Trump undercut his top economic advisers’ efforts to reassure the markets that he did not intend to fire Jerome Powell as Fed chairman. But Trump, who blames the Fed’s recent interest rate increases for the market gyrations, said “the only problem our economy has is the Fed,” an assertion that exacerbated the worst sell-off on Wall Street since the 2008 financial crisis.
Stocks continued marching toward their largest December declines since the 1930s, with the S&P 500 closing down 2.7 percent Monday after a shortened trading session before the Christmas holiday.
The markets are trying to digest the confusing signals from Washington. On Saturday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin posted what he said was a quote from Trump acknowledging that, while he did not agree with the Fed’s recent interest rate increases, he did not have any plans to fire Powell. And Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s incoming chief of staff, said on ABC’s “This Week” that Trump now realized he lacked authority to fire Powell, his hand-picked chairman.
For the markets, the Fed is a complicated player at the moment. Investors have been disappointed by rising interest rates, concerned that they could sap growth. But the speculation about firing Powell, a move that could turn the independent central bank into a political tool, has undermined confidence in a pivotal institution essential to economic policy.
Markets have already been on edge in recent weeks because of uncertainty surrounding trade negotiations between the United States and China, signs of slowing global growth, and the prospect of a prolonged government shutdown in the United States. Mnuchin added to the economic jitters by announcing Sunday that he had called bank executives to ensure the markets were functioning properly, the type of discussions usually reserved for moments of crisis.
“It signaled a sense of panic and anxiety that didn’t need to be there,” said Brian Gardner, an analyst at the investment banking firm Keefe, Bruyette & Woods. “My first reaction when I heard it was, what has happened over the last couple of days that the market does not understand or realize? Is there something that Treasury knows that the rest of us don’t?”
And while Mnuchin and Mulvaney tried to reassure markets on the Fed’s leadership, there is still an effort within the White House to discern whether any legal rationale exists for removing Powell from the chairman spot, according to two people familiar with the discussions.
Peter Navarro, Trump’s top trade adviser, has been openly critical of the Fed’s decision to raise interest rates and blamed the central bank for the market volatility. Mnuchin, meanwhile, has said the recent stock swings are the result of high-speed electronic trading and post-crisis financial rules that he says make it harder for banks to play their traditional market-stabilization role.
Trump on Monday made clear he is still not happy with Powell, likening the Fed to a “powerful golfer who can’t score because he has no touch - he can’t putt!”
Those attacks have drawn criticism from former Fed officials as well as lawmakers from both parties, who say that any attempt to turn the Fed into a political organ would undermine its credibility. Most developed nations have granted their central banks considerable autonomy over policymaking precisely because of concerns that politicians would seek to increase short-term growth at the expense of inflation and instability.
On Monday, Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who is retiring, posted a photograph on Twitter of a 5-billion-dollar bank note from Zimbabwe and urged the president to back off.
“I’ve lived in countries where the Head of State has used the central bank for political purposes,” he said. “Please respect the Fed’s independence, Mr. President.”
And Wall Street is bracing for more intervention from a president who views the stock market as a report card of his presidency. Henrietta Treyz, director of economic policy research at the investment advisory firm Veda Partners, spent her weekend studying the 1935 Banking Act to determine whether Trump could unseat Powell as chairman but keep him on the Fed board without violating the law. She has yet to determine whether that could pass legal muster.
Treasury officials tried to brush away criticism of Mnuchin’s public statement and his calls to bank executives, saying he was trying to ensure that banks had ample liquidity for lending. But the conversations were described by several on the receiving end as more routine than the striking statement suggested.
The Treasury secretary asked for updates on how markets were functioning and inquired about any stresses in the system, according to one bank chief executive. Another bank CEO was so unconcerned about the recent fall in stocks that he used his time with Mnuchin to discuss new capital requirements and how they could affect the bank’s balance sheet in the long term as the Fed continues selling government securities it amassed during the financial crisis, according to a person with knowledge of the discussion.
Policymakers who participated in the President’s Working Group call Monday also described it as a routine meeting, with no market problems reported and nothing to warrant an official statement after the discussion. The call was described by a person familiar with the conversation as a “check-in” scheduled at the Treasury’s request for officials so they could plan for a prolonged government shutdown.
Negotiations to end the partial government shutdown have remained at an impasse since midnight Friday when funding lapsed for a number of federal agencies and nine departments, including the Treasury. Neither chamber is expected to reconvene until Thursday, with House lawmakers looking to the Senate Democrats and Trump to reach a compromise over border security funding.
The decision to convene the working group, which became known as the Plunge Protection Team during the 2008 financial crisis, struck some former officials as curious given that its duties have mostly been taken over by the Financial Stability Oversight Council. That body, which was created by the 2010 Dodd-Frank law, held a public meeting last week when it also published its annual report, which had little mention of market concerns.
“Now that the administration has chosen this extremely rare policy approach of verbal intervention in the stock market its credibility is at risk should markets settle lower,” said Michael O’Rourke, chief market strategist at JonesTrading.
Former Treasury officials said Mnuchin had probably amplified concerns about the markets by publicizing his efforts to calm them.
“I never heard anyone in any venue in the last two months voice any concerns about liquidity,” said Paul H. O’Neill, who served as Treasury secretary under President George W. Bush, noting that Mnuchin had injected more uncertainty into the calculations of investors.
O’Neill also suggested that Mnuchin was in a difficult position in trying to assuage a mercurial boss and could be overcompensating to please him.
“The president apparently is blaming Mnuchin for the markets going south, which is a fairly strange thing,” he said.
Sarah Bloom Raskin, a former deputy secretary of the Treasury under President Barack Obama and a former Fed governor, said Mnuchin would be better served keeping conversations about financial stability private.
“When you do something like that you’ve got to be really careful and quiet about it,” Raskin said. “You run the risk of planting the seeds of doubt in people’s minds.”
But, Raskin suggested, Mnuchin could have been trying to show the president, who canceled his own Florida vacation, that he was working hard despite traveling with his children to a resort in Mexico.
“Maybe he’s just worried because he’s in Cabo, the markets are going down and the Treasury secretary is in another country and they don’t like the optics of that,” she said.