July 31, 2019 / 11:12 AM / 24 days ago

Is Trump the reason the Fed cut rates?

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump’s repeated calls for easier monetary policy may not be what drove the Federal Reserve to cut interest rates on Wednesday.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to the news media after returning from a quick trip to Williamsburg, Virginia, in Washington, U.S., July 30, 2019. REUTERS/Leah Millis

But Trump’s policies did set the table for it.

His aggressive tactics on trade, including 25% tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese goods that prompted retaliatory duties on U.S. exports, have made companies uncertain about the future and more hesitant to invest.

The Fed’s beige book, a collection of economic anecdotes from around the country, now regularly features an escalating and eclectic collection of trade-related impacts.

In the edition circulated ahead of Wednesday’s Fed meeting, a company in the Northeast complaining about the cost of keeping track of tariffs and a West Virginia rubber manufacturer saying trade wars had hurt demand from Chinese customers were among dozens of examples.

The impact is in the hard data as well. A report last week showing the U.S. economy grew at a 2.1% pace in the second quarter featured the first drop in business investment since 2016, and trade overall was a net drag on growth.

And it is one factor in the global manufacturing chill, exacerbating weakness from longstanding factors like aging demographics in Europe and Japan.

Trade uncertainty, weak business investment, and sluggish growth abroad were the three main reasons cited by Fed Chair Jerome Powell for cutting rates on Wednesday to between 2.00% and 2.25%.

“The trade war has been disruptive to the global economy and it’s created a feedback loop” that poses a risk to U.S. growth, said Eric Winograd, Senior U.S. Economist at AllianceBernstein.

Fed policymakers “are responding primarily to risks, and most of the risks to which they are responding are coming out of the administration.”

At the same time, Winograd said, there’s nothing usual about White House policies impacting the economy. Tax cuts by George W. Bush, tax hikes under George H. W. Bush, and government spending under Barack Obama are among examples under prior presidents, he said.

Some risks to which the Fed’s rate cut is meant to respond are not of Trump’s making.

Chief among these is low inflation, which Powell also said was a factor in the Fed’s rate cut decision in remarks to reporters on Wednesday afternoon following the committee’s action. Slow rising prices predate Trump’s tenure by years and is at least in part driven by global competition and technological innovation. Trade tariffs if anything tend to raise prices, at least temporarily.

And while Trump’s tax cuts last year triggered faster-than-expected growth in the economy, sparking concern from some Fed officials about a slowdown once the tax break boost waned, consumer spending has stayed strong, surging at a 4.3% annual rate in the second quarter.

Still, the Fed’s rate cut is at least in part a response to Trump’s actions, if not to his words.

But the president wants more, and after Powell’s press conference on Wednesday, Trump took to Twitter to voice displeasure with his hand-picked Fed chief’s signal that the central bank was not embarking on a full-blown rate-cutting cycle.

“What the Market wanted to hear from Jay Powell and the Federal Reserve was that this was the beginning of a lengthy and aggressive rate-cutting cycle which would keep pace with China, The European Union and other countries around the world,” Trump tweeted.

“As usual, Powell let us down, but at least he is ending quantitative tightening, which shouldn’t have started in the first place,” Trump added in reference to the reduction in the Fed’s vast bond holdings over the past two years. The Fed also called an early halt to that on Wednesday.

Powell, for his part, again insisted he and his colleagues do not take politics into account in deciding on rate policy, nor do they conduct policy to demonstrate their independence.

“Trump has obviously attempted to influence the Federal Reserve to further his agenda,” said Nick Maroutsos, Co-Head of Global Bonds at Janus Henderson Investors. And as the 2020 presidential race heats up, he is unlikely to stop. “Trump wants lower rates, to keep down the dollar – a lower dollar - and all of that will help his campaign.”

With reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt; Editing by Dan Burns, Sandra Maler and Alistair Bell

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