Fed remains a target as economy falls short of Trump’s goals

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US Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell speaks during a press conference after a Federal Open Market Committee meeting in Washington, DC on July 31. AFP

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – It has become a jarring and frequent contradiction. President Donald Trump blames the Federal Reserve for putting the US economy at risk while data shows an economy in “reasonably good” shape, as the head of the central bank recently said.

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But behind that confusing dance between a norm-breaking Republican president and a stick-to-its-knitting Fed lies a dilemma for Mr Trump.

“Reasonably good” is not what Mr Trump promised to deliver during his 2016 campaign, and at this point he heads into a reelection year short of the key economic goals he set and worried a recession could undermine his bid for a second term.

Growth is ebbing and well below the 3 percent annual rate he said his administration would hit; the trade deficit has widened and there is no sign of the “easy” victory he said would come in a trade war with China; far from the surge in investment he promised would follow a corporate tax cut, business capital spending of late has been a drag on growth overall.

Each month there are more jobs. But that has been true for nearly nine years, and as on many fronts the best days of “Trumponomics” may be in the past as the economy’s performance reverts to an Obama-era trend of around 2 percent annual growth.

“He is so focused on the Fed because in terms of avoiding a recession that is truly in his eyes his biggest obstacle,” to reelection, said a source in regular communication with the White House, explaining that Mr Trump wants to take no chances, even if the risk of a downturn is low.

It’s in that context that Mr Trump scorns a central bank whose longer-term approach to policy has clashed with his more immediate interests – the same tension apparent in other battles between the president and government agencies with their own institutional powers or culture.

In the Fed’s case, while its chairman and Washington-based governors are appointed by the president, its responsibility is to a “mandate” established by Congress.

The Fed’s goals of “maximum employment, stable prices, and moderate long-term interest rates” are distinct from, and sometimes in conflict with, the economic or political priorities of the party in power, whether it’s maximising annual growth, gaining leverage in a trade negotiation or, gaining economic momentum in an election year with interest rates lower than the data would warrant.

Other things equal, lower interest rates can boost economic activity by encouraging households and businesses to borrow, spend and invest, but can also lead to financial excesses as happened in the early 2000s in the US mortgage market, and – less of a concern today – inflation.

Managing those mandated goals, Fed officials note, can require tradeoffs, involves looking further ahead than can be forecast with certainty, and always includes a judgment about whether the lower unemployment and other benefits that might come with easier monetary policy are worth the risks involved.

Mr Trump’s demands that the Fed stimulate the economy, by contrast, have covered a gamut of immediate needs, and moved well beyond convention to suggest, for example, that the Fed restart crisis-era asset purchases at a time of historically low unemployment.

One day it’s to support a wobbly stock market. The next to boost growth, and then later to gain an upper hand in trade talks through a cheaper dollar, as Mr Trump demanded twice last week when he said the US central bank should not allow the rate cuts and currency moves of other nations to offset the impact of tariffs he has imposed.

When rates remained low through President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign and second term, Mr Trump said the Fed had “become very political.” Advisers familiar with his thinking say he now expects the same treatment, even if the economy is in a different place.

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