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Citi strategist: Fed message is no reason to party

Citigroup chief U.S. equity strategist Tobias Levkovich says the market is overreacting on Fed chair Jerome Powell's announcement of fewer interest rate hikes ahead.

Posted: Nov 29, 2018 11:19 AM
Updated: Nov 29, 2018 11:19 AM

Federal Reserve chief Jerome Powell didn't mention the elephant in the room when he got up Wednesday to speak before the Economic Club of New York: President Donald Trump's repeated broadsides in the press.

But after months of indicating that he plans to raise interest rates and cool down the US economy, he demonstrated his power to send markets shooting up with just a few words hinting at a willingness to pause hikes next year.

Tucked in his speech, Powell said that rates are "just below" the so-called neutral range, the level that central bankers believe will neither accelerate nor slow economic growth -- a shift from comments he made in October suggesting that interest rates are still "a long way" from neutral.

The small albeit significant change in wording by Powell sent markets soaring more than 600 points Wednesday afternoon as investors cheered over a possible slowdown in rate hikes.

The Fed left rates unchanged in November but is widely expected to raise rates when the policy-setting committee meets for their final meeting in December, and investors will now be searching for further clues when the central bank releases minutes from their latest meeting on Thursday.

Powell on Wednesday tried to delicately explain how the Fed is weighing future policy moves by using the analogy of walking into a pitch-black room filled with furniture.

"What do you do?" said Powell. "You slow down. You maybe go a little less quickly. You feel your way. Under uncertainty of this kind, you be careful. I think that's what we've been doing."

It was a distinct shift in tone from early October, when the Fed chairman suggested the central bank might go "past neutral, but we're a long way from neutral at this point, probably."

The Fed has been trying to strike a balance between not moving too fast and risking shortening the economy's longest running expansion versus not moving too slowly and risking the economy overheating.

After the financial crisis erupted in 2008, the Fed kept rates at historically low levels to revive the ailing economy. It slowly began to raise them again in 2015 as the economy regained strength under Obama, and it has raised rates six times since Trump took office. Three of those increases have been under Powell.

Any Fed chair, including Powell's predecessor Janet Yellen -- an appointee of President Barack Obama who Trump considered appointing to a second term -- and other contenders like Kevin Warsh would likely now be pursuing a slow, but steady rate hike policy to keep the economy on even keel.

That hasn't stopped the President from repeatedly dumping on the investment banker he picked last year to steer the US economy away from recession. Trump's smears on Powell echo his treatment of now former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who endured more than a year of public castigation over his decision to recuse from the Russia investigation until Trump fired him earlier this month.

With the Fed raising rates Trump has called Powell "crazy" and "loco," setting him up to take the blame in the event of an economic slowdown or recession.

The latest broadside came in a Washington Post interview published Tuesday, when Trump once again attacked Powell, who goes by the nickname Jay, for raising rates -- moves that counter Trump's expansionary tax cuts and other moves.

"So far, I'm not even a little bit happy with my selection of Jay," Trump told the Post. "Not even a little bit. And I'm not blaming anybody, but I'm just telling you I think that the Fed is way off-base with what they're doing."

The President also suggested he knew better what the economy needs than the experts.

"I'm doing deals, and I'm not being accommodated by the Fed," Trump said in the interview. "They're making a mistake because I have a gut, and my gut tells me more sometimes than anybody else's brain can ever tell me."

While Trump has remained resolute in the strength of the US economy, he has been thrown by the recent market instability and an announcement this week by General Motors to close five plants and cut thousands of jobs, according to two people who have spoken to the President.

In private, they said, the President has sounded unnerved by signs that the economy is shakier than he likes to suggest in public, and believes he will get the blame if things turn markedly worse. Those private misgivings have come in tandem with fury at Powell, who Trump blames for the situation.

Trump's fresh criticism of his Fed chief also comes amid reports the President has complained about Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin for recommending Powell to the job in the first place. The secretary pushed Trump to pick Powell, who had previously served in a Republican White House and has a deep Wall Street background.

Over the weekend, Trump came to his top finance chief's defense, saying he was "extremely happy and proud of the job" being done by Mnuchin.

Speaking to the Post, Trump again sent a reassuring message that he isn't faulting anyone for his decision to name Powell to the job. "Look, I took recommendations. I'm not blaming anybody."

Some of the President's top advisers -- including Mnuchin and Larry Kudlow, director of the National Economic Council -- have offered tempered warnings that an escalating trade war with China would only make matters worse and allow Trump's critics to pin even more of the blame for a shaky economy on him. That's led to greater confidence among advisers that Saturday's dinner with Chinese leader Xi Jinping could produce a breakthrough in the trade impasse, even if no official is willing to explicitly say they expect the two men to come to an agreement, according to the two people.

This weekend's meeting between the two leaders comes as the Fed warned that a protracted trade rift with China is among the possible outside shocks that could derail the US economy and trigger a "substantial fall" in equity markets.

Trump hasn't hesitated to unleash fury on his Fed chairman, who the President described as a "threat" in a Wall Street Journal interview last month -- a highly unusual political attack on an independent policymaker. He's also gone so far as to dangle the possibility of firing Powell -- an authority he doesn't have over the Fed chairman.

While a US president can remove a Fed governor under the Federal Reserve Act, which was revised in 1935, the statute doesn't clearly define cause. President Lyndon B. Johnson found out that disagreements over the Fed's policies didn't amount to a valid "cause" when he asked his Justice Department in 1965 if he could fire a Fed board governor after clashing with him for raising the discount rate amid signs the economy was starting to overheat.

Shielding the central bank from political influence is a relatively recent phenomenon aimed at reassuring investors and keeping markets calm. But presidents going back to Andrew Jackson have put pressure on their central bankers to keep interest rates low. Both Johnson and his successor Richard Nixon fought with their Fed chairs. Former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker clashed with the Reagan White House over suggestions he should lower rates to make it easier for them to raise taxes and close yawning deficits.

Most White House officials believe Trump will not -- and most likely cannot -- dismiss Powell.

Fed officials, so far, have appeared to shrug off the President's comments, repeatedly making the point that they're going about business as usual.

"My focus is controlling the controllable," said Powell at The Atlantic Festival in Washington in October. "We control what we do at the Fed. We don't let other things distract us."

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