Mnuchin says Trump never suggested firing Fed Chairman Powell

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Dec. 23, 2018 / 6:13 PM GMT/ Source: CNBC.com

By Javier E. David, CNBC

President Donald Trump is adamantly opposed to the Federal Reserve’s rate hike campaign, but has never suggested firing Fed Chairman Jerome Powell, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on Saturday, moving to defuse a controversy that could roil global markets even further.

Late Friday, Bloomberg News, citing four unnamed sources, reported that Trump has discussed firing the central bank head. With the Fed embarked on a campaign to tighten monetary policy, the president has repeatedly attacked Powell, reportedly fearful that a volatile market – and the attendant possibility of an economic downturn – could endanger his reelection prospects.

The president is notorious for launching broadsides over policy disagreements, and venting his frustrations among White House staffers. But with the battle between Trump and the Fed chair he appointed threatening to unnerve investors, the U.S. government’s top financial officer — who has cachet with Wall Street — was forced to intervene.

Via Twitter, Mnuchin said he recently discussed Fed policy with the president, who expressed the view monetary tightening was an “absolute[ly] terrible” thing to do with the economy growing. Mnuchin, however, quoted a denial by Trump that he intended to axe Powell, a man who he appointed barely a year ago.

Earlier Saturday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders also stated that there were no plans to dispatch the Fed Chair. In a Sunday interview with ABC News, incoming White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney said the president “now realizes” he does not have the authority to fire Powell, suggesting that Trump at least entertained the possibility at one point.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 7 percent this week, its worst week in 10 years, on fears the Fed is unnecessarily slowing the economy as the central bank on Wednesday raised its benchmark interest rate for a fourth time this year. The Dow, which Trump cheered when it was at record highs earlier this year, is now down 9 percent in 2018.

Until Trump took office, presidents were historically circumspect about criticizing Federal Reserve policy, eager to preserve the central bank’s independence even if they disagreed with its moves. Yet the current president has politicized the Fed’s decisions with alacrity, leaving many in the investor class alarmed by the latest developments.

Markets have been extremely volatile in the wake of the Fed’s tightening campaign, with Wall Street increasingly fearful that the central bank could be committing a policy error similar to the year 2000. During that time frame, some economists partly faulted a Fed rate hike for tipping the economy into recession as the dotcom bubble burst.

Meanwhile, the Fed’s efforts to reduce its balance sheet and raise borrowing costs is less than popular with market observers who think it will exact a toll on the U.S. economy. Steve Hanke, a Johns Hopkins economist, wrote last week that “the Fed is clearly tightening the noose, and with that, nominal [growth] will slow.”

However, Wall Street analysts on Saturday roundly criticized the idea that Powell should be fired, especially during a precarious time for global markets and the U.S. economy.

John Melloy, CNBC contributed.

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