Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Trump's Game of Chicken

President Donald Trump seems to be playing simultaneous games of chicken with Fed Chair Jerome Powell and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Last Friday, he raised tariffs again on US imports from China and ordered US companies to leave China. He also said that Fed Chair Jerome Powell is a greater enemy than Xi. Trump’s game plan is to create more uncertainty about trade, thus increasing the risks for US economic growth so that the Fed will have to respond with more interest-rate cuts. At the same time, he hopes that Xi will relent by agreeing to a trade deal that is good for the US economy.

Games of chicken are often reckless and dangerous, with dire consequences. The S&P 500 tumbled 2.6% on Friday. In the classic movie “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955), Jimmy (played by James Dean) agrees to a “chickie-run” to settle a dispute with Buzz, the leader of a local gang. Both race stolen cars toward the edge of a cliff. The first to jump out of his car is branded a “chicken.” Jimmy flings himself out an instant before the cars reach the edge of the cliff. Seconds into the race, Buzz discovers that his jacket is stuck on the door handle. So he goes over the cliff and dies.

The question for all of us is whether Trump is Jimmy or Buzz. Is Trump trumping Powell and Xi or is Trump trumping Trump?

Our 7/11 Morning Briefing was titled “Powell Gets Trumped!” I wrote: “President Donald Trump wants the Fed to lower interest rates. Fed Chair Jerome Powell claims that the Fed is independent and won’t bow to political pressure. Yet Trump has figured out the perfect way to force the Fed to lower interest rates. All he has to do is keep creating uncertainty about US trade policy. In his congressional testimony yesterday on monetary policy, Powell mentioned the trade issue eight times in his prepared remarks.”

Sure enough, the Fed lowered the federal funds rate by 25bps on 7/31. However, that afternoon, Trump said that it wasn’t enough and that he wants more easing right away. Trump was quick to attack the Fed’s decision. He tweeted: “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. … As usual, Powell let us down, but at least he is ending quantitative tightening, which shouldn’t have started in the first place—no inflation. We are winning anyway, but I am certainly not getting much help from the Federal Reserve!”

The very next day, Trump trumped Powell again by creating more uncertainty about trade when he said that the US will impose a 10% tariff on an additional $300 billion worth of Chinese imports next month. The new tariff comes on top of the 25% levy that Trump already has imposed on $250 billion worth of Chinese imports—so the US will be taxing nearly everything China sends to the US. Trump added that the tariffs could be raised to 25% or higher if the talks drag on further without any significant progress, but he allowed that alternatively they could be removed if a deal is struck.

Then on 8/14, stocks rebounded after the Trump administration de-escalated its trade war with China. The 10% tariff would be delayed until 12/15 on imports from China of cellphones, laptop computers, toys, and other items. No reason was given. Trump trumped Trump.

In our 8/7 Morning Briefing, I wrote: “What does Trump want? He wants to win another term on 11/3/20. What does Xi want? He wants Trump to lose. They both know that. Xi is president for life, so he figures he can easily outlast Trump, though having to deal with Trump through 2024 would be more challenging than through 2020. Trump must know that even if he gets a deal with China before the election, that won’t mean much if he loses. He seems to be talking up the scenario of a post-election deal, perhaps believing that timing will yield a better deal from the Chinese, assuming he wins a second term.”

I concluded in that commentary: “Trump must figure that he needs the Fed to lower interest rates while he waits for the Chinese to come around on trade, hoping to strike a deal after the elections.” Trump’s game is to trump Powell before he trumps Xi.

By the way, Bill Dudley is apoplectic about Trump's game of chicken. Dudley served as president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and as vice chairman of the Federal Open Market Committee from 2009 to 2018. He revealed his antipathy for the President in a 8/27 Bloomberg View op-ed titled “The Fed Shouldn’t Enable Donald Trump.”

He wants the Fed to fight fire with fire: “I understand and support Fed officials’ desire to remain apolitical. But Trump’s ongoing attacks on Powell and on the institution have made that untenable. Central bank officials face a choice: enable the Trump administration to continue down a disastrous path of trade war escalation, or send a clear signal that if the administration does so, the president, not the Fed, will bear the risks—including the risk of losing the next election.”

In other words, the Fed shouldn’t offset the uncertainties caused by Trump’s trade policies with lower interest rates, even if that leads to a recession. The Fed should refuse to meet its legal mandate to maintain full employment and price stability rather than enable Trump.

Dudley is essentially calling for the Fed to overthrow the President in the coming election: “There’s even an argument that the election itself falls within the Fed’s purview. After all, Trump’s reelection arguably presents a threat to the U.S. and global economy, to the Fed’s independence and its ability to achieve its employment and inflation objectives. If the goal of monetary policy is to achieve the best long-term economic outcome, then Fed officials should consider how their decisions will affect the political outcome in 2020.”

I am almost speechless. Dudley may be calling on the Fed to join the resistance and to fight fire with fire, but that would be playing with fire for the Fed. Welcome to the New Abnormal, where everyone loses their minds! Trump has the amazing ability to make sane people go insane. (For more on this, Google search “Trump Derangement Syndrome.”)

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