Donald Trump attacks the Fed as ‘the only problem’, and US markets plummet again

  • The Dow dropped 2.91 per cent and the S&P 500 fell 2.71 per cent in shortened Christmas Eve trading
  • Markets were already badly rattled by US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, after he said he had called banks and convened the ‘Plunge Protection Team’
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 December, 2018, 12:46am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 December, 2018, 2:43am

US President Donald Trump has blasted the Federal Reserve, describing it as the “only problem” for the US economy, as top officials convened to discuss a rout in stock markets that saw them spiral downwards again on Monday.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average finished Christmas Eve down 2.91 per cent in shortened trading, while the broader S&P 500 was off by 2.71 per cent and the Nasdaq was down by 2.21 per cent. Even before Trump’s statement on Twitter, the markets had been badly rattled by an unusual weekend statement by US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin in which he said he had called major banks and received reassurance they had “ample liquidity”.

US stocks have fallen sharply in recent weeks on concerns over slowing economic growth, with the S&P 500 on pace for its biggest percentage decline in December since the Great Depression.

In a tweet that did nothing to ease market concerns about the Fed’s cherished independence, Trump laid blame for the market woes firmly at the feet of the central bank.

“The only problem our economy has is the Fed. They don’t have a feel for the market,” Trump said on Twitter.

“The Fed is like a powerful golfer who can’t score because he has no touch – he can’t putt!”

Mnuchin had earlier announced his discussions with top banks on their financial health, as well as convening a phone meeting on Monday of the Working Group on Financial Markets, a body known colloquially as the “Plunge Protection Team”, officials who typically meet to address a crisis. If that was meant to soothe markets, it failed spectacularly.

Nothing says don’t panic like saying ‘I’m calling the plunge protection team tomorrow’
Michael O’Rourke, JonesTrading’s chief market strategist

“Nothing says don’t panic like saying ‘I’m calling the plunge protection team tomorrow,”’ Michael O’Rourke, JonesTrading’s chief market strategist, said by phone.

“I honestly think that’s the type of event that’s going to startle markets and create more panic and fear when it’s meant to create confidence.”

All the 11 major S&P 500 sectors were lower, and all the 30 components of the Dow Industrials were in the red, pushing them closer to bear territory.

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Regulators also discussed on Monday’s call how they will continue critical operations during the partial government shutdown.

The unexpected statement by Mnuchin on Sunday “was not especially comforting, however, given that investors had not generally been questioning market functioning in recent days, despite large declines,” Nick Bennenbroek, currency strategist at Wells Fargo in New York, wrote in a note to clients.

Wall Street is also closely following reports that Trump has privately discussed the possibility of firing Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell. Mnuchin said on Saturday that Trump told him he had “never suggested firing” Powell.

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The Plunge Protection Team, which was also convened in 2009 during the latter stage of the financial crisis, includes officials from the Federal Reserve as well as the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Their phone meeting, hosted by Mnuchin, came five days after he told Bloomberg News that market structure players like high-frequency traders might be contributing to market volatility.

“We saw a lot of sell-offs in 2011, 2015-2016, and I don’t remember the presidents trying to convene the bank heads,” said Michael Antonelli, equity sales trader at Robert W. Baird. “I’m worried the White House is going to make a mistake by exacerbating the market concern. Trump needs a political win, a PR that looks like he’s on top of the situation, and that’s what the weekend strikes me as.”

With the S&P 500 down 17 per cent since September, the benchmark is on pace for its worst quarter since 2008.

Keeping an eye on the financial systems is an appropriate role for the Treasury Department, to be sure. Members of George W. Bush’s administration kept steady contact with bank and investment executives during the financial crisis, and events like the 1987 crash, in which the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell more than 20 per cent in one day, begged for a governmental response.

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But while the last few months in markets have been rough, right now the Dow is down less than 10 per cent on the year – a decline well within the historical norm of volatility.

“Personally I take it as a huge negative,” Scot Lance, managing director at California-based Titus Wealth Management, said of Mnuchin’s statement.

“He’s calling bank CEOs asking about their liquidity. That doesn’t make me feel all warm and fuzzy. The bottom line is there’s a crisis going on right now and it was born, I believe, as a political crisis exclusively last February in a trade war. That’s turned into an economic crisis.”

Additional reporting by Bloomberg