The White House Keeps Talking Up Fed Independence. It Could Be A 'Message' To Wall Street.

(Yahoo! Finance) - The White House in recent weeks made it clear that President Biden and his allies see the independence of the Federal Reserve as a 2024 campaign issue.

But the audience for these remarks might not — directly at least — be those crucial swing state voters.

The latest salvo came Wednesday with a blog post from the White House Council of Economic Advisors citing "the importance of an independent central bank."

The post ran through a historic correlation between West Wing meddling in monetary policy and bad economic outcomes, with the authors stating that they "thought this was a good moment to explain."

And it's clear why: Donald Trump.

Allies of the former president have floated a series of ideas in recent months that could undercut an independent Federal Reserve and possibly spook markets.

The ideas range from firing Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell to a long-shot plan recently reported in the Wall Street Journal that has the president himself playing a role in setting interest rates.

Undecided voters are likely not tracking the back and forth with polls often showing little awareness of even the central bank's role.

But there could still be an important audience for the message: Wall Street.

"I read the White House's emphasis on Fed independence as a message to market participants that a second Trump term won't necessarily mean a repeat of the strong market performance from 2017-2019," offers Tobin Marcus, the head of US policy and politics at Wolfe Research.

Greg Valliere, the chief US policy strategist at AGF Investments, added that some voters might make the connection between interest rates and the costs of getting a mortgage but says "if this becomes a big campaign issue it may simply reinforce concerns about instability in Washington."

A flurry of commentary

Jared Bernstein, the chair of Biden's Council of Economic Advisors, weighed in on this topic during an interview with Yahoo Finance last week.

He responded to a question about tariffs by charging that Trump's proposals amounted to "deportation, devaluation, sweeping tariffs and cutting the Federal Reserve off at the knees."

"What we're doing is very different," he added.

President Biden often reasserts the importance of central bank independence but has also taken to prognostication when it comes to the Fed and interest rates in recent months.

"I bet you that that little outfit that sets interest rates is going to come down," Biden said in a March speech in Philadelphia.

It's a prediction Biden — who largely avoided any sort of commentary on monetary policy in his first three years in office — has returned to at least twice in the months since.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre argues that Biden's commentary is not an effort to direct the Fed. Instead, she says "he's reflected a public interpretation of recent data. That's what he's speaking to."

From Trump-world, the latest Fed commentary came from Peter Navarro.

The former Trump advisor is currently serving a 4-month prison sentence for contempt of Congress. But he nevertheless told Semafor — in an email apparently written from the prison library — that he thinks a Trump win would mean Powell "will be gone in a hundred days one way or the other."

Powell's term atop the Fed doesn't expire until 2026, and the law says he can only be fired "for cause." Legal experts aren't sure exactly what would happen if a President tried to fire the central banker over a policy disagreement.

Trump appears more focused on his legal problems at the moment but has said in the past said he can fire Powell — though he never tested the idea.

He mentioned it publicly in a 2020 news conference during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic when he bluntly said "I have the right to remove" Powell.

He added that he could also demote Powell from his position as chair, "put him in a regular position, and put somebody else in charge."

What would Biden or Trump actually mean for Fed independence?

Trump has also talked more recently about asserting greater control over independent government agencies like the Federal Trade Commission and Federal Communications Commission.

Those agencies, like the Fed, operate at an arms length distance from the White House.

Trump on his campaign website also promises "a top-to-bottom overhaul of the federal bureaucracies."

While the heated rhetoric around the Fed appears likely to continue until November, it remains less clear what it will mean for White House policy towards the Fed itself in 2025.

Marcus says he sees a "small but real chance of a fight over Fed independence early in a second Trump term."

He hopes that Trump would eventually be deterred "by the likelihood of a negative market reaction, but I have less confidence about that outlook than I'd like."

Valliere more bluntly called the talk around Trump "hot air," saying Wall Street would push back hard against any moves.

But he added there could be headline risk between now and then "as investors worry about Trump's bombast."

By Ben Werschkul - Washington Correspondent


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