September 15, 2019

Trump reverses course, seeks negative interest rates for U.S. debt

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump called on the Federal Reserve to push down interest rates into negative territory, a move reluctantly used by other world central banks to battle weak economic growth as it punishes savers and banks’ earnings in the process.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump arrives to address the 2019 National Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) week conference in Washington, U.S., September 10, 2019. REUTERS/Leah Millis

Trump, in a pair of Twitter posts, said negative rates would save the government money on its debt. He did not address the risks or financial market tensions that central banks in Europe and Japan have confronted as a result of their negative rate policy, or the larger issue that negative rates have not done much to boost growth or raise inflation as intended.

“The Federal Reserve should get our interest rates down to ZERO, or less, and we should then start to refinance our debt. INTEREST COST COULD BE BROUGHT WAY DOWN, while at the same time substantially lengthening the term,” Trump tweeted. “We have the great currency, power, and balance sheet… The USA should always be paying the … lowest rate. No Inflation!”

“It is only the naïveté of (Fed Chairman) Jay Powell and the Federal Reserve that doesn’t allow us to do what other countries are already doing,” added Trump, who has repeatedly noted that rates are negative in Germany, Europe’s trading powerhouse.

The Republican president has long called for lower interest rates and blasted Powell and the Fed for not quickly and drastically cutting them, which he sees as necessary to boost U.S. economic growth as he eyes re-election next year.

Last month, however, Trump told reporters at the White House that he did not want to see negative rates in the United States.

On Friday, Powell said the Fed would act appropriately to help maintain the U.S. economic expansion and that political factors played no role in the central bank’s decision-making process.

Federal Reserve policymakers cut interest rates in July for the first time in more than a decade. Financial markets expect the Fed to again lower its benchmark rate, currently at 2.00-2.25%, when it meets next week.

Trump also kept up his attack on Powell and the Fed in his tweets on Wednesday: “A once in a lifetime opportunity that we are missing because of ‘Boneheads.’”

Despite Trump’s name-calling, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin told reporters at the White House on Monday he expected Powell’s job was safe, despite months of speculation that the president could seek to oust him.

RISKY MOVE

Fed officials have downplayed the idea of setting their target policy rate below zero as politically untenable and not worth the risks. The policy is meant to account for extremely weak economic conditions by, in effect, charging banks to hold reserve deposits at the Fed.

In theory those banks would put the money to more productive uses. But it raises risks.

Banks might pay less to savers as a result, and it can make it more difficult to operate at a profit. In addition, while the Fed’s policy rate influences other borrowing costs, the interest rate on long-term government bonds Trump alluded to in his Tweet are set by larger market forces and depend mightily on perceptions about economic growth.

The yield on 10-year Treasury notes has collapsed by half in recent months to a near record low — a reflection of doubts about the global economy and the impact of Trump’s trade war as much as of Fed policy. Trump has cited the negative yield on Germany’s 10-year bond approvingly, but it is a product of an economy nearing or perhaps in recession.

Representatives for the White House did not respond to a request for comment on Trump’s tweets.

The Washington Post, citing public filings and financial experts, reported last month that Trump, a real estate developer, could also personally save millions of dollars a year in interest if the Fed lowers rates, given the outstanding loans on his hotels and resorts.

Additional reporting by Susan Heavey, Trevor Hunnicutt and Lindsay Dunsmuir; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Andrea Ricci

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Howard Schneider
Reuters

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