July 23, 2024
Finance

‘We just don’t go down that road’


Jerome Powell offered a strong defense Wednesday of central bank independence when asked if the November election would affect the Federal Reserve’s decisions about interest rates.

“I can’t say it enough: We just don’t go down that road,” he told reporters Wednesday afternoon when asked if the bar was higher for making rate changes close to an election.

“Where do you stop?” he added, saying that his own record on the issue is one that shows his ability to be independent from politics.

“We’re at peace over it.”

When asked if there was a difference to starting cuts in September — the last meeting before the presidential election — and December, Powell said “there’s a significant difference between an institution that takes into account all sorts of political events and one that doesn’t….we just don’t do that.”

The forceful comments from Powell came after the central bank left interest rates unchanged during its regular meeting, keeping them at a 23-year high.

Powell reiterated plans to hold rates steady in the face of persistent inflation while also making it clear that “it is unlikely the next policy move will be a hike” — a comment that soothed markets.

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 01: Federal Reserve Bank Chair Jerome Powell announces that interest rates will remain unchanged during a news conference at the bank's William McChesney Martin building on May 01, 2024 in Washington, DC. Following the regular two-day Federal Open Markets Committee meeting, Powell said the U.S. economy continues to show momentum and inflation has remained high in recent months, informing the Fed's decision to keep their current 5.33 percent rate setting. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 01: Federal Reserve Bank Chair Jerome Powell announces that interest rates will remain unchanged during a news conference at the bank's William McChesney Martin building on May 01, 2024 in Washington, DC. Following the regular two-day Federal Open Markets Committee meeting, Powell said the U.S. economy continues to show momentum and inflation has remained high in recent months, informing the Fed's decision to keep their current 5.33 percent rate setting. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Federal Reserve Bank Chair Jerome Powell announces that interest rates will remain unchanged during a news conference on May 01. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images) (Chip Somodevilla via Getty Images)

Powell’s immediate predecessor atop the Fed, Janet Yellen, plans to hammer home the same issue of central bank independence during a Friday speech on the economy and democracy.

Yellen, now Treasury Secretary, is set to say that during her time at the Fed “I insisted on the Fed’s independence and transparency because I believe it matters for financial stability and economic growth.”

Research “has shown that greater central bank independence is associated with greater price stability, which contributes significantly to long-term growth,” she is set to add in a speech at the McCain Institute, according to advance excerpts.

Powell has spent months — with limited success — to distance himself from the political fray as the 2024 election approaches.

The most recent development working against him came just last week with a revelation in the Wall Street Journal that allies of former President Donald Trump outside of his formal campaign have been drafting proposals that would severely undermine the Fed’s independence if Trump wins and chooses to enact them.

One “long shot” proposal reportedly under consideration even explosively argues that the president should have a direct say in the setting of interest rates. The news also re-raised questions that have debated for years about whether Trump could fire Powell.

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 02: U.S. President Donald Trump (R) speaks as he announces his nominee for the chairman of the Federal Reserve Jerome Powell during a press event in the Rose Garden at the White House, November 2, 2017 in Washington, DC. Current Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen's term expires in February. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 02: U.S. President Donald Trump (R) speaks as he announces his nominee for the chairman of the Federal Reserve Jerome Powell during a press event in the Rose Garden at the White House, November 2, 2017 in Washington, DC. Current Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen's term expires in February. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump speaks as he announces his nominee for the chairman of the Fed, Jerome Powell, in 2017. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images) (Drew Angerer via Getty Images)

Trump has also personally criticized Powell in harsh terms, even after elevating Powell in 2017 to his current role.

“The Fed will never be able to credibly lower interest rates,” Trump posted to social media last month, charging that Powell was trying to “protect” Joe Biden.

“We’re always going to do what we think the right thing for the economy,” Powell himself said Wednesday during his brief comments arguing, as he has in the past, that injecting politics into his decision-making process could lead to bad decisions.

“It’s hard enough to get the economics right here,” he said in his response to the question from Politico about whether the election could change the decision about when to cut rates.

Powell has also been facing political pressure from both sides of the aisle.

President Biden has been more circumspect than Trump, his GOP rival, but has proven willing to offer public commentary on Powell. Just last month, Biden repeated a prediction that rate cuts could be in the offing this year in spite of the recent inflation news, adding the new data “may delay it a month or so, I’m not sure of that.”

Powell brief comments Wednesday also included what could be seen as a veiled reference to some of his predecessors in decades past.

Fed historians have often noted that transcripts of Federal Reserve meetings in decades past — from the 1970s through the 2000s — often included a conversation about political considerations.

In one example, politics tarnished the legacy of Arthur Burns. The Austrian-born economist who led the Fed from 1970 to 1978. The central bank’s 10th chairman is often remembered as having been too susceptible to political calls for lower rates.

In another example, the Fed’s conversation around inflation targeting included weighing whether it could be opposed by Democrats.

“If you read FOMC transcripts around inflation targeting, it’s a concern,” said Federal Reserve historian Sarah Binder in a recent interview of those political considerations.

But Powell on Wednesday said historians and reporters won’t be able to find anything similar when they look under the hood of his meetings.

“This is my fourth presidential election here,” he said Wednesday. “Read all the transcripts and see if anybody mentions in any way, the pending election.”

“It just isn’t part of our thinking.”

Ben Werschkul is Washington correspondent for Yahoo Finance.

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