WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump may get the Federal Reserve interest rate-hike pause he wants as his attacks on the Fed and the government shutdown roil stock markets and shave 2019 forecasts for economic growth.
The S&P 500 fell 2.7 percent on Christmas Eve, bringing U.S. stocks to the brink of a bear market after a drop of almost 20 percent from a September peak. Shares rallied Wednesday, snapping a four-day losing streak.
The latest drop came after Bloomberg News reported Dec. 21 that the president had discussed firing Fed Chairman Jerome Powell following the central bank’s Dec. 19 decision to lift interest rates for the fourth time this year.
Fed officials accompanied the hike with a signal they would likely slow the pace of increases in 2019. Still, they offered a strong economic forecast, penciling in 2.3 percent growth for next year, according to their median estimate. They also said they expect the jobless rate would average 3.5 percent in the final three months of next year. The forecast still justified two more rate increases in 2019, they said.
That outlook, however, is likely to be tempered by market volatility as falling stocks hurt consumption by reducing household wealth. Business confidence is damaged as volatility rises, the cost of capital increases, and uncertainty over government policies — be it a trade war or an assault on the Fed — forestalls investment.
Julia Coronado, founder of Macropolicy Perspectives in New York, said the stock plunge is likely to lower 2019 growth forecasts and possibly push any further Fed rate hike into the second half of that year.
“The shaken confidence that this market correction reflects is very likely going to affect investment and hiring,” she said.
Former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers signaled more alarm Wednesday, tweeting that the probability of a recession in his view had jumped to 60 percent from “a bit less than 50 percent” before December. He offered no explanation for the basis of his estimate.
Other economists, however, were still not convinced the market had crossed into territory that would force the Fed to signal an immediate halt to further rate moves.
“The Fed’s threshold for reacting to these types of things is really, really high,” said Thomas Simons, a senior economist at Jefferies LLC in New York, because the central bank wants to avoid giving investors the impression it will come to their rescue if shares plunge. “You really have to go back to 1987 to find a time when the stock market influenced monetary policy significantly.”
Also, Simons said, technical factors — including sell orders driven by tax considerations and low year-end volume — could be exaggerating the dive in stocks. “The first couple weeks of January will be telling as to whether this selling in December was technically related or actually fundamentally based,” he said.