Typically, U.S. Presidents are wary of claiming stock market performance as a referendum on their success. Most have seemed to understand that taking credit also means accepting blame, and no one would want to make the tortured argument that the positive moves reflect well on their presidency but that the negative moves do not. But Donald Trump has shown no reluctance to make any argument that suits his political purpose of the day, no matter its absurdity, and no matter if he has to contradict the arguments he made last year, or last week. Perhaps he assumes, as most investors seem to, that the risks are minimal because the Federal Reserve will jump in to save the markets if things turn bad. But in binding his performance so closely to the markets he overlooks the possibility that the Fed will be far less charitable to him than it was to Obama.
The Federal Reserve’s Quantitative Easing program, which lasted from the end of 2008 to October 2014, was specifically intended to push up asset prices by lowering long-term interest rates and reducing financial risk. This provides a good explanation why the stock market gained nearly 200% from the bottom in March 2009 to October 2014 despite the fact that the U.S. economy persistently performed below expectations during that time.
Many people, myself included, argued that once the stimulus was removed stock prices would have to fall. Two and a half years later that has yet to occur. Although U.S. stocks are no longer rocketing upwards like they were during the QE era (the S&P 500 is up just 19% since the program wound down completely in November 2014), they have yet to experience any type of meaningful correction. Certainly market observers sense danger, but with the Federal Reserve cavalry always ready to ride to the rescue (as they did in January of 2016), markets have been free to drift upward.
Right up until his election, Trump argued, correctly in my view, that statistics suggesting economic strength, such as the employment or GDP reports, were fake news designed to hide the truth of a faltering Obama economy. He similarly argued, also correctly in my view, that stock market gains were evidence of a “big, fat, ugly bubble” created by the Fed in order to bail out Obama’s bad economic policies. But the day after the election, all that changed. Now he claims that the very same statistics (which haven’t moved much over the past year) are proof of his success. Gone are the claims that employment and GDP reports are fakes. Similarly, he has fully embraced the 18% rally on Wall Street since right before his election as proof of his deft economic stewardship. The fact that he is placing his own neck clearly on the chopping block does not seem to deter him at all.
The President’s gambit does present the Federal Reserve with a huge opportunity to exert political power. There can be little doubt that Trump does not enjoy tremendous support from the members of the Fed’s Open Market Committee, who are generally drawn from the center to the center-left of the economic spectrum. Most members, including Chairwoman Yellen herself, are products of the academic world, where wonkish devotion to theory and mild-mannered communications style are the ideals. Trump is the opposite of this profile, and may be the kind of leader who they are pre-programmed to dislike. The fact that Trump has openly vowed to replace Yellen next year likely adds to the bad blood.
This was not the case with Obama for whom the Fed was much more inclined to give breathing room. In fact, even Ben Bernanke later admitted that his optimistic assessments of the U.S. economy, and his dismissal of the housing and mortgage risks leading up to the Crisis of 2008, resulted from his perception that he was speaking as a member of the Bush Administration (he was a Bush appointee), and should therefore not undercut the optimistic narrative put out by the White House. I seriously doubt Janet Yellen fancies herself a member of Team Trump.