Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin tried to soothe fears President Donald Trump is trying to sway the Federal Reserve’s plans to raise interest rates this year.
“The administration completely supports the Fed’s independence,” Mnuchin told reporters Saturday at the start of the G-20 meeting of finance ministers and central bank presidents in Buenos Aires. “Where the Fed ends up on interest rates is one, completely up to them, and [two], is also dependent upon what happens to the economy.”
Trump broke with protocol this week by criticizing the Fed’s planned interest rate hikes. He tweeted Friday that higher interest rates are taking away America’s competitive edge with China. On Thursday, he complained that higher rates were undoing his administration’s efforts to help the economy.
“I don’t like all of this work that we’re putting into the economy and then I see rates going up,” Trump said in an interview with CNBC. “Tightening now hurts all that we have done.”
Mnuchin said he didn’t think it was “a mistake” for the president to weigh in on the Fed’s policy decisions, noting Trump watches interest rates closely because of his background as a real estate developer.
Trump’s comments were not intended “in any way to put pressure on the Fed” to keep rates low, Mnuchin said.
Trump’s broadside of the Fed was a sharp departure from a long-standing White House tradition of refraining from commenting on the central bank’s interest-rate setting policies. Such remarks risk putting the Fed’s independence into question and raises doubts whether future rate decisions will have been influenced by Trump.
The Fed has been carefully and gradually raising rates over the past several years to keep inflation in check and to prevent the economy from overheating.
The central bank has penciled in two more rate hikes this year and three more in 2019 as it continues to see strength in the economy.
As Treasury secretary, Mnuchin routinely meets with current Fed Chairman Jerome Powell, a Trump appointee who is also attending this weekend’s G-20 meeting.
He said he has not spoken with him since the president’s comments.
“There was no need for me to call him to reassure him,” said Mnuchin. “He understands that the Fed is independent.”
In an interview earlier this month with American Public Radio’s “Marketplace,” Powell said “nothing has been said to me publicly or privately that gives me concern about our independence.” “We do our work in a strictly nonpolitical way, based on detailed analysis, which we put on the record transparently.”
Mnuchin is meeting with counterparts from the world’s 20 biggest economies amid criticism from US allies and major trading partners about the Trump administration’s trade policies.
Trump on Friday lashed out at China and the European Union, saying they manipulate their currencies and keep their interest rates low, putting the United States at a disadvantage. The US dollar has been climbing against other major currencies.
“The U.S. is raising rates while the dollars gets stronger and stronger with each passing day - taking away our big competitive edge,” he tweeted.
The dollar dipped on Trump’s comments.
Mnuchin tried to dispel the idea that the president’s comments on the US dollar was meant as an intervention.
“We do not intervene,” said Mnuchin. “We do not manage our currency.”
The Treasury secretary has reiterated his support for a strong dollar in the longer-term, but said where it stands in the short term is “not a concern of mine.” “This is not in any way the president trying to intervene in the currency markets,” he said.
The president’s remarks about the European Union and China contradicted a twice-yearly report by the Treasury Department, which didn’t name any country a currency manipulator when it was last released in April.
Economics textbooks teach that a weaker currency can be a boon for growth because it makes a country’s exports more competitive – cheaper to buy. It can also reduce the trade deficit, a long-stated policy goal of the Trump administration.
But a weaker dollar can also undermine confidence in other US assets, including bonds.