How Trump Bailed Out Janet Yellen and the Federal Reserve — For Now

By: Tho Bishop
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The biggest winners of the Trump Presidency is also the most surprising: Federal Reserve Chairman Janet Yellen.

After all, Yellen was a constant target for criticism by Candidate Trump, going so far as to accuse her of being “more political than Hillary Clinton.” Beyond Mr. Trump’s barbed rhetoric, pundits such as Paul Krugman predicted that Trump’s ascendency would be disastrous for the US economy and the stock market in general, which would have wiped out the modest recovery that Yellen’s legacy depends on.

Almost a year after Trump’s election, the world looks quite different. Not only has Wall Street toasted the Donald’s victory, but the president continues to keep open the possibility of re-nominating Janet Yellen for a second term. Of course, given Trump’s surprisingly strong understanding of how current Fed-policy was a positive for the Administration, perhaps this reversal should have been as predictable as Paul Krugman being wrong.

For Yellen, more important than Trump’s willingness to compliment her performance is what his presidency has done for the reputation of the Fed. Prior to this year, the Fed has been constantly forced to backtrack on planned interest rate hikes and downplay talk of balance sheet normalization due to economic stagnation.

For example, in 2016 the Fed was only able to hit one of its projected four interest rates hikes during the year, and that one came after the market surged following Trump’s election. Still, many traders were skeptical of the Fed’s forecast of three interest rates hikes.  Earlier in the year, Yellen was even forced to admit that forward guidance, a communication tool that was favored by Ben Bernanke, no longer worked because people simply stopped taking the Fed’s projections seriously.

2017 has been a better one for those in the Eccles Building. The Fed is on schedule with its rate hikes and feels comfortable enough following through on its plans to slowly – very, very slowly – unravel its balance sheets that ballooned from various rounds of quantitative easing. While we are still years away from anything resembling normal pre-crisis monetary policy, at least the Fed has been able to make the appearance of trying to get there for the first time since 2008. 

Why the change?

Well in spite of Trump Administration’s public frustrations in achieving legislative victories, it has seen success at one of the stated goals of former strategist Steve Bannon: the (partial) deconstruction of administrative state.

As the Completive Enterprise Institute reported earlier this month, the Federal Register now stands at 45,678 pages – less than half of the 97,110 pages that existed during the Obama Administration. While that is still an extraordinary amount of government red tape (the equivalent of over 50 copies of Human Action), it is a significant step in unraveling one of the most underreported disasters of the Barack Obama’s tenure in DC. Further, executive orders made during Trump’s first weeks in office required agencies to eliminate rules prior to writing new ones, which has helped stymie the rate in which new rules are being written.

Not only has this led to saving tens of billions in regulatory compliance cost, but — coupled with continued hope for tax reform — it has been a major boon to business confidence.  IECONOMICS finds business confidence at the highest it's been in 10 years.

Data: United States Business Confidence provided by IECONOMICS

Meanwhile, NFIB has finally found recovery from post-crisis lows.

Data: NFIB Small Business Trends Survey, September

In short, Trump hasn’t needed Congress to do some real good for economic activity  — he just needed to not govern like Barack Obama. 

The results from this renewed optimism in America’s economic landscape has been increased investment and employment – which have been routinely referenced by the Fed this year while announcing their policy decisions, over the objections of Minneapolis Fed Chair Neel Kashkari and other more dovish critics.  

To their credit, in spite of their toxic advocacy for even easier-monetary policy, there is substance in Kashkari’s criticism. In spite of increased business confidence – itself partially grounded on inadequate tax reform that quite possibly may not come to fruition – wages outside of the financial sector and technology still lag – in no small part due to consequences of the very monetary policy hyper-doves are advocating. Meanwhile, while reduction of the regulatory code is a very important step, nothing has been done to address other systemic issues, such as Washington’s complete inability to curb its hedonistic addiction to debt – that too being subsidized by the Federal Reserve’s own policies. Not to mention the ever looming threat of a trade war being just a tweet away. And, of course, these gains have all been assisted directly by the Fed's accommodative monetary policy  – a bubble is still a bubble, even if the resulting boom is a historically modest one.

In spite of these very real dangers to the US economy, it’s understandable why the economy is second only to his IQ in topics he enjoys bragging about.  As such, with reports swirling that he will soon be making an announcement about next year’s Fed chair announcement, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Trump maintain the status quo re-nominate Janet Yellen. After all, it's one thing to attack the swamp from the outside, but quite another when you're in charge. Trump's campaign rhetoric made it clear that he understands what will happen when the Fed truly changes course, he's not going to want to be there when that "big fat bubble" pops.