Sunday, September 8, 2019

Why Donald Trump Can't Stop a Recession

A recession may be on the horizon.  The Federal Reserve doesn't think so.  Some others do.  Only time will tell who is right.  But if there is a recession, President Trump can't stop it before the 2020 election. 

The principal tool for the President to fight a recession would be to partner with Congress and put together a package of spending bills that would increase federal expenditures.  This sort of program, called fiscal policy, sometimes includes tax cuts, but not always.  The greatest fiscal stimulus in U.S. history, military spending for World War II, included a massive tax increase and an even greater increase in deficit spending.  The result was both victory in the war and an economic revival at home. 

Today, however, there is an almost complete absence of agreement between the President and the Democrats in the House as to how to deploy fiscal policy.  Although both sides speak of infrastructure spending, agreement on the fine points and details has remained elusive since the President was inaugurated and won't be achieved before November 2020.  For more than the past 20 years, the federal budgetary process has been largely dysfunctional, and it has grown more so as political divisiveness has increased.  With only one full budget cycle remaining before the election, it's simply too late to implement fiscal measures in time.

To make things worse, the President would likely seek a tax cut as part of the stimulus package.  But, having alienated the Democrats by ramrodding through the 2017 tax cuts with nary a shred of consideration for Democratic views, the President has essentially no good will left with the House majority when it comes to tax policy.  The Democrats will agree to tax changes only if there is a substantial rollback of the 2017 cornucopia of tax cuts for the wealthy, and the President won't agree to that.  So no deal on tax legislation is possible.

Of course, central banks can endeavor to combat recessions.  But the President does not control central bank policy.  Monetary policy and other economic management measures such as quantitative easing and the setting of bank reserves lie within the purview of the Federal Reserve.  The President attempts to influence the Fed with shrill demands on Twitter for much more aggressive interest rate cuts than the Fed seems inclined to make.  But the Fed strives to maintain its independence, and the President would be wise to back off.  If the financial markets lose confidence in the independence and integrity of the Federal Reserve, stocks will crater and the economy will get a tummy ache.   Moreover, Fed interest rate adjustments often take 18 months or longer to affect the economy.  Although they may almost instantaneously be reflected in asset prices in the financial markets, they take a long time to wend their way through the processes of the economy.  There isn't enough time before November 2020 for interest rate cuts to have a big impact. 

The prospects for a recession remain uncertain.  Unemployment is at a 50-year low, a remarkable development that no doubt informs the Fed view of the economy.  The stock market is dancing near its all-time highs.  Transportation and manufacturing are slowing, and the business community is pulling back on new investment because of confusion and caution arising from President Trump's trade wars.  It's difficult to tell how things will go.  But if a recession is coming, it's coming.

No comments: