Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin offered a defense of the Federal Reserve’s interest-rate outlook, suggesting investors have put too much weight on the likelihood of further hikes and pointing to Fed signals that the tightening may be nearly finished.
“I think the market reaction is completely overblown,” Mnuchin said Thursday in an interview with Fox Business Network, following the prior day’s Fed action and press conference by Chairman Jerome Powell. “I think that the market was disappointed in the chairman’s comments.”
The Fed announced a widely anticipated rate hike on Wednesday and Powell signaled he’ll be more cautious about tightening next year. It was a day of mixed messages that failed to ease investor concern that the central bank is making a policy mistake. U.S. equities recorded their steepest declines for any Federal Open Market Committee announcement day since 2011, with the sell-off extending into Thursday as the threat of a government shutdown increased.
Criticism of the Fed’s messaging has come from both ends of the political spectrum. Former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, in a tweet earlier Thursday, said the monetary authority “is taking needless risks with the economy. Neither price nor financial stability required yesterday’s actions.” Conservative television and radio host Laura Ingraham tweeted “no inflation in sight, prices stable, strong underlying fundamentals, STUPID Federal Reserve.”
While declining to say whether he agrees with the Fed view that two rate hikes will likely be needed, Mnuchin said that if inflation remains low, the rate path for next year might change. He highlighted parts of the Fed’s communications that suggest it will go more slowly in deciding whether or not to raise rates.
“You can’t just look at the headline which was two more rate hikes. You have to look at 17 dots on the dot plot,” Mnuchin said, referring to the chart that displays each policy maker’s rate-path expectations. “The high end of the range came down significantly and there is still a fairly wide dispersion,” indicating some Fed officials “think they don’t need to raise rates much here,” the secretary said.
The Fed has said it’s “close to done” and its decisions will be data dependent, while U.S. equities remain “a tremendous value,” Mnuchin said. He partly blamed programmed trading for exaggerated moves in the market.
Mnuchin also played down concerns that the Fed’s strategy of gradually letting its balance sheet shrink was hurting bond market liquidity and suggested this could allow them to use it as a policy tool again if needed.
“The good thing about them downsizing the balance sheet now is it gives them capacity if they need to do something later in the year or next year,” he said. “And I think we’re comfortable with the supply and don’t see that as really as big of an issue as the market seems to be focused on.’’
Powell on Wednesday reaffirmed that the central bank will press ahead with its plan to reduce its $4.1 trillion in bond holdings. Some analysts had hoped that recent stock-market turbulence might convince the Fed to halt the program, which, like rate hikes, acts to tighten credit.