Trump Abruptly Ends Stimulus Talks After Fed Chair Urges Economic Support
Posted October 6, 2020 10:58 p.m. EDT
Updated October 6, 2020 11:02 p.m. EDT
WASHINGTON — Hours after the Federal Reserve chair, Jerome Powell, warned that the economy could see “tragic” results without robust government support, President Donald Trump abruptly cut off stimulus talks, sending the stock market sliding and delivering a final blow to any chance of getting additional pandemic aid to struggling Americans before the election.
Trump, in his first full day back at the White House after being hospitalized with COVID-19, said in a series of conflicting messages on Twitter that the economy was “doing very well” and “coming back in record numbers,” suggesting that no additional help was needed. But he also tweeted that “immediately after I win, we will pass a major Stimulus Bill that focuses on hardworking Americans and Small Business.”
The prospects for enacting another trillion-dollar package before the election had already been dim. But Trump’s directive carried heavy stakes both for himself and for members of his party, making clear that it was the president himself who was unwilling to continue seeking an agreement. Some Republicans rushed to condemn the move, as they prepared to face voters in less than a month.
Markets fell as the reality sank in that the economic recovery, which is slowing, would not get another jolt anytime soon. The S&P 500, which had begun to climb before Trump’s announcement, slid more than 1% soon afterward, and ended the day 1.4% lower.
The president’s political calculation in calling off talks while negotiations were underway — and while financial markets were open — remained unclear, though Trump said he wanted the Senate to focus on Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation to the Supreme Court.
His tweets came less than an hour before Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Speaker Nancy Pelosi were to resume talks on the phone aimed at hammering out a compromise. Instead, when they did speak, Mnuchin confirmed that Trump had withdrawn from the negotiations, and Pelosi, according to a spokesman, “expressed her disappointment.”
In a letter to her caucus Tuesday, Pelosi called Trump’s decision to pull the plug on the talks “an act of desperation.”
“Today, once again, President Trump showed his true colors: putting himself first at the expense of the country, with the full complicity of the G.O.P. members of Congress,” Pelosi wrote.
Republican leaders said the president’s move was merely a bow to reality. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the majority leader, told reporters on Capitol Hill that Trump’s view of the talks “was that they were not going to produce a result, and we need to concentrate on what’s achievable.”
In deciding to forgo any more immediate relief, the president could be setting the economy up for the type of painful outcome that Powell warned of Tuesday. The Fed chair, who has increasingly called for more government help, said policymakers should err on the side of injecting too much money into the economy rather than too little given how much work remains.
“Too little support would lead to a weak recovery, creating unnecessary hardship for households and businesses,” Powell said in remarks before the National Association for Business Economics.
“Over time, household insolvencies and business bankruptcies would rise, harming the productive capacity of the economy and holding back wage growth,” he said. “By contrast, the risks of overdoing it seem, for now, to be smaller.”
In multiple tweets later Tuesday night, Trump appeared to backtrack his assertion that an agreement would wait until after Nov. 3, at one point urging both chambers to “IMMEDIATELY Approve” reviving a lapsed loan program for small businesses, funds to prevent airlines from furloughing or laying off workers and another round of stimulus checks. It remained unclear if his tweets, which came after stocks plummeted, reflected a willingness to restart negotiations with Pelosi. Both provisions have bipartisan support, but several lawmakers have pushed for them to be included in a broader package.
Nearly seven months into the pandemic, millions of Americans remain unemployed as the coronavirus keeps many service industries operating below capacity. The unemployment rate has fallen more rapidly than many economists expected, dropping to 7.9% in September, and consumer spending is holding up. But the economy’s resilience owes substantially to strong government assistance that has been provided to households and businesses.
That included direct payments to families, forgivable loans to small businesses and an extra $600 per week in unemployment benefits, which Powell said had “muted the normal recessionary dynamics that occur in a downturn,” like lower consumer spending that leads to additional layoffs.
But that assistance has since run dry, putting what Powell called an “incomplete recovery” at risk at a time when he said additional help was likely to be needed. “There is still a long way to go,” he said regarding the labor market, adding that “many will undergo extended periods of unemployment.” Economists said Trump’s decision could set back the recovery by ensuring that millions of unemployed Americans and thousands of struggling small businesses are forced to go months without additional help from the federal government. That could produce a spiral in which weak demand hurts businesses and leads to bankruptcies and foreclosures, prompting more layoffs.
“You are pulling the rug out from underneath this economy at a point where we’re still in the infant stages of this recovery,” said Ryan Sweet, a senior director of economic research at Moody’s Analytics.
Powell’s comments were a clear signal that the Fed remained worried about the economy’s ability to continue its rebound without more government spending. One big risk, he noted, was that prolonged economic weakness could perpetuate job losses that have weighed most heavily on women, people of color and low-wage workers.
“A long period of unnecessarily slow progress could continue to exacerbate existing disparities in our economy,” he said. “That would be tragic, especially in light of our country’s progress on these issues in the years leading up to the pandemic.” Ernie Tedeschi, a policy economist at Evercore ISI, said that while Powell had made similar statements in the past, “this was more urgent.”
“I get the sense that he is getting worried that if we don’t have another fiscal package, that the recovery we’ve had may be in jeopardy,” Tedeschi said.
Negotiators had resumed talks in recent days, but they were still far from an agreement, reflecting months of political incentives that pushed all sides away from a deal. Pelosi and Mnuchin again engaged in hourlong phone calls and were exchanging documents and paperwork in an effort to reach an agreement. But a number of critical issues remained, including how much aid to provide to state and local governments, extra unemployment benefits and the overall size of the package.
The failure to reach a deal had already infuriated rank-and-file lawmakers, who were largely excluded from talks and faced with the prospect of going home to campaign without the promise of relief. Trump’s decision to withdraw from negotiations prompted immediate, bipartisan backlash.
“Waiting until after the election to reach an agreement on the next COVID-19 relief package is a huge mistake,” Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who is facing her toughest reelection bid, said in a statement.
“I disagree with the President,” Rep. John Katko, a moderate Republican from New York, said on Twitter. “With lives at stake, we cannot afford to stop negotiations on a relief package.”
Rep. Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, a moderate Democrat who joined a bipartisan group of lawmakers in pushing for an agreement, said in a statement that “I cannot understand why the president would halt negotiations until after the election except in a cynical move to secure votes.”
“Doing so does not serve the needs of the Michigan families and our small businesses,” she added. “It places himself above the needs of the country, and it’s out of step with the mission of government, which is to help in moments of crisis.”
Republicans had argued that Pelosi, who pushed a $3.4 trillion package through the House in May and then muscled through a $2.2 trillion package last week, had pushed for unrelated “poison pills” that she knew Republicans could not support. But it was never clear that Republicans would have supported any deal. In recent days, as Mnuchin proposed a $1.6 trillion plan, lawmakers and aides in the Senate warned that a majority of Republicans would not support such a large price tag.
Top Trump administration officials have played down the need for another big fiscal package by pointing to the falling unemployment rate as a sign that the economy is experiencing a rapid rebound. And many Republican lawmakers have begun publicly fretting about the ballooning federal deficit, which is expected to top $3 trillion this year.
The Fed chair did not weigh in on what type or amount of aid was appropriate. But Powell, who has a long track record of worrying about the federal debt, has tried to convince lawmakers that “this is not the time to give priority to those concerns.”
Instead, he has reiterated time and again the importance of returning the economy to full strength, and that both the Fed and Congress need to continue to provide help.
“This will be the work of all of government,” Powell said. “The recovery will be stronger and move faster if monetary policy and fiscal policy continue to work side by side to provide support to the economy until it is clearly out of the woods.” The Fed itself has gone to great lengths to support the economy, cutting interest rates to near-zero in March, rolling out a large bond-buying program and setting up emergency lending efforts, many of them backed by Treasury Department funding.
While the Fed invoked its emergency powers in the 2008 recession, it has gone even further this time, buying municipal debt and corporate bonds to shore up key markets.
But Powell, along with many of his Fed colleagues, have made clear that monetary and fiscal policy can do only so much to buttress the economy and that the recovery will be determined in large part by the path of the virus.
Powell, whose institution is set up to operate independently of the White House, was unambiguous in recommending a solution, one that contrasts with the message and example that have at times been held out by the Trump administration.
“We should continue do what we can to manage downside risks to the outlook,” Powell said, adding that doing so required “following medical experts’ guidance, including using masks and social-distancing measures.”