Donald Trump is trying to convince Americans that much of what they hear about the state of the economy — from the unemployment rate to the soaring stock market — is a politically manipulated lie. The GOP nominee’s latest attempt came Monday morning as he suggested on CNBC that Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen was holding interest rates artificially low to aid Democrats. “She's keeping them artificially low to get Obama retired,” Trump said. “It is a very serious problem and I think it is very political. I think she is very political and to a certain extent, I think she should be ashamed of herself.”
The comments came after Trump said in May that Yellen was “very capable” and that he, too, was a “low interest rate person” and that raising rates would be a “disaster.”
Trump’s argument with himself aside, the latest remarks are consistent with his larger theme that the current economy is a sham with artificially inflated stock prices and a cooked unemployment rate that is actually far higher than the official 4.9 percent figure provided by the government.
“We have a very false economy," Trump told Reuters earlier this month. He has also said at various times that the “real” unemployment rate is 42 percent — 10 times the official number — while joblessness among African-America youth is 58 percent (the official figure is 19.2 percent). He often claims the stock market is in a “bubble” that is about to pop with disastrous consequences.
Many analysts say that while the economy does have significant soft spots and stocks may be slightly expensive, current reality bears little resemblance to the wasteland painted by Trump.
“There’s clearly been dramatic improvement after a historic crisis and recession with the unemployment rate cut in half,” said Jim O’Sullivan of High Frequency Economics. “You can quibble with GDP growth and the size of the labor force but to suggest that all these numbers are just made up is insulting to people’s intelligence.”
Democrats and some neutral observers on Monday took sharp issue with Trump’s characterization of Yellen as a political manipulator bent on helping Obama and by extension Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
The Fed prizes its political independence. And, historically, both presidential candidates and those in the Oval Office have refrained from directly commenting on Fed decisions. They have certainly avoided impugning the motives of sitting Fed chairs. But as in other areas, Trump has turned this tradition on its head.
“I have my differences with aspects of Fed policy. But Trump is talking nonsense,” said Larry Summers, a Harvard professor and former Treasury secretary once considered for the top job at the Fed by President Obama. “Janet Yellen is the least political person in Washington. The Fed has been driven in its decision making by the reality that we have been below target inflation for eight years and inflation expectations are falling. That, not politics, explains the Fed's choices.”
The Clinton campaign also fired back at Trump’s CNBC interview, including his comment that you could “make the case” the U.S. could do something to renegotiate current outstanding debt, something he has suggested in the past, terrifying many on Wall Street who fear that fallout from even suggesting that the U.S. would not meet all its debt obligations could be catastrophic.
“While talking down the economy and offering more bizarre conspiracy theories, including one about a ‘false market,’ Donald Trump doubled down on his belief that a case could be made for defaulting on the U.S. debt,” Jacob Leibenluft, senior policy adviser to Clinton, told POLITICO. Leibenluft said Trump’s comments show he is “temperamentally unfit to be trusted with the U.S. economy.” The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment on his CNBC remarks.
Money managers on Monday argued that the Fed, which raised rates in December for the first time in nearly a decade, wants to move to a more normal footing. But limited growth, low inflation and external threats like the “Brexit” vote in the United Kingdom this summer blocked them.
“I don’t think the Fed bases its decisions on political considerations,” said Jim Paulsen, chief investment strategist at Wells Capital Management. “I don’t necessarily agree with them and think they should have moved a long time ago. But it doesn’t have to do with politics, it has to do with different philosophies on what is best for the economy.”
Trump’s general effort to highlight weaknesses in the current economy is a political imperative, especially given his attempt to woo blue-collar voters in the Rust Belt states of Ohio and Pennsylvania, where manufacturing has been weak. An economy near full-employment with wages beginning to rise and growth in the second half of the year expected to pick up clearly favors the Democratic nominee.
But critics of Trump’s approach say he takes a very legitimate case — that the economy could grow much more quickly under a fresh set of policies — and undermines it with conspiracy theories like those about the “real” unemployment rate.
“Don’t believe those phony numbers,” Trump said of government employment figures in February. “When you hear 4.9 and 5 percent unemployment, the number’s probably 28, 29, as high as 35—in fact, I even heard recently 42 percent.” In an economic speech in August, Trump called the 5 percent unemployment rate “one of the biggest hoaxes in American politics.”
Only there is no evidence to support the idea that the employment numbers are a hoax. The numbers are compiled by career professionals at the Bureau of Labor Statistics who are insulated from political influence. The current jobless rate lines up almost exactly with a separate survey conducted by The Conference Board asking people whether jobs are plentiful or hard to get. The numbers correlate now just as they did during previous administrations, suggesting there is no manipulation in the numbers.
And while the headline jobless figure is 4.9 percent, the BLS also maintains a widely cited alternative measure of unemployment that accounts for “discouraged” workers who have largely given up looking.
That figure is now 9.7 percent, down from a recession-high of 17.1 percent in April 2010. The broader measure of unemployment remains slightly elevated but is not much higher than it was before the last recession began.
Trump is on stronger ground when he talks about the labor force participation rate, which is now at just 62.8 percent, down from nearly 66 percent when Obama took office and close to its lowest rate in 30 years.
But instead of focusing tightly on an economic agenda that seeks to address why there are fewer people in the workforce and why those who are working are not seeing the kind of productivity gains common in the past, Trump often gets sidetracked into conspiracy theories that Republicans fear could turn off the relatively high number of currently undecided voters who might otherwise be inclined to try something new.
“You would think you would not need a stronger talking point than that this is the weakest economic recovery since at least World War II and perhaps ever,” said James Pethokoukis, scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “You shouldn’t need to come up with conspiracy theories and exaggerations about economic data. This is all very common now in certain sectors of the right where people believe everything is rigged. But I’m not sure how it plays with undecided voters who probably think it all just sounds profoundly weird.”
Tim Miller, a partner at Definers Public Affairs who worked for Jeb Bush in the GOP primaries, said the Republican nominee's approach to the economy resonates with some deeply disaffected voters but could alienate others.
“The hyperbole and conspiracies and exaggerations create a disconnect with anyone who is not going through severe economic pain,” Miller said. “Now there are people going through severe economic pain and he is doing well with those voters. But with suburban, college-educated voters he is offering nothing. There is a total disconnect with their experience.”