Former Wells Fargo CEO argues markets would be down more if Fed didn't hike this month

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The stock market would be down even further if the Federal Reserve chose not to raise interest rates last week, former Wells Fargo CEO Richard Kovacevich contended Wednesday.

The absence of a December hike would have signaled to the market that monetary policy is being determined by President Donald Trump, who has been critical of the central bank’s policies, said Kovacevich. “And I can’t think of a greater risk to our economy if that were the case,” he said in an interview with CNBC’s “Squawk on the Street.”

The Fed last week raised rates, despite warnings from Trump, and lowered its rate hike projection for 2019 from three to two. That eventually led to a stock sell-off, which caused the the Dow Jones Industrial Average and Nasdaq last week to see their biggest weekly losses in more than 10 years. The S&P 500 had its worst week since August 2011. The market rout spilled over into the following week with Wall Street seeing its worst Christmas Eve trading session ever.

As of Monday’s close, the S&P 500 is in bear market territory. (A “bear market” is when stocks see a 20 percent decline or more from a recent high.)

But Kovacevich, who was CEO of the third-largest U.S. bank for nearly a decade, argued that the sell-off is actually more of a “Trump slump.” He said markets are down because of the president’s latest conflicts, including the partial government shutdown, trade and reports he was considering firing Fed Chief Jerome Powell.

Other Wall Street veterans, including widely followed economist Mohamed El-Erian and UBS’ Art Cashin, have argued Powell was forced to go through with a fourth rate hike this year due to the risk of appearing politically coerced.

Trump has repeatedly expressed frustration with the Fed’s moves to raise rates this year, arguing the central bank could disrupt the U.S. economic recovery.

However, Powell denied last week that the Fed’s decision-making has been influenced by any political pressure.

Looking to 2019, Kovacevich reiterated Wednesday that he anticipates the two interest rate hikes — in March and June. He then expects the Fed to pause for about six months to see what happens.

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