Treasury secretary startles Wall Street with unusual calls to top bank CEOs

Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin
(Evan Vucci / Associated Press)
Washington Post

Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin startled financial analysts, bankers and economists Sunday by issuing an unusual statement declaring that the nation’s six largest banks had ample credit to extend to American businesses and households.

Mnuchin made the statement on Twitter after calling the leaders of the six banks, seeking to address an issue that had attracted little concern ahead of the Treasury secretary’s tweet.

The statement came hours before Asian markets were set to open and after a sharp sell-off that made last week the worst for U.S. markets in a decade. President Trump has been furious at the sell-off, and efforts by Mnuchin to inspire confidence in the market have so far failed.


Several analysts said Sunday night that his outreach to the banks and subsequent statement were likely to backfire and drive even more concern.

“Panic feeds panic, and this looks like panic in the administration,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist at Grant Thornton. “Suggesting you might know something that no one else is worried about creates more unease.”

There are many components in the economy and financial markets, and they don’t always move in tandem. For example, a sliding stock market does not necessarily mean there are problems in the banking system. And there can be problems in the banking system that aren’t reflected in the stock market’s performance.

In Mnuchin’s statement, which was posted while he was vacationing in Mexico for the holidays, the Treasury chief said the chief executives told him they “have ample liquidity available for lending to consumer, business markets and all other market operations,” according to the Treasury statement. Mnuchin said the CEOs added “that they have not experienced any clearance or margin issues and that the markets continue to function properly.”

The banks did not independently verify Mnuchin’s characterizations of the discussion.

The message came after a week in which many U.S. the stock market sectors were down 20% from their peak. The market decline has raised concerns about whether the economy is slowing faster than widely appreciated, and Trump has put enormous pressure on Mnuchin to try to stop the slide, people briefed on the discussions said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the topic’s sensitivity.


Trump’s anger at the stock market’s sharp drop has been directed at numerous people. The Washington Post and other outlets reported Saturday that Trump has discussed whether he could fire Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome H. Powell, who has steadily raised interest rates this year despite howls from the president.

Mnuchin tried to squash those reports later Saturday by tweeting — in Trump’s words — that there were not discussions around removing the Fed chief and that the president would not seek to do so.

Trump is ensnared in one of the most challenging periods of his presidency, and the stock market’s fall has stolen one of his favorite talking points. A partial government shutdown began Saturday morning. Several of his Cabinet officials have departed. At least two people withdrew from consideration to become his next chief of staff, and Democrats have balked at giving him money to build a wall on the Mexico border.

Mnuchin had enjoyed a relatively close relationship with Trump until recent months. Trump has blamed Mnuchin for recommending Powell to the Fed job, and Trump has also fumed at Mnuchin over the stock market’s poor performance this year.

Two Trump advisors, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the calls would stoke unnecessary alarm. “No one thought we were at crisis level,” one of these people said. “It’s going to create more of an issue than we had already.”

Mnuchin and the president had a call on Saturday to talk about how to reassure the markets. Aides said that Trump knew the Powell story hurt the markets but that he did not want to defend Powell. So he told Mnuchin to put out a statement.

“Trump is [angry] at him because Powell was his pick. And he thinks Mnuchin is doing a bad job on the economy,” said one of the advisors, who suggested Mnuchin’s fate could be perilous.

Trump has been obsessed with the stock market’s performance, asking aides and advisors what could turn the trend around. He has, for now, resorted to blaming publicly and privately the government’s top economic figures. One senior administration official said Powell was “not quite at Jeff Sessions level but is getting close,” referring to the former attorney general who was frequently berated and second-guessed by the president.

“He says that Powell is going to make him a one-term president,” the senior administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss Trump’s internal complaints.

It is normal for the Treasury secretary to speak with banking executives and exchange thoughts about the economy. It happens multiple times a year in various settings. But what was different about the statement on Sunday was that it came two days before Christmas, during a government shutdown, and addressed an issue that few had even thought merited concern — access to credit.

As a result, several analysts warned that the outreach to banks could end up generating deeper anxiety. A decade ago, financial firms sharply pulled back from lending amid a financial panic, and federal officials frequently took action on Sundays as a way to try to arrest unease before Asian markets opened. But no signs have emerged of banks facing serious problems today.

“It’s going to raise the question of whether Treasury and Mnuchin know something the markets don’t,” said Brian Gardner, Washington research director at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, an investment banking firm. “Without clarifying further, it’s going to weigh on the markets.”

Mnuchin hasn’t had to deal with a full-fledged crisis or market crash since taking over last year, and his move Sunday didn’t mirror steps taken during similar economic environments.

“If this weren’t the end of December, I would have thought it was April Fools,” said Jared Bernstein, former chief economist to then-Vice President Joe Biden. “The markets are already nervous enough. It’s like sending out a message saying our space shields can intercept incoming asteroids. Uh, I didn’t know there were any coming our way.”

Two executives at top banks, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to reveal contents of the call, said the discussions were arranged by the Treasury Department and not because bankers were worried.

The statement from Mnuchin was his latest attempt to address the factors buffeting the stock market. Late last week he said the stock market sell-off following the Federal Reserve’s decision to raise its benchmark interest rate a quarter-point “is completely overblown.” But markets still sold off the next day.

Then on Saturday, he issued the unusual statement, purporting to be on behalf of Trump, saying the president did not plan to fire Powell.

U.S. markets are open for a half-day on Monday, are closed Tuesday and then are open several more days in 2018.

A number of factors have driven down the stock market recently, according to analysts, including concerns about global economic growth slowing, the Fed’s interest rate hikes and Trump’s confrontational trade policies.

“There is no credit crunch now,” said Phillip Swagel, who helped fight the financial crisis of 2008 as a top official in President George W. Bush’s Treasury Department. “The problem is investor uncertainty extending from the building next door to the Treasury,” he added, referring to the White House.

In his Sunday statement, Mnuchin also said he would convene a call of the president’s working group on financial markets Monday — Christmas Eve — including the Fed, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Commodity Futures Trade Commission.

“We continue to see strong economic growth in the U.S. economy with robust activity from consumers and businesses,” Mnuchin said in his statement. “With the government shutdown, Treasury will have critical employees to maintain its core operations at Fiscal Services, IRS and other critical functions within the government.”

Paletta and Dawsey write for the Washington Post.