Mnuchin bid to calm markets risks making bad situation worse

US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said on Sunday that he had spoken to the chief executive officers of the nation's six largest banks.
US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said on Sunday that he had spoken to the chief executive officers of the nation's six largest banks.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - United States Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin looked to quash big-bank worries over recent plunging stock markets and reports that President Donald Trump might move on his Federal Reserve chief by reassuring the financial community on Sunday (Dec 23) that market liquidity is in good shape.

Some market participants, however, questioned why Mr Mnuchin answered a question that no one seemed to be asking. By confirming there was ample liquidity to stave off any shocks to the system, was he suggesting that liquidity has in fact become an issue?

Mr Mnuchin tweeted late on Sunday afternoon that he had called the chief executive officers of the nation's six largest banks and that those chiefs "confirmed they have ample liquidity available for lending to consumer, business markets, and all other market operations".

Treasury also said Mr Mnuchin would convene a call on Monday with the President's Working Group on financial markets, sometimes referred to as the "Plunge Protection Team".

Even with US stock markets on the skids for weeks, and the federal government in a partial shutdown since last Saturday, that left many market-watchers wondering whether there is something more systemic going on that they hadn't realised.

"My initial instinct is this isn't necessarily a positive thing because it portrays that there's worries that there is a bigger, broader issue than what I think is just typical re-positioning toward the end of the year," said Mr Nathan Thooft, Manulife Asset Management's head of global asset allocation. "When you see it and investors look at it, I don't think they're going to view it as, 'Oh, this is the saving grace of what's going to cause the catalyst to turn markets around."'

Mr Mnuchin's calls - and announcement of a Monday meeting - capped a chaotic weekend that started with plunging markets and got a jolt from a Bloomberg report that Mr Trump was discussing firing Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell.

Mr Mnuchin issued a statement by Twitter last Saturday evening quoting the president as saying he wouldn't fire Mr Powell and disavowing authority to do so.

A Treasury spokesman said Mr Mnuchin initiated the calls with the bankers because he felt that having conversations with major market participants, as well as holding the Working Group call, was prudent, given considerable market volatility.

 
 
 

The group, which includes officials from the Federal Reserve, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, was created after the 1987 US stock market crash by an executive order signed by President Ronald Reagan.

The group worked overnight during the global financial crisis of 2008 - in October of that year, it issued a statement saying it was taking multiple actions to stabilise the financial system.

But even after recent market losses - the S&P 500 fell 7.1 per cent last week, and the tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite Index entered a bear market - a liquidity squeeze or a fresh financial crisis hadn't been on the market's mind.

"The Secretary of Treasury calling the nation's top bankers on a Sunday to confirm they have cash to lend. Not exactly confidence inspiring," said Mr Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group.

According to the Treasury, the chief executives Mr Mnuchin spoke with on Sunday were: Mr Brian Moynihan of Bank of America; Mr Michael Corbat of Citi; Mr David Solomon of Goldman Sachs; Mr Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase; Mr James Gormanof Morgan Stanley; and Mr Tim Sloan of Wells Fargo.

Spokesmen for Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and Wells Fargo declined to comment.

A spokesman for JPMorgan Chase & Co, the nation's biggest bank, who was contacted before Mr Mnuchin's tweet, also declined to comment. Representatives from Bank of America and Morgan Stanley didn't immediately return requests for comment.