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Trump, economic officials scramble to downplay coronavirus, boost stocks

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  • Mounting fears of the coronavirus’s spread in the US triggered one of the sharpest market sell-offs in recent years.
  • The deep stock losses sparked alarm within the Trump administration and the president is reportedly furious the market tanked over the coronavirus.
  • The colliding assessments from public health officials and the White House threatens a pillar in President Trump’s case for re-election: the booming stock market.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Escalating fears of the coronavirus’s spread in the US sparked one of the biggest sharpest sell-offs in recent years. Across three days this week, the Dow Jones industrial average plunged over 2,000 points and the S&P 500 erased its yearly gains.

The precipitous losses sparked alarm bells within the Trump administration, particularly the president himself. He is furious that the stock market has tanked over the coronavirus, the Washington Post reported. And he was enraged at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for issuing stark warnings that he believed frightened traders and investors.

He’s since said to have pushed aides to hold off on predictions that could cause more market tremors.  And Jared Kushner, Trump’s son in law, is among the advisors counseling him to downplay recent coronavirus developments in public, one official told CNN. Instead, Trump attacked the media for “doing everything possible to make the Caronavirus look as bad as possible, including panicking markets” in a Wednesday tweet.

Later that evening, Trump continued downplaying the threat of the novel coronavirus at a press conference with officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He declared the risks to Americans “very low” and broke with the CDC’s assessment that the spread was “inevitable,” saying it wasn’t.

He tried blaming Democratic presidential candidates for a sharp drop that erased over $2 trillion in wealth and wasted no time predicting a market rally.

“I think the stock market will recover. The economy is very strong,” Trump said.

Warnings from top public health officials urging Americans to prepare for the spread of the virus have collided with the rosy luster the White House tried casting on the situation up to now. And it threatens a pillar in President Trump’s case for re-election: the booming stock market.

Jeremy Konyndyk, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development who oversaw the Obama administration’s response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa as director for foreign disaster assistance at USAID, said the administration’s effort to ward off more steep market losses could still backfire.

“It’s problematic because it sends contradictory and inaccurate risk-messaging,” Konyndyk told Business Insider. “It is telling people that this is not a big deal and they don’t need to do a great deal about it. And he’s doing that to keep the markets calm, but frankly you’re not going to fool the markets forever.”

Konyndyk said the approach could precipitate “a rapid shock” in financial markets.

“You don’t want to look like you weren’t on top of things… If you’ve been saying for a month that this will be contained and it’s under control, then it doesn’t get priced in and then there’s a greater disruption when it does occur,” he said.

The coronavirus has spread to over 40 countries, beyond its point of origin in China and particularly in Europe. The US has 60 confirmed cases so far, though the vast majority of them originated overseas.

Trying to bolster confidence in the stock market

Until Trump assumed office in 2017, presidents rarely weighed in on the market, a fragile realm governed mostly by forces beyond their control.

President Obama only engaged in stock forecasting once at the bottom of the recession in March 2009, and suggested it could be the right time to buy. But it’s not considered a good idea when the chief executive comments on its rise or fall.

“Presidents mostly do not comment on the stock market because of the high risk of later developments making their comments look foolish,” said Austan Goolsbee, the former chair of the Council of Economic Advisors in the Obama administration.

The Trump administration has veered in the opposite direction and sought to boost confidence in the market recently. Larry Kudlow, the National Economic Council director, told the Post on Monday that investors should consider “buying these dips” and to “buy low.”

He later appeared on CNBC and said the coronavirus was “contained” and said it “was pretty close to being airtight.”

The markets responded with a massive sell-off as coronavirus cases surged overseas and heightened concerns it could severely impact global supply chains.

Read more: Goldman Sachs reveals the 10 best stocks to buy now for a market comeback from the coronavirus-driven plunge

The administration also came under fire from both Republicans and Democrats for contradictory statements and lax preparations for a public health emergency. Public health officials also warned Trump’s record of issuing misleading  information posed

Jason Furman, formerly a top economic adviser to President Obama, told Business Insider there “hasn’t been a lot of consistency” in the Trump administration’s coronavirus messaging — and that undercuts their ability to be taken seriously.

“You just don’t know what’s going to happen in the market and your credibility is really important,” Furman said. “The fact is: Donald Trump doesn’t know what’s going to happen to the market nor the spread of the virus, and they need to admit that uncertainty. You have to be able to communicate your uncertainty to the public.”

He emphasized no public official yet knows the extent of the virus’s ability to spread in American communities or the potential damage it could inflict on the economy. And while striking the right tone is difficult, Furman said its better to prepare the public and maintain realistic expectations about an outbreak to better manage it.

“I think [its about] making your optimism and your predictions more about the long run and acknowledging it can get worse before it gets better,” Furman said. “That type of statement is one way to thread the needle between the optimism and the realism.”

He added: “What markets and economic actors need to know is that the government is prepared to act when it needs to.”

Read more: 26 units and $1 million a year: Here’s the ‘supercharged’ real-estate-investing system a former engineer used to flee corporate America in just 3 years time

John Haltiwanger contributed reporting.

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