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    Fed Minutes Show Officials Were Wary About Inflation at May Meeting

    Federal Reserve policymakers were still willing to raise rates if the economy surprised them, notes from their most recent meeting suggested.Federal Reserve officials were wary about the recent lack of progress on inflation and remained willing to lift interest rates if conditions made it necessary as of their two-day meeting that ended on May 1.Minutes from the gathering, released Wednesday, showed that “many” officials expressed uncertainty about how much today’s interest-rate setting — 5.3 percent, up sharply from near zero in early 2022 — was weighing on the economy.Officials have been clear that they expect to leave interest rates unchanged for now, hoping that they are tapping the brakes on economic growth enough to quash inflation over time. And central bankers have repeatedly emphasized that they expect the next move on interest rates to be a reduction, not an increase.But policymakers have stopped short of ruling out a future rate increase, allowing that it’s a possibility if inflation proves surprisingly rapid. The minutes underscored that caveat.“Various participants mentioned a willingness to tighten policy further” if needed, the release showed.Stock indexes fell after the release of the minutes, as investors fretted that the Fed’s wariness about inflation could keep interest rates higher.Fed officials have received some comforting news since their last gathering: Inflation cooled slightly in April, a sign that the surprisingly stubborn price pressures at the beginning of the year will not necessarily become a permanent trend. Policymakers have continued to emphasize that they are happy to keep interest rates at today’s levels for an extended period as they wait to make sure that price increases are fully decelerating.“We’re just going to need to accumulate more information,” Loretta Mester, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, said in an interview this week at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta’s Financial Markets Conference in Florida. She noted that improvements to supply chains lowered inflation quite a bit last year and said that was unlikely to repeat itself this year.When it comes to stamping out price increases enough to lower rates, “I do think it’s going to take longer than I had thought,” Susan Collins, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, said in an interview, also in Florida. “I think policy is restrictive, but I think it’s only moderately restrictive.” More

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    Rent Is Harder to Handle and Inflation Is a Burden, a Fed Financial Survey Finds

    The Federal Reserve’s 2023 survey on household financial well-being found Americans excelling in the job market but struggling with prices.American households struggled to cover some day-to-day expenses in 2023, including rent, and many remained glum about inflation even as price increases slowed.That’s one of several takeaways from a new Federal Reserve report on the financial well-being of American households. The report suggested that American households remained in similar financial shape to 2022 — but its details also provided a split screen view of the U.S. economy.On the one hand, households feel good about their job and wage growth prospects and are saving for retirement, evidence that the benefits of very low unemployment and rapid hiring are tangible. And about 72 percent of adults reported either doing OK or living comfortably financially, in line with 73 percent the year before.But that optimistic share is down from 78 percent in 2021, when households had just benefited from repeated pandemic stimulus checks. And signs of financial stress tied to higher prices lingered, and in some cases intensified, just under the report’s surface.Inflation cooled notably over the course of 2023, falling to 3.4 percent at the end of the year from 6.5 percent going into the year. Yet 65 percent of adults said that price changes had made their financial situation worse. People with lower income were much more likely to report that strain: Ninety-six percent of people making less than $25,000 said that their situations had been made worse.Renters also reported increasing challenges in keeping up with their bills. The report showed that 19 percent of renters reported being behind on their rent at some point in the year, up two percentage points from 2022.We are having trouble retrieving the article content.Please enable JavaScript in your browser settings.Thank you for your patience while we verify access. If you are in Reader mode please exit and log into your Times account, or subscribe for all of The Times.Thank you for your patience while we verify access.Already a subscriber? Log in.Want all of The Times? Subscribe. More

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    Fed Chair’s Confidence in Slowing Inflation Is ‘Not as High’ as Before

    Jerome H. Powell, the Federal Reserve chair, said the central bank was poised to leave interest rates on hold after surprisingly stubborn inflation.Jerome H. Powell, the Federal Reserve chair, reiterated Tuesday that policymakers were poised to hold interest rates steady at a high level as they waited for evidence that inflation is slowing further.Fed officials entered 2024 expecting to make interest rate cuts, having lifted borrowing costs sharply to a more than two-decade high of 5.3 percent between 2022 and the middle of last year. But stubbornly rapid inflation in recent months has upended that plan.Central bankers have been clear that rate cuts this year are still possible, but they have also signaled that they are planning to leave interest rates on hold for now as they wait to make sure that inflation is genuinely coming under control.Speaking during a panel discussion in Amsterdam, Mr. Powell said officials had been surprised by recent inflation readings. The Consumer Price Index inflation measure, which is set for release on Wednesday, came down rapidly in 2023 but has gotten stuck above 3 percent this year. The Fed’s preferred measure, the Personal Consumption Expenditures index, is slightly cooler, but it, too, remains well above the Fed’s 2 percent inflation goal.“We did not expect this to be a smooth road, but these were higher than I think anybody expected,” Mr. Powell said on Tuesday of recent inflation readings. “What that has told us is that we will need to be patient and let restrictive policy do its work.”Mr. Powell said that he expected continued growth and a strong labor market in the months ahead, and that he believed inflation would begin to slow again.We are having trouble retrieving the article content.Please enable JavaScript in your browser settings.Thank you for your patience while we verify access. If you are in Reader mode please exit and log into your Times account, or subscribe for all of The Times.Thank you for your patience while we verify access.Already a subscriber? Log in.Want all of The Times? Subscribe. More

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    Why Higher Fed Rates Are Not Totally Off the Table

    Fed officials still think their next move will be to cut rates, but they are not entirely ruling out the possibility that they might have to raise them.Investors do not expect the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates again, and officials have made it clear that they see further increases as unlikely. But one important takeaway from recent Fed commentary is that unlikely and inconceivable are not the same thing.After the central bank held rates steady at 5.3 percent last week, the Fed’s chair, Jerome H. Powell, delivered a news conference where what he didn’t say mattered.Asked whether officials might raise interest rates again, he said he thought they probably would not — but he also avoided fully ruling out the possibility. And when asked, twice, whether he thought rates were high enough to bring inflation fully under control, he twice tiptoed around the question.“We believe it is restrictive, and we believe over time it will be sufficiently restrictive,” Mr. Powell said, but he tacked on a critical caveat: “That will be a question that the data will have to answer.”There was a message in that dodge. While officials are most inclined to keep interest rates at their current levels for a long time in order to tame inflation, policymakers could be open to higher interest rates if inflation were to pick back up. And Fed officials have made that clear in interviews and public comments over the past several days.Neel Kashkari, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, said on Tuesday that he was wary about a scenario in which inflation gets stuck at its current level, and hinted that it was possible that rates could rise more.We are having trouble retrieving the article content.Please enable JavaScript in your browser settings.Thank you for your patience while we verify access. If you are in Reader mode please exit and log into your Times account, or subscribe for all of The Times.Thank you for your patience while we verify access.Already a subscriber? Log in.Want all of The Times? Subscribe. More

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    How 401(k) Drives Inequality

    Jen Forbus turned 50 this year. She is in good health and says her life has only gotten better as she has grown older. Forbus resides in Lorain, Ohio, not far from Cleveland; she is single and has no children, but her parents and sisters are nearby. She works, remotely, as an editorial supervisor for an educational publishing company, a job that she loves. She is on track to pay off her mortgage in the next 10 years, and having recently made her last car payment, she is otherwise debt-free. By almost any measure, Forbus is middle class. Listen to this article, read by Malcolm HillgartnerStill, she worries about her future. Forbus would like to stop working when she is 65. She has no big retirement dreams — she is not planning to move to Florida or to take extravagant vacations. She hopes to spend her later years enjoying family and friends and pursuing different hobbies. But she knows that she hasn’t set aside enough money to ensure that she can realize even this modest ambition.A former high school teacher, Forbus says she has around $200,000 in total savings. She earns a high five-figure salary and contributes 9 percent of it to the 401(k) plan that she has through her employer. The company also makes a matching contribution that is equivalent to 5 percent of her salary. A widely accepted rule of thumb among personal-finance experts is that your retirement income needs to be close to 80 percent of what you earned before retiring if you hope to maintain your lifestyle. Forbus figures that she can retire comfortably on around $1 million, although if her house is paid off, she might be able to get by with a bit less. She is not factoring Social Security benefits into her calculations. “I feel like it’s too uncertain and not something I can depend on,” she says. But even if the stock market delivers blockbuster returns over the next 15 years, her goal is going to be difficult to reach — and this assumes that she doesn’t have a catastrophic setback, like losing her job or suffering a debilitating illness. She also knows that markets don’t always go up. During the 2008 global financial crisis, her 401(k) lost a third of its value, which was a scarring experience. From the extensive research that she has done, Forbus has become a fairly savvy investor; she’s familiar with all of the major funds and has 60 percent of her money in stocks and the rest in fixed income, which is generally the recommended ratio for people who are some years away from retiring. Still, Forbus would prefer that her retirement prospects weren’t so dependent on her own investing acumen. “It makes me very nervous,” she concedes. She and her friends speak with envy of the pensions that their parents and grandparents had. “I wish that were an option for us,” she says. We are having trouble retrieving the article content.Please enable JavaScript in your browser settings.Thank you for your patience while we verify access. If you are in Reader mode please exit and log into your Times account, or subscribe for all of The Times.Thank you for your patience while we verify access.Already a subscriber? Log in.Want all of The Times? Subscribe. More

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    The Fed Is Eyeing the Job Market, but It’s Difficult to Read

    Fed officials are watching labor trends as they contemplate when to cut rates. But different measures are telling different stories.The Federal Reserve spent much of 2022 and 2023 narrowly focusing on inflation as policymakers set interest rates: Prices were rising way too fast, so they became the central bank’s top priority. But now that inflation has cooled, officials are more clearly factoring the job market into their decisions again.One potential challenge? It’s a very difficult moment to assess exactly what monthly labor market data are telling us.Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, said during a news conference on Wednesday that the way the job market shaped up in coming months could help to guide whether and when the central bank lowered interest rates this year. A substantial weakening could prod policymakers to cut, he suggested. If job growth remains rapid and inflation remains stuck, on the other hand, the combination could keep the Fed from lowering interest rates anytime soon.But it is tough to guess which of those scenarios may play out — and it is trickier than usual to determine how hot today’s job market is, especially in real time. Fed officials will get their latest reading on Friday morning, when the Labor Department releases its April employment report.Hiring has been rapid in recent months. That would typically make economists nervous that the economy was on the cusp of overheating: Businesses would risk competing for the same workers, pushing up wages in a way that could eventually drive up prices.But this hiring boom is different. It has come as a wave of immigrants and workers coming in from the labor market’s sidelines have helped to notably increase the supply of applicants. That has allowed companies to hire without depleting the labor pool.Yet the jump in available workers has also meant that a primary measure that economists use in assessing the job market’s strength — payroll gains — is no longer providing a clear signal. That leaves economists turning to other indicators to evaluate the strength of the job market and to forecast its forward momentum. And those measures are delivering different messages.Wage growth is still very strong by some gauges, but it seems to be cooling by others. Job openings have been coming down, the unemployment rate has ticked up recently (particularly for Black workers) and hiring expectations in business surveys have wobbled.The takeaway is that this seems to be a strong job market, but exactly how strong is hard to know. It is even harder to guess how much oomph will remain in the months to come. If job gains were to slow, would that be a sign that the economy was beginning to buckle, or just evidence that employers had finally sated their demand for new hires? If job gains were to stay strong, would that be a sign that things were overheating, or evidence that labor supply was still expanding?“Through a pre-pandemic lens, the economy looks quite strong, maybe even hot,” said Ernie Tedeschi, a research scholar at Yale Law School who was, until this spring, a White House economic adviser. But given all of the gains to labor supply, “maybe we shouldn’t use a pre-pandemic lens for thinking about the economy right now,” he said.Friday’s report is expected to show that job gains remained rapid in April: Economists are forecasting a 240,000 person jump in payrolls, according to a Bloomberg survey.That would continue the trend over the past year. The economy added 247,000 jobs per month on average from March 2023 to March 2024. To put that in context, the economy had added 167,000 jobs a month in the year through March 2019, the spring before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.The Fed’s policy committee voted this week to keep interest rates at 5.3 percent, where they have been set since July. Mr. Powell signaled that they are likely to stay at that relatively high level longer than previously expected, as officials await evidence that inflation is poised to cool further after months of stalled progress.But while the path ahead for price increases will be the main driver of policy, Mr. Powell said that “as inflation has come down, now to below 3 percent,” employment also “now comes back into focus.”For now, Fed officials have not been overly worried about rapid job gains. Mr. Powell noted on Wednesday that the economy had been able to grow more strongly in 2023 partly because the labor supply had expanded so much, both because of immigration and because more people were participating in the job market.“Remember what we saw last year: very strong growth, a really tight labor market and a historically fast decline in inflation,” Mr. Powell said. “I wouldn’t rule out that something like that can continue.”On the other hand, Mr. Powell hinted that Fed officials were keeping an eye on wage growth. He suggested repeatedly that strong wage increases alone would not be enough to drive the Fed’s decisions.But the Fed chair still signaled that recent wage gains were stronger than the Fed thought would be consistent with low and stable inflation over time. As companies pay more to attract workers, many economists think that they are likely to raise prices to cover climbing labor costs and protect profit margins.Pay gains remain strong by key measures. Data this week showed that a measure of wages and benefits that the Fed watches closely, called the Employment Cost Index, climbed more rapidly than expected at the start of 2024.“We don’t target wage increases, but in the longer run, if you have wage increases running higher than productivity would warrant, there will be inflationary pressures,” Mr. Powell said this week. When it comes to slowing down wage gains to a sustainable pace, “we have a ways to go on that.”Whether job gains and wage gains will remain so rapid is unclear.Bill Kasko, the president of a white-collar employment placement agency in Texas, said that while he continued to see strong demand for workers, he also noticed employers becoming pickier as the outlook for interest rates and the looming presidential election stoked uncertainty. They wanted to see more job candidates, and take longer to make decisions.“There’s still demand, it’s just not moving as quickly,” Mr. Kasko said.If employers start to pull back more concertedly, Mr. Powell made clear this week that a “meaningful” jump in joblessness could prod the central bank to lower rates.The upshot? It seems as if officials would be more alarmed by a marked job market slowdown than by strong continued payroll gains, especially when it is hard to tell whether robust hiring numbers signal that the labor market is hot or simply that it is changing.“There’s an asymmetry in how they view the labor market,” said Michael Feroli, the chief U.S. economist at J.P. Morgan.Ben Casselman More

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    Fed Holds Rates Steady, Noting Lack of Progress on Inflation

    The Federal Reserve left interest rates unchanged for a sixth straight meeting and suggested that rates would stay high for longer.Federal Reserve officials left interest rates unchanged and signaled that they were wary about how stubborn inflation was proving, paving the way for a longer period of high borrowing costs.The Fed held rates steady at 5.3 percent on Wednesday, leaving them at a more than two-decade high, where they have been set since July. Central bankers reiterated that they needed “greater confidence” that inflation was coming down before reducing them.“Readings on inflation have come in above expectations,” Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, said at a news conference after the release of the central bank’s rate decision.Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, said that the central bank needed “greater confidence” that inflation was coming down before it decided to cut interest rates, which are at a two-decade high.Susan Walsh/Associated PressThe Fed stands at a complicated economic juncture. After months of rapid cooling, inflation has proved surprisingly sticky in early 2024. The Fed’s preferred inflation index has made little progress since December, and although it is down sharply from its 7.1 percent high in 2022, its current 2.7 percent is still well above the Fed’s 2 percent goal. That calls into question how soon and how much officials will be able to lower interest rates.“What we’ve said is that we need to be more confident” that inflation is coming down sufficiently and sustainably before cutting rates, Mr. Powell said. “It appears that it’s going to take longer for us to reach that point of confidence.”The Fed raised interest rates quickly between early 2022 and the summer of 2023, hoping to slow the economy by tamping down demand, which would in turn help to wrestle inflation under control. Higher Fed rates trickle through financial markets to push up mortgage, credit card and business loan rates, which can cool both consumption and company expansions over time.But Fed policymakers stopped raising rates last year because inflation had begun to come down and the economy appeared to be cooling, making them confident that they had done enough. They have held rates steady for six straight meetings, and as recently as March, they had expected to make three interest rate cuts in 2024. Now, though, inflation’s recent staying power has made that look less likely.Many economists have begun to push back their expectations for when rate reductions will begin, and investors now expect only one or two this year. Odds that the Fed will not cut rates at all this year have increased notably over the past month.Mr. Powell made it clear on Wednesday that officials still thought that their next policy move was likely to be a rate cut and said that a rate increase was “unlikely.” But he demurred when asked whether three reductions were likely in 2024.He laid out pathways in which the Fed would — or would not — cut rates. He said that if inflation came down or the labor market weakened, borrowing costs could come down.On the other hand, “if we did have a path where inflation proves more persistent than expected, and where the labor market remains strong, but inflation is moving sideways and we’re not gaining greater confidence, well, that could be a case in which it could be appropriate to hold off on rate cuts,” Mr. Powell said.Investors responded favorably to Mr. Powell’s news conference, likely because he suggested that the bar for raising rates was high and that rates could come down in multiple scenarios. Stocks rose and bond yields fell as Mr. Powell spoke.“The big surprise was how reluctant Powell was to talk about rate hikes,” said Michael Feroli, chief U.S. economist at J.P. Morgan. “He really seemed to say that the options are cutting or not cutting.”Still, a longer period of high Fed rates will be felt from Wall Street to Main Street. Key stock indexes fell in April as investors came around to the idea that borrowing costs could remain high for longer, and mortgage rates have crept back above 7 percent, making home buying pricier for many want-to-be owners.Fed officials are planning to keep rates high for a reason: They want to be sure to stamp out inflation fully to prevent quickly rising prices from becoming a more permanent part of America’s economy.Policymakers are closely watching how inflation data shape up as they try to figure out their next steps. Economists still expect that price increases will start to slow down again in the months to come, in particular as rent increases fade from key price measures.“My expectation is that we will, over the course of this year, see inflation move back down,” Mr. Powell said on Wednesday. But he added that “my confidence in that is lower than it was because of the data that we’ve seen.”As the Fed tries to assess the outlook, officials are likely to also keep an eye on momentum in the broader economy. Economists generally think that when the economy is hot — when companies are hiring a lot, consumers are spending and growth is rapid — prices tend to increase more quickly. Growth and hiring have not slowed down as much as one might have expected given today’s high interest rates. A key measure of wages climbed more rapidly than expected this week, and economists are now closely watching a jobs report scheduled for release on Friday for any hint that hiring remains robust.But so far, policymakers have generally been comfortable with the economy’s resilience.That is partly because growth has been driven by improving economic supply: Employers have been hiring as the labor pool grows, for instance, in part because immigration has been rapid.Beyond that, there are hints that the economy is beginning to cool around the edges. Overall economic growth slowed in the first quarter, though that pullback came from big shifts in business inventories and international trade, which often swing wildly from one quarter to the next. Small-business confidence is low. Job openings have come down substantially.Mr. Powell said Wednesday that he thought higher borrowing costs were weighing on the economy.“We believe that our policy stance is in a good place and is appropriate to the current situation — we believe it’s restrictive,” Mr. Powell said.As the Fed waits to make interest rate cuts, some economists have begun to warn that the central bank’s adjustments could collide with the political calendar.Donald J. Trump, the former president and presumptive Republican nominee, has already suggested that interest rate cuts this year would be a political move meant to help President Biden’s re-election bid by pumping up the economy. Some economists think that cutting in the weeks leading up to the election — either in September or November — could put the Fed in an uncomfortable position, drawing further ire and potentially making the institution look political.The Fed is independent of the White House, and its officials have repeatedly said that they will not take politics into account when setting interest rates, but will rather be guided by the data.Mr. Powell reiterated on Wednesday that the Fed did not and would not take into account political considerations in timing its rate moves.“If you go down that road, where do you stop? So we’re not on that road,” Mr. Powell said. “It just isn’t part of our thinking.” More