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    Fed Minutes July 2021: Officials Debated Timing of Taper

    Federal Reserve officials are preparing to slow the central bank’s large purchases of government-backed bonds, the first step toward a more normal monetary policy setting as the economy heals from the pandemic — but when they met last month, they remained starkly divided over just when the pullback should happen.Minutes from the central bank’s July 27-28 gathering showed that Fed officials generally thought they would soon meet their standard for slowing bond purchases, which they had previously established as “substantial further progress” toward the central bank’s maximum employment and inflation goals.“Most” of the officials “judged that the standard set out in the committee’s guidance regarding asset purchases could be reached this year,” the release showed. But precisely when to begin remained a matter of active debate.Some officials wanted to slow bond purchases soon to guard against the risk of higher inflation, and “a few” were worried that continued big purchases could lead to financial system risks, the account of the meeting released Wednesday showed.But a few others argued for a slower process, stressing that rising Delta variant coronavirus cases posed risks to the economic outlook, and several worried that in coming years inflation — though high today — could dip to uncomfortably low levels again. Several of the officials also pointed to big lingering uncertainties, like when workers would return to jobs.The snapshot of Federal Open Market Committee deliberations comes ahead of the central bank’s most closely watched annual gathering, an economic symposium in Jackson Hole in Wyoming that will take place next week. Jerome H. Powell, the Fed’s chair, will deliver a speech at the event, and many investors expect he could provide hints or details about the central bank’s coming policy move.Mr. Powell and his colleagues are working against a complicated backdrop as the economy grows rapidly and as inflation and asset prices pop, but the labor market recovery remains incomplete, with nearly 7 million jobs still missing compared with employment levels at the start of the pandemic.The Fed is still holding interest rates near zero and plans to do so until the labor market is more fully healed, which means monetary policy will continue to support the economy even once the bond buying begins to slow. Fed officials have suggested that they may favor raising interest rates by late 2022 or — more popularly — 2023.Some officials who are eager to start to slow bond purchases soon have emphasized that moving early and quickly would allow the Fed to be more flexible when it comes to raising borrowing costs. The Fed is buying $120 billion in Treasury and mortgage-backed debt each month, and officials have said they would prefer to bring that policy to a close before lifting the federal funds rate.The debate over timing was still unresolved in July.“Various participants commented that economic and financial conditions would likely warrant a reduction in coming months,” the minutes released on Wednesday said. “Several others indicated, however, that a reduction in the pace of asset purchases was more likely to become appropriate early next year.”How quickly the slowdown in buying will happen was also up for discussion, and participants expressed “a range of views on the appropriate pace of tapering asset purchases.”The last Fed meeting came before the Labor Department reported that hiring in July was strong, creating a sunnier snapshot of the job market’s recovery.“Since the July F.O.M.C. meeting, the probability of a September announcement and an October or November start date to tapering those purchases has increased considerably, in our view,” Bob Miller, the head of fundamental fixed income in the Americas for BlackRock, wrote following the release.But the minutes also came before infections from the Delta variant of the coronavirus surged so drastically.“The uncertainty created by Delta, as well as the uncertainty over the post-summer labor market and the path of inflation, all reinforce our view that a tapering announcement is not imminent,” Ian Shepherdson, the chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, wrote in a research note. “We think it will come in November, and even that is contingent on the Delta wave clearly subsiding before then.”The Fed meets next on Sept. 21-22. More

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    Janet Yellen Gets a Chance to Shape the Fed, This Time From Outside

    As Jerome H. Powell nears the end of his term as Federal Reserve chair, Ms. Yellen will have a say over whether he should stay on. Many progressive Democrats want him replaced.Janet L. Yellen has dedicated most of her professional life to the Federal Reserve. She served in its highest-ranking roles, including as president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, on its Washington-based board and as the central bank’s first female chair. When President Donald J. Trump decided to replace her in that role in 2017, she was sorely disappointed.Now, as Treasury secretary, Ms. Yellen is getting another chance to shape the future of the institution. She will be a critical voice in deciding who ought to lead the central bank in what some see as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to remake an institution that shepherds America’s economy and helps to regulate its largest banks.Jerome H. Powell’s term as chair, which began in 2018 after Mr. Trump picked him to take over for Ms. Yellen, ends in February. Slots for the vice chair and the Fed’s top bank regulator will also be up for grabs soon, and a position on the Fed’s Board of Governors is already vacant. Assuming officials leave once their leadership terms end, the Biden administration may, in quick succession, be able to appoint four of the Fed’s seven board members, powerful policymakers who have constant votes on monetary decisions and exclusive regulatory authorities.Many progressive Democrats are pushing to oust the moderate Mr. Powell and replace him with a candidate who is focused on tight financial regulation, climate change and digital money — most likely the Fed governor Lael Brainard. Mr. Powell’s supporters see him as a champion for full employment, and would like him to be retained as a sign that competent leadership is rewarded.It’s unclear where Ms. Yellen’s preferences lie, but it’s common knowledge that she was unhappy when Mr. Trump broke a tradition of reappointment in her case.Many who would like to see Mr. Powell replaced play down the role she will have in shaping President Biden’s decision. But Treasury secretaries have traditionally been central to the Fed selection process, helping to advise and guide the president toward a choice that will be welcome on both Wall Street and in the Senate, which has to confirm nominees to the Fed board.Ms. Yellen’s views will carry significant weight in the deliberations, coloring both who is considered and the ultimate outcome. Discussions over the pick are also being held among Brian Deese, director of the National Economic Council; Ron Klain, the president’s chief of staff; and Cecilia Rouse, chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, according to people familiar with the deliberations. Mr. Biden will have the final word.Conversations over who should lead the institution could stretch into October, as they have in past Fed leadership decisions. But speculation over who will win the top jobs is already rampant.The Treasury Department declined to comment.The argument for replacing Mr. Powell, a Republican who was appointed as a Fed governor by President Barack Obama, has to do with things other than traditional interest rate policy. Democrats typically say he has done a relatively good job when it comes to guiding the economy using monetary tools.Under Mr. Powell’s leadership, the Fed parried Mr. Trump’s pressure campaign to lower rates when the economic backdrop was solid, and it reacted rapidly and effectively to the economic collapse triggered by the pandemic. The Fed is also credited with averting a financial crisis early last year as key markets seized. Mr. Powell’s Fed revamped its entire policy framework last year to focus more concertedly on achieving a strong job market that extends its benefits to as many people as possible.Jerome H. Powell has been Fed chair since 2018; his term ends in February.Sarahbeth Maney/The New York TimesMs. Yellen has repeatedly praised Mr. Powell’s performance.“He’s doing extremely well,” she told The New York Times in early 2020, discussing Mr. Powell’s conduct as he came under attack from the Trump White House.But Mr. Powell has opponents among more progressive groups. He often deferred to the Fed’s vice chair — a Trump appointee — for supervision when it came to regulation, regularly voting for tweaks to bank and financial rules that chipped quietly away at postcrisis financial reforms. He has also been criticized by climate focused groups for being too slow to elevate the Fed’s role in policing environment-related finance. Climate activists plan to protest at the Fed’s annual symposium this year in Jackson, Wyo., and Mr. Powell “will be a key target,” Thanu Yakupitiyage, head of U.S. communications at 350.org, said in an email. The group is one of the protest’s key organizers.Regulation and climate are key reasons some Democrats are lining up behind Ms. Brainard, the Fed governor and another leading candidate. Ms. Brainard, who also has a good relationship with Ms. Yellen, opposed Trump administration efforts to lighten bank oversight by loudly dissenting against a spate of regulatory decisions, often releasing meticulous statements detailing where they went awry.She is seen as a powerful and effective Fed governor, one who played a key role in shaping pandemic response programs. And while they are closely aligned on monetary policy, she has distinguished herself from Mr. Powell by pushing for a bigger role for the Fed on climate issues and a more proactive stance toward developing a digital currency.She also could help to anchor a leadership team that could usher in a fresh era for the Fed, her supporters argue.Andrew Levin, a former Fed economist, is one of several people who are pushing the idea that the White House appoint Ms. Brainard as chair and Sarah Bloom Raskin, a former top Fed and Treasury official, to the central bank’s top regulatory job. Mr. Levin, now a professor of economics at Dartmouth, would also favor nominating as vice chair Lisa Cook, a professor from Michigan State University who has researched racial disparities and labor markets and has worked to improve diversity in economics.That group would be diverse, compared with the Fed’s typically white and male leadership team. The Fed has been led by a woman — Ms. Yellen — for just four of its nearly 108 years. If appointed vice chair, Ms. Cook would be the highest-ranking Black woman in its history.“It’s a package deal that should work together,” Mr. Levin said. “This administration wants to send a message that they care about all of the people who are slipping through the cracks.”Those aren’t the only names floated for key positions. William Spriggs, chief economist at the A.F.L.-C.I.O. (and himself a fan of keeping Mr. Powell in the top job), is also on some lists for the vice chair or a governor.Progressive Democrats are lining up behind Lael Brainard, a Federal Reserve governor.Cliff Owen/Associated PressProgressive groups have been talking to lawmakers, arguing that Mr. Powell should be replaced, and key Democrats are sympathetic to some of their arguments.“My concern is that over and over, he has weakened the regulation here, he has led the Fed to ease up there,” Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat from Massachusetts, said on Bloomberg TV this month. “We need someone who understands and uses both the monetary policy tools and the regulatory tools to keep our economy safe.”But whether such objections will kill Mr. Powell’s chances remains to be seen. Powerful Democrats attuned to the issue, such as Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, have not signaled definitively that they would vote against Mr. Powell were he renominated. Even if Mr. Powell is retained, fresh faces in the other key jobs could inject diversity and expertise on issues like climate and financial oversight into the Fed’s top ranks.And another argument is working in Mr. Powell’s favor: tradition.When Mr. Trump replaced Ms. Yellen, he bucked a longstanding practice in which Fed chairs were reappointed if they had done a good job, regardless of their political background. The tradition is in part a nod to the fact that the Fed is meant to be independent of partisan politics.Democrats and their allies were infuriated.The decision was “seemingly rooted in simple-minded partisanship that demanded a Republican president replace a Democratic appointee as Fed chair,” Josh Bivens, research director at the typically liberal Economic Policy Institute, wrote in a statement at the time. “This decision breaks a longstanding norm of not elevating partisanship over competence when picking Fed chairs.”Mr. Bivens, in an email last week, said that the norm “is pretty broken,” but that the decision to replace a Fed chair should still come down to whether the incumbent had done a good job. There’s a strong case for keeping Mr. Powell based on his monetary policymaking at a moment of fierce debate over the Fed’s policy direction, he thinks.Ms. Yellen remains mindful of the tradition. She reacted sadly in 2018 to Mr. Trump’s decision to replace her, saying during a CBS News interview that she had made it clear she would have stayed on and felt a “sense of disappointment.”“It is common for people to be reappointed by presidents of the opposite party,” she said. More

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    Evergrande Went From China’s Biggest Developer to One of Its Worst Debtors

    Regulators want to fix the property sector’s bad habit of borrowing too much. Evergrande, with its billions of dollars in debt, may stand in the way.The company owes hundreds of billions of dollars. Its creditors are circling. Its shares have taken a beating. But if anything forces a reckoning for Evergrande, a vast real estate empire in China, it might be the nervousness of ordinary home buyers like Chen Cheng.Ms. Chen, 30, and her husband thought they had found the perfect apartment. It was part of an 18-building complex in the southern city of Guangzhou, near a good school for their daughter and a new subway station.Evergrande was asking for a deposit worth nearly one-third of the price before the property was completed. After reading headlines about the company’s financial difficulties and complaints about construction delays from recent buyers, Ms. Chen walked away.“We don’t have a lot of money,” she said. “We were really afraid this money would evaporate.”China has a special term for companies like Evergrande: “gray rhinos,” so large and so entangled in the country’s financial system that the government has an interest in their survival. A failure on the scale of Evergrande would ripple across the economy, and spell financial ruin for ordinary households.During the boom years, Evergrande was China’s biggest developer, creating economic activity that officials came to depend on while the country opened up. As more people were lifted out of poverty, home buyers put their money into property. Feeling flush and eager to expand, Evergrande borrowed money to dabble in new businesses like a soccer club, bottled water and, most recently, electric vehicles.Now Evergrande epitomizes the vulnerability of the world’s No. 2 economy. It owes more money than it can pay off, and officials in Beijing want it to slow down. Its stock price has lost three-quarters of its value in the past year, and creditors are panicking. The company has started selling off parts of its corporate empire, but to survive Evergrande needs to keep selling its apartments.The problem is that some Chinese home buyers, once attracted to Evergrande’s developments, have grown increasingly anxious about the company.On China’s internet, buyers describe waiting months or even years for their Evergrande apartments. Some have accused the company of using the pandemic as an excuse for further construction delays.Evergrande declined to comment, citing a “quiet period” ahead of a company earnings announcement.Xu Jiayin founded Evergrande in 1996, as urbanization in China was rising steeply.Paul Yeung/BloombergThe company’s problems have been building for years, but lenders, big investors and home buyers alike are treating it as though it is about to fail. By one estimate, Evergrande owes more than $300 billion. Creditors are not sure it can pay the bills. Business partners have filed lawsuits.Property in China is prone to big swings. Speculative buying propels prices to soar. Local governments then step in to cool things down, sometimes with a heavy hand. Despite the ups and downs, the residential real estate market is still the largest store of Chinese household wealth.For Xu Jiayin, Evergrande’s billionaire founder, the wild ride has mostly followed one trajectory: up.A former steel factory technician, he founded Evergrande in 1996 just as China was embarking on the gargantuan task of moving hundreds of millions of people from the countryside to cities. As property prices climbed with this urbanization, so did Mr. Xu’s wealth.After publicly listing his company in 2009, he began to expand the business into new areas. Evergrande took control of Guangzhou’s soccer club in 2010 and spent billions of dollars on foreign players. It then moved into the dairy, grain and oil businesses. At one point, it even tried pig farming.As the business grew, Mr. Xu was able to attract tens of billions of dollars in funding from foreign and domestic investors and cheap loans from Chinese banks. The success came with strong political connections. A member of China’s People’s Political Consultative Conference, an advisory body to the central government, Mr. Xu is a presence at the most important political gatherings in Beijing every year.His proximity to power also gave investors and banks the confidence they needed to keep lending to the company. Over the years when regulators have stepped in to try to curtail Evergrande’s business, they have usually eased off soon after. By 2019, Mr. Xu was one of the richest property developers in the world.Today his wealth is a little more modest, much of it tied to the company’s stock price, around $18 billion, according China’s Hurun wealth report.“In my opinion, Xi Jiayin is someone who can walk the tightrope really well,” said Rupert Hoogewerf, the founder of the Hurun Report. “He has been able to balance his debt with his growth.”The question for many observers is whether Mr. Xu can continue his careful balancing act as regulators try to shrink the sector’s spiraling debt. When China’s economy began to slow more drastically several years ago, developers like Evergrande found themselves overextended and strapped. To gin up business, they discounted apartments, undercutting the value of properties that earlier buyers paid, prompting street protests.The model of selling apartments before they were completed gave companies the cash they needed to keep operating. That was, until regulators took note of the property sector’s unruly debt, making it harder for developers like Evergrande to finish the apartments they have already sold to buyers.Evergrande took over the soccer club in Guangzhou, China, in 2010 and invested heavily in it —  including a 100,000-seat stadium that opened last year. Evergrande Group, via ReutersFearing a housing bust that would ricochet through China’s financial system, the central bank created “three red lines,” rules forcing property companies to get their debt levels down before they could borrow more money. The aim was to limit the banking sector’s exposure to the property market. But it also took away funds they could use to finish projects.To comply, Evergrande has started to sell off some of its businesses. Last week it sold stakes in its internet business. In public comments, Mr. Xu has pointed to the company’s success in paying off some foreign and domestic investors, reducing debt that incurs interest to $88 billion from $130 billion late last year.But it still has unpaid bills from acquisitions, land-use rights and contract liabilities that add up to hundreds of billions of dollars. Some lenders and business partners have taken it to court to try to freeze assets to get their money back.“On paper it doesn’t make any sense for a company like this to have so much debt. This is not normal,” said Jennifer James, an investment manager at Janus Henderson Investors who estimates that Evergrande has more than $300 billion in debt. Then there are the properties that it took payment for and still has not completed.Wesley Zhang has been waiting four years for an apartment he bought for his parents. Mr. Zhang, 33, paid a $93,000 deposit and has made 41 monthly mortgage payments of nearly $1,100. Local officials suspended the development project in 2018 but later reversed the decision, giving Evergrande the green light to start building.There are no signs of any progress or communication from Evergrande on the apartment he bought. The company is now trying to sell apartments in the complex that promise to be ready to move into by 2023.“It has a huge impact on my life,” Mr. Zhang said. To get his money back, he would have to file a lawsuit against the company to break his contract. “We also need to consider buying another apartment, but the property prices are much higher now.” More

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    Digital Currency Is a Divided Issue at the Federal Reserve

    Officials at the Federal Reserve seem to be increasingly divided over whether it ought to issue a digital dollar — a digital currency that traces straight back to the central bank rather than to the private banking sector.Speeches by several Fed officials show they have yet to align on the issue, even as the Fed’s peers in China, parts of Europe and smaller economies like the Bahamas have created digital currencies or are working toward issuing them. The Fed plans to release a report on the potential costs and benefits of a digital dollar this summer.Lael Brainard, a Fed governor appointed during the Obama administration, made it clear during remarks last week that she envisions a future in which America’s central bank explores and issues a digital currency. But Christopher Waller, her colleague on the Fed’s Board of Governors and a Trump nominee, made it equally obvious during a speech on Thursday that he questions whether that is necessary.“The dollar is very dominant in international payments,” Ms. Brainard said during remarks in Aspen, Colo., adding that she could not imagine a situation in which other countries issue digital currencies and the United States doesn’t have one.“I just, I can’t wrap my head around that,” she said. “That just doesn’t sound like a sustainable future to me.”Mr. Waller, by contrast, suggested that there is little a central bank digital offering could do that the private sector cannot and that the potential benefits of a digital dollar are most likely overstated, while the risks are substantial. He added that the United States need not worry about the U.S. dollar’s being supplanted by China’s digital offering.“I am left with the conclusion that a C.B.D.C. remains a solution in search of a problem,” Mr. Waller said on Thursday, referring to a central bank digital currency. He also voiced concerns that a central bank currency would give the Fed too much information about private citizens.Randal K. Quarles, the Fed’s vice chair for supervision, has also sounded dubious about the need for a central bank digital currency, painting the idea as a passing fad. Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, has at times questioned whether such an offering is necessary, but he has more recently stressed that it is important to investigate the idea and has called himself “legitimately undecided.”Supporters of central bank digital currency say it is critical for the United States to stay on top of the technology, even if it is not yet clear what benefits such currencies will offer in practice. Some suggest that a Fed digital dollar could prevent stablecoins — private digital assets backed by a bundle of currencies or other assets — from becoming dominant and creating a big financial stability risk.But opponents worry that a central bank digital currency would not offer benefits that the private sector did not or could not provide and that it might introduce cybersecurity vulnerabilities, issues that Mr. Waller raised Thursday.Commercial banks have also pushed back on the idea, worrying that their consumer banking services will be supplanted by Fed accounts and warning that such a situation would cause them to cut back on their lending. Mr. Waller — despite his overall skepticism — sounded unsympathetic to that argument.“There’s a lot of ways that banks could raise funds,” he said, noting that it might hit bank profit margins but that he wouldn’t have an issue with that. “The whole idea is that if they compete, then the funds don’t flow out, so it could be the case that just the existence of a C.B.D.C. causes fees to go down, deposits to go up.” More

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    Home Prices Are Soaring. Is That the Fed’s Problem?

    Low interest rates are one reason that the housing market has taken off. They are far from the only one.Robert S. Kaplan, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, has been nervously eyeing the housing market as he ponders the path ahead for monetary policy. Home prices are rising at a double-digit pace this year. The typical house in and around the city he calls home sold for $306,031 in June of this year, Zillow estimates, up from $261,710 a year earlier.Several of Mr. Kaplan’s colleagues harbor similar concerns. They are worried that the housing boom could end up looking like a bubble, one that threatens financial stability. And some fret that the central bank’s big bond purchases could be helping to inflate it.“It’s making me nervous that you’ve got this incipient housing bubble, with anecdotal reports backed up by a lot of the data,” James Bullard, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, said during a call with reporters Friday. He doesn’t think things are at crisis levels yet, but he believes the Fed should avoid fueling the situation further. “We got in so much trouble with the housing bubble in the mid-2000s.”Policymakers don’t need to look far to see escalating prices, because housing is growing more expensive nearly everywhere. Buying a typical home in Boise, Idaho, cost about $469,000 in June, up from $335,000 a year ago, based on Zillow estimates of local housing values. A typical house in Boone, N.C., is worth $362,000, up from $269,000. Prices nationally have risen 15 percent over the past year, Zillow’s data shows, in line with the closely watched S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller index of home prices, which rose a record 16.6 percent in the year through May.Bidding wars are frustrating buyers. Agents are struggling to navigate frantic competition. About half of small bankers in a recent industry survey said the current state of the housing market poses “a serious risk” to the United States economy. Lawmakers and economic policymakers alike are hoping things calm down — especially because frothy home prices could eventually spill into rent prices, worsening affordability for low-income families just as they face the end of pandemic-era eviction moratoriums and, in some cases, months of owed rent.Industry experts say the current home price boom emerged from a cocktail of low interest rates, booming demand and supply bottlenecks. In short, it’s a situation that many are feeling acutely with no single policy to blame and no easy fix.Fed officials face a particularly tricky calculus when it comes to housing.Their policies definitely help to drive demand. Bond-buying and low Fed interest rates make mortgages cheap, inspiring people to borrow more and buy bigger. But rates aren’t the sole factor behind the home price craze. It also traces back to demographics, a pandemic-spurred desire for space, and a very limited supply of new and existing homes for sale — factors outside of the central bank’s control.“Interest rates are one factor that’s supporting demand, but we really can’t do much about the supply side,” Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, explained during recent congressional testimony.It’s an unattractive prospect to pull back monetary support to try to rein in housing specifically, because doing so would slow the overall economy, making it harder for the central bank to foster full employment. The Fed’s policy-setting committee voted Wednesday to keep policy set to full-support mode, and Mr. Powell said at a subsequent news conference that the economy remains short of central bank’s jobs target.But central bank officials also monitor financial stability, so they are keenly watching the price surge.Demand for housing was strong in 2018 and 2019, but it really took off early last year, after the Fed cut interest rates to near-zero and began buying government-backed debt to soothe markets at the start of the pandemic. Mortgage rates dropped, and mortgage applications soared.That was partly the point as the Fed fought to keep the economy afloat: Home-buying boosts all kinds of spending, on washing machines and drapes and kiddie pools, so it is a key lever for lifting the entire economy. Stoking it helps to revive floundering growth.Those low interest rates hit just as housing was entering a societal sweet spot. Americans born in 1991, the country’s largest group by birth year, just turned 30. And as Millennials — the nation’s largest generation — were beginning to think about trading in that fifth-floor walk-up for a home of their own, coronavirus lockdowns took hold.Suddenly, having more space became paramount. For some, several rounds of government stimulus checks made down payments seem more workable. For others, remote work opened the door to new home markets and possibilities.Reina and David Pomeroy, 36 and 35, were living in a rental in Santa Clara, Calif., with their children, ages 2 and 7, when the pandemic hit. Buying at California prices seemed like a pipe dream and they wanted to live near family, so they decided to relocate to the Boulder, Colo., area, near Mr. Pomeroy’s brother.When Reina and David Pomeroy were ready to give up their rented townhouse and buy, they looked outside California to avoid the state’s high home prices.Ulysses Ortega for The New York TimesThey closed in late July, and they move in a few days. Ms. Pomeroy was able to take her job at a start-up remote, and Mr. Pomeroy is hoping that Google, his employer, will allow him to move to its Boulder office. The pair saw between 20 and 30 houses and made — and lost — six offers before finally sealing the deal, over their original budget and $200,000 above the $995,000 asking price on their new 5-bedroom.Their experience underlines the other key issue driving prices up: “There’s not enough inventory for everyone that’s looking,” said Corey Keach, the Redfin agent who helped the Pomeroys find their home.Home supply fell across the residential real estate market following the mid-2000s housing bust, as construction slumped thanks in part to zoning regulations and tough financing standards. Shortages in lumber, appliances and labor have emerged since the pandemic took hold, making it hard for builders to churn out units fast enough.“The rapid price appreciation we’re seeing is Econ 101 unfolding in real time,” said Chris Glynn, an economist at Zillow.There are early signs that the market might be bringing itself under control. Applications for new mortgages have slowed this year, and existing home inventories have risen somewhat. Many housing economists think price increases should moderate later this year.And while the heady moment in American housing does have some echoes of the run-up to the 2008 financial crisis — borrowing made cheap by the Fed is enabling ambitious buying, and investors are increasingly jumping into the market — the differences may be even more critical.Homeowners, like the Pomeroys, have been more able to afford the homes they are buying than they were back in 2005 and 2006. People who get mortgages these days tend to have excellent credit scores, unlike that earlier era.And a big part of the problem in mid-2000s lay on Wall Street, where banks were slicing and dicing bundles of mortgages into complicated financial structures that ultimately came crashing down. Banks were holding a lot of those inventive securities on their balance sheets, and their implosion caused widespread pain in the financial sector that brought lending — and thus business expansions, hiring and spending — to a screeching halt.Banks are now much better regulated. But that isn’t to say that no financial stability risks hide in the current boom.The home price run-up could also help to keep inflation high. The government measures inflation by capturing the costs of what people are regularly consuming — so it counts housing expenses in terms of rents, not home prices.But a skyrocketing housing market is connected to rising rents: it makes it harder for people to make the leap to homeownership, which increases demand for rentals and pushes rents up. That can matter a lot to inflation data, since housing costs tied to rents make up about a third of one key measure. So what can the Fed do about any of this? Officials, including Mr. Bullard, have suggested that it might make sense for the Fed to slow its monthly purchases of Treasury debt and mortgage-backed securities soon, and quickly, to avoid giving housing an unneeded boost by keeping mortgages so cheap.Discussions about how and when the Fed will taper off its buying are ongoing, but most economists expect bond-buying to slow late this year or early next. That should nudge mortgage rates higher and slow the booming market a little.But borrowing costs are likely to remain low by historical standards for years to come. Longer-term interest rates have fallen even as the Fed considers dialing back bond purchases, because investors have grown more glum about the global growth outlook. And the Fed is unlikely to lift its policy interest rate — its more powerful tool — away from rock bottom anytime soon.Ideally, officials would like to see the economy return to full employment before lifting rates, and most don’t expect that moment to arrive until 2023. They’re unlikely to speed up the plan just to cool off housing. Fed officials have for decades maintained that bubbles are difficult to spot in real time and that monetary policy is the wrong tool to pop them.For now, your local housing market boom is probably going to be left to its own devices — meaning that while first time home buyers may end up paying more, they will also have an easier time financing it.“We felt a little bit more comfortable paying more for the house to lock in low interest rates,” said Mr. Pomeroy, explaining that they could have compromised on amenities they wanted but didn’t.“Interest rates are so low and money is cheap,” he said. “Why not do it?” More

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    Federal Reserve Keeps Rates Unchanged but Cites ‘Progress’ Toward Goals

    The central bank gave the clearest hint yet that it will soon begin to shift bond-buying from emergency mode.The chair, Jerome H. Powell, said the Fed was keeping interest rates unchanged and would continue to buy large amounts of government debt, but suggested that these purchases could taper off as recovery continued.Stefani Reynolds for The New York TimesThe Federal Reserve on Wednesday offered the most direct signal yet that it will begin to dial back its emergency support for the economy in the near future, as its chair, Jerome H. Powell, made it clear that policymakers will do so deliberatively and with plenty of warning.Fed officials voted to leave both of their key policy supports intact before wrapping up their two-day July meeting, holding interest rates near zero and continuing government-backed bond purchases unabated. Those two tools fuel economic demand by making money cheap to borrow and spend.But they spent the meeting debating when and how to slow the bond-buying program, which is expected to be the first step toward a more normal policy setting as the economy rebounds strongly from its pandemic stupor. A decision isn’t imminent, but officials used their July policy statement to signal that one is coming.The Fed had said in December that it would keep buying bonds at a steady pace — $120 billion per month — until it had made “substantial” further progress toward its two targets, stable inflation and maximum employment.“Since then, the economy has made progress toward these goals, and the committee will continue to assess progress in coming meetings,” the Fed’s policy-setting committee said in its postmeeting statement on Wednesday.Mr. Powell offered an even more detailed outlook for the purchase program during his subsequent news conference. He explained that officials had not yet decided on the pace or structure of the coming slowdown, and that there were a “range of views” on when it should happen.“We’re going to continue to try to provide clarity as appropriate,” Mr. Powell said, adding that this meeting had involved the first deep-dive discussion on those issues.Mr. Powell delivered another message: The Fed isn’t ready to withdraw support just yet. He said that while the economy was progressing toward “substantial” progress, “we have some ground to cover on the labor market side.”Investors have been keenly watching for any news on when and how the Fed will begin to withdraw from buying assets, worried that the announcement of a tapering program might whipsaw markets. Fed critics have been asking why the central bank continues to buy bonds, fueling an already-scorching housing market and pushing up sky-high stock prices.Fed officials are trying to strike a balance, ensuring they are prepared to slow stimulus measures as the economy strengthens while avoiding an abrupt pullback. The latter could undermine the Fed’s credibility and potentially roil markets, causing lending to dry up and slowing the recovery when millions of prepandemic jobs are still missing and risks to the economy persist.“They don’t want to cause a sharp and fast increase in interest rates — that would be detrimental,” said Roberto Perli, head of global policy research at Cornerstone Macro. “The labor market is still not where it should be.”Lingering threats to the outlook have been underscored by rising coronavirus cases in the United States and around the world tied to the Delta variant.Mr. Powell acknowledged risks from the variant, but he suggested that any economic pullback it drove might not be as severe as last year’s. Still, he said, “it might weigh on the return to the labor market,” noting that the Fed will be monitoring that “carefully.”But the Fed chair conveyed a generally optimistic tone about the economy on Wednesday.While he pointed out that the labor market had a lot of room left to heal, he also suggested that workers were lingering on the sidelines because they were afraid of the virus, had caregiving duties or were receiving generous unemployment insurance benefits. Those factors should fade as life returns to normal.The United States is on a path to a strong labor market, and “it shouldn’t take too long, in macroeconomic time, to get there,” Mr. Powell said.He discussed at length another reality of the reopening era: rising prices. As economic growth roars back, with strong consumer spending supported by repeated government stimulus checks, inflation is surging. That is partly the result of data quirks, but also because demand for washing machines, electronics, cars and housing is outstripping what producers can supply.The Consumer Price Index picked up by 5.4 percent in June compared with a year earlier, the quickest pace since 2008. The Fed’s preferred inflation gauge has been slightly more muted, at 3.9 percent in May, but that, too, is well above the central bank’s 2 percent average inflation goal.“Inflation has increased notably” Mr. Powell said, adding that it is likely to remain elevated in coming months. But as supply bottlenecks abate, he said, “inflation is expected to drop back toward our longer-run goal.”Price gains could turn out to be higher and more persistent than Fed officials expect, Mr. Powell acknowledged. But expectations of where prices might head next seem consistent with the Fed’s goal, he said.When Fed officials say they expect today’s pressures to prove “transitory,” Mr. Powell said, they mean that increases today will not lead to ever-higher prices down the road.To put it even more plainly: A bag of flour might cost 5 cents more this year, but if the increase is transitory, it will not keep going up 5 cents with each passing year.“The increases will happen — we’re not saying they will reverse,” Mr. Powell said, but “the process of inflation will stop.”For now, officials are monitoring price increases but also staying focused on a different set of risks: About 6.8 million jobs are still missing compared with February 2020 levels. Workers are taking time to sort back into suitable employment, and the central bank wants to make sure the economic recovery is robust as they try to do that.Even when the Fed begins to dial back bond-buying, interest rates are likely to remain low. Long-running forces, including the aging population and rising inequality, have pushed them down naturally, and the central bank is expected to keep its main policy rate — the federal funds rate — at rock bottom, where it has been since March 2020.Officials have signaled that, barring a sustained burst in inflation or financial stability risks, they would like to leave interest rates near zero until the job market has returned to full employment. Their latest economic projections, released in June, suggested that most officials did not expect the economy to meet that high bar until 2023.Mr. Powell reiterated a commitment to seeing the recovery through.“The labor market has a ways to go,” he said. “We at the Fed will do everything we can to support the economy for as long as it takes to complete the recovery.” More

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    Fed Considers Tapering Bond Purchases as Economy Grows

    Federal Reserve officials are gathering in Washington this week with monetary policy still set to emergency mode, even as the economy rebounds and inflation accelerates.Economists expect the central bank’s postmeeting statement at 2 p.m. Wednesday to leave policy unchanged, but investors will keenly watch a subsequent news conference with the Fed chair, Jerome H. Powell, for any hints at when — and how — officials might begin to pull back their economic support.That’s because Fed policymakers are debating their plans for future “tapering,” the widely used term for slowing down monthly purchases of government-backed debt. The bond purchases are meant to keep money chugging through the economy by encouraging lending and spending, and slowing them would be the first step in moving policy toward a more normal setting.Big and often conflicting considerations loom over the taper debate. Inflation has picked up more sharply than many Fed officials expected. Those price pressures are expected to fade, but the risk that they will linger is a source of discomfort, ramping up the urgency to create some sort of exit plan. At the same time, the job market is far from healed, and the surging Delta coronavirus variant means that the pandemic remains a real risk. Policy missteps could prove costly.The Fed’s balance sheet has grown, thanks to bond-buying.The Federal Reserve has swollen its balance sheet by buying bonds to bolster the economy during the pandemic, making it a bigger player in markets.

    Source: Federal ReserveBy The New York TimesHere are a few key things to know about the bond-buying, and key details that Wall Street will be watching:The Fed is buying $120 billion in government backed bonds each month — $80 billion in Treasury debt and $40 billion in mortgage-backed securities.Economists mostly expect the central bank to announce plans to slow those purchases this year, perhaps as soon as August, before actually dialing them back late this year or early next. That slowdown is what Wall Street refers to as a “taper.”There’s a hot debate among policymakers about how that taper should play out. Some officials think the Fed should slow mortgage debt buying first because the housing market is booming. Others have said mortgage security buying has little special effect on the housing market. They have hinted or said they would favor tapering both types of purchases at the same speed.The Fed is moving cautiously, and for a reason: Back in 2013, markets convulsed when investors realized that a similar bond-buying program after the financial crisis would slow soon. Mr. Powell and crew do not want to stage a rerun.Bond-buying is just one of the Fed’s policy tools, and is used to lower longer-term interest rates and to get money chugging around the economy. The Fed also sets a policy interest rate, the federal funds rate, to keep borrowing costs low. It has been near zero since March 2020.Central bankers have been clear that tapering off bond purchases is the first step toward moving policy away from an emergency setting. Increases in the funds rate remain off in the distant future. More

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    Inflation Has Arrived, but Washington Isn’t Racing to Limit Price Pops

    Policymakers, now more attuned to the costs of choking off growth early, are sticking by a patient approach as prices rise.Inflation has long been the boogeyman haunting the nightmares of economic policymakers from both parties — and controlling it has been a top economic priority. But as the economy reopens from pandemic shutdowns and prices spike, it is becoming clear just how much that conventional wisdom has shifted in recent years.After three decades of relative price stability and a long stretch of weak price gains, many economists and lawmakers had in recent years come to believe that trying too hard to avoid overheating the economy created its own risk by prematurely cooling growth and leaving workers on the sidelines.The tools that policymakers used to prevent overheating — raising interest rates and reining in government spending — also contributed to less hiring and slower wage growth. Policymakers have paid increasing attention to those trade-offs, especially as chronically slow price gains across the globe made government efforts to control inflation seem somewhere between futile and self-defeating.That view has remained mostly intact at the Federal Reserve and the White House even as prices pop, virus variants threaten to perpetuate supply-chain bottlenecks and some price increases, like rising rents, create the risk that high inflation might last for a while.The Biden administration is emphasizing the benefits of the current moment, which include higher wages and more bargaining power for workers, as it insists that inflation will fade over time. The Fed, which meets this week, is openly nervous about rising prices, but it isn’t doing anything abrupt to counteract them. It says it needs to weigh the risk of inflation against the threat of slowing a labor market that is still missing nearly seven million jobs compared with prepandemic levels.Republicans are condemning rising prices, warning that the administration needs to rein in its spending plans and that the Fed should withdraw support. Even some left-leaning economists have warned that things could get out of control and that central bank officials need to be on watch.Here is a snapshot of what is happening with inflation, including the risks, the rewards and how policymakers are thinking through a strange economic moment.Prices are up this year, and pretty markedly.Inflation is up across a variety of measures, and by significantly more than economists predicted earlier this year.The Consumer Price Index, a Labor Department gauge of how much a basket of goods and services costs to buy, rose 5.4 percent in the year through June. The Fed prefers a separate measure, the Personal Consumption Expenditures index. That gauge tracks both out-of-pocket expenses and the cost of things people consume but don’t directly pay for, like medical care. It climbed 3.9 percent through May.Prices have risen by more than Fed officials expected, based on both their public statements and their economic projections this year.Why the big jump? Some of it owes to temporary data quirks, which were expected to push inflation higher this year. Part of it has come as prices for airline tickets, hotel rooms and other pandemic-affected purchases rebound from last year, also as anticipated. But the surprisingly large part of the increase has come from a surge in consumer demand that is straining delivery routes and outstripping available supply for electronics, housing and laundry machines.That portion of the inflation is more tied to government policies, which put money into consumers’ pockets — and its future trajectory is a lot less predictable. Economists think the bottlenecks will fade, but by how much and how long it will take is uncertain.Those price increases could have a downside.Whether today’s inflation matters and warrants a response will depend on several factors.If, as the White House predicts, quick price gains fade as the economy returns to normal, they shouldn’t be terribly problematic. Households are likely to have to spend a little bit more on some goods and services but may also find that they are earning more. Workers are now seeing decent wage gains, though not quite enough to outpace price gains, and the labor market is expected to continue strengthening as inflation fades.The biggest price gains have also been concentrated in just a few categories, like used cars. Most families do not buy automobiles that often, so the hit from higher costs will not be as salient for consumers as an across-the-board rapid rise in prices for everything consumers buy, like clothing and milk.But if consumers and businesses come to expect higher prices and start accepting bigger price tags and demanding higher wages, that could broaden inflation and keep it elevated. That would be a problem. Rapid inflation makes life hard for people who live on savings, like retirees. If it outstrips pay gains, it can erode a consumer’s ability to buy goods and services. And if inflation becomes hard to predict, as it did in the 1970s and 1980s, it makes planning for the future hard for businesses and households.There are risks that inflation could take time to get back to normal.There are real reasons to worry that inflation could stick around. Supply-chain snarls are expected to fade with time, but new Covid-19 variants and renewed lockdowns in some countries could keep global trade chains from getting back to normal. That could keep prices for goods elevated. (On the flip side, Jason Furman at Harvard points out that renewed lockdowns would also probably drag down consumer demand, which could lead to softer price pressures.)There are other hot inflation risks. Wages are rising, which might feed into faster prices as employers try to cover costs. Rents — which were depressed — are accelerating, potentially a stickier source of inflationary pressure.If inflation becomes pernicious, the Fed has tools to contain it. The central bank is already coming up with a plan to slow its big bond purchases, which keep longer-term borrowing cheap and lift markets. It could also raise its main interest rate, which would trickle through the economy to slow lending and spending.“One way or another, we’re not going to be going into a period of high inflation for a long period of time, because, of course, we have tools to address that,” Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, testified this month. “But we don’t want to use them in a way that is unnecessary, or that interrupts the rebound of the economy.”A job fair in St. Louis last month. The Fed is nervous about rising prices, but it says it also needs to weigh the risk of slowing a labor market still missing seven million workers.Whitney Curtis for The New York TimesBut there are also real risks to premature action.As Mr. Powell alluded to, policymakers do not want to move too hastily in response to the recent data. Many officials argue that it does not make sense to react to what is expected to be a short-lived price pickup by dialing back fiscal ambitions or weakening monetary support — policy changes that would reduce demand and lead to slower hiring down the road.Should the Fed pull back support for the economy before many of the 6.8 million jobs that have gone missing since the start of the pandemic return, it could lead to a painful situation in which workers end up stuck out of work.That would cost families paychecks, hurt the country’s potential for growth and tip the economic scales toward employers, who benefit when many available workers are competing for jobs.For decades, “the sensible adult consensus — that the most important thing was to protect against inflation — had a huge cost, and that cost was wages stagnating,” said Benjamin Dulchin, director of the organizing group Fed Up. “The Fed can err on the side of corporate interests and keeping wages lower, or it can err on the side of workers’ interests.”Today’s inflation could offer benefits.Inflation does have some winners. People who owe debts find that they are easier to pay off, and middle-class households who own houses may find that their values appreciate. Research has suggested that inflation in advanced economies can shrink inequality, for instance.But that isn’t even the argument the Fed and the White House are making: They simply do not expect the higher prices to last forever, and they think the short-term costs are worth the long-term benefits of helping the economy through a tough period.Some Democrats think that voracious hiring bolstered by government spending and central bank support will give workers the power to bargain for higher wages — an ability that might last beyond the inflationary phase. And they have been trying to foster a swift recovery from the pandemic downturn, getting people back into jobs and businesses back into full swing quickly.Officials are being patient, even as inflation surprises them.Government officials are setting economic policy today with an eye on the last battle. After the deep 2007-9 recession, the government cut back on spending early and monetary policymakers lifted interest rates before price gains had returned to their 2 percent annual inflation goal. Price gains proceeded to get stuck below that target, and the labor market recovery may have taken longer than it needed to, since the economy had less support.As that episode underlined, slow-moving global trends — including aging demographics and free trade — seem to keep a lid on price gains these days. In Japan and in Europe, policymakers have spent years battling to coax inflation higher. They are worried in part by the looming threat of deflation, which discourages consumption and crushes debtors, who find their pay stagnating or declining as their debt loads remain unchanged.America’s current bout of price pressures actually seems to be helping to guide consumer expectations, which had been slipping lower, back into the comfort zone.And a few heady inflation numbers are a good problem to have, if you ask Kenneth Rogoff, a Harvard economist. The globe just experienced a devastating pandemic that was expected to wreck the economy.“In the current situation, the fact that the economy is booming and they didn’t quite plan for it is still a blessing,” he said. “It’s a rich man’s problem that we’re getting inflation.” More