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    Sharp Drop in Airfares Cheers Inflation-Weary Travelers

    Airfares to many popular destinations have recently fallen to their lowest levels in months, and even holiday travel is far cheaper than it was last year, providing some welcome relief to consumers who have been frustrated for months by high prices for all manner of goods and services.The glut of deals suggests that the airline industry’s supercharged pandemic recovery may finally be slowing as the supply of tickets catches up and, on some routes, overtakes demand, which appears relatively robust.Consider the fares that Denise Diorio, a retired teacher in Tampa, Fla., recently scored. She spent less than $40 on flights to and from Chicago and paid just $230 for a round-trip ticket from New York to Paris and back, a trip she plans to take this month.“I’ve been telling all my friends, ‘If you want to go somewhere, get your tickets now,’” she said.The bargains she found may be exceptional, but Ms. Diorio is right that deals abound.Early this month, the average price for a domestic flight around Thanksgiving was down about 9 percent from a year ago. And flights around Christmas were about 18 percent cheaper, according to Hopper, a booking and price-tracking app. Kayak, the travel search engine, looked at a wider range of dates around the holidays and found that domestic flight prices were down about 18 percent around Thanksgiving and 23 percent around Christmas.“In a lot of cases, we’re seeing some of the lowest fares that we’ve seen really since travel started coming back after the drop-off in 2020,” said Kyle Potter, executive editor of Thrifty Traveler, a travel blog and deal-watching service.Domestic ticket prices fell over the summer, Mr. Potter said, and deals on international travel, particularly to Europe, have become more common recently.Airlines lower their fares when they are trying to get more people to book tickets as demand is slowing or they are facing stiffer competition. There’s little question that competition has intensified on some routes, but travel experts say it’s not clear whether demand is waning.Thanksgiving this year is expected to set a record for air travel, with nearly 30 million passengers forecast, according to Airlines for America, an industry group. That would be about 9 percent more than last year and 6 percent more than in 2019, before the pandemic.But some airlines say demand is slowing outside of holiday and other peak travel periods. In addition, some airports have been so flooded with flights that carriers have been forced to cut fares to fill planes.That hadn’t been much of a problem for most of the recovery from the pandemic. Weather and other disruptions limited the supply of flights last year and in 2021, as did shortages of trained pilots, parts and planes, among other factors. That drove up ticket prices, kept planes full and helped airlines take in strong profits.Thanksgiving this year is expected to set a record for air travel, with nearly 30 million passengers anticipated.Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times“The airline industry has never delivered the types of profit margins and return on capital that it has done over the last 2.5 years,” said John Grant, chief analyst with OAG, an aviation advisory and data firm. “We’re getting back to a more normal industry.”For the largest U.S. airlines, the good times have continued, fueled in particular by thriving demand for international travel. But smaller and low-fare carriers have started to suffer. Several reported disappointing financial results for the three months that ended in September. Executives at those airlines have said demand is weakening, fares are falling and costs remain high. They also say bad weather and a shortage of air traffic controllers have made flying more difficult.JetBlue Airways, for example, lost $153 million in the third quarter, compared with a $57 million profit in the same period last year. The company said recently that it was moving flights away from crowded markets, such as New York, to those where it expected stronger performance, such as the Caribbean. The budget carriers Spirit Airlines and Frontier Airlines recently told investors that they were looking to cut costs by tens of millions of dollars.Competition has been fierce in some important markets, driving down fares and profits.In Denver, where Frontier is based, about 14 percent more seats were available on flights this summer than in the summer of 2019, according to Cirium, an aviation data provider. Miami and Orlando, Fla., two popular destinations served by many budget carriers, saw even larger increases in capacity.But while airlines added flights in popular markets as they chased passengers, airports in other cities, including Los Angeles, a hub for several major airlines, had large declines in capacity from the summer of 2019.“You’ll find that there’s a large correlation between the airlines that are doing well and the ones that are struggling, margin-wise, when you compare where their concentrations are,” Barry Biffle, Frontier’s chief executive, said last month on a conference call to discuss the airline’s third-quarter results.When it comes to international routes, analysts are less certain of why fares are falling and whether they will remain low. The kinds of deals that Ms. Diorio got for her Paris trip could mean that larger airlines soon find themselves facing a financial squeeze or merely that the industry is returning to a prepandemic normal.“Historically, demand to Europe softens in the winter,” said Steve Hafner, Kayak’s chief executive. “So I think that reflects normal trends.”But demand for international travel could face challenges, partly because of the wars in the Middle East and Ukraine. Analysts also warn that many consumers may be less willing or able to splurge on travel than they were in the last couple of years, when they had pandemic savings to draw from. Even if demand remains strong, airlines risk offering too many seats on popular overseas routes.Whatever the cause of the recent drop in fares, the deals are a welcome break to travelers from years of high prices, Mr. Potter said.“Either way the recipe is there for cheap flights,” he said. “If it’s just a little bit of overcapacity, that’s a win for consumers. If travel demand is dropping, in some ways that’s an even bigger win for people who are never going to give up on travel.” More

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    Vermont May Be the Face of a Long-Term U.S. Labor Shortage

    At Lake Champlain Chocolates, the owners take shifts stacking boxes in the warehouse. At Burlington Bagel Bakery, a sign in the window advertises wages starting at $25 an hour. Central Vermont Medical Center is training administrative employees to become nurses. Cabot Creamery is bringing workers from out of state to package its signature blocks of Cheddar cheese.The root of the staffing challenge is simple: Vermont’s population is rapidly aging. More than a fifth of Vermonters are 65 or older, and more than 35 percent are over 54, the age at which Americans typically begin to exit the work force. No state has a smaller share of its residents in their prime working years.Vermont offers an early look at where the rest of the country could be headed. The baby boom population is aging out of the work force, and subsequent generations aren’t large enough to fully replace it. Immigration slumped during the pandemic, and though it has since rebounded, it is unclear how long that will last, given a lack of broad political support for higher immigration. Birthrates are falling.“All of these things point in the direction of prolonged labor scarcity,” said David Autor, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has studied long-term work force trends.Eric Lampman, right, the president and co-owner of Lake Champlain Chocolates, has revamped its production schedule to reduce its reliance on seasonal help.Lockers at Lake Champlain Chocolates. While other states have helped buttress their work forces through immigration, Vermont’s foreign-born population has remained small.Vermont’s unemployment rate was 1.9 percent in September, among the lowest in the country, and the labor force is still thousands of people smaller than before the pandemic. Employers are fighting over scarce workers, offering wage increases, signing bonuses and child care subsidies, alongside enticements such as free ski passes. When those tactics fail, many are limiting operating hours and scaling back product offerings.A rural state — Burlington, with a population under 45,000, is the smallest “biggest city” in the country — Vermont has for decades seen young people leave for better opportunities. And while other states have helped buttress their work forces through immigration, Vermont’s foreign-born population has remained small.But demographics are at the root of the problem.“We knew where we were headed — we just maybe got there a little bit quicker than we were expecting,” said Michael Harrington, the state’s labor commissioner. “There just aren’t enough Vermonters to meet the needs of our state and our employers in the future.”Gray Mountain StateA disproportionate share of Vermonters are in or near their retirement years. But the overall U.S. population is also aging.

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    Percentage of 2022 population by age group
    Source: Census BureauBy The New York TimesThere were similar shortages across the country in 2021 and 2022, as demand — for both goods and workers — surged after pandemic lockdowns. The overall labor market has become more balanced as demand has cooled and Americans have returned to the work force. But economists and demographers say shortages will re-emerge as the population ages.“It seems to be happening slowly enough that we’re not seeing it as a crisis,” said Diana Elliott, vice president for U.S. programs at the Population Reference Bureau, a nonprofit research organization. “It’s happening in slow motion.”Long-run labor scarcity will look different from the acute shortages of the pandemic era. Businesses will find ways to adapt, either by paying workers more or by adapting their operations to require fewer of them. Those that can’t adapt will lose ground to those that can.“It’s just going to be a new equilibrium,” said Jacob Vigdor, an economist at the University of Washington, adding that businesses that built their operations on the availability of relatively cheap labor may struggle.“You may discover that that business model doesn’t work for you anymore,” he said. “There are going to be disruptions. There are going to be winners and losers.”Higher Wages, More OpportunityCentral Vermont Medical Center built a classroom and simulation lab for its training programs. A trainee practiced a procedure using a dummy.The winners are the workers. When workers are scarce, employers have an incentive to broaden their searches — considering people with less formal education, or those with disabilities — and to give existing employees opportunities for advancement.At Central Vermont Medical Center, as at rural hospitals across the country, the pandemic compounded an existing nursing shortage. An aging population means that demand for health care will only grow.So the medical center has teamed up with two local colleges on a program enabling hospital employees to train as nurses while working full time. The hospital built a classroom and simulation lab on site, and lent out its nurses to serve as faculty. Students spend 12 of their paid working hours each week studying — and if they stay on as nurses for three years after completing the program, their student debt is forgiven.The program has graduated 27 licensed practical nurses and eight registered nurses since 2021; some previously had administrative jobs. The hospital is expanding the training to roles like respiratory technicians and phlebotomists.Other businesses are finding their own ways to accommodate workers. Lake Champlain Chocolates, a high-end chocolate maker outside Burlington, has revamped its production schedule to reduce its reliance on seasonal help. It has also begun bringing former employees out of retirement, hiring them part time during the holiday season.The medical center has teamed up with two local colleges on a program enabling hospital employees to train as nurses while working full time.“We’ve adapted,” said Allyson Myers, the company’s marketing director. “Prepandemic we never would have said, oh, come and work in the fulfillment department one day a week or two days a week. We wouldn’t have offered that as an option.”Then there is the most straightforward way to attract workers: paying them more. Lake Champlain has raised starting wages for its factory and retail workers 20 to 35 percent over the past two years.Charles Goodhart, a British economist, said the aging of the population would tend to lead to lower inequality — albeit at the cost of higher prices.“Since the available supply of workers will go down, relative to demand, workers will demand and get higher wages,” Mr. Goodhart, who in 2020 published a book on the economic consequences of aging societies, wrote in an email.Robots and HousingCabot Creamery is in a rural area where cellphone coverage is spotty and many roads are unpaved. The county has only about 700 unemployed people, according to Vermont’s Labor Department.When Walmart reached out to Cabot Creamery about increasing distribution of its Greek yogurt, Jason Martin hesitated — he wasn’t sure he could find enough workers to meet the extra demand.Mr. Martin is senior vice president of operations for Agri-Mark, the agricultural cooperative that owns Cabot Creamery, the nationally distributed brand that employs close to 700 people in Vermont. When the company’s leadership talks about adding a product or expanding production, he said, labor is nearly always the first topic.“As I present products to our board of directors, in the back of my mind I always think, ‘I’m going to need to find the people,’” Mr. Martin said.The labor challenge is evident at Cabot Creamery’s packaging plant in the company’s namesake town. Blocks of cheese weighing close to 700 pounds are fed into machines that cut them, for one product, into cracker-size slices. Employees in gloves and hairnets then drop the slices into plastic pouches, which are sealed and packaged together. Many of the workers are in their 50s and 60s, and have been with Cabot for decades.Cabot is over an hour from Burlington, in a rural area where cellphone coverage is spotty and many roads are unpaved. The county has only about 700 unemployed people, according to the state’s Labor Department, and while the company has raised pay and offers generous benefits — a recent marketing campaign cites perks including a defined-benefit pension plan, tuition reimbursement and, of course, free cheese — hiring remains difficult.Cabot has raised pay and offers generous benefits such as pension plan, tuition reimbursement and, of course, free cheese, but hiring remains difficult.Adding to the challenge is Vermont’s housing shortage. Cabot has contracted with a local college to use unoccupied dormitories to house temporary workers brought in from other states and — on guest-worker visas — from other countries.It is also investing in automation — not just to require fewer workers but also to make jobs less taxing for its aging employee base. New equipment will package cheese slices automatically.To economists, investments like Cabot’s are good news — a sign that companies are finding ways to make the people they have more productive.But ultimately, many economists say, Vermont — and the country as a whole — will simply need more workers. Some could come from the existing population, through companies’ efforts to tap into new labor pools and through government efforts to address larger issues like the opioid crisis, which has sidelined hundreds of thousands of working-age Americans.Not all economists think aging demographics are likely to drive a national labor shortage.The ranks of people in their prime working years was stagnant for years before the pandemic, but labor was often plentiful, said Adam Ozimek, the chief economist at Economic Innovation Group, a bipartisan public policy organization. Increased immigration, he added, would add to demand as well as supply.Still, many economists argue that immigrants will be an important part of the solution, especially in fields, like elder care, that are rapidly growing and hard to automate.“We need to start looking at immigrants as a strategic resource, incredibly valuable parts of the economy,” said Ron Hetrick, senior labor economist at Lightcast, a labor market data firm.Workers WantedKevin Chu, the executive director of the Vermont Futures Project, sees the worker shortage as an imminent, long-term threat to the state’s economy.Kevin Chu has spent the past several months traveling around Vermont speaking to local business groups, elected officials, nonprofit organizations and pretty much anyone else who would listen. His message: Vermont needs more people.Mr. Chu is the executive director of the Vermont Futures Project, a nonprofit organization, backed by the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, that sees the worker shortage as an imminent, long-term threat to the state’s economy.Mr. Chu grew up in Vermont after his parents immigrated from China in the mid-1980s, part of a wave of immigrants — many of them refugees — who came to the state during that period. He recalls attending Burlington High School at a time when it flew the flag of its students’ home countries, dozens in all.“I feel like I got a glimpse of what Vermont could be,” he said.Mr. Chu’s message has resonated with business leaders and state officials, but it has been a tougher sell with the population as a whole. A recent poll found that a plurality — but not a majority — of Vermonters supported increasing the population.The Futures Project has set a goal of increasing the population to 802,000 by 2035, from fewer than 650,000 today. That would also help bring down Vermont’s median age to 40, from 42.7.The state has a long way to go: Vermont added just 92 people from 2021 to 2022.The root of Vermont’s staffing challenge is simple: More than a quarter of its adults are 65 or older, and more than 40 percent are over 54. More

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    New Normal or No Normal? How Economists Got It Wrong for 3 Years.

    Economists first underestimated inflation, then underestimated consumers and the labor market. The key question is why.Economists spent 2021 expecting inflation to prove “transitory.” They spent much of 2022 underestimating its staying power. And they spent early 2023 predicting that the Federal Reserve’s rate increases, meant to cure the inflation, would plunge the economy into a recession.None of those forecasts have panned out.Rapid inflation has now been a fact of life for 30 consecutive months. The Fed has lifted rates above 5.25 percent to hit the brakes on price increases, but the economy has remained surprisingly strong in the face of those moves. Americans are working in greater numbers than predicted, and recent retail sales data showed that consumers are still spending at a faster clip than just about anyone expected. For now, there is no economic downturn in sight.The question is why experts so severely misjudged the pandemic and postpandemic economy — and what it means for policy and the outlook going forward.Economists generally expect growth to slow late this year and into early next, nudging unemployment higher and gradually weighing inflation down. But several said the economy had been so hard to predict since the pandemic that they had low confidence about future projections.“The forecasts have been embarrassingly wrong, in the entire forecasting community,” said Torsten Slok at the asset manager Apollo Global Management. “We are still trying to figure out how this new economy works.”Economists were too optimistic on inflation.Two big issues have made it difficult to forecast since 2020. The first was the coronavirus pandemic. The world had not experienced such a sweeping disease since the Spanish flu in 1918, and it was hard to anticipate how it would roil commerce and consumer behavior.The second complication came from fiscal policy. The Trump and Biden administrations poured $4.6 trillion of recovery money and stimulus into the economy in response to the pandemic. President Biden then pushed Congress to approve several laws that provided funding to encourage infrastructure investment and clean energy development.Between coronavirus lockdowns and the government’s enormous response, standard economic relationships stopped serving as good guides to the future.Take inflation. Economic models suggested that it would not take off in a lasting way as long as unemployment was high. It made sense: If a bunch of consumers were out of work or earning tepid pay gains, they would pull back if companies charged more.But those models did not count on the savings that Americans had amassed from pandemic aid and months at home. Price increases began to take off in March 2021 as ravenous demand for products like used cars and at-home exercise equipment collided with global supply shortages. Unemployment was above 6 percent, but that did not stop shoppers.Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 exacerbated the situation, pushing up oil prices. And before long, the labor market had healed and wages were growing rapidly.Economic models did not take in to account that people were saving money during the pandemic that enabled them to buy goods even when unemployed.Jim Wilson/The New York TimesThey were too pessimistic on growth.As inflation showed staying power, officials at the Fed started to raise interest rates to cool demand — and economists began to predict that the moves would plunge the economy into recession.Central bankers were lifting rates at a speed not seen since the 1980s, making it sharply more expensive to take out a mortgage or car loan. The Fed had never changed rates so abruptly without spurring a downturn, many forecasters pointed out.“I think it’s been very seductive to make forecasts that are based on these types of observations,” said Jan Hatzius, Goldman Sachs’s chief economist, who has been predicting a gentler cool-down. “I think that understates how much this cycle has been different.”Not only has the recession failed to materialize so far, but growth has been surprisingly fast. Consumers have continued shelling out money for everything from Taylor Swift tickets to dog day care. Economists have regularly predicted that America’s shoppers are near a breaking point, only to be proved wrong.Part of the issue is a lack of good real-time data on consumer savings, said Karen Dynan, an economist at Harvard.“It’s been months now that we’ve been telling ourselves that people at the bottom of the income distribution have spent down their savings piles,” she said. “But we don’t really know.”At the same time, fiscal stimulus has had more staying power than expected: State and local governments continue to divvy out money they were allocated months or years ago.And consumers are getting more and better jobs, so incomes are fueling demand.Economists are now asking whether inflation can slow sufficiently without a pullback in growth. A landing so painless would be historically abnormal, but inflation has already cooled to 3.7 percent in September, down from a peak of about 9 percent.Normal may still be far away.Still, that is too quick for comfort: Inflation was about 2 percent before the pandemic. Given inflation’s stubbornness and the economy’s staying power, interest rates may need to stay elevated to bring it fully under control. On Wall Street, that even has a tagline: “Higher for longer.” Some economists even think that the low-rate, low-inflation world that prevailed from about 2009 to 2020 may never return. Donald Kohn, a former vice chair of the Fed, said big government deficits and the transition to green energy could keep growth and rates higher by propping up demand for borrowed cash.“My guess is that things aren’t going to go back,” Mr. Kohn said. “But my goodness, this is a distribution of outcomes.”Neil Dutta, an economist at Renaissance Macro, pointed out that America had a baby boom in the 1980s and early 1990s. Those people are now getting married, buying houses and having children. Their consumption could prop up growth and borrowing costs.“To me, it’s like the old normal — what was abnormal was that period,” Mr. Dutta said.Fed officials, for their part, are still predicting a return to an economy that looks like 2019. They expect rates to return to 2.5 percent over the longer term. They think that inflation will fade and growth will cool next year.The question is, what happens if they are wrong? The economy could slow more sharply than expected as the accumulated rate moves finally bite. Or inflation could get stuck, forcing the Fed to contemplate heftier interest rates than anyone has gambled on. Not a single person in a Bloomberg survey of nearly 60 economists expects interest rates to be higher at the end of 2024 than at the end of this year.Mr. Slok said it was a moment for modesty.“I think we have not figured it out,” he said. More

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    How High Interest Rates Sting Bakers, Farmers and Consumers

    Home buyers, entrepreneurs and public officials are confronting a new reality: If they want to hold off on big purchases or investments until borrowing is less expensive, it’s probably going to be a long wait.Governments are paying more to borrow money for new schools and parks. Developers are struggling to find loans to buy lots and build homes. Companies, forced to refinance debts at sharply higher interest rates, are more likely to lay off employees — especially if they were already operating with little or no profits.Over the past few weeks, investors have realized that even with the Federal Reserve nearing an end to its increases in short-term interest rates, market-based measures of long-term borrowing costs have continued rising. In short, the economy may no longer be able to avoid a sharper slowdown.“It’s a trickle-down effect for everyone,” said Mary Kay Bates, the chief executive of Bank Midwest in Spirit Lake, Iowa.Small banks like Ms. Bates’s are at the epicenter of America’s credit crunch for small businesses. During the pandemic, with the Fed’s benchmark interest rate near zero and consumers piling up savings in bank accounts, she could make loans at 3 to 4 percent. She also put money into safe securities, like government bonds.But when the Fed’s rate started rocketing up, the value of Bank Midwest’s securities portfolio fell — meaning that if Ms. Bates sold the bonds to fund more loans, she would have to take a steep loss. Deposits were also waning, as consumers spent down their savings and moved money into higher-yielding assets.Higher Interest Rates Are Here More

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    American Household Wealth Jumped in the Pandemic

    Pandemic stimulus, a strong job market and climbing stock and home prices boosted net worth at a record pace, Federal Reserve data showed.American families saw the largest jump in their wealth on record between 2019 and 2022, according to Federal Reserve data released on Wednesday, as rising stock indexes, climbing home prices and repeated rounds of government stimulus left people’s finances healthier.Median net worth climbed 37 percent over those three years after adjusting for inflation, the Fed’s Survey of Consumer Finances showed — the biggest jump in records stretching back to 1989. At the same time, median family income increased 3 percent between 2018 and 2021 after subtracting out price increases.While income gains were most pronounced for the affluent, the data showed clearly that Americans made nearly across-the-board financial progress in the three years that include the pandemic. Savings rose. Credit card balances fell. Retirement accounts swelled.Other data, from both government and private-sector sources, hinted at those gains. But the Fed report, which is released every three years, is considered the gold standard in data about the financial circumstances of households. It offers the most comprehensive snapshot of everything from savings to stock ownership across racial, wealth and age groups.This is the first time the Fed report has been released since the onset of the coronavirus, and it offers a sense of how families fared during a tumultuous economic period. People lost jobs in mass numbers in early 2020, and the government tried to soften the blow with multiple relief packages.More recently, the job market has been booming, with very low unemployment and rapid wage growth that has helped to bolster incomes. At the same time, rapid inflation has eroded some of the gains by making everyday life more expensive.Without adjusting for inflation, median income would have risen 20 percent, for instance, based on the report released Wednesday.The job market has been booming, and at the same time, rapid inflation has eroded some of the gains by making everyday life more expensive.Hiroko Masuike/The New York TimesThe financial progress, particularly for poorer families, is especially remarkable when compared with the aftermath of the last recession, which lasted from 2007 to 2009. It took years for household wealth to rebound fully after that crisis, and for some families it never did.Income climbed across all groups between 2019 and 2022, though gains were biggest toward the top — meaning that income inequality widened.That made for a big difference between median income — the number at the midpoint among all households — and the average, which tallies all earnings and divides them by the number of households. Average income climbed 15 percent, one of the largest three-year pops on record.Wealth inequality was more complicated. Because the rich hold such a large share of financial assets in America, wealth gaps tend to grow in absolute terms when stocks, bonds and houses are climbing in price. True to that, wealth climbed much more in dollar terms for rich families.But in the three years covered by the survey, growth in wealth was actually the largest in percentage terms for poorer families. People in the bottom quarter had a net worth of $3,500 in 2022, up from $400 in 2019. Among families in the top 10 percent, median net worth climbed to $3.79 million, up from $3.01 million three years earlier.Because of the way the data is measured, it is difficult to break out just how much pandemic-related payments would have mattered to the figures. To the extent that families saved one-time checks and other help they received during the pandemic, those would have been included in the measures of net worth.Families were also still receiving some pandemic payments when the income measures were collected in 2021, which means that things like enhanced unemployment insurance probably factored into the data.Some Americans appear to have taken advantage of their improved financial positions to invest in stocks for the first time: 21 percent of families owned stocks directly in 2022, up from 15 percent in 2019, the largest change on record. Many of those new stock owners appear to have been relatively small investors, likely reflecting at least in part Americans’ enthusiasm for “meme stocks” like GameStop during the pandemic.The Fed’s newly released figures show that significant gaps in income and wealth persist across racial groups, although Black and Hispanic families saw the largest percentage gains in net worth during the pandemic period.Black families’ median net worth climbed 60 percent, to $44,900. That was a bigger jump than the 31 percent increase for white families, which lifted their household wealth to $285,000. Hispanic families saw a 47 percent increase in net worth.At the same time, racial and ethnic minorities saw slower income gains in the period through 2021. Black and Hispanic households saw small declines in earnings after adjusting for inflation, while white families saw a modest increase.For the first time, the report included data on Asian families, who had the highest median net worth of any racial or ethnic group.While the data in the report is slightly dated, it underscores what a strong position American families were in as they exited the pandemic. Solid net worth and growing incomes have helped people to continue spending into 2023, which has helped to keep the economy growing at a solid pace even when the Fed has been lifting interest rates to cool it down.That resilience has stoked hope that the Fed might be able to pull off a “soft landing,” one in which it slows the economy gently without crushing consumers so much that it plunges America into a recession. More

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    Retailers’ Seasonal Hiring Plans Signal a Cooling Labor Market

    After scrambling to fill out work forces in recent years, many companies are reporting more modest goals for temporary employment.As the most important selling season for retailers approaches, job applicants may feel a chill.Macy’s and Dick’s Sporting Goods plan to hire fewer seasonal workers after a surge in the past two years, when shoppers thronged to stores after pandemic lockdowns and employers struggled to keep up. Many retailers have dropped the incentives they used over the past few years to bring workers in the doors, such as signing or referral bonuses and steeper employee discounts.The career site Indeed said that searches for seasonal jobs were up 19 percent from last year, but that listed positions were down 6 percent. Companies helping businesses find temporary workers note that major retailers have been slower to release hiring plans this year. And on Indeed, fewer job postings are described as urgent needs.Seasonal hiring helps retailers handle the increased shopping during the fourth quarter, often referred to as “peak season.” Sales in November and December can account for a quarter of some retailers’ annual revenue. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, foot traffic in stores and online shopping are usually at their height.Early estimates point to an increase in retail spending this holiday season, but not at the fast pace of recent years.Some economists and consultants see the trends in hiring and pay as a sign that the red-hot labor market of the past couple of years has cooled. Retailers’ work forces, unsteady throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, are starting to stabilize. As inflation erodes shoppers’ budgets and confidence — and savings from pandemic relief programs are drawn down — the hiring plans may be part of a cautious approach that extends to inventories and sales projections.“The seasonal hiring market looks a whole lot more like 2019 than those pandemic bounce-back years,” said Nick Bunker, director of North American economic research for Indeed. “I really do think this is emblematic broadly of what we’re seeing in the U.S. labor market, where demand for workers overall is fairly strong but down from where it was in the last year and a half.”Macy’s is aiming to hire 38,000 workers, 3,000 below its 2022 plan. In 2021, Macy’s said it aimed to hire 76,000 people — in both permanent roles and seasonal jobs — during the holiday season. Of those positions, 48,000 were temporary.Dick’s said it would hire up to 8,600 seasonal workers, down from targets of 9,000 last year and 10,000 in 2021 — and up only slightly from 8,000 in 2019.“The seasonal hiring market looks a whole lot more like 2019 than those pandemic bounce-back years,” said Nick Bunker, an economic researcher at Indeed.Nam Y. Huh/Associated PressTarget and United Parcel Service plan to hire the same number of workers as last year, about 100,000 each. In a statement, Target said its seasonal associates would supplement the hiring it had done throughout the year to staff up its stores and supply chain facilities.“This year, we are starting the season with stability in our work force and a continued commitment to scheduling flexibility for our team, which has helped us retain team members and create a more experienced work force,” the company said in a post on its blog.Walmart, the nation’s biggest retailer, echoed that sentiment.“I’m also excited that we’re staffed and ready to serve customers this holiday season,” Maren Dollwet Waggoner, senior vice president of people at Walmart U.S., said in a post on LinkedIn. “We’ve been hiring throughout the year to be sure we’re ready to serve customers however they want to shop.”A Walmart spokeswoman added that if a store had additional staffing needs during the holiday season, it would offer extra hours to current employees before looking externally. Walmart did not say how many seasonal workers it planned to hire this year, as it did in years past. (In 2022, it said it was looking to fill 40,000 seasonal positions, including truck drivers and call center workers.)Amazon is a notable exception, saying it will hire more seasonal workers this year — 250,000, up from 150,000 last year. It also said that a $1.3 billion investment would bring the average hourly wage of those jobs to more than $20.50 and that it would still offer signing bonuses in some locations.Matching staffing to demand helps ensure that retailers eke out as many sales as they can.Seasonal workers are “the folks that are on the front lines of their business,” said John Long, North America retail sector leader at the consulting firm Korn Ferry, adding that aside from a store’s inventory, they “are going to be the make-or-break piece of the equation of whether the retailer makes their numbers or they don’t.”Amazon said it planned to hire 250,000 seasonal workers, up from 150,000 last year.Karsten Moran for The New York TimesAfter paring their work forces during the worst of the pandemic, employers in the retail and hospitality industries scrambled to fill open positions as workers sought more flexibility, switched companies frequently or stood on the sidelines. To get back to prepandemic staffing, retailers have used evergreen requisitions — continually displayed postings advertising essential roles that often need to be filled — and have started hiring seasonal workers as early as August.They have also given more hours to part-time workers and relaxed qualifications. To reduce turnover, many companies have bumped up their base wages for hourly positions.These factors have complicated the explanation for reduced seasonal hiring this year, said Melissa Hassett, a vice president at Manpower Group who works with large retailers, logistics and distributors across the country.“If you’re always hiring, you’re just not going to see an increase in postings happen very often,” she said. “So sometimes when you look at the increase in postings for retail it’s not as accurate as you think it is.”But there is also a feeling that the leverage of retail job applicants will fade.“In the past it felt like the workers had a lot more upper hand in terms of being able to demand what they need,” Yong Kim, founder of the staffing platform Wonolo, said. That dynamic has changed, especially for temporary positions.“There is definitely more tightening around companies wanting to hold off on hiring unless they really need to” and waiting to see how the fourth quarter pans out, Mr. Kim said. More

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    A Silver Lining From the Pandemic: A Surge in Start-ups

    New research suggests that big shifts in consumer and company behavior — and maybe federal stimulus dollars — have fueled entrepreneurship.The Covid-19 pandemic hurt the U.S. economy in a lot of ways. It choked global supply chains, sent consumer prices soaring and briefly knocked millions of people out of work. But it might have also broken America out of a decades-long entrepreneurial slump.New research from economists at the University of Maryland and the Federal Reserve, set to be presented on Friday at the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington, documents a new and potentially durable surge in Americans starting businesses during and after the pandemic. The new companies range from restaurants and dry cleaners to high-tech start-ups.That surge appears to be a direct response to how the fallout of the virus quickly but permanently changed how many Americans live and work.Those changes opened doors for entrepreneurs, who, economists often contend, are best able to respond to sudden business opportunities. The opportunities came when the federal government was showering Americans with trillions of dollars in pandemic assistance, which may have given many people the capital needed to start a company and hire workers.Federal statistics showed early signs of the business-creation burst. Some economists dismissed it initially as a fluke of the pandemic — one likely to quickly fade.That hesitancy was based in part on studies showing that start-up activity had been declining for several decades. A paper this month by economists at the University of Chicago and the Fed showed that start-up activity and employment, as a share of the economy, had fallen since the 1980s. A handful of large firms increasingly dominate industries.But the new paper by John Haltiwanger of the University of Maryland and Ryan Decker of the Fed, two of the nation’s leading researchers in the study of economic dynamism, suggests that the pandemic may have broken those trends.“We find early hints of a revival of business dynamism,” Mr. Decker and Mr. Haltiwanger wrote.They cautioned that “in many respects it is too early to ascertain whether a durable reversal of prepandemic trends is occurring,” in part because the revival is still so young.Champions of policies to increase dynamism were less restrained. “This is evidence of a genuine resurgence of economic dynamism led by a spike in start-up activity unlike anything we’ve seen in the post-Great Recession era,” said John Lettieri, the president and chief executive of the Economic Innovation Group, a think tank in Washington.Mr. Haltiwanger and Mr. Decker drew evidence from a wide variety of publicly available sources on new and existing businesses. They found evidence of a sustained increase in new-business activity — and job creation from those businesses.The maps of that entrepreneurship track closely with the new realities of an economy in which more Americans work from home, with fewer start-ups in downtowns and a large increase of them in suburban areas.Monthly applications for new businesses that are likely to create jobs are 30 percent higher than they were in 2019, on the eve of the pandemic, the economists report. Those applications spiked shortly after the pandemic hit, when Congress first pumped stimulus into the economy. They fell briefly and then jumped again around the end of 2020 and start of 2021, when lawmakers sent more money to people and companies. In that time, relatively young companies have grown to account for a larger share of employment and total firms in the economy.The paper suggests those trends might be an overlooked reason that businesses spent the past several years complaining of a labor shortage in the United States, even as workers returned to the labor force faster and in greater numbers than after any other recession this century. Put simply, existing companies may have suddenly found themselves competing for workers with many more start-ups than they were used to.One question the study does not address directly is whether President Biden can rightfully claim any credit for those developments, as he has repeatedly tried to do.“A record 10.5 million new business applications were filed in my first two years, the largest number ever on record in a two-year period,” Mr. Biden said this spring.White House officials said on Thursday that they were encouraged by the study and continued to believe that the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which Mr. Biden signed into law in early 2021, helped support an entrepreneurial surge. It sent money to people, businesses, and state and local governments.“In the spirit of crisis equals opportunity, we’ve long believed that measures in the Rescue Plan helped create a supportive backdrop for entrepreneurs, especially small and minority-owned businesses,” Jared Bernstein, the chairman of Mr. Biden’s Council of Economic Advisers, said in an email. “This work shows extremely welcomed progress in that space, and credibly connects it to the strong job gains we’ve seen over the president’s watch.” More

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    Yellow, the Freight-Trucking Company, Declares Bankruptcy

    A pandemic-era lifeline that the Trump administration predicted would turn a profit for the federal government failed to keep Yellow afloat.Three years after receiving a $700 million pandemic-era lifeline from the federal government, the struggling freight trucking company Yellow is filing for bankruptcy.After monthslong negotiations between Yellow’s management and the Teamsters union broke down, the company shut its operations late last month, and said on Sunday that it was seeking bankruptcy protection so it can wind down its business in an “orderly” way.“It is with profound disappointment that Yellow announces that it is closing after nearly 100 years in business,” the company’s chief executive, Darren Hawkins, said in a statement. Yellow filed a so-called Chapter 11 petition in federal bankruptcy court in Delaware.The downfall of the 99-year-old company will lead to the loss of about 30,000 jobs and could have ripple effects across the nation’s supply chains. It also underscores the risks associated with government bailouts that are awarded during moments of economic panic.Yellow, which formerly went by the name YRC Worldwide, received the $700 million loan during the summer of 2020 as the pandemic was paralyzing the U.S. economy. The loan was awarded as part of the $2.2 trillion pandemic-relief legislation that Congress passed that year, and Yellow received it on the grounds that its business was critical to national security because it shipped supplies to military bases.Since then, Yellow changed its name and embarked on a restructuring plan to help revive its flagging business by consolidating its regional networks of trucking services under one brand. As of the end of March, Yellow’s outstanding debt was $1.5 billion, including about $730 million that it owes to the federal government. Yellow has paid approximately $66 million in interest on the loan, but it has repaid just $230 of the principal owed on the loan, which comes due next year.The fate of the loan is not yet clear. The federal government assumed a 30 percent equity stake in Yellow in exchange for the loan. It could end up assuming or trying to sell off much of the company’s fleet of trucks and terminals. Yellow aims to sell “all or substantially all” of its assets, according to court documents. Mr. Hawkins said the company intended to pay back the government loan “in full.”The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment after the filing.Yellow estimated that it has more than 100,000 creditors and more than $1 billion in liabilities, per court documents. Some of its largest unsecured creditors include Amazon, with a claim of more than $2 million, and Home Depot, which is owed nearly $1.7 million.Yellow is the third-largest small-freight-trucking company in a part of the industry known as “less than truckload” shipping. The industry has been under pressure over the last year from rising interest rates and higher fuel costs, which customers have been unwilling to accept.Those forces collided with an ugly labor fight this year between Yellow and the Teamsters union over wages and other benefits. Those talks collapsed last month and union officials soon after warned workers that the company was shutting down.After its bankruptcy filing, company officials placed much of the blame on the union, saying its members caused “irreparable harm” by halting its restructuring plan. Yellow employed about 23,000 union employees.“We faced nine months of union intransigence, bullying and deliberately destructive tactics,” Mr. Hawkins said. The Teamsters union “was able to halt our business plan, literally driving our company out of business, despite every effort to work with them,” he added.In late June, the company filed a lawsuit against the union, asserting it had caused more than $137 million in damages by blocking the restructuring plan.The Teamsters union said in a statement last week that Yellow “has historically proven that it could not manage itself despite billions of dollars in worker concessions and hundreds of millions in bailout funding from the federal government.” The union did not immediately respond to a request for comment after Yellow’s bankruptcy filing.“I think that Yellow finds itself in a perfect storm, and they have not managed that perfect storm very well,” said David P. Leibowitz, a Chicago bankruptcy lawyer who represents several trucking companies.The bankruptcy could create temporary disruptions for companies that relied on Yellow and might prompt more consolidation in the industry. It could also lead to temporarily higher prices as businesses find new carriers for their freight.“Those inflationary prices will certainly hurt the shippers and hurt the consumer to a certain extent,” said Tom Nightingale, chief executive of AFS Logistics, who suggested that prices would likely normalize within a few months.In late July, Yellow began permanently laying off workers and ceased most of its operations in the United States and Canada, according to court documents. Yellow has retained a “core group” of about 1,650 employees to maintain limited operations and provide administrative work as it winds down. Yellow said it expected to pay about $3.4 million per week in employee wages to operate during bankruptcy, which “may decrease over time.” None of the remaining employees are union members, the company said.The company also sought the authority to pay an estimated $22 million in compensation and benefit costs for current and former employees, including roughly $8.7 million in unpaid wages as of the date of filing. Yellow had readily accessible funds of about $39 million when it filed for bankruptcy, which it said would be insufficient to cover its wind-down efforts, and it expected to receive special financing to help support the sale process and payment of wages.Jack Atkins, a transportation analyst at the financial services firm Stephens, said that Yellow’s troubles had been mounting for years. In the wake of the financial crisis, Yellow engaged in a spree of acquisitions that it failed to successfully integrate, Mr. Atkins said. The demands of repaying that debt made it difficult for Yellow to reinvest in the company, allowing rivals to become more profitable.“Yellow was struggling to keep its head above water and survive,” Mr. Atkins said. “It was harder and harder to be profitable enough to support the wage increases they needed.”The company’s financial problems fueled concerns about the Trump administration’s decision to rescue the firm.It lost more than $100 million in 2019 and was being sued by the Justice Department over claims that it defrauded the federal government during a seven-year period. Last year it agreed to pay $6.85 million to settle the lawsuit.Federal watchdogs and congressional oversight committees have scrutinized the company’s relationships with the Trump administration. President Donald J. Trump tapped Mr. Hawkins to serve on a coronavirus economic task force, and Yellow had financial backing from Apollo Global Management, a private equity firm with close ties to Trump administration officials.Democrats on the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis wrote in a report last year that top Trump administration officials had awarded Yellow the money over the objections of career officials at the Defense Department. The report noted that Yellow had been in close touch with Trump administration officials throughout the loan process and had discussed how the company employed Teamsters as its drivers.In December 2020, Steven T. Mnuchin, then the Treasury secretary, defended the loan, arguing that had the company been shuttered, thousands of jobs would have been at risk and the military’s supply chain could have been disrupted. He predicted that the federal government would eventually turn a profit from the deal.“Yellow had longstanding financial problems before the pandemic, was not essential to national security and should never have received a $700 million taxpayer bailout from the Treasury Department,” Representative French Hill, a Republican from Arkansas and member of the Congressional Oversight Commission, said in a statement last week. “Years of poor financial management at Yellow has resulted in hard-working people losing their jobs.” More