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    Rapid Inflation, Lower Employment: How the U.S. Pandemic Response Measures Up

    The United States spent more on its policy response than other advanced economies. Now economists are revisiting how that worked.The United States spent more aggressively to protect its economy from the pandemic than many global peers, a strategy that has helped to foment more rapid inflation — but also a faster economic rebound and brisk job gains.Now, though, America is grappling with what many economists see as an unsustainable worker shortage that threatens to keep inflation high and may necessitate a firm response by the Federal Reserve. Yet U.S. employment has not recovered as fully as in Europe and some other advanced economies. That reality is prodding some economists to ask: Was America’s spending spree worth it?As the Fed raises interest rates and economists increasingly warn that it may take at least a mild recession to bring inflation to heel, risks are mounting that America’s ambitious spending will end up with a checkered legacy. Rapid growth and a strong labor market rebound have been big wins, and economists across the ideological spectrum agree that some amount of spending was necessary to avoid a repeat of the painfully slow recovery that followed the previous recession. But the benefits of that faster recovery could be diminished as rising prices eat away at paychecks — and even more so if high inflation prods central bank policymakers set policy in a way that pushes up unemployment down the road.“I’m worried that we traded a temporary growth gain for permanently higher inflation,” said Jason Furman, an economist at Harvard University and a former economic official in the Obama administration. His concern, he said, is that “inflation could stay higher, or the Fed could control it by lowering output in the future.”The Biden administration has repeatedly argued that, to the extent the United States is seeing more inflation, the policy response to the pandemic also created a stronger economy.“We got a lot more growth, we got less child poverty, we got better household balance sheets, we have the strongest labor market by some metrics I’ve ever seen,” Jared Bernstein, an economic adviser to President Biden, said in an interview. “Were all of those accomplishments accompanied by heat on the price side? Yes, but some degree of that heat showed up in every advanced economy, and we wouldn’t trade that back for the historic recovery we helped to generate.”Inflation has picked up around the world, but price increases have been quicker in America than in many other wealthy nations.Consumer prices were up 9.8 percent in March from a year earlier, according to a measure of inflation that strips out owner-occupied housing to make it comparable across countries. That was faster than in Germany, where prices rose 7.6 percent in the same period; the United Kingdom, where they rose 7 percent; and other European countries. Other measures similarly show U.S. inflation outpacing that of its global peers.The Rise of InflationInflation has risen worldwide in the past year, but the increase has been fastest in the United States.

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    Change in consumer prices from a year earlier
    Note: Euro area and U.K. data are Harmonised Index of Consumer Prices. U.S. data is the Consumer Price Index excluding owners’ equivalent rent.Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, O.E.C.D., EurostatBy The New York TimesThe comparatively large jump in prices in America owes at least partly to the nation’s ambitious spending. Research from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco attributed about half of the nation’s 2021 annual price increase to the government’s spending response. The researchers estimated the number, which is imprecise, by measuring America’s inflation outcome compared with what happened in countries that spent less.“The size of the package was very large compared to any other country,” said Òscar Jordà, a co-author on the study.Understand Inflation in the U.S.Inflation 101: What is inflation, why is it up and whom does it hurt? Our guide explains it all.Your Questions, Answered: Times readers sent us their questions about rising prices. Top experts and economists weighed in.Interest Rates: As it seeks to curb inflation, the Federal Reserve announced that it was raising interest rates for the first time since 2018.How Americans Feel: We asked 2,200 people where they’ve noticed inflation. Many mentioned basic necessities, like food and gas.Supply Chain’s Role: A key factor in rising inflation is the continuing turmoil in the global supply chain. Here’s how the crisis unfolded.The Trump and then Biden administrations spent about $5 trillion on pandemic relief in 2020 and 2021 — far more as a share of the nation’s economy than what other advanced economies spent, based on a database compiled by the International Monetary Fund. Much of that money went directly to households in the form of stimulus checks, expanded unemployment insurance and tax credits for parents.Payments to households helped to fuel rapid consumer demand and quick economic growth — progress that has continued into 2022. A global economic outlook released by the International Monetary Fund last week showed that America’s economy is expected to expand by 3.7 percent this year, faster than the roughly 2 percent trend that prevailed before the pandemic and the 3.3 percent average expected across advanced economies this year.That comes on the heels of even more rapid 2021 growth. And as the U.S. economy has expanded so quickly, unemployment has plummeted. After spiking to 14.7 percent in early 2020, joblessness is now roughly back to the 50-year lows that prevailed prior the pandemic.That’s a victory that politicians have celebrated. “Our economy roared back faster than most predicted,” Mr. Biden said in his State of the Union address last month. A major report from the White House on April 14 noted that the United States has experienced a faster recovery than other advanced economies, as measured by gross domestic product, consumer spending and other indicators.The Rebound in SpendingConsumer spending has recovered more quickly in the United States, even after accounting for faster inflation.

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    Change in per capita household spending since fourth quarter of 2019
    Notes: Quarterly data, adjusted for inflationSource: O.E.C.D.By The New York TimesBut increasingly, at least when it comes to the job market, America’s achievement looks less unique.Unemployment in the United States jumped much higher at the outset of the pandemic in part because America’s policies did less to discourage layoffs than those in Europe. While many European governments paid companies to keep workers on their payrolls, the U.S. focused more on providing money directly to those who lost their jobs.Joblessness fell fast in the United States, too, but that was also true elsewhere. Many European countries, Canada and Australia are now back to or below their prepandemic unemployment rates, data reported by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development showed.And when it comes to the share of people who are actually working, the United States is lagging some of its global peers. The nation’s employment rate is hovering around 71.4 percent, still down slightly from nearly 71.8 percent before the pandemic began.By comparison, the eurozone countries, Canada and Australia have a higher employment rates than before the pandemic, and Japan’s employment rate has fully recovered.The Rebound in JobsEmployment rates fell further in the U.S. than in many peer countries, and have not yet returned to their prepandemic level.

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    Change in employment rate since fourth quarter of 2019
    Note: Quarterly data, ages 15 to 64Source: O.E.C.D.By The New York TimesEurope’s more complete employment recovery may partly reflect its different regulations and different approach to supporting workers during the pandemic, said Nick Bennenbroek, international economist at Wells Fargo. European aid programs effectively paid companies to keep people on the payroll even when they couldn’t go to work, while the United States supported workers directly through the unemployment insurance system.That relatively subtle difference had a major consequence: Because fewer Europeans were separated from employers, many flowed right back into their old jobs as the economy reopened. Meanwhile, pandemic layoffs touched off an era of soul-searching and job shuffling in the United States.“You didn’t have as much motivation to reconsider your assessment of your work-life situation,” Mr. Bennenbroek said. “What we initially saw in the U.S. was much more disruptive.”Inflation F.A.Q.Card 1 of 6What is inflation? More

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    Covid Stimulus Money Brings Clashes Within Cities and Counties

    Last June, a meeting of the Dutchess County Legislature in New York’s Hudson Valley quickly turned heated over how to spend some of the county’s $57 million in federal pandemic relief aid.For more than two hours, residents and Democratic lawmakers implored the Republican majority to address longstanding problems that the pandemic had exacerbated. They cited opioid abuse, poverty and food insecurity. Some pointed to decrepit sewer systems and inadequate high-speed internet. Democrats offered up amendments directing funds to addiction recovery and mental health services.In the end, the Legislature rebuffed their appeals. It voted 15 to 10 to devote $12.5 million to renovate a minor-league baseball stadium that’s home to the Hudson Valley Renegades, a Yankees affiliate.“Who created this plan? Some legislators?” asked Carole Pickering, a resident of Hyde Park. “These funds were intended to rescue our citizens to the extent possible, not to upgrade a baseball field.”“I think we should be a little bit ashamed,” Brennan Kearney, a Democrat in the Legislature, told her fellow lawmakers.Cities and counties across the United States have found themselves in the surprisingly uncomfortable position of deciding how best to spend a windfall of federal relief funds intended to help keep them afloat amid deadly waves of Covid-19 infections.The pandemic, which is showing signs of waning as it enters its third year, prompted the largest infusion of federal money into the U.S. economy since the New Deal. President Biden and former President Donald J. Trump got Congress to approve roughly $5 trillion to help support families, shop owners, unemployed workers, schools and businesses.Where $5 Trillion in Pandemic Stimulus Money WentIt is the largest government relief effort in recorded history, and two years after Covid-19 crisis began, money is still flowing to communities. Here’s where it went and how it was spent.A large portion of the aid went to state, local and tribal governments, many of which had projected revenue losses of as much as 20 percent at the pandemic’s onset. The largest chunk came from Mr. Biden’s $1.9 trillion recovery bill, the American Rescue Plan, which earmarked $350 billion. That money is just beginning to flow to communities, which have until 2026 to spend it.“We’ve sent you a whole hell of a lot of money,” Mr. Biden said during a meeting with the nation’s governors in January.In many cases, the money has become an unusually public and contentious marker of what matters most to a place — and who gets to make those decisions. The debates are sometimes partisan, but not always divided by ideology. They pit colleagues against each other, neighbors against neighbors, people who want infrastructure improvements against those who want to help people experiencing homelessness.“It’s both breathtaking in its magnitude but it still requires some hard and strategic choices,” said Brad Whitehead, who is a nonresident senior fellow at Brookings Metro, a metropolitan policy project, and advises cities on how to use their funds. “One of the difficulties for elected leaders is everyone has a claim and a thought for how these dollars should be used.”Poughkeepsie, N.Y., part of Dutchess County. At a meeting last summer, county residents implored leaders to use pandemic aid to address longstanding problems.Amir Hamja for The New York TimesA person who is homeless in Poughkeepsie. Homelessness and poverty were among the issues that residents said deserved funding.Amir Hamja for The New York TimesLocal governments were given broad discretion over how to use the money. In addition to addressing immediate health needs, they were allowed to make up for pandemic-related revenue losses from empty transit systems, tourist attractions and other areas that suffered financially.That money is often equivalent to a third or nearly half of a city’s annual budget. St. Louis, for instance, will receive $498 million, more than 40 percent of its 2021 budget of $1.1 billion. Cleveland, with a city budget of $1.8 billion, will get $511 million.But the relief comes with strings: Governments are prohibited from using the funds to subsidize tax cuts or to make up for pension shortfalls. And because the aid is essentially a one-time installment, it wouldn’t necessarily help cover salaries for new teachers or other recurring costs.Several states have sued the Biden administration over the tax cut restriction, claiming it violates state sovereignty. Some governments have refused to take the money over concerns that it would give the federal government power to control local decision-making.In Saginaw, Mich., the mayor formed a 15-person advisory group to recommend ways to spend the city’s $52 million allotment. Harrisburg, Pa., which received $49 million, has held public events seeking input from residents. Massillon, Ohio, identified the biggest source of public complaints — flooding and sanitation issues — and proposed using its $16 million share to address those areas.“We listened to the people, and we’re trying to make improvements for them,” said Kathy Catazaro-Perry, Massillon’s mayor. “Our city is old. We have a lot of areas that did not have storm drains, and so for us, this is going to be huge because we’re going to be able to rectify some of those older neighborhoods.”But many have found their communities mired in clashes over who has the power to spend the money.Poughkeepsie residents picked up free meals at the Family Partnership Center in February. The food was distributed through the Lunch Box, a program that provides hot meals in Dutchess County five days a week.Amir Hamja for The New York TimesIn New York’s Onondaga County, which includes Syracuse, legislators from both parties have been trying to claw back spending authority from the county executive, Ryan McMahon, a Republican.When the first half of the county’s $89 million stimulus share arrived last spring, Mr. McMahon placed it into an account that he controlled and began committing funds to projects, including a $1 million restaurant voucher program, $5 million in incentives for filmmakers to produce in the area and $25 million for a multisport complex featuring 10 synthetic turf fields.Lawmakers, who questioned why they were not being asked to vote on the spending, were told by the county attorney’s office that they had ceded that authority in December 2020 when they approved an emergency resolution that gave the county executive authority “to address budget issues specifically related to Covid-19 global pandemic.”Legislators argued that they had never intended for that control to extend beyond the immediate pandemic response.James Rowley, who was elected chair of the Onondaga County Legislature in January, hired a lawyer and spent $11,000 preparing a lawsuit to challenge Mr. McMahon.“We have the power of the purse,” Mr. Rowley, a Republican, said in an interview. “I didn’t want to set a precedent that gave the county executive power to spend county money.”Mr. McMahon did not respond to a request for comment. On Feb. 22, he sent a letter to the Legislature proposing that it regain control of the stimulus funds that had not yet been allocated.“I recognize your concern,” he wrote, noting that “our cooperative actions should comport with county charter principles of separation of powers.” An abandoned property in Poughkeepsie. One county legislator called the investment in the baseball stadium “a betrayal of our community.”Boarded-up buildings in Poughkeepsie. Local governments were given broad discretion in how the pandemic aid could be spent.The rush of money from the federal government is in part an attempt to avoid the mistakes of the last recession, when state and local governments cut spending and fired workers, prolonging America’s economic recovery. But analysts say it will take years to fully assess whether all the spending this time was successful. Critics argue that the overall $5 trillion effort has added to a ballooning federal deficit and helped propel rapid inflation. And many states report increasing revenue, and even surpluses, as the economy strengthens.The money has led to ideological fights over the role of the federal government.In January, dozens of residents crowded into a City Council meeting in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, where they demanded that the mayor and other officials turn down the city’s $8.6 million share of stimulus funds, saying it was a ruse by Washington to take control of the town.Residents booed and called the Council members “fascists.” Several referred to the money as a Trojan horse, lamenting that taking it would allow the federal government to impose restrictions on Idaho, including establishing vaccine checkpoints. Amid cries of “Recall!” one woman shouted repeatedly that “you have given up our sovereignty.”“Nobody wants this money,” Mark Salazar, a resident, said to applause. “I don’t want to be under the chains of the federal government. Nobody does.”The council eventually voted 5 to 1 to accept the funds, saying they would go toward expanding a police station and other areas.Dutchess County residents were similarly agitated, if less rowdy, at their June 14 meeting about the stadium. Guidance on using the funds issued by the Treasury Department specifically cited stadiums as “generally not reasonably proportional to addressing the negative economic impacts of the pandemic.”So why, those in attendance asked, was this happening?Marc Molinaro, the county executive, defended the spending, saying Dutchess County had identified $33 million in lost revenue as a result of the pandemic and that, according to the Biden administration’s guidance, stimulus funds could indeed go toward investing in things like the stadium.“It’s basically any structure, facility, thing you own as a government, you can invest these dollars in with broad latitude,” Mr. Molinaro said.In a recent interview, Mr. Molinaro said that because the funds were one-time money, the county needed to be careful not to create expenses that could not be paid for once the federal funds ran out.He added that investing in the stadium would produce an ongoing revenue stream for Dutchess County — money that he said would allow the government to pay for the types of programs that Democrats wanted.The investment, he said, “allows us to create 25 years of revenue that we can invest in the expansion of mental health services, homelessness and substance abuse.”That explanation has not mollified everyone.“I was just devastated that we spent the money that way,” Ms. Kearney, the Democratic legislator, said in an interview. “It was such a betrayal of our community. So grossly inappropriate and grossly tone deaf to the needs of the people in Dutchess who have suffered.” More

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    Where $5 Trillion in Pandemic Stimulus Money Went

    At the outset of the pandemic, governments used the funds largely to cover virus-related costs.

    As the months dragged on, they found themselves covering unexpected shortfalls created by the pandemic, including lost revenue from parking garages and museums where attendance dropped off. They also funded longstanding priorities like upgrading sewer systems and other infrastructure projects.

    K-12 schools used early funds to transition to remote learning, and they received $122 billion from the American Rescue Plan that was intended to help them pay salaries, facilitate vaccinations and upgrade buildings and ventilation systems to reduce the virus’s spread. At least 20 percent must be spent on helping students recover academically from the pandemic.

    While not all of the state and local aid has been spent, the scope of the funding has been expansive:

    Utah set aside $100 million for “water conservation” as it faces historic drought conditions.

    Texas has designated $100 million to “maintain” the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin.

    The San Antonio Independent School District in Texas plans to spend $9.4 million on increasing staff compensation, giving all permanent full-time employees a 2 percent pay raise and lifting minimum wages to $16 an hour, from $15.

    Alabama approved $400 million to help fund 4,000-bed prisons.

    Summerville, S.C., allocated more than $1.3 million for premium pay for essential workers.

    What was the impact?

    The aim of the money was to prevent the kind of painful budget cuts that state and local governments were forced to make in the wake of the Great Recession, when revenues plunged and costs soared, a recipe that prolonged America’s sluggish recovery and hampered some local economies for years.

    Economists largely agree that the money helped local governments shoulder significant pandemic-related costs, and many governments avoided deep budget cuts. Many states have even reported surpluses.

    But federal rules prevented local governments from using CARES Act funds to fill budget shortfalls, and state and local governments wound up slashing hundreds of thousands of public sector jobs anyway. Several states have sued the Biden administration over restrictions it imposed on the use of funds.

    What hasn’t been spent?

    A significant portion has yet to be spent, in part because more than $100 billion remains to be distributed by the Treasury Department. Only 19 states, plus Washington, D.C., received their entire allotments of American Rescue Plan funds in 2021. A second batch will be distributed this year.

    Governments have until 2026 tospend the funds, and disagreements over where the money should go and who has authority to spend it have slowed planning in some communities.

    School districts have until January 2025 to spend the money allocated to them. But even with several years left, schools have voiced concerns about meeting that deadline as many districts struggle with labor shortages and supply-chain delays. More

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    Modern Monetary Theory Got a Pandemic Tryout. Inflation Is Now Testing It.

    The sun was sinking low over Long Island Sound as Stephanie Kelton, wearing the bright red suit jacket she had donned to give a virtual guest lecture to university students in London that morning, perched before a pillow fort she had constructed atop the heavy wooden desk in her home office.The setup was meant to keep out noise as she recorded the podcast she co-hosts, a MarketWatch production called the “Best New Ideas in Money.” The room was hushed except for Ms. Kelton, who bantered energetically with the producers she was hearing through noise-blocking headphones, sang a Terri Gibbs song and made occasional edits to the script. At one point, she muttered, “That sounds like Stephanie.”What Stephanie Kelton sounds like, circa early 2022, is the star architect of a movement that is on something of a victory lap. A victory lap with an asterisk.Ms. Kelton, 52, is the most familiar public face of Modern Monetary Theory, which posits that if a government controls its own currency and needs money — to make sure its citizens have food and places to live when, say, a global pandemic pushes many out of work — it can just print it, as long as its economy has the ability to churn out the needed goods and services.In the M.M.T. view of the world, “How will you pay for it?” is a vapid policy question. Real-world resources and political priorities determine how much lawmakers can and should spend.It is an idea that was forged, and put to something of a test, during a low-inflation era.When Ms. Kelton’s book, “The Deficit Myth,” was published in June 2020 and shot onto best seller lists, inflation had been weak for decades and had dropped below 1 percent as consumers retrenched in the pandemic. The government had begun to spend rapidly to try to prop up flailing households.When Ms. Kelton appeared on a Bloomberg podcast episode, “How M.M.T. Won the Fiscal Policy Debate,” in early 2021, inflation had bounced back to around 2 percent.But by a chilly January afternoon, as ducks flew over the frosty estuary outside Ms. Kelton’s house near Stony Brook University, where she teaches, inflation had rocketed up to 7 percent. The government’s debt pile has exploded to $30 trillion, up from about $10 trillion at the start of the 2008 downturn and $5 trillion in the mid-1990s.The good news: The government has had no trouble selling bonds to fund its spending, contrary to the direst projections of deficit scolds.The bad news: Some economists blame big spending in the pandemic for today’s rapid price increases. The government will release fresh Consumer Price Index data this week, and it is expected to show inflation running at its fastest pace since 1982.And that may be why Ms. Kelton, and the movement she has come to represent, now seem anxious to control the narrative. The pandemic spending wasn’t entirely consistent with M.M.T principles, they say — it wasn’t assessed carefully for its inflationary effects as it was being drawn up, because it was crisis policy. But the situation has underlined how hard it is to know just where the economy’s constraints lay, and how difficult it is to fix things once you run into them.Last summer, Ms. Kelton called inflation a temporary sign of “growing pains.” By the fall, she painted it as a good problem to solve, compared with a continued weak economy. As it lingers, she has argued that diagnosing what is causing it is key.“Can we blame ‘MMT’ for the run-up in inflation?” she tweeted rhetorically last month, just hours before her podcast recording.Understand Inflation in the U.S.Inflation 101: What is inflation, why is it up and whom does it hurt? Our guide explains it all.Your Questions, Answered: We asked readers to send questions about inflation. Top experts and economists weighed in.What’s to Blame: Did the stimulus cause prices to rise? Or did pandemic lockdowns and shortages lead to inflation? A debate is heating up in Washington.Supply Chain’s Role: A key factor in rising inflation is the continuing turmoil in the global supply chain. Here’s how the crisis unfolded.“Of course not.”Emon Hassan for The New York TimesThe economy is the limitTo understand how M.M.T. fits in with other dominant ways of thinking, it’s helpful to take a trip to the beach.In economics, there’s a school of thought sometimes called “freshwater.” It’s the set of ideas that became popular at inland universities in the 1970s, when they began to embrace rational markets and limited government intervention to fight recessions. There’s also “saltwater” thinking, an updated version of Keynesianism that argues that the government occasionally needs to jump-start the economy. It has traditionally been championed in the Ivy League and other top-ranked schools on the coasts.You might call the school of thought Ms. Kelton is popularizing, from a bay that feeds into the East River, brackish economics.M.M.T. theorists argue that society should feel capable of spending to achieve its goals to the extent that there are resources available to fulfill them. Deficit spending need not be constrained to recessions, even theoretically. Want to build a road? No problem, so long as you have asphalt and construction workers. Want to feed children free lunches? Also not a problem, so long as you have the food and the cafeteria workers.What became Modern Monetary Theory began to percolate among a small group of academics when Ms. Kelton, a former military brat and one-time furniture saleswoman, was a graduate student.She had a gap period between graduating with a bachelor’s degree from California State University, Sacramento and attending Cambridge University on a Rotary scholarship, and her college economics professor recommended that she spend the time studying with L. Randall Wray, an early pioneer in the set of ideas.They hit it off. She remained in Mr. Wray’s circle, and he — and Warren Mosler, a hedge fund manager who had written a book on what we get wrong about money — convinced her that the way America understood cash, revenues and budgeting was all backward.Ms. Kelton earned her doctorate at The New School, long a booster of out-of-mainstream economic thinking, and went on to teach at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She, Mr. Wray, who was there at the time, and their colleagues mentored doctoral students and began to write academic papers on the new way of thinking.But academic missives reached only a small circle of readers. After the 2008 financial crisis punched a hole in the economy that would take more than a decade to fill, Ms. Kelton and her colleagues, invigorated with a new urgency, began a blog called “New Economic Perspectives.” It was a bare bones white, red and black layout, using a standard WordPress template, that served as a place for M.M.T. writers to make their case (and, in its early days, featured a #Occupy[YourCityHere] tab).The theory picked up some fervent followers but limited popular acceptance, charitably, and outright derision, uncharitably. Mainstream economists panned it as overly simplistic. Many were confused about what it was arguing.“I have heard pretty extreme claims attributed to that framework and I don’t know whether that’s fair or not,” Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, said in 2019. “The idea that deficits don’t matter for countries that can borrow in their own currency is just wrong.”Ms. Kelton kept the faith. She and her colleagues held conferences, including one in 2018 at The New School where she gave a lecture on “mainstreaming M.M.T.”Rohan Grey organized the conference and a media reception afterward at an Irish pub (“‘Shades of Green,’ monetary pun intended,” he said). It was attended by organizers, academics, “lay people” and lots of journalists. At the happy hour — which lasted until 1 a.m. — Ms. Kelton was mobbed when she walked in the door. “She was already on her way to super celebrity status at that point,” said Mr. Grey, an assistant professor at Willamette Law.When she gave presentations on her ideas, Ms. Kelton would occasionally display a quote often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you. Then you win.”And her star was rising more broadly. She advised Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaigns in 2016 and 2020, getting to know the Vermont senator. He never fully publicly embraced M.M.T., but he nevertheless advanced policies — like Medicare for All — that reflected its ideals.She amassed a following of tens of thousands, later growing to 140,000, on Twitter. Her first handle, @deficitowl, prompted ardent fans to gift her wise bird figurines, some of which are still on display in her home office. She cultivated a small coterie of prominent journalists who were interested in the idea, most notably Joe Weisenthal at Bloomberg. She signed a book deal. She was regularly talking to Democratic lawmakers, sometimes in groups.Her idea percolated through Washington’s media and liberal policy circles. Mainstream economic predictions that huge debt loads would come back to haunt nations like Japan had not played out, the anemic rebound from 2008 had scarred society and called the size of the crisis response into question. Ms. Kelton and her colleagues were ensuring that their theory on benign deficits was an ever-present feature of the blossoming debate.Then the pandemic hit, and suddenly the theoretical question of just how much the government could spend before it ran into limits faced a real-world experiment.The $1.9 Trillion FloorWithout thinking about paying for it, Donald J. Trump’s government quickly passed a $2.3 trillion relief package in late March 2020. In December, it followed that up with another $900 billion. President Biden took office in early 2021, and promptly added $1.9 trillion more.Inflation F.A.Q.Card 1 of 6What is inflation? More

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    Democrats Blast Corporate Profits as Inflation Surges

    Politicians are placing more blame on greedy companies as prices stay high. But booming consumer demand is enabling firms to charge more.Inflation remains rapid as the economy enters 2022, and Democrats have begun pointing to a new culprit for the high and lasting price increases: Greedy corporations.Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and the White House spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, have been among those pointing to excessive profits in certain industries as one thing jacking up costs for consumers. They don’t blame overall inflation on price-gouging businesses — but the implication is that higher prices are partly the product of corporate opportunism.The explanation for inflation is the latest in a string Democrats have offered since price gains shot up to uncomfortably high levels last year. It is partly grounded in economic reality, partly in political necessity: Rising prices are burdening and unsettling consumers, making them a liability for a party with a tenuous hold on Congressional control headed into 2022 midterm elections.Prices are increasing at the fastest pace since 1982, and while inflation is broadly expected to fade in the year ahead, the speed and extent of that moderation is uncertain. Even if price gains slow down, they could remain a headache for the Biden administration if they continue to rise more rapidly than was normal before the pandemic — which is what economists increasingly expect. They had hovered around or below 2 percent for years, but Federal Reserve officials think they will reach an average of 2.6 percent by the end of this year.The administration has limited power over prices: It is making tweaks around the edges to help to tamp them down, but keeping a lid on inflation is mostly the job of the Fed, which has signaled it expects to begin raising interest rates this year to help control it.Still, as consumers feel the pinch of higher prices for food, gas and household goods, it’s creating a political messaging problem for Democrats. Lawmakers and the White House had initially argued that fast inflation was a sign that airfares and hotel rates were bouncing back and would fade quickly, but supply chain snarls and booming consumer demand for goods kept them elevated throughout 2021. More recently, price pressures have begun to broaden to service categories, like rent, in which increases tend to be long-lasting — and as wages climb swiftly, it raises the possibility that companies will keep lifting prices to cover their costs.As inflation proves stubbornly sticky, administration officials and prominent lawmakers have refined their message to focus more blame on corporations, especially those in concentrated industries with a handful of powerful firms, like meat processing or gas.Many companies — from car dealerships to beauty stores and beef sellers — are raking in bigger profits as they successfully raise their prices or discount less while still managing to sell as much or more. But economists have pointed out that in many cases, blaming big firms for worsening inflation is overly simplistic. Industries have been relatively concentrated for years, but businesses now have the wherewithal to charge more because consumers are spending strongly. That owes partly to government stimulus checks and other benefits that have put more money in shoppers’ pockets.“It’s what you would fully expect when demand goes up,” said Jason Furman, a Harvard economist and a former chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers during the Obama administration.The laws of supply and demand have not stopped many on the political left from calling companies out.What to Know About Inflation in the U.S.Inflation, Explained: What is inflation, why is it up and whom does it hurt? We answered some common questions.The Fed’s Pivot: Jerome Powell’s abrupt change of course moved the central bank into inflation-fighting mode.Fastest Inflation in Decades: The Consumer Price Index rose 6.8 percent in November from a year earlier, its sharpest increase since 1982.Why Washington Is Worried: Policymakers are acknowledging that price increases have been proving more persistent than expected.The Psychology of Inflation: Americans are flush with cash and jobs, but they also think the economy is awful.“Profits at the biggest U.S. companies shot above $3 trillion this year, and the margins keep growing,” Mr. Brown, chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, said during a recent hearing. “Mega corporations would rather pass higher costs on to consumers than cut into their profits.”Ms. Warren has pointed to robust corporate profits as a sign that companies are partly to blame for rising costs.“Corporations are exploiting the pandemic to gouge consumers with higher prices on everyday essentials, from milk to gasoline,” she posted on Twitter on Nov. 26. “American families shouldn’t be bankrolling corporate America’s record-high profits.”And White House economic advisers have pointed to what they have called price gouging behavior in a few specific, concentrated industries. Mr. Biden has publicly encouraged an examination of oil company pricing, and the administration has announced measures to try to combat price fixing in meat processing, pointing out that four large companies control 85 percent of the beef market.“When too few companies control such a large portion of the market, our food supply chains are susceptible to shocks,” the administration said in a Jan. 3 release, repeating an argument administration officials have increasingly highlighted. “Mega corporations would rather pass higher costs on to consumers than cut into their profits,” Senator Sherrod Brown has said.Tom Brenner for The New York Times“I would say there are some areas where we have seen corporations benefit, profit from the pandemic,” Ms. Psaki said at a news conference in December.It is the case that big company profits are surging across many industries, a sign that companies are either selling more goods and services or are managing to eke more profit out of each unit that they are selling thanks to higher prices or better productivity. Based on corporate earnings calls and a spate of data, it’s likely a combination of those factors.Using data reported by Standard & Poor’s, the market analyst Edward Yardeni estimates that 2021 was a year of robust profit margins — the amount companies earn after subtracting their costs. After contracting sharply early in the pandemic, margins jumped to a record-high 13.7 percent in the second quarter before ticking down to 13.6 percent in the third.He thinks that owes partly to efficiency improvements, and partly to the fact that some firms have raised prices by more than their costs have climbed, something that they had previously struggled to do without losing customers.“It kind of became culturally acceptable to raise prices,” Mr. Yardeni said. “Consumers could understand that many corporations are under pressure to pass on their costs.”Inflation F.A.Q.Card 1 of 6What is inflation? More

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    The Path Ahead for Biden: Overcome Manchin’s Inflation Fears

    A key Democrat’s decision to pull support from the president’s sprawling climate and social agenda is rooted in the scope of the bill.WASHINGTON — Senator Joe Manchin III, the West Virginia Democrat, effectively killed President Biden’s signature domestic policy bill in its current form on Sunday, saying he was convinced the spending and tax cuts in the $2.2 trillion legislation will exacerbate already hot inflation.Economic evidence strongly suggests Mr. Manchin is wrong. A host of economists and independent analyses have concluded that the bill is not economic stimulus, and that it will not pump enough money into consumer pocketbooks next year to raise prices more than a modest amount.The reason has to do with the pace at which the bill spends money and how much it raises through tax increases that are intended to pay for that spending. The legislation spends funds over a decade, allowing the taxes it raises on wealthy Americans and businesses, which will siphon money out of the economy, to help counteract the boost from spending and tax cuts.The bill also does not provide the type of direct stimulus included in the $1.9 trillion pandemic aid package Mr. Biden signed in March — and which Mr. Manchin supported. Some of its provisions would give money directly to people, like a continued expanded child tax credit, but others would fund programs that would take time to ramp up, like universal prekindergarten.Economists say the net result is likely to be at most a tenth of a percentage point or two increase in the inflation rate. That would be a relatively small effect at a time when supply chain crunches, surging global oil demand and a pandemic shift among consumers away from travel and dining out and toward durable goods have combined to raise the annual inflation rate to 6.8 percent, its fastest pace in nearly 40 years.For months, Mr. Manchin has warned the president and congressional leaders that he was uncomfortable with the breadth of what had become a $2.2 trillion bill to fight climate change, continue monthly checks to parents, establish universal prekindergarten and invest in a wide range of spending and tax cuts targeting child care, affordable housing, home health care and more. He has cited both the risks of inflation and his fear that the package could further balloon the federal budget deficit, saying several programs that are now estimated to end in a few years would likely be made permanent.Over the past week, he has insisted that the bill shrink to fit the framework of less than $2 trillion that Mr. Biden announced this fall, and that — crucially — the legislation not use budget gimmicks to artificially lower the bill’s effect on the budget deficit.In a statement on Sunday, Mr. Manchin said Democrats “continue to camouflage the real cost of the intent behind this bill.”White House officials have tried to promote the idea that the bill would reduce price pressures right away — an outcome economists have not entirely bought into. But the general economic consensus finds little evidence to suggest the bill risks exacerbating rising food, gasoline and other prices.Today’s inflationary surge stems from a confluence of factors, many of them related to the pandemic. The coronavirus has caused factories to shutter and clogged ports, disrupting the supply of goods that Americans stuck at home have wanted to buy, like electronics, televisions and home furnishings.That high demand has been fueled in part by consumers who are flush with cash after months of lockdown and repeated government payments, including stimulus checks. Research from the Federal Reserve has shown that inflation is most likely getting a temporary increase from the coronavirus relief package in March, which included $1,400 direct checks to families and generous unemployment benefits. But Mr. Biden’s social policy bill would do relatively little to spur increased consumer spending next year and not enough to offset the loss of government stimulus to the economy as pandemic aid expires.White House aides have tried to make that case to Mr. Manchin — and the public — in recent weeks, pointing to a series of analyses that have dismissed inflationary fears pegged to the bill. That includes analysis from a pair of Democratic economists who warned about rising inflation earlier this year — Harvard’s Lawrence H. Summers and Jason Furman — and from the nonpartisan Penn Wharton Budget Model at the University of Pennsylvania. All of those analyses conclude that the bill would add little or nothing to inflation in the coming year.The disconnect between economic reality and Mr. Manchin’s stated concerns has exasperated the White House, which is struggling with voter discontent toward Mr. Biden over rising prices, as well as an unyielding pandemic.In a scathing statement about Mr. Manchin on Sunday, the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, noted that the Penn Wharton analysis found Mr. Biden’s bill “will have virtually no impact on inflation in the short term, and in the long run, the policies it includes will ease inflationary pressures.”White House officials, who along with party leaders have spent weeks trying to bring Mr. Manchin to a place of comfort with Mr. Biden’s bill, registered a sense of betrayal after the senator’s declaration.Ms. Psaki said Mr. Manchin had last week personally submitted to the president an outline for a bill “that was the same size and scope as the president’s framework, and covered many of the same priorities.” He had also promised to continue discussions toward an agreement, she said.Republicans celebrated Mr. Manchin’s statement as evidence that the bill, which Democrats were attempting to pass along party lines, was full of inflationary policies that even the president’s own party could not get behind.Biden’s ​​Social Policy and Climate Bill at a GlanceCard 1 of 7The centerpiece of Biden’s domestic agenda. 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    Stocks Hit a Record as Investors See Progress Toward a Spending Deal

    After weeks of fluctuations driven in part by Washington gridlock, share prices hit another high and put a dismal September in the rearview mirror.Wall Street likes what it’s hearing from Washington lately.The S&P 500 inched to a new high on Thursday, continuing a rally aided by signs of progress in spending talks that could pave the way for an injection of some $3 trillion into the U.S. economy.The index rose 0.3 percent to 4,549.78, its seventh straight day of gains and a fresh peak after more than a month of volatile trading driven by nervousness over the still-wobbly economic recovery and policy fights in Washington.The S&P 500’s performance this year

    Source: S&P Dow Jones IndicesBy The New York TimesBut even baby steps by lawmakers have helped end a market swoon that began in September.Share prices began to rise this month when congressional leaders struck a deal to allow the government to avoid breaching the debt ceiling, ending a standoff that threatened to make it impossible for the country to pay its bills. The rally has gained momentum as investors and analysts grow increasingly confident about a government spending package using a recipe Wall Street can live with: big enough to bolster economic growth, but with smaller corporate tax increases than President Biden’s original $3.5 trillion spending blueprint.“It seems like we’re kind of reaching a middle ground,” said Paul Zemsky, chief investment officer, multi-asset strategies at Voya Investment Management. “The president himself has acknowledged it’s not going to be $3.5 trillion, it’s going to be something less. The tax hikes are not going to be as much as the left really wanted.”Share prices had marched steadily higher for much of the summer, hitting a series of highs and cresting on Sept. 2. But a number of anxieties sapped their momentum as the certainty that markets crave began to evaporate. Gridlock over government spending, continuing supply chain snarls, higher prices for businesses and consumers and the Federal Reserve’s signals that it would begin dialing back its stimulus efforts all helped sour investor confidence. The S&P 500’s 4.8 percent drop in September was its worst month since the start of the pandemic.It has made up for it in October, rising 5.6 percent this month. But it’s not just updates out of Washington that have renewed investors’ optimism.The country has seen a sharp drop in coronavirus infections in recent weeks, raising, once again, the prospect that economic activity can begin to normalize. And the recent round of corporate earnings results that began in earnest this month has started better than many analysts expected. Large Wall Street banks, in particular, reported blockbuster results fueled by juicy fees paid to the banks’ deal makers, thanks to a surge of merger activity.Elsewhere, shares of energy giants have also buoyed the broad stock market. The price of crude oil recently climbed back above $80 a barrel for the first time in roughly seven years, translating into an instant boost to revenues for energy companies.But the recent rally seemed find its footing two weeks ago. On Oct. 6, word broke that Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, was willing to offer a temporary reprieve allowing Congress to raise the debt ceiling. The market turned on a dime from its morning slump, finishing the day in positive territory. That week turned out to be the market’s best since August.Once done as a matter of course in Washington, raising the debt ceiling has been an increasingly contentious issue in recent years — with sometimes serious implications for the market. In August 2011, a rancorous battle over the debt ceiling sent share prices tumbling sharply as investors began to consider the prospect that the United States could actually default on its debts.But the recent deal on the ceiling — even though it only pushed a reckoning into December — suggested to investors that there’s little appetite in Washington for a replay of a decade ago.“I think that let some pressure out of the system,” said Alan McKnight, chief investment officer of Regions Asset Management. “What it signaled to the markets was that you can find some area of agreement. It may not be very large. But at least they can come together.”With the impasse broken, the rally gained strength. Last Thursday, the S&P 500 jumped 1.7 percent — its best day in roughly seven months — as financial giants like Morgan Stanley and Bank of America reported stellar results.Potential progress on a deal in Washington has only brightened investors’ outlook.“Democrats are now moving in the same direction, and hard decisions are being made,” wrote Dan Clifton, an analyst with Strategas Research, who monitors the impact of policy on financial markets, in a note to clients on Wednesday.Understand the U.S. Debt CeilingCard 1 of 6What is the debt ceiling? More

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    Economic and Earnings Concerns Begin to Weigh on Stocks

    After having few cares about the markets all year, investors are getting nervous as the Fed signals that harsher policies are on the way.Wall Street’s imperviousness to bad news, which enabled stocks to double in value from their pandemic panic lows, may be starting to crack.When the Federal Reserve signaled in September that it would soon tighten monetary policy by curtailing asset purchases, the stock market took it well, but not for long. The S&P 500 rose modestly for a few days before reversing course, pushing the index more than 5 percent below the high it set earlier in the month, which amounted to its biggest drop for the year.Despite that setback, the market managed to eke out a 0.2 percent gain for the third quarter.A stingier Fed is not the market’s only concern. Inflation, dismissed until recently by the Fed as a transitory artifact of the pandemic, is coming to be seen as more persistent as the prices of goods, services and labor increase. What is being acknowledged as transitory, though, is the jolt to economic growth and corporate profits provided by several trillion dollars of added spending by Congress.With a number of threats to prosperity becoming harder to ignore, many investment advisers have become less enthusiastic about stocks. They are revising return expectations down and recommending exposure only to narrow niches.“We’re not bullish today at all,” said David Giroux, head of investment strategy at T. Rowe Price. “What really drives the market is earnings growth,” he said. “We can’t repeat some of the things we’ve done this year. Earnings growth may slow in ’22, maybe dramatically.”After being a colossal boon for the economy, fiscal stimulus — in the form of enormous federal spending — may now prove to be three problems for the stock market in one. Government expenditure focused on the pandemic that boosted growth is ebbing. There is a broad consensus that taxes will rise soon to help pay for that spending. And, because many people took direct stimulus payments and invested them in the stock market, stocks ran up faster than they would otherwise.The positive effects of so much stimulus may have run their course, as domestic stock funds tracked by Morningstar lost 0.6 percent in the third quarter, with portfolios that focus on financial services among the few clear winners.The SPDR S&P 500 E.T.F. Trust, which tracks the index and is the largest exchange-traded fund, returned 0.6 percent in the quarter, beating the average actively managed mutual fund.The very fact that many investors until lately have seemed untroubled by the perils facing the economy is what some find troubling.“There is complacency in a lot of things,” said Luca Paolini, chief strategist at Pictet Asset Management. He enumerated some of his worries: “‘Inflation is temporary.’ Maybe. Maybe not. Six months ago, consumption was booming. People had money and time. Now they have less money and less time. Earnings momentum has peaked, clearly, relative to six months ago. I’m concerned the market isn’t pricing in deterioration in the economic outlook.”By some measures, stocks are as expensive as at almost any time in history. The S&P 500 trades at about 34 times the last 12 months of earnings. Sarah Ketterer, chief executive of Causeway Capital Management, worries that corporate profits face numerous headwinds and that their impact on stocks could be especially high with valuations so rich.“Inflation is up, economic growth is down,” she said. “The supply chain disruption phenomenon is global, creating cost increases and margin pressure.” Companies in many industries have reported trouble sourcing some commodities and important components of manufactured goods, such as semiconductors, hindering production and making what they do produce more expensive.Rising prices have sent interest rates in the bond market higher, driving down bond prices and keeping a lid on bond funds in the third quarter. The average one rose 0.2 percent, dragged down by a 2.9 percent decline in emerging-market portfolios.“I’m hard pressed to find an area of costs that haven’t gone up, and this may continue for some time,” Ms. Ketterer said. “No one knows how long it will take to unravel the tangled supply chain situation.”The situation seems most tangled in Asia, where many raw and intermediate materials originate. China has been the source of several worrying recent events, including power cuts that have impeded manufacturing, and financial instability at the China Evergrande Group, a giant, heavily indebted developer.Some specialists in Asian markets see little chance of Evergrande’s woes spilling over to the wider Chinese financial system, let alone beyond. Matthews Asia, a mutual fund manager, said in a note to investors that mortgage lending standards in China are fairly tight, with large down payments required and the packaging of loans into securities sold to investors minimal.“Evergrande’s problems are unlikely to cause systemic problems and the likelihood of this devolving into a global financial problem is minuscule,” Matthews’s analysts said. But they added that restrictions could be placed on the property sector in coming quarters.Saira Malik, head of equities at Nuveen, an asset manager, likewise does not expect Evergrande to become a global problem, but she cautions that it is not China’s only problem.“The government is focusing on social issues, and some of that is leading to moderation in the growth rate” of China’s economy, she said. While more expansive central bank policies would be helpful, she added, “we think China could get worse before it gets better.”Funds that focus on Chinese stocks got worse in the third quarter, sinking 13.8 percent. International stock funds in general lost 2.9 percent.As prices and risks in stock markets at home and abroad rise, the opportunities for strong, relatively safe gains shrink.Mr. Giroux said he is “buying what the market is concerned about in the short term,” such as stocks in managed care providers, which are trading at a discount to the market because earnings growth has been subdued.He said he would avoid smaller companies, as well as companies that have benefited from fiscal stimulus programs, including automakers, heavy industrial companies and semiconductor manufacturers.Ms. Malik, who said she is “moderately bullish” overall, prefers smaller companies and European stock markets. She also likes makers of office software, such as Salesforce and HubSpot, and high-quality consumer cyclicals like Nike.Mr. Paolini also favors European stocks.“The case for Europe is quite solid,” he said. “Vaccination rates are high; the Covid story is over,” yet government stimulus continues across the region, so “they don’t have the same fiscal cliff as in the U.S. and U.K.”His other recommendations include financial stocks, which tend to benefit from higher interest rates, and drug makers.Ms. Ketterer thinks there is more potential for pandemic recovery stocks to appreciate. In particular, she expects Rolls-Royce, which makes jet engines, to benefit from an operational restructuring, and Air Canada, which cut costs during the pandemic and has a strong balance sheet and little competition, to do well as travel picks up.Ms. Ketterer remains resolute about trying to pick winners when there may not be many winners to pick.“What do we do?” she said. “We’re not going to hide. We don’t want to be in cash, and we don’t want to be in bonds if rates are rising.”Mr. Giroux said he doesn’t care much for bonds or cash — money-market funds — right now, either. He favors bank loans, floating-rate securities created by bundling loans that banks have made to corporate customers. They yield close to 4 percent, and that could increase if market interest rates rise. Default risk is mitigated because bank loans have a high place in corporate capital structures.The troubles in the stock market lately are barely a blip when viewed on a chart of the phenomenal last 18 months, so a single-digit percent return may seem meager. But it may start to look generous if the time has arrived for investors to learn to live with less.“The risk profile for equities over the next three to five years is not as good as it was a year ago because valuations are high, sentiment is good and earnings growth is likely to slow,” Mr. Giroux said. “We pull back on risk assets when things feel pretty good, and right now things feel pretty good.” More