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    What Higher Interest Rates Could Mean for Jobs

    Layoffs are up only minimally, and employers may be averse to shedding workers after experiencing the challenges of rehiring.The past year has been a busy one for nearly every industry, as a reopening economy has ignited a war for talent. Unless, of course, your business is finding jobs for laid-off workers.“For outplacement, it’s been a very slow time,” said Andy Challenger, senior vice president of the career transition firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. But lately, he has been getting more inquiries, in a sign that the market might be about to take a turn. “We’re starting to gear up for what we anticipate to be a normalization where companies start to let people go again.”Spurred by red-hot inflation fueled partly by competition for scarce labor, the Federal Reserve has begun raising interest rates in an effort to cool off the economy before it boils over. By design, that means slower job growth — ideally in the form of a steady moderation in the number of openings, but possibly in pink slips, too.It’s not yet clear what that adjustment will look like. But one thing does seem certain: Job losses would have to mount considerably before workers would have a hard time finding new positions, given the backlogged demand.So far, the labor market has revealed some clues about what might lie ahead.Challenger’s data, for example, shows that announced job cuts rose 6 percent in April over the same month in 2021. While still far below levels seen earlier in 2020, it was the first month in 2022 to have a year-over-year increase, and followed a 40 percent jump in March over the previous month. Some of those layoffs were idiosyncratic: More than half the layoffs in health care in the first third of this year resulted from workers’ refusal to obey vaccine mandates, with some of the rest stemming from the end of Covid-19-related programs.But other layoffs seem directly related to the Fed’s new direction. Nearly 8,700 people in the financial services sector lost jobs from January through April, Challenger found, mostly in mortgage banking. Rising rates for home loans have torpedoed demand for refinances, while prospective buyers are increasingly being priced out.Theoretically, a Fed-driven housing slowdown might in turn tamp down demand for construction workers. But builders bounced back strongly after a dip in 2020 and have only accelerated since. The National Association of Home Builders estimates that the industry needs to hire 740,000 people every year just to keep up with retirements and growth. Even if housing starts fell off, homeowners feeling flush as their equity has risen would snap up available workers to add third bedrooms or new cabinets.“A big national builder that’s concentrated in a high-cost market, and all they do is single-family exurban construction, yeah, they may have layoffs,” said the association’s chief economist, Robert Dietz. “But then remodelers would come along and say, ‘Oh, here’s some trained electricians and framers, let’s go get them.’”The National Association of Home Builders estimates that the industry needs to hire 740,000 people every year just to keep up with retirements and growth.Matt Rourke/Associated PressAnother sector that is typically sensitive to the cost of credit is commercial construction, which sustained deep losses as office development came to a screeching halt during the pandemic. Nevertheless, cash-rich clients have plowed ahead with industrial projects like power plants and factories, while federal investment in infrastructure has only begun to make its way into procurement processes.“I think that lending rates might be less important right now,” said Kenneth D. Simonson, chief economist for the Associated General Contractors of America. “An increase in either credit market or bank rates isn’t sufficient to choke off demand for many types of projects.”The tech sector, which feeds on venture capital that is more abundant in low-interest-rate environments, has drooped in recent months. Under pressure to burn less cash, some companies are looking to offshore jobs that before the pandemic they thought needed to be done on site, or at least in the country.“We’ve seen several of our clients in the high-growth technology space quickly shift their focus to reducing cost,” said Bryce Maddock, the chief executive of the outsourcing company TaskUs, discussing U.S. layoffs on an earnings call last week. “Across all verticals, the operating environment has led to an acceleration in our clients’ demand for growth in offshore work and a decrease in demand for onshore work.”In the broader economy, however, any near-term layoffs might occur on account of forces outside the Fed’s control: namely, the exhaustion of federal pandemic-relief spending, and a natural waning in demand for goods after a two-year national shopping spree. That could hit manufacturing and retail, as consumers contemplate their overfilled closets. Spending on long-lasting items has fallen for a couple months in a row, even before adjusting for inflation.If spending on durable goods declines sharply, “I could easily see that creating a recession, because suppliers would be stuck with a massive amount of inventory that they wish they didn’t have, and people employed that they wish they didn’t,” said Wendy Edelberg, director of the Hamilton Project, an economic policy arm of the Brookings Institution. “Even there, it’s going to be hard to know how much was that the Fed raised interest rates, and how much was the extraordinary surge in demand for goods unwinding.”In general, if the Fed’s path of tightening does prompt firms to downsize, that’s likely to be bad news for Black, Hispanic and female workers with less education. Research shows that while a hot labor market tends to bring in people who have less experience or barriers to employment, those workers are also the first to be let go as conditions worsen — across all industries, not just in sectors that might be hit harder by a recession.So far, initial claims for unemployment benefits remain near prepandemic lows, at around 200,000 per week. But some economists worry that they might not be as good a signal of impending trouble in the labor market as they used to be.The share of workers who claim unemployment, known as the “recipiency rate,” has declined in recent decades to only about a third of those who lose jobs. These days, any laid-off workers might be finding new jobs quickly enough that they don’t bother to file. And the pandemic may have further scrambled people’s understanding of whether they’re eligible.“One possibility is that people are going to think that because they haven’t worked long enough, because they switched employers or stopped working for a period of time, that this would make them ineligible, and they’re going to assume that they can’t get it again,” said Kathryn Anne Edwards, a labor economist at the RAND Corporation. (The other possibility is that the temporary supplements to unemployment insurance during the pandemic might have introduced more people to the system, leading to more claims rather than fewer.)One good sign: Employers may have learned from previous recessions that letting people go at the first sign of a downturn can wind up having a cost when they need to staff up again. For that reason, managers are trying harder to redeploy people within the company instead.John Morgan, president of the outplacement firm LHH, said that while he was getting more inquiries from companies preparing to downsize, he did not expect as large a surge as in past cycles.“Even if they’re driving down on profits, a lot of our customers are trying to avoid the ‘fire and rehire’ playbook of the past,” Mr. Morgan said. “How can they invest in upskilling and reskilling and move talent they have inside the organization? Because it’s just really hard to acquire new talent right now, and incredibly expensive.” More

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    Stocks Return to Earth, With the S&P 500 Nearing a Bear Market

    Until very recently, the stock market seemed to defy gravity, producing double-digit returns that provided many Americans with financial comfort even as everything else crumbled around them.When the pandemic began upending society, the market sank for a few weeks and then recorded one of the greatest rallies in history. Stock prices rose the day rioters breached the U.S. Capitol, and they were up during the week that protests roiled many American cities after the murder of George Floyd. During this time of great upheaval, the market seemed to flash a contrarian signal that things were going to be OK — economically, at least.But real world problems have finally crashed the stock market’s party. Soaring inflation, fueled by rising food prices and the war in Ukraine, has prompted the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates significantly for the first time in many years, which has sent stock prices plummeting to earth.Stocks rose 2.4 percent on Friday, but not enough to make up for a week of declines. It was the sixth consecutive week of losses for the stock market, the first time that has happened since 2011. The S&P 500, which has been flirting with a bear market, or a drop of 20 percent, is down more than 16 percent since its peak in January. It may fall further as inflation persists and a recession looms.Even after the bleeding stops, stock market investors, who include more than 50 percent of Americans, could face years of relatively meager returns that will leave them with substantially less money to pay for their children’s college education and support themselves in retirement.This reckoning comes just months before the midterm elections, deepening problems for Democrats who are already struggling to convince voters that their party and President Joseph R. Biden are steering the economy on the right track.Former President Donald J. Trump often took credit for the stock market’s meteoric rise. Now, Mr. Biden and his party will almost certainly take some of the blame for its recent fall.In reality, the stock market is not a perfect measure of the real economy. Unemployment is low and consumer spending is still holding up, but more than a month of punishing losses can damage the country’s financial psyche.“People look at the stock market as a barometer of the economy and how they are faring financially,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. “They feel good when they see green on the screen and crummy when they see red.”Years of low rates have been rocket fuel for stock prices, partly because other investments, like bonds, that are pegged to interest rates produce such minimal returns. The stock market became one of the few places where investors could make big money.Understand Inflation and How It Impacts YouInflation 101: What is inflation, why is it up and whom does it hurt? Our guide explains it all.Inflation Calculator: How you experience inflation can vary greatly depending on your spending habits. Answer these seven questions to estimate your personal inflation rate.Interest Rates: As it seeks to curb inflation, the Federal Reserve began raising interest rates for the first time since 2018. Here is what the increases mean for consumers.State Intervention: As inflation stays high, lawmakers across the country are turning to tax cuts to ease the pain, but the measures could make things worse. How Americans Feel: We asked 2,200 people where they’ve noticed inflation. Many mentioned basic necessities, like food and gas.During the pandemic, rates went even lower, as policymakers sought to support businesses and consumers through the shutdowns — and it worked. Investors piled into companies’ stocks and kept them flush with capital, which allowed them to keep hiring, paying rent, ramping up production and, of course, rewarding shareholders with ample dividends and stock buybacks.But inflation, which puts a heavy burden on families trying to make ends meet, also helped kill the market’s mood. Steadily rising food costs and record high gasoline prices prompted the Fed to raise rates and try to slow the economy.The stock price of Alphabet, Google’s parent, is down about 20 percent since the start of the year.Laura Morton for The New York TimesWall Street has been expecting this moment to come for a long time. But the market’s reaction — which some refer to as a “reset” and others call a necessary “comeuppance” for stock investors — is painful nonetheless.“I don’t think people recognized how fragile of a foundation the stock market was resting on,” said Emily Bowersock Hill, founder of Bowersock Capital Partners and chairwoman of the investment committee of the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System, a pension fund with more than $20 billion.Ms. Hill said some of the declines were probably good for the market because it was clearing out the froth that created the conditions for “meme stocks”: companies with dubious business prospects like AMC Theatres, BlackBerry and Bed Bath & Beyond, whose share prices were driven up by speculators.But the downdraft has sunk the share prices of companies that represent innovation and the future, too; Amazon is down more than 30 percent since the start of the year and Alphabet, Google’s parent, is off about 20 percent, as investors rethink those companies’ real value.Virtually no stocks have been spared from losses. The market decline has “gone on and on, and it’s depressing,” Ms. Hill said.Perhaps no one understood that emotional symbolism of the market better than Mr. Trump.“The reason our stock market is so successful is because of me,” Mr. Trump said in November 2017 — one of many statements in which he boasted about rising stock prices or publicly pressured the Fed to further lower interest rates to juice the economy.Early in the pandemic, in April 2020 — with stores, offices and churches shut, children marooned at home attempting remote school, and morgues running out of space for virus victims — Mr. Trump tweeted that the United States had “the biggest Stock Market increase since 1974.”While a majority of Americans have some money invested in the stock market, it remains a rich person’s game. According to an analysis by the New York University economics Professor Edward Wolff, the top 5 percent of American wealth holders own 72 percent of all stocks.But the stock market’s symbolic value matters. “It’s the one story that makes the news every night,” said Richard Sylla, a professor emeritus of economics at New York University’s Stern School of Business.Is the market up or down? Are we winning or losing today, this week, this year, this presidency?On Friday, the University of Michigan’s consumer sentiment index fell lower than expected, a drop that some economists attribute partly to stock market losses. The index is now 13 points below the low when Covid first hit, noted Ian Shepherdson, chief U.S. economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics. Such deep pessimism “suggests that people have short memories,” Mr. Shepherdson wrote in a research note.It also suggests trouble for the Biden administration. Not only is the stock market party ending under President Biden’s watch, it could be a while before another one gets going.“Now nobody is going to be getting much richer from stocks,” one market historian predicts.Gili Benita for The New York TimesMr. Sylla, who co-wrote a book about the history of interest rates and tracked two centuries of stock market returns, correctly predicted in September 2011 that the coming decade would produce high returns.Inflation F.A.Q.Card 1 of 5What is inflation? More

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    Jerome Powell Confirmed for a Second Term as Fed Chair

    Jerome Powell, whom the Senate confirmed to a second term on Thursday, said allowing rapid inflation to persist would be more painful.Jerome H. Powell, the Federal Reserve chair, said in an interview on Thursday that lowering inflation is likely to be painful but that allowing price gains to persist would be the bigger problem — squaring off with the major challenge facing his central bank as he officially starts his second term at its helm.Mr. Powell, whom Senators confirmed to a second four-year term at the head of the central bank in an 80-19 vote on Thursday, holds one of most consequential jobs in the United States and the world economy at a moment of rapid inflation and deep uncertainty.Consumer prices climbed 8.3 percent in April from the previous year, according to data reported on Wednesday. And while inflation eased slightly on an annual basis, it remained near the fastest pace in 40 years, and the details of the release suggested that price pressures continue to run hot.The Fed has already begun raising interest rates to try and cool the economy, making its largest increase since 2000 when it lifted borrowing costs by half a percentage point this month. Mr. Powell and his colleagues have signaled that they will continue to push rates higher as they try to restrain spending and hiring, hoping to bring demand and supply into balance and drive inflation lower.Mr. Powell suggested Thursday in an interview with Marketplace that an even bigger 0.75 percentage point interest rate increase, though not under consideration at the moment, could be appropriate if economic data come in worse than officials expect.“The process of getting inflation down to 2 percent will also include some pain, but ultimately the most painful thing would be if we were to fail to deal with it and inflation were to get entrenched in the economy at high levels,” Mr. Powell also said. “That’s just people losing the value of their paycheck to high inflation and, ultimately, we’d have to go through a much deeper downturn.”Mr. Powell, who was chosen as a Fed governor by former President Barack Obama and then elevated to chair by former President Donald J. Trump, was renominated by President Biden late last year.Understand Inflation and How It Impacts YouInflation 101: What is inflation, why is it up and whom does it hurt? Our guide explains it all.Inflation Calculator: How you experience inflation can vary greatly depending on your spending habits. Answer these seven questions to estimate your personal inflation rate.Interest Rates: As it seeks to curb inflation, the Federal Reserve began raising interest rates for the first time since 2018. Here is what the increases mean for consumers.State Intervention: As inflation stays high, lawmakers across the country are turning to tax cuts to ease the pain, but the measures could make things worse. How Americans Feel: We asked 2,200 people where they’ve noticed inflation. Many mentioned basic necessities, like food and gas.Though he has been popular among lawmakers for much of his tenure, several Republicans and Democrats voted against the nomination. Senator Robert Menendez, Democrat from New Jersey, cited the central bank’s failure to promote Latino leaders. Senator Richard Shelby, Republican of Alabama, cited high inflation in opposing Mr. Powell, posting on Twitter that “we should not reward failure.”Inflation is likely to be the defining challenge of Mr. Powell’s second term. As Mr. Shelby’s comments suggest, the Fed has been criticized for responding too slowly to rapid price gains last year. Mr. Powell has emphasized that policymakers did the best they could with the data in hand.“If you had perfect hindsight, you’d go back and it probably would have been better for us to have raised rates a little sooner,” Mr. Powell said in his interview with Marketplace. “I’m not sure how much difference it would have made, but we have to make decisions in real time, based on what we know then, and we did the best we could.”With Mr. Powell’s confirmation, Mr. Biden has now appointed four of the Fed’s seven governors in Washington, putting his imprimatur on the central bank at a crucial moment.The Senate last month confirmed Lael Brainard, formerly a Fed governor, as Mr. Biden’s choice for the Fed’s vice chair, an influential position within the central bank.This week, the Senate confirmed two other new Fed governors — Lisa D. Cook and Philip N. Jefferson. Mr. Biden has also nominated Michael S. Barr as the new vice chair for supervision, and his confirmation hearing before the Senate Banking Committee is scheduled for next week.Ms. Brainard and Mr. Powell have long been aligned on policy, and the Fed’s newest governors — Ms. Cook and Mr. Jefferson — indicated during their confirmation hearings that they, too, are focused on fighting inflation. Fed officials view stable prices as a crucial building block for sustainable economic growth.Inflation F.A.Q.Card 1 of 5What is inflation? More

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    New Data Show Few Black Economists at the Fed

    Black researchers made up about 1.5 percent of the Federal Reserve system’s 945-person staff of doctorate-level economists at the end of 2021, a number that highlights the central bank’s ongoing struggle to improve racial and ethnic diversity in its ranks.Data that the Fed on Thursday published publicly for the first time showed that 72 percent of the system’s Ph.D.-level economists are white, 17 percent are Asian, and 9.4 percent identify as Hispanic or Latino. A small share report identifying with two or more races.

    The new diversity figures follow reporting by The New York Times last year, in which data provided by the Fed showed that just 1.3 percent of economists across its system identified as Black alone around the end of 2020. The 2021 data are roughly, but not exactly comparable, because the central bank made methodological improvements in collecting the figures this year.Economics is a heavily white and Asian profession — just under 5 percentof U.S. citizens or residents who earned doctorates in the field in the 2020 school year were Black — but the Fed tends to be even less racially diverse than the profession as a whole. The release underlined that America’s central bank is making slow progress when it comes to hiring and retaining a more racially varied staff of experts.Across the Fed’s 12-bank system and Board of Governors in Washington, 14 Ph.D.-level economists identify as Black alone. The board employs 429 economists, but no Black women and just one Black man.There appears to be some progress toward greater diversity at the entry level, however. When it comes to the Fed’s 393 research assistants, who usually have bachelor’s degrees and are often aiming to pursue doctoral degrees in economics down the road, the new data showed that 19 people, or about 5 percent of the assistants, were Black.That is a slight improvement from 3.7 percent the prior year, and it roughly reflects the share of economics graduates who identify as Black.The Fed’s more entry-level staff was also more diverse by gender: 42 percent of research assistants were women, compared to about 25 percent of its doctorate-level economists.Lawmakers and think tanks have for years pushed the Fed to increase diversity within its ranks, arguing that having a set of economists and researchers at the central bank who more closely reflect the public — the people the Fed ultimately serves — would lead to a wider range of viewpoints around the policy table and more rounded economic discussions.The Fed sets the nation’s monetary policy, raising or lowering the cost of borrowing money in order to slow down or speed up the economy. Its actions help to determine how strong the labor market is in any given moment, help to control inflation, and can influence financial stability.“The risk with underrepresentation, from a substantive standpoint, is that you are underrepresenting perspectives that are important for policymaking,” said Skanda Amarnath, executive director at Employ America, which pushes the Fed to focus more intently on the job market.That could mean that a range of ideas and experiences “don’t get fully understood, or captured, to the same degree,” he said.The Fed is about to see greater racial diversity at its highest ranks: Lisa D. Cook and Philip N. Jefferson, who are both Black, were confirmed as Fed governors just this week. Susan M. Collins will become the first Black woman ever to lead a regional Fed bank when she becomes president of the Boston Fed this summer, and Raphael Bostic, the first Black man to ever lead a regional bank, is currently president of the Atlanta Fed.The Fed’s leadership team has also become more gender diverse in recent years. Assuming Mr. Biden’s nominees are all confirmed, three of the central bank’s seven governors will be women. Once new presidents take office in Boston and Dallas this summer, five of its 12 regional bank leaders will be women.Fed officials have in recent years talked publicly about aiming for a broader array of views within their own workplaces.“The Atlanta Fed is committed to modeling economic inclusion, and that starts with our own organization,” Mr. Bostic from Atlanta said in a 2020 opinion piece, published after George Floyd, a Black man, died at the hands of the police in Minneapolis. “We embrace diversity and inclusion as essential to who we are.” More

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    Senate Confirms Philip Jefferson as a Fed Governor

    Philip N. Jefferson, a college administrator and academic economist, was confirmed to the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors on Wednesday.Senators approved him for the job in an overwhelming bipartisan 91-7 vote. He is the third of President Biden’s nominees to secure a spot on the Fed’s seven-person board: Lisa D. Cook was confirmed as a governor on Tuesday, and Lael Brainard was confirmed as vice chair last month.Mr. Jefferson, who was most recently vice president for academic affairs at Davidson College, was born in Washington, D.C., and holds a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Virginia. He has been an economist at the Fed board, and has written about poverty and monetary policy’s effect on the labor market, among other topics.The White House has also renominated Jerome H. Powell as Fed chair, though Mr. Powell is still awaiting a final confirmation vote. Senators said that vote was expected as soon as Thursday.The administration’s nominee for the final open Fed job — the vice chair for supervision — has yet to have a committee hearing and vote. Mr. Biden’s initial nominee for the position, Sarah Bloom Raskin, withdrew from consideration after it became clear that she would not pass the Senate. Michael S. Barr was put up for the job more recently.If those picks are confirmed, Mr. Biden will have nominated or renominated five of the Fed’s seven governors. The Fed is independent of politics, so those appointments are the main way that the White House can shape the future of monetary policy, which is used to keep inflation stable and employment high.Governors at the Fed’s board in Washington hold constant votes on monetary policy and oversee the nation’s largest banks. They set interest rates to guide the economy alongside 12 regional reserve bank presidents, five of whom hold a vote on monetary policy at any given time.Mr. Jefferson and Ms. Cook are likely to support the Fed’s current project: reining in rapid inflation. Consumer prices climbed 8.3 percent in the year through April, data released Wednesday showed, an uncomfortably rapid pace of increase. Fed officials are raising rates at the fastest pace in decades as they try to tamp down price pressures and bring the situation under control.“The spike in inflation we are seeing today threatens to heighten expectations of future inflation,” Mr. Jefferson said during his confirmation hearing. “The Federal Reserve must remain attentive to this risk and ensure that inflation declines to levels consistent with its goals.” More

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    Fed Confronts Why It May Have Acted Too Slowly on Inflation

    Central bankers have been asking whether they should have reacted faster to rising inflation last year — and are learning from the recent past.Some Federal Reserve officials have begun to acknowledge that they were too slow to respond to rapid inflation last year, a delay that is forcing them to constrain the economy more abruptly now — and one that could hold lessons for the policy path ahead.Inflation began to accelerate last spring, but Fed policymakers and most private-sector forecasters initially thought price gains would quickly fade. It became clear in early fall that fast inflation was proving to be more lasting — but the Fed pivoted toward rapidly removing policy support only in late November and did not raise rates until March.Several current and former Fed officials have suggested in recent days that, in hindsight, the central bank should have reacted more quickly and forcefully last fall, but that both profound uncertainty about the future and the Fed’s approach to setting policy slowed it down.Officials had spent years dealing with tepid inflation, which made some hesitant to believe that rapidly rising prices would last. Even as they became more concerned, it took the Fed’s large group of policymakers time to come to an agreement on how to respond. Another complicating factor was that the Fed had made clear promises to markets about how it would remove support for the economy, which made adjusting quickly more difficult.“It was a complicated situation with little precedent — people make mistakes,” Randal K. Quarles, who was the Fed’s vice chair for supervision in 2021, said at a conference last week.Mr. Quarles, who left the Fed at the end of the year, argued that it should have begun to pull back support aggressively after September. He added, however, that the rate increases that central bankers were now making could still fix the situation.Even so, the delay could come with consequences. By the time the Fed completely stopped buying bonds and began raising rates in March, prices were rising 8.5 percent from a year earlier, the fastest rate since 1981. Consumer price increases are expected to remain rapid when fresh data are released Wednesday.Understand Inflation and How It Impacts YouInflation 101: What is inflation, why is it up and whom does it hurt? Our guide explains it all.Inflation Calculator: How you experience inflation can vary greatly depending on your spending habits. Answer these seven questions to estimate your personal inflation rate.Interest Rates: As it seeks to curb inflation, the Federal Reserve began raising interest rates for the first time since 2018. Here is what the increases mean for consumers.State Intervention: As inflation stays high, lawmakers across the country are turning to tax cuts to ease the pain, but the measures could make things worse. How Americans Feel: We asked 2,200 people where they’ve noticed inflation. Many mentioned basic necessities, like food and gas.And as high prices have lingered, inflation expectations have been creeping up, threatening to change household and business behavior in ways that perpetuate the problem.Because inflation is eating away at paychecks and making it more difficult for families to afford groceries and cars, it has emerged as a major political issue for President Biden, whose approval ratings have fallen over concerns about his handling of the economy. During remarks at the White House on Tuesday, Mr. Biden called inflation his “top domestic priority” and said his administration was taking steps to contain it. He also sought to push back on Republicans, who have spent months blaming him for stoking inflation, saying their policy ideas were “extreme” and would hurt working families.“I want every American to know that I’m taking inflation very seriously,” Mr. Biden said, noting that the Fed has the “primary role” in trying to tame price increases.The Fed is now raising rates quickly to wrestle the situation back under control. Officials lifted borrowing costs half a percentage point this month, their biggest increase since 2000, while broadcasting that two more large adjustments could be coming. They are also going to start shrinking their $9 trillion balance sheet of bond holdings next month.If the Fed continues to rapidly adjust policy this year as it tries to catch up, policymakers risk slamming the brakes on a speeding economy. Such hard stops can hurt, pushing up unemployment and possibly tipping off a recession. Officials typically prefer to apply their policy brakes gradually, increasing the chances that the economy can slow down painlessly.Still, several Fed officials pointed out that it was easier to say what the Fed should have done in 2021 after the fact — that in the moment, it was difficult to know price increases would last. Inflation initially came mainly from a few big products that were in short supply amid supply chain snarls, like semiconductors and cars. Only later in the year did it become obvious that price pressures were broadening to food, rent and other areas.“I try to give some grace, and say: In a very uncertain time, with an unprecedented setting, with no real models to guide us, people are going to do the best they can,” Raphael Bostic, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, said in an interview Monday. Mr. Bostic was an early voice suggesting that the Fed should stop buying bonds and think about raising interest rates.Officials have said it was the acceleration in inflation data in September, followed by rising employment costs, that convinced them that price gains might last and that the central bank needed to act decisively. The Fed chair, Jerome H. Powell, pivoted on policy in late November as those data points added up.“It was a complicated situation with little precedent — people make mistakes,” said Randal K. Quarles, who was the Fed’s vice chair for supervision in 2021.Erin Scott/ReutersWhile Mr. Quarles argued that the Fed should have responded as the September data came in, he suggested that there had been a complicating factor: Mr. Powell was waiting to see if he would be reappointed by the Biden administration, which did not announce its decision to renominate him until mid-November.Mr. Quarles, on a “Banking With Interest” podcast episode last week, said reacting to the data was “hard to do until there was clarity as to what the leadership going forward of the Fed was going to be.”Inflation F.A.Q.Card 1 of 5What is inflation? More

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    Fed Officials Are on the Defensive as High Inflation Lingers

    Christopher Waller, a governor at the Federal Reserve, faced an uncomfortable task on Friday night: He delivered remarks at a conference packed with leading academic economists titled, suggestively, “How Monetary Policy Got Behind the Curve and How to Get Back.”Fed officials — who set America’s monetary policy — have found themselves on the defensive in Washington, on Wall Street and within the economics profession as inflation has run at its fastest rate in 40 years. Friday’s event, at Stanford University’s Hoover Institute, was the clearest expression yet of the growing sense of skepticism around the Fed’s recent policy approach.The Fed is raising interest rates, and on Wednesday lifted them by the largest increment since 2000. But prominent economists on Friday blasted America’s central bankers for being slow to realize that inflation was going to run meaningfully higher in 2021 as big government spending goosed consumer demand. They criticized the Fed for taking monetary policy support away from the economy too haltingly once it began to react. Some suggested that it was still moving tentatively when more decisive action was warranted.Mr. Waller defended and explained the decisions the Fed made last year. Many inflation forecasters failed to predict the 2021 price burst, he noted, pointing out that the Fed pivoted toward removing policy support starting as early as September, when it became clear that inflation was a problem.“The Fed was not alone in underestimating the strength of inflation that revealed itself in late 2021,” said Mr. Waller, who expected inflation to be slightly higher than many of his colleagues. He noted that the Fed’s policy-setting committee had to coalesce around policy moves, which can take time given its size: It has 12 regional presidents and up to seven governors in Washington.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 began raising interest rates for the first time since 2018. Here is what the increases mean for consumers.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.“This process may lead to more gradual changes in policy as members have to compromise in order to reach a consensus,” Mr. Waller said.Such explanations have done little to shield the Fed so far. Lawrence H. Summers, a former Harvard president and Treasury secretary, suggested earlier Friday that an economic overheating was predictable last year as the government spent heavily and that “it was reasonable to expect that the bathtub would overflow.” Kevin Warsh, a former Fed governor, called inflation “a clear and present danger to the American people,” and declared the Fed’s reaction “slow.”And even as the Fed comes under fire for responding too ploddingly as inflation pressures began to build, a new debate is evolving over how quickly — and how much — rates need to increase to catch up and wrestle fast price increases back under control.The Fed lifted interest rates half a percentage point this week and forecast more to come. Still, Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, said officials were not discussing an even larger, 0.75-point move — suggesting that central bankers are still hoping to control inflation without choking off growth abruptly and shocking the economy.“If supply constraints unwind quickly, we might only need to take policy back to neutral or go modestly above it to bring inflation back down,” Neel Kashkari, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, wrote in a post on Friday. “Neutral” refers to the policy setting that neither stokes nor slows the economy.Inflation F.A.Q.Card 1 of 6What is inflation? More