More stories

  • in

    Why the Debt Limit Spending Cuts Likely Won’t Shake the Economy

    With low unemployment and above-trend inflation, the economy is well positioned to absorb the modest budget cuts that President Biden and Republicans negotiated.The last time the United States came perilously close to defaulting on its debt, a Democratic president and a Republican speaker of the House cut a deal to raise the nation’s borrowing limit and tightly restrain some federal spending growth for years to come. The deal averted default, but it hindered what was already a slow recovery from the Great Recession.The debt deal that President Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy have agreed to in principle is less restrictive than the one President Barack Obama and Speaker John Boehner cut in 2011, centered on just two years of cuts and caps in spending. The economy that will absorb those cuts is in much better shape. As a result, economists say the agreement is unlikely to inflict the sort of lasting damage to the recovery that was caused by the 2011 debt ceiling deal — and, paradoxically, the newfound spending restraint might even help it.“For months, I had worried about a major economic fallout from the negotiations, but the macro impact appears to be negligible at best,” said Ben Harris, a former deputy Treasury secretary for economic policy who left his post earlier this year.“The most important impact is the stability that comes with having a deal,” Mr. Harris said. “Markets can function knowing that we don’t have a cataclysmic debt ceiling crisis looming.”Mr. Biden expressed confidence earlier this month that any deal would not spark an economic downturn. That was in part because growth persisted over the past two years even as pandemic aid spending expired and total federal spending fell from elevated Covid levels, helping to reduce the annual deficit by $1.7 trillion last year.Asked at a news conference at the Group of 7 summit in Japan this month if spending cuts in a budget deal would cause a recession, Mr. Biden replied: “I know they won’t. I know they won’t. Matter of fact, the fact that we were able to cut government spending by $1.7 trillion, that didn’t cause a recession. That caused growth.”The agreement in principle still must pass the House and Senate, where it is facing opposition from the most liberal and conservative members of Congress. It goes well beyond spending limits, also including new work requirements for food stamps and other government aid and an effort to speed permitting for some energy projects. But its centerpiece is limits on spending. Negotiators agreed to slight cuts to discretionary spending — outside of defense and veterans’ care — from this year to next, after factoring in some accounting adjustments. Military and veterans’ spending would increase this year to the amount requested in Mr. Biden’s budget for the 2024 fiscal year. All those programs would grow by 1 percent in the 2025 fiscal year — which is less than they were projected to.A New York Times analysis of the proposal suggests it would reduce federal spending by about $55 billion next year, compared with Congressional Budget Office forecasts, and by another $81 billion in 2025.The first back-of-the-envelope analysis of the deal’s economic impacts came from Mark Zandi, a Moody’s Analytics economist. He had previously estimated that a prolonged default could kill seven million jobs in the U.S. economy — and that a deep round of proposed Republican spending cuts would kill 2.6 million jobs.His analysis of the emerging deal was far more modest: The economy would have 120,000 fewer jobs by the end of 2024 than it would without a deal, he estimates, and the unemployment rate would be about 0.1 percent higher.President Biden expressed confidence that any deal would not spark an economic downturn.Doug Mills/The New York TimesMr. Zandi wrote on Twitter on Friday that it was “Not the greatest timing for fiscal restraint as the economy is fragile and recession risks are high.” But, he said, “it is manageable.”Other economists say the economy could actually use a mild dose of fiscal austerity right now. That is because the biggest economic problem is persistent inflation, which is being driven in part by strong consumer spending. Removing some federal spending from the economy could aid the Federal Reserve, which has been trying to get price growth under control by raising interest rates.“From a macroeconomic perspective, this deal is a small help,” said Jason Furman, a Harvard economist who was a deputy director of Mr. Obama’s National Economic Council in 2011. “The economy still needs cooling off, and this takes pressure off interest rates in accomplishing that cooling off.”“I think the Fed will welcome the help,” he said.Economists generally consider increased government spending — if it is not offset by increased tax revenues — to be a short-term boost for the economy. That’s because the government is borrowing money to pay salaries, buy equipment, cover health care and provide other services that ultimately support consumer spending and economic growth. That can particularly help lift the economy at times when consumer demand is low, such as the immediate aftermath of a recession.That was the case in 2011, when Republicans took control of the House and forced a showdown with Mr. Obama on raising the borrowing limit. The nation was slowly climbing out of the hole created by the 2008 financial crisis. The unemployment rate was 9 percent. The Federal Reserve had cut interest rates to near zero to try to stimulate growth, but many liberal economists were calling for the federal government to spend more to help bolster demand and accelerate job growth.The budget deal between Republicans and Mr. Obama — which was hammered out by Mr. Biden, who was then the vice president — did the opposite. It reduced federal discretionary spending by 4 percent in the first year after the deal compared with baseline projections. In the second year, it reduced spending by 5.5 percent compared with forecasts.Many economists have since blamed those cuts, along with too little stimulus spending at the recession’s outset, for prolonging the pain.The deal announced on Saturday contains smaller cuts. But the even bigger difference today is economic conditions. The unemployment rate is 3.4 percent. Prices are growing by more than 4 percent a year, well above the Fed’s target rate of 2 percent. Fed officials are trying to cool economic activity by making it more expensive to borrow money.Michael Feroli, a JPMorgan Chase analyst, wrote this week that the right way to assess the emerging deal was in terms of “how much less work the Fed needs to do in restraining aggregate demand because fiscal belt-tightening is now doing that job.” Mr. Feroli estimated the agreement could function as the equivalent of a quarter-point increase in interest rates, in terms of helping to restrain inflation.While the deal will only modestly affect the nation’s future deficit levels, Republicans have argued that it will help the economy by reducing the accumulation of debt. “We’re trying to bend the cost curve of the government for the American people,” Representative Patrick T. McHenry of North Carolina, one of the Republican negotiators, said this week.Still, the spending reductions from the deal will affect nondefense discretionary programs, like Head Start preschool, and the people they serve. New work requirements could choke off food and other assistance to vulnerable Americans.Many progressive Democrats warned this week that those effects will amount to their own sort of economic damage.“After inflation eats its share, flat funding will result in fewer households accessing rental assistance, fewer kids in Head Start and fewer services for seniors,” said Lindsay Owens, the executive director of the liberal Groundwork Collaborative in Washington.Catie Edmondson More

  • in

    Consumer Spending Rose More Than Expected in April

    New data on spending and income suggest that the economy remains robust despite the Federal Reserve’s interest rate increases.Americans’ income and spending both rose in April, a sign of economic resilience amid rising prices and warnings of a possible recession.Consumer spending increased 0.8 percent in April, the Commerce Department said Friday. The uptick followed a two-month slowdown in spending and exceeded forecasters’ expectations, as Americans shelled out for cars, restaurant meals, movie tickets and other goods and services.After-tax income rose 0.4 percent, fueled by a strong job market that continues to push up wages and bring more people into the work force. Data from the Labor Department this month showed that Americans in their prime working years were employed in April at the highest rate in more than two decades.Separate data released by the Commerce Department on Friday showed that a key measure of business investment also picked up in April, a sign that corporate executives aren’t expecting a major slump in demand in coming months.Consumers’ resilience is a mixed blessing for officials at the Federal Reserve, who worry that robust spending is contributing to inflation, but who also don’t want it to slow so rapidly that the economy falls into a recession. The gradual slowdown in spending seen in recent months is broadly consistent with the “soft landing” scenario that policymakers are aiming for, but they have been wary of declaring victory too soon — a concern that April’s data, which showed persistent inflation alongside stronger spending, could underscore.“The odds of a recession dropped again,” wrote Robert Frick, corporate economist with Navy Federal Credit Union, in a note to clients on Friday. “The one problem from the report is inflation remains stubbornly high, and may tempt the Fed to raise the federal funds rate even more, when a pause was on the table,” he added, referring to the upcoming meeting of policymakers in June.It is unclear how long consumers can continue to prop up the economic recovery. Savings that some households built up in the pandemic have begun to dwindle, and there are signs companies are beginning to pull back on hiring. The standoff over the debt limit could further sap the economy’s momentum, although there were signs on Thursday evening that leaders in Washington were closing in on a deal to avert a default. More

  • in

    Fed Officials Were Split Over June Rate Pause, Minutes Show

    In the Federal Reserve’s last meeting, “several” participants thought rates may have moved high enough to get inflation under control.Federal Reserve officials were unanimous in their decision to raise interest rates earlier this month, but were conflicted over whether additional increases would be necessary to bring inflation under control, according to minutes from the Fed’s last meeting released on Wednesday.The Fed voted to raise interest rates by a quarter-point on May 3, to a range of 5 to 5.25 percent, the 10th straight increase since the central bank started its campaign to rein in inflation last year. Although officials left the door open to further rate increases, the minutes make clear that “several” policymakers were leaning toward a pause.“Several participants noted that if the economy evolved along the lines of their current outlooks, then further policy firming after this meeting may not be necessary,” the minutes said.Still, some officials believed “additional policy firming would likely be warranted at future meetings” since progress on bringing inflation back to the central bank’s 2 percent target could continue to be “unacceptably slow.”Policymakers believed that the Fed’s moves over the past year had significantly contributed to tighter financial conditions, and they noted that labor market conditions were starting to ease. But they agreed that the labor market was still too hot, given the strong gains in job growth and an unemployment rate near historically low levels.Officials also agreed that inflation was “unacceptably high.” Although price increases have shown signs of moderating in recent months, declines were slower than officials expected, and officials were concerned that consumer spending could remain strong and keep inflation elevated. Some noted, however, that tighter credit conditions could slow household spending and dampen business investment.Fed officials believed the U.S. banking system was “sound and resilient” after the collapses of Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank this year led to turbulence in the banking sector. Although they noted that banks might be pulling back on lending, policymakers said it was too soon to tell how big of an impact credit tightening might have on the overall economy.One source of concern for policymakers was brinkmanship over the nation’s debt limit, which caps how much money the United States can borrow. If the cap is not raised by June 1, the Treasury Department could be unable to pay all of its bills in a timely manner, resulting in a default. Many officials said it was “essential that the debt limit be raised in a timely manner” to avoid the risk of severely damaging the economy and rattling financial markets.The central bank’s next move remains uncertain, with policymakers continuing to leave their options open ahead of their June meeting.“Whether we should hike or skip at the June meeting will depend on how the data come in over the next three weeks,” Christopher Waller, a Federal Reserve governor, said in a speech on Wednesday.The president of the Minneapolis Fed, Neel Kashkari, said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal last week that he could support holding rates steady at the June 13-14 meeting to give policymakers more time to assess how the economy is shaping up.“I’m open to the idea that we can move a little bit more slowly from here,” he said.Officials have reiterated that they will continue to monitor incoming data before reaching a decision. On Friday, the Commerce Department will release a fresh reading of the Personal Consumption Expenditures index, the Fed’s preferred gauge of inflation. Early next month, the federal government will also release new data on job growth in May. More

  • in

    Inflation Persists and Car Prices Are a Big Reason

    Prices of new and used vehicles were supposed to recede quickly as supply chain problems dissipated. The market had other ideas.‌Car prices soared after the coronavirus lockdowns, and two years into the United States’ worst inflationary episode since the 1980s, the industry demonstrates that getting back to normal will be a long and lurching ride.In 2021 and early 2022, global shipping problems, a semiconductor shortage and factory shutdowns coincided with strong demand to push vehicle prices sharply higher. Economists had hoped that prices might ease as supply chains healed and the Federal Reserve’s interest rate increases deterred borrowers.Instead, prices for new cars have risen further. Domestic automakers are still producing fewer cars and focusing on more profitable luxury models. Used car prices helped to lower overall inflation late last year, but rebounded in April as short supply collided with a surge in demand.Echoes from the industry’s pandemic disruptions are reverberating through the economy even though the emergency has formally ended, and illustrate why the Fed’s fight to quash inflation could be a long one as consumers continued spending despite higher prices.A Wild Ride for Car PricesUsed car prices have been volatile, while new car costs have continued to climb, adding to overall inflation.

    Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics By The New York Times“Inflation is not going to be a smooth path downward — there are going to be bumps along the road,” said Blerina Uruci, chief U.S. economist at T. Rowe Price. “There are so many idiosyncratic factors at play right now, and I think some of that has to do with demand post-pandemic.”Elevated car prices have proved uncomfortably sticky. Used car prices have declined, but in a more muted — and volatile — fashion than economists had anticipated. And new cars have continued to get more expensive this year as manufacturers strive to maintain the margins established in 2021.“The big question now is: Are companies going to start competing with one another on price?” Ms. Uruci asked.But that’s a difficult question to answer, because the automotive market has drastically changed. To understand the situation, it’s useful to examine how the auto industry worked before.“Going into the pandemic, the dynamic in the automobile business was this idea that retail profitability was under constant pressure, driven by the internet,” said Pat Ryan, the chief executive of CoPilot, a car shopping app that monitors prices across about 40,000 dealerships.Automakers produced more cars than the marketplace demanded, offering incentives to clear inventory and compete with lower-cost imports. Dealers made their profits on volume and financing, often resulting in customer complaints of excess fees.As the coronavirus spread, factories shut down. Even when they reopened, semiconductors remained scarce. Manufacturers allocated chips to their highest-priced models — trucks and sport utility vehicles — offsetting lower volume with higher profits on each sale. About five million cars that normally would have been produced never were, Mr. Ryan said.Dealers got in on the action, charging thousands of dollars above list price — especially as stimulus programs rolled out, and consumers sought to upgrade their vehicles or buy new ones to escape cities. A study by the economist Michael Havlin, published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, found that dealer markups accounted for 35 percent to 62 percent of total new-vehicle consumer inflation from 2019 to 2022.There were downsides to the lower sales volumes; dealerships also make money on service packages years after cars drive off the lot. But on balance, “it was the best of times for car dealers, for sure,” Mr. Ryan said.It was the worst of times, however, for anyone who suddenly needed a car.Hailey Cote with her recently purchased Toyota Corolla.Ross Mantle for The New York TimesThat’s the position that Hailey Cote of Pittsburgh found herself in last summer. After tiring of low-wage jobs on farms and in restaurants, she built a business cleaning houses for $25 an hour. When her 2005 Jeep Grand Cherokee broke down, she knew she had to find a replacement quickly to ferry cleaning gear to each job and get to school, where she’s pursuing a degree in counseling.At that point, the used cars she could find were only a few thousand dollars less than the cheapest new cars, so she went with a 2022 base model Toyota Corolla. Her loan payment is about $500 a month. Insurance, which has also become more expensive, is another $200. Including gas and maintenance, Ms. Cote’s transportation cost is almost as much as her rent, leaving nothing for savings or recreation.“I think it’s the basic necessities that are really the worst,” Ms. Cote, 29, said. “Food’s gone up a bit, but the cost of housing, health care and cars is pretty brutal.”The car price frenzy began to ease in the second half of 2022, as more vehicles started rolling off assembly lines. But the supply has risen only gradually. Automakers, loath to relinquish profits enabled by scarcity, started talking about exercising “discipline” in their production targets.“During this two-year period, auto dealers and auto manufacturers discovered that a low-volume, higher-price model was actually a very profitable model,” Tom Barkin, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, said in an interview.Car Dealers Reap Big Profits in Inflation EraCar companies have been increasing prices by more than their input costs have climbed, leading to big profits on new vehicles.

    .dw-chart-subhed {
    line-height: 1;
    margin-bottom: 6px;
    font-family: nyt-franklin;
    color: #121212;
    font-size: 15px;
    font-weight: 700;

    Percent markups for publicly traded dealerships
    Source: Michael Havlin (Bureau of Labor Statistics)By The New York Times“The experience of higher prices, and the ability to move prices, does broaden the perspectives of business people in terms of what their options are,” he said. “It’s attractive if you can do it.”One way the automakers tried to buoy prices was jettisoning cheaper models, like the Chevrolet Spark and Volkswagen Passat. Responding to federal subsidies, car companies rolled out electric vehicles, but that didn’t help to bring prices down — they started with luxury versions, like the $42,995 Mustang Mach-E.And there have been added supply constraints. The generation of cars that would typically be coming off three-year leases is smaller than usual. Those who leased cars in the spring of 2020 have an incentive to buy them at the prices that were locked in before everything became more expensive.On top of that, some rental car companies are aggressively restocking their fleets after being starved for several years, leading dealership groups like Sonic Automotive to complain on earnings calls that they’re being outcompeted at auctions.“There are so many sources of used vehicles that just dried up over the last few years,” said Satyan Merchant, a senior vice president for financial services at TransUnion, a credit monitoring company. “And it all has this downstream effect.”The Fed has been raising interest rates sharply to slow demand — including for cars — and cool price increases. But during the adjustment period, that is making it even tougher for many Americans to afford a vehicle. According to TransUnion, the average monthly payment for a new car rose to $736 in the first quarter of 2023, from $585 two years before. Used cars average $523 per month, up $110 over the same period.Prices for Cars of All Ages Are Above Prepandemic LevelsA new car will run you about $51,000 on average – about 30 percent more than in January 2020. 

    Source: CoPilotBy The New York TimesCars are now a bifurcated market: Demand remains strong on the high end, where wealthy buyers with excess savings from the past two-plus years are able to absorb higher interest rates, or simply pay cash. Some are only now receiving vehicles they ordered in 2022 at inflated prices.Competition for vehicles is also fierce on the low end, since people with thin financial cushions and in-person jobs can’t afford to forgo transportation, which in most of the country is synonymous with a car. The job market has remained strong, especially for in-person jobs in fields like hospitality and health care, so more people have workplaces to get to.And many people in between, who might switch cars every few years, are waiting for prices to fall.“What we’ve seen is the disappearance of the middle,” said Scott Kunes, chief operating officer of a dealership group in the Midwest. He faults the automakers for abandoning cheaper, smaller, basic cars that people need just to get around, especially as interest rates put fancier versions beyond reach. “It doesn’t make any sense to me at all.”The situation may start to resolve itself soon. Wholesale car prices have begun to fall, and carmakers are offering more incentives. Kelley Blue Book data shows that average prices have fallen below list for the past two months, which Jonathan Smoke, chief economist at Cox Automotive, said signaled that demand was easing. Prices have come down in recent months for electric cars — the fastest-growing segment of new car sales, though a small portion of the overall market.Recent history has shown, however, that pricing trajectories are rarely linear. Adam Jonas, an auto industry analyst with Morgan Stanley, said that over the short to medium term, more inventory was the only answer.“Even though the statements from the Japanese and the Koreans are that the chip shortage is ending, it takes many months to spool it up,” he said. “Dealers should prepare for a tight summer.”Jack Ewing More

  • in

    Inflation Slowed in April, Marking 10th Month of Moderation

    Price increases cooled, capping months of declines. The details held hints of hope.Inflation slowed for a 10th straight month in April, a closely watched report on Wednesday showed, good news for American families struggling under the burden of higher costs and for policymakers in Washington as they try to wrangle rapid price increases.The Consumer Price Index climbed 4.9 percent in April from a year earlier, less than the 5 percent that economists in a Bloomberg survey had expected. Inflation has come down notably from a peak just above 9 percent last summer, though it has remained far higher than the 2 percent annual gains that were normal before the pandemic.Cheaper prices for airline tickets, new cars and groceries including eggs and produce helped to pull inflation lower last month even as gas prices and rents climbed briskly. In an important shift, prices for some services slowed — a positive for the Federal Reserve, which has been raising interest rates to slow the economy and wrestle inflation lower. Central bankers have been watching services costs carefully in part because they have been proving stubborn.The report also provided welcome news for President Biden. Inflation has plagued voters for more than two years now, weighing on the president’s approval ratings. As prices climb less dramatically with each passing month, they may become a less pressing concern.Yet economists warned against overstating the progress: While inflation is showing positive signs of cooling, a chunk of the decline since last summer has come as supply chains have healed. With that low-hanging fruit gone, it could be a long and bumpy path back to a normal inflation rate.“Inflation is still sticky; I don’t think that the Fed is going to look at this and cut rates, or heave an especially big sigh of relief,” said Priya Misra, head of global rates research at TD Securities. “Not so fast. We can’t draw the conclusion that the inflation problem is over.”Even so, stock prices jumped in response to the data as investors — who tend to prefer lower interest rates — greeted it as good news for the Fed.After stripping out food and fuel to get a sense of the underlying trend in price increases — what economists call a core measure — consumer prices climbed 5.5 percent from a year earlier, a slight deceleration from 5.6 percent in the previous reading.And a closely watched measure of services prices outside of housing costs pulled back even more meaningfully. That was an encouraging sign that a stubborn component of inflation is finally on the verge of cracking, but it was also driven partly by a moderation in travel expenses that might not last, said Laura Rosner-Warburton, senior economist at MacroPolicy Perspectives.That slowdown offered “a little bit of good news, but also probably a little bit of a head fake,” she said.While inflation has been gradually cooling for months, it has remained too elevated for policymakers.Higher Prices for Services Are Now Driving InflationBreakdown of the inflation rate, by category

    Note: The services category excludes energy services, and the goods category excludes food and energy goods.Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics; New York Times analysisBy The New York TimesMuch of the slowing in price increases has come as supply chain bottlenecks that emerged during the depths of the pandemic have cleared up, allowing goods shortages to ease. Energy prices have also moderated after a surge in summer 2022 that was tied to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.But underlying trends that could keep inflation persistently high over time have remained intact, including unusually strong wage growth, which could prod companies to try to charge more.That is one reason Fed officials have been paying such close attention to service prices: They tend to be more responsive to strength in the economy, and they can be difficult to slow down once they pick up.There are reasons to hope for more measured services inflation in coming months. Rents have begun to climb more slowly in market-based trackers, which should begin to show up in the official inflation data.But the question is whether the Fed has slowed the economy enough for other service prices — for things like travel, manicures, child care and health care — to follow suit.Central bankers have raised interest rates over the past year at the fastest pace since the 1980s to slow lending and weigh down growth, lifting borrowing costs above 5 percent as of this month.Those increases have made it more expensive to borrow money to buy a house or expand a business. As growth cools and companies compete less aggressively for workers, wage growth has already begun to slow. That chain reaction is expected to sap demand, which could make it harder for firms to increase prices without scaring away customers.But the full effect of the Fed’s moves is still playing out. The fallout could be intensified by a series of recent high-profile bank failures, which might make other lenders nervous and prompt them to pull back on extending credit.And Congress is approaching a showdown over raising the nation’s debt limit, which could also shape the outlook: If markets panic as Democrats and Republicans struggle to reach a deal and investors worry that the American government will fail to pay its bills, that could trickle out to hurt the economy.Democrats have warned that the brinkmanship could undermine progress in a strong economy with slowing inflation, while Republicans argued on Wednesday that rapid inflation is evidence that they are correct to demand spending cuts.With so many factors poised to weaken the economy, Fed officials are now assessing whether they need to raise borrowing costs further, or whether their moves so far will suffice to guide inflation back to normal. John C. Williams, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, told reporters in New York on Tuesday that the Fed’s next decision — to lift rates or to pause — would hinge on incoming data.“We’ll adjust policy going forward based on what we see out there,” he said.Policymakers will receive the consumer price report for May on June 13, the day before their decision, but officials typically give markets at least a hint of what they might do with rates ahead of time. Given that, central bankers are likely to pay close attention to the April inflation report.Fed officials will also receive May jobs data and a reading of the personal consumption expenditures price index — the measure they officially target in their 2 percent inflation goal, but one that comes out with more of a delay — before their next meeting. The personal consumption measure builds partly on the data from the consumer price report.For now, the fresh inflation figures probably aren’t enough to convince policymakers that they should change course and reduce interest rates soon, economists said.“It probably keeps them on track to pause at the next meeting,” Ms. Rosner-Warburton said. More

  • in

    Financial Stability Experts at the Fed Turn a Wary Eye on Commercial Real Estate

    A financial stability report from the Federal Reserve flagged concerns tied to rising interest rates, including in commercial real estate.Federal Reserve financial stability experts are on the lookout for weaknesses after a year of rising interest rates — and as they survey the potential risks confronting the system, they are increasingly watching office loans and other commercial real estate borrowing.Fed officials have lifted borrowing costs rapidly over the past year — to just above 5 percent from near-zero in early 2022 — to cool rapid inflation by slowing the economy. So far, the fallout from that abrupt change has been most obvious in the banking sector. A series of high-profile banks have collapsed or faced turmoil in recent weeks partly because they were poorly prepared for heftier borrowing costs.But Fed staff members and market experts whom they survey cited commercial real estate as another area worth watching in the central bank’s twice-annual Financial Stability Report, which was released Monday.The jump in interest rates over the past year “increases the risk” that commercial borrowers will not be able to refinance their loans when the loans reach the end of their term, Fed staff wrote in the report, noting that commercial real estate values remain “elevated.”“The magnitude of a correction in property values could be sizable and therefore could lead to credit losses by holders of C.R.E. debt,” the report said — noting that many of those holders are banks, and particularly smaller banks.“The Federal Reserve has increased monitoring of the performance of C.R.E. loans and expanded examination procedures for banks with significant C.R.E. concentration risk,” the report said.The Fed’s comments on commercial real estate amounted to muted watchfulness rather than a full-throated warning — but they come at a time when many investors and economists are closely monitoring the sector. The outlook for office buildings in downtown areas, where workers have not fully returned after a shift to remote work that began during the coronavirus pandemic, has emerged as a particular concern on Wall Street.The report included a survey of 25 professionals at broker-dealers, investment funds, research and advisory organizations, and universities, and those respondents ranked commercial real estate as their fourth-biggest financial stability concern — behind risks from interest rate increases, banking sector stress, and U.S.-China tensions, but ahead of Russia’s war in Ukraine and an impending fight in Congress about raising the debt limit.“Many contacts saw real estate as a possible trigger for systemic risk, particularly in the commercial sector, where respondents highlighted concerns over higher interest rates, valuations and shifts in end-user demand,” the report said.The Fed’s stability report also focused on risks to the economy that might come from the recent banking sector turmoil, which many officials are worried might prompt banks to pull back when it comes to lending. A Fed survey of bank loan officers released on Monday showed that demand for many types of loans has fallen in recent months, and it is becoming gradually harder to borrow.Worries could “lead banks and other financial institutions to further contract the supply of credit to the economy,” the Fed report said. “A sharp contraction in the availability of credit would drive up the cost of funding for businesses and households, potentially resulting in a slowdown in economic activity.”And if banks pull back in a dramatic way, it could have knock-on effects, the Fed report warned.“With a decline in profits of nonfinancial businesses, financial stress and defaults at some firms could increase,” the report said, especially because companies are very indebted — which puts them on dicier footing if business goes badly. More

  • in

    Wages Grow Steadily, Defying Fed’s Hopes as it Fights Inflation

    Wage growth ticked up in April, good news for American workers but bad news for officials at the Federal Reserve, who have been hoping to see a steady moderation in pay gains as they try to wrestle inflation back under control.Average hourly earnings climbed by 4.4 percent in the year through April. That compared with 4.3 percent in the previous month, and was more than the 4.2 percent that economists had expected.The increase in wages compared with the previous month — at 0.5 percent — was the fastest since March 2022.The hourly earnings measure can bounce around from month to month, so it is possible that the April increase is a blip rather than a reversal in the trend toward cooler wage gains. Even so, the data underscored that the Fed faces a bumpy road as it tries to slow the economy and bring inflation under control.Fed officials are closely watching the pace of wage growth as they try to assess how quickly inflation is likely to fade. While officials regularly acknowledge that wage gains did not initially cause rapid price increases, they worry that it will prove difficult to return inflation to normal with pay gains rising so rapidly.Companies may charge more in order to cover their climbing labor costs. And when households are earning more, they are more capable of keeping up with higher expenses without pulling back their spending — enabling businesses to charge more for hotel rooms, child care and restaurant meals without scaring away consumers.The Fed has raised interest rates at the fastest pace since the 1980s starting from March 2022. Officials this week lifted borrowing costs to just about 5 percent and signaled that they might pause their rate moves as soon as their June meeting, depending on incoming economic data.Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, noted during his news conference this week that wage growth has remained strong. He suggested the solid job market was one reason the Fed would likely keep rates high to continue slowing the economy “for a while” as it tried to wrestle inflation, which remains above 4 percent, back to the central bank’s 2 percent goal.“Right now, you have a labor market that is still extraordinarily tight,” he said, noting that a more dated wage figure released last week was “a couple percentage points above what would be consistent with 2 percent inflation over time.”That measure, the Employment Cost Index, showed that wages and salaries for private-sector U.S. workers were up 5.1 percent in March from a year earlier. While that is somewhat faster than the gain reported by the overall average hourly earnings figures for April that were released Friday, it is roughly in line with a closely-watched measure within the monthly jobs report that tracks pay gains for rank and file workers.Pay for production and nonsupervisory workers — essentially, people who are not managers — climbed by 5 percent in the year through April, Friday’s report showed. That number has continued to gradually moderate, even as the slowdown in the overall index has stalled.Fed policymakers will have another month of job and wage data in hand before they make their next interest-rate decision on June 14, making Friday’s figures just one of many factors that are likely to inform whether they pause rate increases or press ahead with more policy adjustments. Officials will also have further evidence of how much the recent turmoil in the banking sector is slowing the economy before they next meet.A series of high-profile bank failures have spooked investors and could generate caution at lenders across the country, which could make it harder to access loans for construction projects and mortgages and help to cool growth — but it is unclear so far how large that effect will be.Perhaps most importantly, officials will receive fresh inflation data before their next decision.“They’ll need to see the inflation data and digest this holistically,” said Kathy Bostjancic, chief economist at Nationwide. She said that the strong jobs numbers were just one month of data, but that they were “jarring” to see at a moment when economists had been looking for a slowdown.“Assuming that the inflation numbers continue to trend lower gradually, I think they can go on hold in June,” she said of the Fed. “But it will depend in the inflation readings.” More

  • in

    Powell Bets the Fed Can Slow Inflation Despite Recession Fears

    Jerome H. Powell, the Federal Reserve chair, thinks his central bank can defy history to clinch slower inflation and a soft economic landing.The Federal Reserve’s push to slow the economy and bring inflation under control is often compared to an airplane descent, one that could end in a soft landing, a bumpy one or an outright crash.Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, is betting on something more akin to the Miracle on the Hudson: a touchdown that is gentle, all things considered, and unlike anything the nation has seen before.The Fed has raised rates sharply over the past year, pushing them just above 5 percent on Wednesday, in a bid to cool the economy to bring inflation under control. Staff economists at the central bank have begun to forecast that America is likely to tip into a recession later this year as the Fed’s substantial policy moves combine with turmoil in the banking sector to snuff out growth.But Mr. Powell made it clear during a news conference on Wednesday that he does not agree.“That’s not my own most likely case,” he said, explaining that he expects modest growth this year. That sunnier forecast has hinged, in part, on trends in the labor market.America’s job market is still very strong — with rapid job growth and unemployment hovering near a 50-year low — but it has shown signs of cooling. Job openings have dropped sharply in recent months, falling to 9.6 million in March from a peak of more than 12 million a year earlier. Historically, such a massive decline in the number of available positions would have come alongside layoffs and rising joblessness, and prominent economists had predicted a painful economic landing for exactly that reason.But so far, unemployment has not budged.Relationship Status: It’s ComplicatedJoblessness usually increases when job openings fall. But that relationship is in question now as job openings drop while unemployment remains low.

    Note: Data is seasonally adjustedSource: Bureau of Labor StatisticsBy The New York Times“It wasn’t supposed to be possible for job openings to decline by as much as they have declined without unemployment going up,” Mr. Powell said this week. While America will get the latest update on unemployment when a job market report is released Friday, unemployment has yet to rise meaningfully. Mr. Powell added that “there are no promises in this, but it just seems to me that it is possible that we can continue to have a cooling in the labor market without having the big increases in unemployment that have gone with many prior episodes.”America’s economic fate rests on whether Mr. Powell’s optimism is correct. If the Fed can pull it off — defying history to wrangle rapid inflation by sharply cooling the labor market without causing a big and painful jump in joblessness — the legacy of the post-pandemic economy could be a tumultuous but ultimately positive one. If it can’t, taming price increases could come at a painful cost to America’s employees.The Fed has raised rates sharply over the past year, pushing them just above 5 percent as of their meeting this week, in a bid to cool the economy in order to wrestle inflation under control.Hiroko Masuike/The New York TimesSome economists are skeptical that the good times can last.“We haven’t seen this trade-off, which is fantastic,” said Aysegul Sahin, an economist at the University of Texas at Austin. But she noted that productivity data appeared glum, which suggests that companies got burned by years of pandemic labor shortages and are now hanging onto workers even when they do not necessarily need them to produce goods and services.“This time was different, but now we are getting back to the state where it is a more normal labor market,” she said. “This is going to start playing out the way it always plays out.”The Fed is in charge of fostering both maximum employment and stable inflation. But those goals can come into conflict, as is the case now.Inflation has been running above the Fed’s 2 percent goal for two full years. While the strong labor market did not initially cause the price spikes, it could help to perpetuate them. Employers are paying higher wages to try to hang onto workers. As they do that, they are raising prices to cover their costs. Workers who are earning a bit more are able to afford rising rents, child care costs and restaurant checks without pulling back.In situations like this, the Fed raises interest rates to cool the economy and job market. Higher borrowing costs slow down the housing market, discourage big consumer purchases like cars and home improvement projects, and deter businesses from expanding. As people spend less, companies cannot keep raising prices without losing customers.But setting policy correctly is an economic tightrope act.Policymakers think that it is paramount to act decisively enough to quickly bring inflation under control — if it is allowed to persist too long, families and businesses could come to expect steadily rising prices. They might then adjust their behavior, asking for bigger raises and normalizing regular price increases. That would make inflation even harder to stamp out.On the other hand, officials do not want to cool the economy too much, causing a painful recession that proves more punishing than was necessary to return inflation to normal.Striking that balance is a dicey proposition. It is not clear exactly how much the economy needs to slow to fully control inflation. And the Fed’s interest rate policy is blunt, imprecise and takes time to work: It is hard to guess how much the increases so far will ultimately weigh on growth.That is why the Fed has slowed its policy changes in recent months — and why it appears poised to pause them altogether. After a string of three-quarter point rate moves last year, the Fed has recently adjusted borrowing costs a quarter point at a time. Officials signaled this week that they could stop raising rates altogether as soon as their mid-June meeting, depending on incoming economic data.Hitting pause would give central bankers a chance to see whether their rate adjustments so far might be sufficient.It would also give them time to assess the fallout from turmoil in the banking industry — upheaval that could make a soft economic landing even more difficult.Three large banks have collapsed and required government intervention since mid-March, and jitters continue to course through midsize lenders, with several regional bank stocks plummeting on Wednesday and Thursday. Banking troubles can quickly translate into economic problems as lenders pull back, leaving businesses less able to grow and families less able to finance their consumption.The labor market could be in for a more dramatic slowdown, given the bank tumult and the Fed’s rate moves so far, said Nick Bunker, the director of North American economic research at the job site Indeed.He said that while job openings have been coming down swiftly, some of that might reflect a shift back to normal conditions after a bout of pandemic-inspired weirdness, not necessarily as a result of Fed policy.For instance, job openings in leisure and hospitality industries had spiked as restaurants and hotels reopened from lockdowns. Those were now disappearing, but that might be more about a return to business as usual.“A soft landing is happening, but how much of that is gravity and how much of it is what the pilot is doing with the plane?” Mr. Bunker said. Going forward, it could be that the normal historical relationship between declining job openings and rising joblessness will kick in as policy begins to bite.Or this time truly could be unique — as Mr. Powell is hoping. But whether the Fed and the American economy get to test his thesis could depend on whether the banking system issues clear up, Mr. Bunker said.“We might not get the answer if the financial sector comes and tips the table over,” he said. More