The central bank gave the clearest hint yet that it will soon begin to shift bond-buying from emergency mode.The chair, Jerome H. Powell, said the Fed was keeping interest rates unchanged and would continue to buy large amounts of government debt, but suggested that these purchases could taper off as recovery continued.Stefani Reynolds for The New York TimesThe Federal Reserve on Wednesday offered the most direct signal yet that it will begin to dial back its emergency support for the economy in the near future, as its chair, Jerome H. Powell, made it clear that policymakers will do so deliberatively and with plenty of warning.Fed officials voted to leave both of their key policy supports intact before wrapping up their two-day July meeting, holding interest rates near zero and continuing government-backed bond purchases unabated. Those two tools fuel economic demand by making money cheap to borrow and spend.But they spent the meeting debating when and how to slow the bond-buying program, which is expected to be the first step toward a more normal policy setting as the economy rebounds strongly from its pandemic stupor. A decision isn’t imminent, but officials used their July policy statement to signal that one is coming.The Fed had said in December that it would keep buying bonds at a steady pace — $120 billion per month — until it had made “substantial” further progress toward its two targets, stable inflation and maximum employment.“Since then, the economy has made progress toward these goals, and the committee will continue to assess progress in coming meetings,” the Fed’s policy-setting committee said in its postmeeting statement on Wednesday.Mr. Powell offered an even more detailed outlook for the purchase program during his subsequent news conference. He explained that officials had not yet decided on the pace or structure of the coming slowdown, and that there were a “range of views” on when it should happen.“We’re going to continue to try to provide clarity as appropriate,” Mr. Powell said, adding that this meeting had involved the first deep-dive discussion on those issues.Mr. Powell delivered another message: The Fed isn’t ready to withdraw support just yet. He said that while the economy was progressing toward “substantial” progress, “we have some ground to cover on the labor market side.”Investors have been keenly watching for any news on when and how the Fed will begin to withdraw from buying assets, worried that the announcement of a tapering program might whipsaw markets. Fed critics have been asking why the central bank continues to buy bonds, fueling an already-scorching housing market and pushing up sky-high stock prices.Fed officials are trying to strike a balance, ensuring they are prepared to slow stimulus measures as the economy strengthens while avoiding an abrupt pullback. The latter could undermine the Fed’s credibility and potentially roil markets, causing lending to dry up and slowing the recovery when millions of prepandemic jobs are still missing and risks to the economy persist.“They don’t want to cause a sharp and fast increase in interest rates — that would be detrimental,” said Roberto Perli, head of global policy research at Cornerstone Macro. “The labor market is still not where it should be.”Lingering threats to the outlook have been underscored by rising coronavirus cases in the United States and around the world tied to the Delta variant.Mr. Powell acknowledged risks from the variant, but he suggested that any economic pullback it drove might not be as severe as last year’s. Still, he said, “it might weigh on the return to the labor market,” noting that the Fed will be monitoring that “carefully.”But the Fed chair conveyed a generally optimistic tone about the economy on Wednesday.While he pointed out that the labor market had a lot of room left to heal, he also suggested that workers were lingering on the sidelines because they were afraid of the virus, had caregiving duties or were receiving generous unemployment insurance benefits. Those factors should fade as life returns to normal.The United States is on a path to a strong labor market, and “it shouldn’t take too long, in macroeconomic time, to get there,” Mr. Powell said.He discussed at length another reality of the reopening era: rising prices. As economic growth roars back, with strong consumer spending supported by repeated government stimulus checks, inflation is surging. That is partly the result of data quirks, but also because demand for washing machines, electronics, cars and housing is outstripping what producers can supply.The Consumer Price Index picked up by 5.4 percent in June compared with a year earlier, the quickest pace since 2008. The Fed’s preferred inflation gauge has been slightly more muted, at 3.9 percent in May, but that, too, is well above the central bank’s 2 percent average inflation goal.“Inflation has increased notably” Mr. Powell said, adding that it is likely to remain elevated in coming months. But as supply bottlenecks abate, he said, “inflation is expected to drop back toward our longer-run goal.”Price gains could turn out to be higher and more persistent than Fed officials expect, Mr. Powell acknowledged. But expectations of where prices might head next seem consistent with the Fed’s goal, he said.When Fed officials say they expect today’s pressures to prove “transitory,” Mr. Powell said, they mean that increases today will not lead to ever-higher prices down the road.To put it even more plainly: A bag of flour might cost 5 cents more this year, but if the increase is transitory, it will not keep going up 5 cents with each passing year.“The increases will happen — we’re not saying they will reverse,” Mr. Powell said, but “the process of inflation will stop.”For now, officials are monitoring price increases but also staying focused on a different set of risks: About 6.8 million jobs are still missing compared with February 2020 levels. Workers are taking time to sort back into suitable employment, and the central bank wants to make sure the economic recovery is robust as they try to do that.Even when the Fed begins to dial back bond-buying, interest rates are likely to remain low. Long-running forces, including the aging population and rising inequality, have pushed them down naturally, and the central bank is expected to keep its main policy rate — the federal funds rate — at rock bottom, where it has been since March 2020.Officials have signaled that, barring a sustained burst in inflation or financial stability risks, they would like to leave interest rates near zero until the job market has returned to full employment. Their latest economic projections, released in June, suggested that most officials did not expect the economy to meet that high bar until 2023.Mr. Powell reiterated a commitment to seeing the recovery through.“The labor market has a ways to go,” he said. “We at the Fed will do everything we can to support the economy for as long as it takes to complete the recovery.” More
Federal Reserve officials are gathering in Washington this week with monetary policy still set to emergency mode, even as the economy rebounds and inflation accelerates.Economists expect the central bank’s postmeeting statement at 2 p.m. Wednesday to leave policy unchanged, but investors will keenly watch a subsequent news conference with the Fed chair, Jerome H. Powell, for any hints at when — and how — officials might begin to pull back their economic support.That’s because Fed policymakers are debating their plans for future “tapering,” the widely used term for slowing down monthly purchases of government-backed debt. The bond purchases are meant to keep money chugging through the economy by encouraging lending and spending, and slowing them would be the first step in moving policy toward a more normal setting.Big and often conflicting considerations loom over the taper debate. Inflation has picked up more sharply than many Fed officials expected. Those price pressures are expected to fade, but the risk that they will linger is a source of discomfort, ramping up the urgency to create some sort of exit plan. At the same time, the job market is far from healed, and the surging Delta coronavirus variant means that the pandemic remains a real risk. Policy missteps could prove costly.The Fed’s balance sheet has grown, thanks to bond-buying.The Federal Reserve has swollen its balance sheet by buying bonds to bolster the economy during the pandemic, making it a bigger player in markets.
Source: Federal ReserveBy The New York TimesHere are a few key things to know about the bond-buying, and key details that Wall Street will be watching:The Fed is buying $120 billion in government backed bonds each month — $80 billion in Treasury debt and $40 billion in mortgage-backed securities.Economists mostly expect the central bank to announce plans to slow those purchases this year, perhaps as soon as August, before actually dialing them back late this year or early next. That slowdown is what Wall Street refers to as a “taper.”There’s a hot debate among policymakers about how that taper should play out. Some officials think the Fed should slow mortgage debt buying first because the housing market is booming. Others have said mortgage security buying has little special effect on the housing market. They have hinted or said they would favor tapering both types of purchases at the same speed.The Fed is moving cautiously, and for a reason: Back in 2013, markets convulsed when investors realized that a similar bond-buying program after the financial crisis would slow soon. Mr. Powell and crew do not want to stage a rerun.Bond-buying is just one of the Fed’s policy tools, and is used to lower longer-term interest rates and to get money chugging around the economy. The Fed also sets a policy interest rate, the federal funds rate, to keep borrowing costs low. It has been near zero since March 2020.Central bankers have been clear that tapering off bond purchases is the first step toward moving policy away from an emergency setting. Increases in the funds rate remain off in the distant future. More
Policymakers, now more attuned to the costs of choking off growth early, are sticking by a patient approach as prices rise.Inflation has long been the boogeyman haunting the nightmares of economic policymakers from both parties — and controlling it has been a top economic priority. But as the economy reopens from pandemic shutdowns and prices spike, it is becoming clear just how much that conventional wisdom has shifted in recent years.After three decades of relative price stability and a long stretch of weak price gains, many economists and lawmakers had in recent years come to believe that trying too hard to avoid overheating the economy created its own risk by prematurely cooling growth and leaving workers on the sidelines.The tools that policymakers used to prevent overheating — raising interest rates and reining in government spending — also contributed to less hiring and slower wage growth. Policymakers have paid increasing attention to those trade-offs, especially as chronically slow price gains across the globe made government efforts to control inflation seem somewhere between futile and self-defeating.That view has remained mostly intact at the Federal Reserve and the White House even as prices pop, virus variants threaten to perpetuate supply-chain bottlenecks and some price increases, like rising rents, create the risk that high inflation might last for a while.The Biden administration is emphasizing the benefits of the current moment, which include higher wages and more bargaining power for workers, as it insists that inflation will fade over time. The Fed, which meets this week, is openly nervous about rising prices, but it isn’t doing anything abrupt to counteract them. It says it needs to weigh the risk of inflation against the threat of slowing a labor market that is still missing nearly seven million jobs compared with prepandemic levels.Republicans are condemning rising prices, warning that the administration needs to rein in its spending plans and that the Fed should withdraw support. Even some left-leaning economists have warned that things could get out of control and that central bank officials need to be on watch.Here is a snapshot of what is happening with inflation, including the risks, the rewards and how policymakers are thinking through a strange economic moment.Prices are up this year, and pretty markedly.Inflation is up across a variety of measures, and by significantly more than economists predicted earlier this year.The Consumer Price Index, a Labor Department gauge of how much a basket of goods and services costs to buy, rose 5.4 percent in the year through June. The Fed prefers a separate measure, the Personal Consumption Expenditures index. That gauge tracks both out-of-pocket expenses and the cost of things people consume but don’t directly pay for, like medical care. It climbed 3.9 percent through May.Prices have risen by more than Fed officials expected, based on both their public statements and their economic projections this year.Why the big jump? Some of it owes to temporary data quirks, which were expected to push inflation higher this year. Part of it has come as prices for airline tickets, hotel rooms and other pandemic-affected purchases rebound from last year, also as anticipated. But the surprisingly large part of the increase has come from a surge in consumer demand that is straining delivery routes and outstripping available supply for electronics, housing and laundry machines.That portion of the inflation is more tied to government policies, which put money into consumers’ pockets — and its future trajectory is a lot less predictable. Economists think the bottlenecks will fade, but by how much and how long it will take is uncertain.Those price increases could have a downside.Whether today’s inflation matters and warrants a response will depend on several factors.If, as the White House predicts, quick price gains fade as the economy returns to normal, they shouldn’t be terribly problematic. Households are likely to have to spend a little bit more on some goods and services but may also find that they are earning more. Workers are now seeing decent wage gains, though not quite enough to outpace price gains, and the labor market is expected to continue strengthening as inflation fades.The biggest price gains have also been concentrated in just a few categories, like used cars. Most families do not buy automobiles that often, so the hit from higher costs will not be as salient for consumers as an across-the-board rapid rise in prices for everything consumers buy, like clothing and milk.But if consumers and businesses come to expect higher prices and start accepting bigger price tags and demanding higher wages, that could broaden inflation and keep it elevated. That would be a problem. Rapid inflation makes life hard for people who live on savings, like retirees. If it outstrips pay gains, it can erode a consumer’s ability to buy goods and services. And if inflation becomes hard to predict, as it did in the 1970s and 1980s, it makes planning for the future hard for businesses and households.There are risks that inflation could take time to get back to normal.There are real reasons to worry that inflation could stick around. Supply-chain snarls are expected to fade with time, but new Covid-19 variants and renewed lockdowns in some countries could keep global trade chains from getting back to normal. That could keep prices for goods elevated. (On the flip side, Jason Furman at Harvard points out that renewed lockdowns would also probably drag down consumer demand, which could lead to softer price pressures.)There are other hot inflation risks. Wages are rising, which might feed into faster prices as employers try to cover costs. Rents — which were depressed — are accelerating, potentially a stickier source of inflationary pressure.If inflation becomes pernicious, the Fed has tools to contain it. The central bank is already coming up with a plan to slow its big bond purchases, which keep longer-term borrowing cheap and lift markets. It could also raise its main interest rate, which would trickle through the economy to slow lending and spending.“One way or another, we’re not going to be going into a period of high inflation for a long period of time, because, of course, we have tools to address that,” Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, testified this month. “But we don’t want to use them in a way that is unnecessary, or that interrupts the rebound of the economy.”A job fair in St. Louis last month. The Fed is nervous about rising prices, but it says it also needs to weigh the risk of slowing a labor market still missing seven million workers.Whitney Curtis for The New York TimesBut there are also real risks to premature action.As Mr. Powell alluded to, policymakers do not want to move too hastily in response to the recent data. Many officials argue that it does not make sense to react to what is expected to be a short-lived price pickup by dialing back fiscal ambitions or weakening monetary support — policy changes that would reduce demand and lead to slower hiring down the road.Should the Fed pull back support for the economy before many of the 6.8 million jobs that have gone missing since the start of the pandemic return, it could lead to a painful situation in which workers end up stuck out of work.That would cost families paychecks, hurt the country’s potential for growth and tip the economic scales toward employers, who benefit when many available workers are competing for jobs.For decades, “the sensible adult consensus — that the most important thing was to protect against inflation — had a huge cost, and that cost was wages stagnating,” said Benjamin Dulchin, director of the organizing group Fed Up. “The Fed can err on the side of corporate interests and keeping wages lower, or it can err on the side of workers’ interests.”Today’s inflation could offer benefits.Inflation does have some winners. People who owe debts find that they are easier to pay off, and middle-class households who own houses may find that their values appreciate. Research has suggested that inflation in advanced economies can shrink inequality, for instance.But that isn’t even the argument the Fed and the White House are making: They simply do not expect the higher prices to last forever, and they think the short-term costs are worth the long-term benefits of helping the economy through a tough period.Some Democrats think that voracious hiring bolstered by government spending and central bank support will give workers the power to bargain for higher wages — an ability that might last beyond the inflationary phase. And they have been trying to foster a swift recovery from the pandemic downturn, getting people back into jobs and businesses back into full swing quickly.Officials are being patient, even as inflation surprises them.Government officials are setting economic policy today with an eye on the last battle. After the deep 2007-9 recession, the government cut back on spending early and monetary policymakers lifted interest rates before price gains had returned to their 2 percent annual inflation goal. Price gains proceeded to get stuck below that target, and the labor market recovery may have taken longer than it needed to, since the economy had less support.As that episode underlined, slow-moving global trends — including aging demographics and free trade — seem to keep a lid on price gains these days. In Japan and in Europe, policymakers have spent years battling to coax inflation higher. They are worried in part by the looming threat of deflation, which discourages consumption and crushes debtors, who find their pay stagnating or declining as their debt loads remain unchanged.America’s current bout of price pressures actually seems to be helping to guide consumer expectations, which had been slipping lower, back into the comfort zone.And a few heady inflation numbers are a good problem to have, if you ask Kenneth Rogoff, a Harvard economist. The globe just experienced a devastating pandemic that was expected to wreck the economy.“In the current situation, the fact that the economy is booming and they didn’t quite plan for it is still a blessing,” he said. “It’s a rich man’s problem that we’re getting inflation.” More
When Jerome H. Powell, the Federal Reserve chair, appears before the Senate Banking Committee on Thursday, he will be testifying at a fraught moment both politically and economically, given the recent rise in inflation.The Consumer Price Index jumped 5.4 percent in June from a year earlier, the biggest increase since 2008 and a larger move than economists had expected. Price pressures appear poised to last longer than policymakers at the White House or Fed anticipated.In testimony on Wednesday before the House Financial Services Committee, Mr. Powell attributed rapid price gains to factors tied to the economy’s reopening from the pandemic, and indicated in response to questioning that Fed officials expected inflation to begin calming in six months or so.He acknowledged that “the incoming inflation data have been higher than expected and hoped for,” but he said the gains were coming from a “small group” of goods and services directly tied to reopening.For now, he voiced comfort with the central bank’s relatively patient policy path even in light of the hotter-than-expected price data. He said that the labor market was improving but that “there is still a long way to go.”He also said the Fed’s goal of achieving “substantial further progress” toward its economic goals before taking the first steps toward a more normal policy setting “is still a ways off.” More
The economy remains hot, but the future is looking less buoyant than it did just a short while ago.Steam rising from a grate in New York’s financial district on Thursday morning. Swings in the bond market this week pointed to more subdued expectations about inflation.Mark Lennihan/Associated PressFor months, the United States has been experiencing the growing pains of an economy rebooting itself — surging economic activity, yes, but also shortages, gummed-up supply networks and higher prices.Now, shifts in financial markets point to a reversal of that economic narrative. Specifically, the bond market has swung in ways that suggest that a period of slower growth and more subdued inflation could lie ahead.The yield on 10-year Treasury bonds fell to 1.29 percent on Thursday, down from a recent high of 1.75 percent at the end of March and the fourth straight trading day of decline. The closing price of inflation-protected bonds implied expectations of consumer price inflation at 2.25 percent a year over the coming decade, down from 2.54 percent in early May.These are hardly panic-worthy numbers. They are not the kind of jaw-dropping swings that markets show in moments of extreme turbulence, and analysts attribute the moves in significant part to technical factors as big investors shift their portfolios.Moreover, there is a reasonable argument that the economy will be better over the medium term if it experiences moderate growth and low inflation, as opposed to the kind of breakneck growth — paired with shortages and inflation — seen in the last few months.But the price swings do show an economy in flux, and they undermine arguments that the United States is settling into a new, high-inflation reality for the indefinite future.In effect, the bet in markets on explosive growth and resulting inflation is giving way to a more mixed story. The economy remains hot at the moment; the quarter that just ended will most likely turn out to be one of the strongest for growth in history. But market prices aim to reflect the future, not the present, and the future is looking less buoyant than it did not long ago.The peak months for injection of federal stimulus dollars into the economy have passed. The legislative outlook for major federal initiatives on infrastructure and family support has become murkier. The rapid spread of the Delta variant of Covid-19 has brought new concern for the global economic outlook, especially in places with low vaccination rates. That, in turn, could both hold back demand for American exports and cause continued supply problems that result in slower growth in the United States.“The overriding concern being reflected in the bond market is that peak growth has been reached, and the benefits from fiscal policy are starting to fade,” said Sophie Griffiths, a market analyst with the foreign exchange brokerage Oanda, in a research note.The evidence of a more measured growth path was evident, for example, in a report from the Institute for Supply Management this week. It showed the service sector was continuing to expand rapidly in June, but considerably less rapidly than it had in May. Anecdotes included in the report supported the idea that supply problems were holding back the pace of expansion.“Business conditions continue to rebound; however, like everywhere, the challenges in the supply chain are numerous,” reported one anonymous retailer that participated in the I.S.M. survey. “We continue to see cost increases, delayed shipments, pushed-out lead times, and no clarity as to when predictive balance returns to this market.”The bond market shifts could leave the Federal Reserve wrong-footed in contemplating plans to unwind its efforts to support the economy. At a policy meeting three weeks ago, some Fed officials were ready to proceed with tapering bond purchases in the near future, and some expected to raise interest rates next year, in contrast with a more patient approach that Jerome Powell, the Fed chairman, has advocated.In one of the odder paradoxes of monetary policy, what was perceived in markets as greater openness at the Fed to raising interest rates has contributed to declines in long-term interest rates. Global investors are betting that potential pre-emptive monetary tightening will cause a stronger dollar, slower growth and less ability for the Fed to raise rates in the future without tanking the economy.“The market read the views of the minority within the Fed about tapering and about raising rates as signals the Fed has blinked on its decision to allow the economy to run hot,” said Steven Ricchiuto, chief U.S. economist at Mizuho Securities. “A weaker global economy and stronger U.S. dollar all imply greater potential for us to import global deflation.”There are silver linings to the reassessment taking place in markets. Lower long-term rates make borrowing cheaper for Americans — whether that is Congress and the Biden administration considering how to pay for infrastructure plans, or home buyers trying to afford a house.And the adjustment in bond prices can give Fed officials more confidence that inflation is set to be consistent with their goals in the years ahead, even as businesses face supply shortages and spiking wages at the moment.For example, bond prices now imply that inflation will be 2.1 percent per year between five and 10 years from now, down from expectations of 2.4 percent in early May. The Fed aims for 2 percent inflation (though targeting a different inflation measure from the one that is used in the value of inflation-protected bonds).That could make it less likely the Fed acts prematurely out of fear that inflation will get out of control, recent communication problems notwithstanding.Markets aren’t all-knowing, and the signals being sent by bond prices could turn out to be wrong. But investors with, collectively, trillions of dollars on the line are betting that the rip-roaring economy of summer 2021 is going to give way to something a good bit less exciting. More
The European Central Bank said Thursday it would adjust the guideposts it uses to set monetary policy, giving its more room to deploy crisis measures even if inflation rises above its official target. The bank also said it would begin using its clout in bond markets to fight climate change.After concluding an 18-month review of its strategy, the bank’s Governing Council said Thursday that it would no longer aim to keep inflation below, but close to, 2 percent. Rather, it would simply aim for 2 percent and be ready to accept “a transitory period in which inflation is moderately above target.”The seemingly minor change gives the bank space to keep pumping credit into the eurozone economy even if annual inflation rises above 2 percent, as long as policymakers think the jump is temporary.That situation may soon materialize. Inflation in the eurozone has been hovering around 2 percent in recent months, and could rise above the target as economies reopen and shortages of needed products like semiconductors become more acute. According to the previous strategy, the central bank would be obligated to raise interest rates or take other measures to slow the economy, even if the crisis was not over.By law, controlling prices in the 19 countries of the eurozone is the central bank’s main priority, so any adjustment to its approach to inflation has broad implications for the interest rates that businesses and consumers pay on loans, and for employment and economic growth.The bank also said it would take climate change into account when it buys corporate bonds as part of its stimulus measures. The bond purchases, made with newly created money, are a means to stimulate borrowing and economic growth. But in the future, the European Central Bank will favor companies that have made sincere efforts to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide they produce.In practice, the central bank has already provided ample evidence it was willing to bend its own rules to fight the pandemic, or the debt crisis that nearly destroyed the euro a decade ago.“We do not expect the new strategy to shift the outlook for the E.C.B.’s monetary policy stance significantly,” Holger Schmieding, chief economist at Berenberg Bank, said in a note to clients ahead of the announcement. “Instead, it will formally codify the approach which the E.C.B. has pursued anyway. This will make it easier for the E.C.B. to communicate with markets and the public.”The European Central Bank’s new approach is sure to generate criticism from places like Germany, where fear of inflation runs deep. Jens Weidmann, a member of the Governing Council and president of the Bundesbank, Germany’s central bank, has called for the European Central Bank to begin dialing back its stimulus to ensure that inflation does not get out of control. He has also said that climate change was not a matter for central banks.But Mr. Weidmann belongs to a minority on the Governing Council. The central bank said in a statement that it believed that climate change was relevant to “inflation, output, employment, interest rates, investment and productivity; financial stability; and the transmission of monetary policy.” More
Federal Reserve officials are debating what to do as price risks loom, even as its leaders and the White House say today’s surge will most likely cool.Federal Reserve officials spoke with one voice throughout the pandemic downturn, promising that monetary policy would be set to full-stimulus mode until the crisis was well and truly behind America. Suddenly, they are less in sync.Central bankers are increasingly divided over how to think about and respond to emerging risks after months of rising asset values and faster-than-expected price increases. While their political counterparts in the White House have been more unified in maintaining that the recent jump in price gains will fade as the economy gets past a reopening burst, Washington as a whole is wrestling with how to approach policy at a moment of intense uncertainty.The Fed’s top officials, including Chair Jerome H. Powell, acknowledge that a lasting period of uncomfortably high inflation is a possibility. But they have said it is more likely that recent price increases, which have come as the economy reopens from its coronavirus slumber, will fade.Other officials, like James Bullard, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, have voiced more pointed concern that the pickup in prices might persist and have suggested that the Fed may need to slow its support for the economy more quickly as a result.Unwanted and persistent inflation seemed like a fringe possibility earlier this year, but it is becoming a central feature of economic policy debates as prices rise for used cars, airline tickets and restaurant meals. For the Fed, the risk that some of the current jump could last is helping to drive the discussion about how soon and how quickly officials should slow down their enormous government-backed bond-buying program — the first step in the central bank’s plan to reduce its emergency support for the economy.Fed officials have said for months that they want to achieve “substantial further progress” toward their goals of full employment and stable inflation before slowing the purchases, and they are just beginning to discuss a plan for that so-called taper. They are now wrestling with the reality that the nation is still missing 7.6 million jobs while the housing market is booming and prices have moved up faster than expected, prompting a range of views to surface in public and private.The bubbling debate reinforces that the central bank’s easy money policies won’t last forever, and sends a signal to markets that officials are closely attuned to inflationary pressures.“A pretty substantial part — or perhaps all — of the overshoot in inflation comes from categories that are directly affected by the reopening of the economy,” said Jerome Powell, the Fed chair.Al Drago/The New York Times“I see the debate and disagreement as the Fed at its best,” said Robert S. Kaplan, who is president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas and is one of the people pushing for the Fed to soon begin to pull back support. “In a situation this complex and this dynamic, if I weren’t seeing debate and disagreement, and there were unanimity, it would make me nervous.”The central bank’s 18 policy officials roundly say that the economy’s path is extremely hard to predict as it reopens from a once-in-a-century pandemic. But how they think about inflation after a string of strong recent price reports — and how they feel the Fed should react — varies.Inflation has spiked because of statistical quirks, but also because consumer demand is outstripping supply as the economy reopens and families open their wallets for dinners out and long-delayed vacations. Bottlenecks that have held up computer chip production and home-building should eventually fade. Some prices that had previously shot up, like those for lumber, are already starting to moderate.But if the reopening weirdness lasts long enough, it could cause businesses and consumers to anticipate higher inflation permanently, and act accordingly. Should that happen, or if workers begin to negotiate higher wages to cover the pop in living costs, faster price gains could stick around.“A new risk is that inflation may surprise still further to the upside as the reopening process continues, beyond the level necessary to simply make up for past misses to the low side,” Mr. Bullard said in a presentation last week. The Fed aims for 2 percent inflation as an average goal over time, without specifying the time frame.Other Fed officials have said today’s price pressures are likely to ease with time, but have not sounded confident that they will entirely disappear.“These upward price pressures may ease as the bottlenecks are worked out, but it could take some time,” Michelle Bowman, one of the Fed’s Washington-based governors, said in a recent speech.The Fed’s top leadership has offered a less alarmed take on the price trajectory. Mr. Powell and John C. Williams, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, have said it is possible that prices could stay higher, but they have also said there’s little evidence so far to suggest that they will.“A pretty substantial part — or perhaps all — of the overshoot in inflation comes from categories that are directly affected by the reopening of the economy,” Mr. Powell said during congressional testimony on June 22.Mr. Williams has said there is even a risk that inflation could slow. The one-off factors pushing up prices now, like a surge in car prices, could reverse once supply recovers, dragging down future price gains.“You could see inflation coming in lower than expected,” he said last week.Which take on inflation prevails — risk-focused, watchful, or less fretful — will have implications for the economy. Officials are beginning to talk about when and how to slow down their $120 billion in monthly bond-buying, which is split between $80 billion in Treasury securities and $40 billion in government-backed mortgage debt.The Fed has held a discussion about slowing bond-buying before, after the global financial crisis, but that came during the rebound from a deep but otherwise more standard downturn: Demand was weak and the labor market climbed slowly back. This time, conditions are much more volatile since the recession was an anomaly, driven by a pandemic instead of a financial or business shock.In the current setting, officials who are more worried about prices getting out of hand may feel more urgency to dial back their economic stimulus, which stokes demand.“This is a volatile environment; we’ve got upside inflation risk here,” Mr. Bullard said at a separate event last week. “Creating some optionality for the committee might be really useful here, and that will be part of the taper debate going forward.”Mr. Kaplan said he had been vocal about his preferences on when tapering should start during private Fed discussions, though publicly he will say only that he would prefer to start cutting policy support “sooner rather than later.”“I see the debate and disagreement as the Fed at its best,” said Robert S. Kaplan, a Fed official who is pushing to start easing support.Edgard Garrido/ReutersHe thinks moving more quickly to slow bond purchases would take a “risk management” approach to both price gains and asset market excess: reducing the chances of a bad outcome now, which might mean the Fed doesn’t have to raise interest rates as early down the road.Several officials, including Mr. Kaplan and Mr. Bullard, have said it might be wise for the Fed to slow its purchases of mortgage debt more rapidly than they slow bond-buying overall, concerned that the Fed’s buying might be contributing to a hot housing market.But even that conclusion isn’t uniform. Lael Brainard, a Fed governor, and Mary C. Daly, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, have suggested that the mortgage-backed purchases affect financial conditions as a whole — suggesting they may be less keen on cutting them back faster.The price outlook will also inform when the Fed first raises interest rates. The Fed has said that it wants to achieve 2 percent inflation on average over time and maximum employment before lifting borrowing costs away from rock bottom.Rate increases are not yet up for discussion, but Fed officials’ published forecasts show that the policy-setting committee is increasingly divided on when that liftoff will happen. While five expect rates to remain unchanged through late 2023, opinions are otherwise all over the place. Two officials see one increase by the end of that year, three see two, three see three and another three see four. Two think the Fed will have raised rates six times.Both Fed policy debates will affect financial markets. Bond-buying and low rates tend to pump up prices on houses, stocks and other assets, so the Fed’s pullback could cause them to cool off. And they matter for the economy: If the Fed removes support too late and inflation gets out of control, it could take a recession to rein it in again. If it removes its help prematurely, the slowdown in demand could leave output and the labor market weak.The Fed will be working against a changing backdrop as it tries to decide what full employment and stable prices mean in a post-pandemic world. More money from President Biden’s $1.9 trillion economic aid bill will soon begin to flow into the economy. For example, the Treasury Department in July will begin depositing direct monthly payments into the accounts of millions of parents who qualify for an expanded child tax credit.But expanded unemployment insurance benefits are ending in many states. That could leave consumers with less money and slow down demand if it takes would-be workers time to find new jobs.As the trends play out, White House officials will also be watching to see whether the economy is hot or not. The administration is trying to pass a follow-up fiscal package that would focus on longer-term investments, and Republican opposition has centered partly on inflation risks.For Mr. Kaplan at the Fed, the point is to be watchful. He said it was important to learn from the lessons of the post-2008 crisis recovery, when monetary policy support was removed before inflation had meaningfully accelerated — but also to understand that this rebound is unique.“Realizing that this is a different situation is a wise thing,” Mr. Kaplan said. More
The central bank will release its policy statement on Wednesday, followed by a news conference with Chair Jerome H. Powell.Investors will scour the Federal Reserve’s policy statement and economic projections Wednesday for any hint that recent data surprises — including faster-than-expected inflation and slower job growth — have shaken up the central bank’s plans for its cheap-money policies.Economic policymakers are unlikely to make major changes at a time when interest rates are expected to stay near zero for years to come, but a series of tiny adjustments to their policy messaging and new economic projections could combine to make this week’s meeting one to watch, and an important moment for markets.The central bank will release new economic forecasts from its 18 officials for the first time since March, when the Fed projected no rate increase until at least 2024. Policymakers could pencil in an earlier move, pulling the initial rate rise forward to 2023.Markets will also watch for even the subtlest hint at what lies ahead for the Fed’s $120 billion in monthly bond purchases, which have kept many kinds of borrowing cheap and pushed up prices for stocks and other assets. Several Fed officials have said they would like to soon discuss plans for slowing their bond buying, though economists expect it will be months before they send investors any clear signal about when the “taper” will start.The Fed is scheduled to release the policy announcement from its two-day meeting at 2 p.m., followed by a news conference with Chair Jerome H. Powell.The central bank may want to use the meeting and Mr. Powell’s remarks to “start getting us ready, otherwise, we’re going to be in complete denial until we realize — ‘Ouch, the Fed is stepping away,’” said Priya Misra, head of global rates strategy at T.D. Securities. The point may be to say “they are not running for the exits, but they are at least planning the escape route.”As it charts a path forward for policy, the Fed will have to weigh signs of economic resurgence — rapid price gains as demand jumps back faster than supply, as well as plentiful job openings — against the reality that millions of people have yet to return to work. The shortfall probably owes to a cocktail of factors, as older workers retire, would-be immigrants remain in their home countries, and virus fears, child-care issues and expanded government benefits combine to keep potential employees at home.Many workers may simply need time to shuffle into new and suitable jobs, and the Fed is likely to signal that it plans to continue providing policy support as they do that. Here’s what else to watch for.The Fed is working with higher inflation.The Fed is aiming for inflation that runs “moderately above 2 percent for some time” so that it eventually averages 2 percent. Its policy statement has long noted that price gains have run “persistently below this longer-run goal.” After several months of above-2 percent inflation numbers, it may be time to update that language to reflect recent price spikes.The Fed’s preferred inflation gauge jumped 3.6 percent in April from a year earlier, and the more up-to-date and closely related Consumer Price Index inflation measure popped by 5 percent in May.But the Fed — like many financial economists — expects that pop to prove temporary. The 5 percent increase in C.P.I. happened partly because prices fell during last year’s intense lockdowns, making current year-over-year comparisons look artificially elevated. Without that so-called base effect, the increase would have been in the neighborhood of 3.4 percent.Prices are definitely up, but will it last?The Consumer Price Index slumped early in the pandemic, but now it’s up relative to its pre-pandemic trend growth.
Data reflect the Consumer Price Index for all urban consumers, indexed so that 1982-1984=100.Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, New York Times calculationsBy The New York TimesThat is still obviously on the high side. The rest of the surge came as wages increased and demand bounced back faster than global supply chains, fueling shortages in computer chips and causing shipping snarls. While base effects should fade quickly, it is unclear how rapidly supply bottlenecks will be sorted out. The semiconductor issue may clear up over the coming months, for instance, but some importers have estimated that a shipping container shortage could last at least into next year, potentially lifting prices for some products.Compounding that uncertainty, the jump in inflation came faster than officials had expected. If the Fed’s preferred inflation index stood completely still at its April level, inflation would grow by 2 percent this year. Instead, prices have continued to grind higher and are most likely already on track to exceed the Fed’s 2.4 percent forecast for 2021. That means officials are going to have to revise their estimates upward when they release new economic projections. The big questions are by how much and whether the revisions bleed into next year.Mr. Powell is likely to maintain that the recent surge is temporary, yet he will probably have to address the risk that inflation expectations and wages will rise more briskly, locking in the faster price gains. He has previously said that is a possibility, but an unlikely outcome.“He may be a little less strident than he was at the April press conference,” said Michael Feroli, chief U.S. economist at J.P. Morgan.Policy plans may take some tweaking.Economists at Goldman Sachs don’t expect the Fed to begin hinting that it is planning to slow its bond purchases until August or September, with a formal announcement in December, and an actual start to tapering at the beginning of next year.Even then, it’s going to take a long time for the Fed to really unwind its policy support. The Fed has suggested it will first signal that it is thinking of slowing bond purchases, then actually taper, and only then lift rates. Strategists at Goldman estimate that “even if the labor market recovery accelerates rapidly from here,” the first rate increase would probably still be “at least” 15 months away.Mr. Powell could say or suggest that the policy-setting Federal Open Market Committee is taking the first baby step toward that process — what has been called “talking about talking about tapering” — during his news conference.The Fed balance sheet has exploded The central bank is buying $120 billion in government-backed bonds each month, keeping its balance sheet steadily expanding.
Source: Federal Reserve, accessed via FREDBy The New York TimesOfficials could also begin to pencil in a timetable for rate increases. The Fed’s so-called dot plot of interest rate projections showed no interest rate increases through 2023, the last year in the forecast, as of March. Many economists expect it to show one rate increase in 2023 after revisions.Labor is lagging.But the Fed’s outlook is likely to remain patient — signaling years of low rates ahead — because the job market has a lot of room left to recover. About seven million fewer people reported being employed in May than in February 2020.While recent job gains have been robust by normal standards, they’ve been slow compared with the hole that remains in the labor market. After climbing by a solid 785,000 jobs in March, hiring has slowed to a more subdued 418,500 jobs on average over the past two months.The Fed has two goals — stable inflation and maximum employment — and the recent hiring slowdown means the second target could take a little bit longer to achieve.“Bottom line, I would like to see further progress than where we are right now,” Loretta Mester, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, said on CNBC shortly after the May jobs report was released. “We want to be very deliberately patient here, because this was a huge, huge shock to the economy.”That’s why economists are looking out for tweaks this week — but no major shift away from the Fed’s supportive stance. More
The ebbing of the pandemic has brought price increases, supply bottlenecks and labor shortages. Key indicators will show whether it’s just a stage.This is a strange moment for the U.S. economy.Unemployment is still high, but companies are complaining they can’t find enough workers. Prices are shooting up for some goods and services, but not for others. Supply-chain bottlenecks are making it hard for homebuilders, automakers and other manufacturers to get the materials they need to ramp up production. A variety of indicators that normally move more or less together are right now telling vastly different stories about the state of the economy.Most forecasters, including policymakers at the Federal Reserve, expect the confusion to be short-lived. They see what amounts to a temporary mismatch between supply and demand, brought on by the relatively swift ebbing of the pandemic: Consumers, flush with stimulus cash and ready to re-engage with the world after a year of lockdowns, are eager to spend, but some businesses lack the staff and supplies they need to serve them. Once companies have had a chance to bring on workers and restock shelves — and people have begun to catch up on long-delayed hair appointments and family vacations — economic data should begin to return to normal.But no one knows for sure. It is possible that the pandemic changed the economy in ways that aren’t yet fully understood, or that short-term disruptions could have long-lasting ripple effects. Some prominent economists are publicly fretting that today’s price increases could set the stage for faster inflation down the road. Historical analogues such as the postwar boom of the 1950s or the “stagflation” era of the 1970s provide at best limited insight into the present moment.“We can’t dismiss anything at this point because there’s no precedent for any of this,” said Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, a forecasting firm.On Friday, the Labor Department will release its monthly snapshot of the U.S. labor market. Last month’s report showed much slower job growth than expected, and economists will be watching closely to see whether that disappointment was a fluke. But don’t expect definitive answers. A second month of weak job growth could be a sign of a faltering recovery, or merely an indication that the temporary factors will take more than a couple of months to resolve. A strong report, on the other hand, could signal that talk of a labor shortage was overblown — or that employers have overcome it by bidding up wages, which could fuel inflation.To get a clearer picture, economists will have to look beyond their usual suite of indicators. Here are some things they will be watching.1. PricesChange in consumer prices from a year earlier
Source: Federal Reserve Bank of San FranciscoBy The New York TimesConsumer prices rose 4.2 percent in April from a year earlier, the biggest jump in more than a decade. But the largest increases were mostly in categories where demand is rebounding after collapsing during the pandemic, like travel and restaurants, or in products plagued by supply-chain disruptions, like new cars. Those pressures should ease in the coming months.What would be more concerning to economists is any sign that price increases are spreading to the rest of the economy. Researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco studied sales patterns from early last year to categorize products and services based on the pandemic’s impact. Their Covid-insensitive inflation index so far shows little sign of runaway inflation beyond pandemic-affected areas.Economists will also be watching other, less pandemic-specific measures that likewise aim to discern the signal of inflation amid the noise of short-term disruptions. The Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland’s trimmed-mean C.P.I., for example, takes the Labor Department’s well-known Consumer Price Index and strips away its most volatile components.“What we’re looking for is what does underlying inflation look like,” said Ellen Zentner, chief U.S. economist at Morgan Stanley.For those looking for a simpler measure, Ms. Zentner offers a shortcut: Just look at rents. The rental component of C.P.I. (as well as the “owner’s equivalent rent” category, which measures housing costs for homeowners) is the largest single item in the overall price index, and should be less affected by the pandemic than some other categories. If rents start to rise rapidly beyond a few hot markets, overall inflation could follow.2. Inflation ExpectationsConsumer inflation expectations in the short and long term
Source: University of MichiganBy The New York TimesOne reason economists are so focused on inflation is that it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy: If workers think prices will keep rising, they will demand raises, which will force their employers to raise prices, and so on. As a result, forecasters pay attention not just to actual prices but also to people’s expectations.In the short run, consumers’ inflation expectations are heavily affected by the prices of items purchased frequently. Gasoline prices weigh particularly heavily on consumers’ minds — not only do most Americans have to fill up regularly, but the price of gas is displayed in two-foot-tall numbers at stations across the country. Economists therefore tend to pay more attention to consumers’ longer-run expectations, such as the five-year inflation expectations index from the University of Michigan, which recently hit a seven-year high.Forecasters also pay close attention to the expectations of businesses, investors and other forecasters. Many economists pay particular attention to market-based measures of inflation expectations, because investors have money riding on the outcome. (One such measure, derived from the bond market, is the five-year, five-year forward rate, which forecasts inflation over a five-year period beginning five years in the future.) The Federal Reserve has recently begun publishing a quarterly index of common inflation expectations, which pulls together a variety of measures. It showed that inflation expectations rose in the first quarter of this year, but remain low by historical standards.3. Labor SupplyUnemployed workers per job opening
Source: Bureau of Labor StatisticsBy The New York TimesRestaurants, hotels and other employers across the country in recent months have complained that they cannot find enough workers, despite an unemployment rate that remains higher than before the pandemic. There is evidence to back them up: Job openings have surged to record levels, but hiring hasn’t kept up. Millions of people who had jobs before the pandemic aren’t even looking for work.Many Republicans say enhanced unemployment benefits are encouraging workers to stay on the sidelines. Democrats mostly blame other factors, such as a lack of child care and health concerns tied to the pandemic itself. Either way, those factors should dissipate as enhanced unemployment benefits end, schools reopen and coronavirus cases fall.But not all workers may come rushing back as the pandemic recedes. Some older workers have probably retired. Other families may have discovered they can get by on one income or on fewer hours. That could allow labor shortages to persist longer than economists expect.The simplest way to track the supply of available workers is the labor force participation rate, which reflects the share of adults either working or actively looking for work. Right now it shows plenty of workers available, although the Labor Department doesn’t provide breakdowns for specific industries.Another approach is to look at the ratio of unemployed workers to job openings, which provides a rough measure of how easy it is for businesses to hire (or, conversely, how hard it is for workers to find jobs). Data from the Labor Department’s Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey comes out a month after the main employment report, but the career site Indeed releases weekly data on job openings that closely tracks the official figures.Both those approaches have a flaw, however: People who want jobs but aren’t looking for work — whether because they don’t believe jobs are available or because child care or similar responsibilities are keeping them at home temporarily — don’t count as unemployed. Constance L. Hunter, chief economist for the accounting firm KPMG, suggests a way around that problem: the number of involuntary part-time workers. If companies are struggling to find enough workers, they should be offering more hours to anyone who wants them, which should reduce the number of people working part time because they can’t find full-time work.“The data is not necessarily going to be as informative as it would be in a normal recovery,” Ms. Hunter said. “I would not normally tell you coming out of a recession that I’m going to be closely watching involuntary part-time workers as a key indicator, but here we are.”4. WagesPrivate-sector wages and salaries, change from a year earlier
Source: Bureau of Labor StatisticsBy The New York TimesWage growth remained relatively strong during the pandemic, at least compared with past recessions, when low-wage workers, in particular, lost ground. Many businesses that stayed open during last year’s lockdowns had to raise pay or offer bonuses to retain workers. Now, as the pandemic eases, companies are raising pay again to attract workers.The question is whether the recent wage gains represent a blip or a longer-term shift in the balance of power between employers and employees. Figuring that out will be difficult because the United States lacks a reliable, timely measure of wage growth.The Labor Department releases data on average hourly earnings as part of its monthly jobs report. But those figures have been skewed during the pandemic by the huge flows of workers into and out of the work force, rendering the data nearly useless. Economists are still watching industry-specific data, which should be less distorted. In particular, average hourly earnings for nonsupervisory leisure and hospitality workers should reflect what is happening among low-wage workers.A better bet might be to wait for data from the Employment Cost Index, which is released quarterly. That measure, also from the Labor Department, tries to account for shifts in hiring patterns, so that a rush of hiring in low-wage sectors, for example, doesn’t show up as a decline in average pay. It showed a mild uptick in wage growth in the first quarter, but economists will be paying close attention to the next release, in July.5. Everything ElseThe indicators mentioned above are hardly a comprehensive list. The Producer Price Index provides data on input prices, which often (but not always) flow through to consumer prices. Data on inventories and international trade from the Census Bureau can help track supply-chain bottlenecks. Unit labor costs will show whether increased productivity is helping to offset higher pay. Economists will be watching them all.“During normal times, you can just track a handful of indicators to know how the economy is doing,” said Tara Sinclair, an economist at George Washington University who specializes in economic forecasting. “When big shifts are going on, you’re tracking literally hundreds of indicators.” More