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    Federal Reserve Signals a Shift Away From Pandemic Support

    The Fed said it could soon slow its large-scale purchases of government-backed bonds and indicated it might raise interest rates in 2022.Federal Reserve officials indicated on Wednesday that they expect to soon slow the asset purchases they have been using to support the economy and predicted they might raise interest rates next year, sending a clear signal that policymakers are preparing to curtail full-blast monetary help as the business environment snaps back from the pandemic shock.Jerome H. Powell, the Fed’s chair, said during a news conference that the central bank’s bond purchases, which have propped up the economy since the depths of the pandemic downturn, “still have a use, but it’s time for us to begin to taper them.”That unusual candor came for a reason: Fed officials have been trying to fully prepare markets for their first move away from enormous economic support. Policymakers could announce a slowdown to their monthly government-backed securities purchases as soon as November, the Fed’s next meeting, and the program may come to a complete end by the middle of next year, Mr. Powell later said. He added that there was “very broad support” on the policy-setting Federal Open Market Committee for such a plan.Nearly 20 months after the coronavirus pandemic first shook America, the Fed is trying to guide an economy in which business has rebounded as consumers spend strongly, helped along by repeated government stimulus checks and other benefits.Yet the virus persists and many adults remain unvaccinated, preventing a full return to normal activity. External threats also loom, including tremors in China’s real estate market that have put financial markets on edge. In the United States, partisan wrangling could imperil future government spending plans or even cause a destabilizing delay to a needed debt ceiling increase.Mr. Powell and his colleagues are navigating those crosscurrents at a time when inflation is high and the labor market, while healing, remains far from full strength. They are weighing when and how to reduce their monetary policy support, hoping to prevent economic or financial market overheating while keeping the recovery on track.“They want to start the exit,” said Priya Misra, global head of rates strategy at T.D. Securities. “They’re putting the markets on notice.”Investors took the latest update in stride. The S&P 500 ended up 1 percent for the day, slightly higher than it was before the Fed’s policy statement was released, and yields on government bonds ticked lower, suggesting that investors didn’t see a reason to radically change their expectations for interest rates.The Fed has been holding its policy rate at rock bottom since March 2020 and is buying $120 billion in government-backed bonds each month, policies that work together to keep many types of borrowing cheap. The combination has fueled lending and spending and helped to foster stronger economic growth, while also contributing to record highs in the stock market.But now, officials believe the time has come to tiptoe away from such full-fledged support. Late last year, policymakers laid out a lower bar for slowing purchases than for lifting interest rates. They simply wanted to see “substantial further progress” toward their goals of stable inflation and maximum employment before pulling back on asset buying. When it comes to lifting rates, officials indicated they would like to see inflation sustainably at their target and a labor market that is fully healed.Slowing their asset purchases in the near-term could give the Fed more room to be more nimble in the future. Policymakers have signaled that they want to stop buying securities before moving interest rates above zero.But Mr. Powell has tried to clearly separate the two decisions, signaling that changes to the policy interest rate — the Fed’s more traditional and more powerful tool — are not imminent.“You’re going to be well away from satisfying the liftoff test when we begin to taper,” he reiterated on Wednesday.Half of the Fed’s policymakers expect to lift rates from near-zero next year. Officials released a fresh set of economic projections on Wednesday, laying out their predictions for growth, inflation and the funds rate through the end of 2024. Those included the “dot plot” — a set of anonymous individual estimates showing where each of the Fed’s 18 policymakers expect their interest rate to fall at the end of each year.Where the Fed Stands on Future Interest Rates More

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    E.C.B. Will Slow Its Crisis-Era Bond Buying

    The European Central Bank said on Thursday it would slow down the pace of its pandemic-era bond-buying program, one of the main tools it has used to support the eurozone economy through lockdowns, citing “favorable financing conditions” and the inflation outlook.The program, which has lately been purchasing about 80 billion euros, or $95 billion, of mostly government bonds each month, is a way to keep borrowing costs low and encourage economic growth.Other policy measures were left unchanged. Interest rates were held steady, including the so-called deposit rate, which remained at negative 0.5 percent. Policymakers also maintained the size of the bank’s other bond-buying program that was restarted in 2019 to head off a regional recession.In the eurozone, inflation is rising faster than expected, supply chain disruptions and product shortages are pushing costs higher for manufacturers, and there are early signs that the economic recovery is slowing down.It’s a concoction that has created divisions among the central bank’s policymakers about when to slow and then end its enormous bond-buying program. It began in March 2020 as the pandemic spread across Europe, and is meant to buy a total of 1.85 trillion euros in bonds and run until at least next March. The slowdown would help ensure the purchases end on schedule, though the central bank hasn’t ruled out an extension.“Based on a joint assessment of financing conditions and the inflation outlook, the Governing Council judges that favorable financing conditions can be maintained with a moderately lower pace of net asset purchases,” the central bank said in statement on Thursday.Thursday’s decisions are the first test of the central bank’s updated forward guidance. In July, policymakers said they were willing to overlook short-term jumps in inflation and would raise interest rates only once it was clear the annual inflation rate would reach 2 percent “well ahead” of the end of the central bank’s projection horizon and stay around that level over the medium term.New projections for inflation and economic growth will be published later on Thursday when the central bank’s president, Christine Lagarde, will hold a press conference.. The previous forecasts, in June, predicted inflation would peak at 2.6 percent in the fourth quarter and decline to 1.5 percent in 2022 and 1.4 percent in 2023.But inflation has already risen to 3 percent in August, the highest in nearly 10 years, the region’s statistics agency said last week. So far, policymakers have been betting that the jump in inflation will be temporary, like other central banks around the world.In recent years preceding the pandemic, the inflation rate was below the bank’s 2 percent target.“The stars are much better aligned than they have been for a long time for the return of inflation back to 2 percent,” Klaas Knot, the governor of the Dutch central bank and a member of the governing council at the European Central Bank, said last week.Jens Weidmann, the head of the German central bank, said that policymakers shouldn’t ignore the risk of “excessively high inflation” and that they should not “commit to our very loose monetary policy stance for too long.”But the European Central Bank as a whole has been more cautious than the Federal Reserve and Bank of England about preparing markets for a return to normal policy. While the economy is rebounding — rising 2.2 percent in the second quarter from the first three months of the year — Ms. Lagarde has highlighted the uncertainty posed by the spread of the Delta variant.Recently, Philip Lane, the central bank’s chief economist, said there were headwinds for the economy in the second half of the year, including supply-chain bottlenecks that could be more persistent than expected.While the pandemic-era bond program might be approaching its end, the central bank is expected to maintain its older bond purchase effort, under which the bank buys 20 billion euros in assets a month. Many analysts expect policymakers to increase the size of purchases to keep providing stimulus to the economy even after the immediate impact of the pandemic has passed. More

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    Some Say Low Interest Rates Cause Inequality. What if It’s the Reverse?

    With an increasing share of the world’s wealth in the hands of its top earners, a savings glut is pushing asset prices up and interest rates down.Traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on Friday.Brendan Mcdermid/ReutersIt’s an article of faith among many in the financial world: The Federal Reserve’s low interest rate policies and other steps meant to boost the economy are driving the value of stocks and other assets to the moon, and thus are a major cause of high wealth inequality.That idea can be heard in documentaries, newspaper opinion articles and many segments on cable financial news. It may also be backward.New evidence suggests high inequality is the cause, not the result, of the low interest rates and high asset prices evident in recent years. That is a provocative implication of new research presented on Friday at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City’s annual Jackson Hole economic symposium (which was conducted virtually because of the pandemic).Seeing how that new notion connects with the boom in markets — and the risks to financial stability whenever it ends — means grappling with just why interest rates are so low, financial asset prices are so high, and what the Fed has to do with it.Advanced economies have experienced low interest rates for more than a decade. These can be viewed as less a result of central bankers’ decisions and more as a consequence of powerful global forces pushing them downward — creating a corresponding surge in asset prices.In effect, a global glut of savings has caused a decline in the “natural rate” of interest, also known as r* (and pronounced r-star): the rate that neither stimulates nor slows the economy.Central bankers, in this story, are the equivalent of drivers on a highway who must adapt their speed to road conditions. The Fed has kept rates low for the last decade because those rates have been the ones that keep the economy stable. If it had tried to push them higher, the result would have been a recession.“Central banks now appreciate that r-star has fallen, and that means they’re going to have limited ability to tighten monetary policy in the future,” said Kristin Forbes, an economist at M.I.T., in a presentation at the symposium.But that raises the question of why this savings glut exists at all.The paper, by Atif Mian of Princeton, Ludwig Straub of Harvard and Amir Sufi of the University of Chicago, looks at two leading explanations: the demographic effects of the baby boom generation’s accumulation of retirement savings, and the effects of higher inequality, given the fact that rich people save a larger share of their income than the middle class and the poor.They found that the role of higher inequality was far more important than that of demographics.It’s not that the high earners increased their savings rates. Rather, they were winning a bigger piece of the economic pie; by the researchers’ calculations, the share of income going to the top 10 percent of earners rose to more than 45 percent in recent years, up from about 30 percent in the early 1970s.The result of high earners making more, and thus saving more, amounts to trillions of dollars in additional savings over the years — accounting for 30 percent to 40 percent of private savings from 1995 to 2019.So whatever the causes of rising income inequality — most likely a combination of technological change, decline in union power, globalization, changes in tax policy and winner-take-all market dynamics — it has set in motion forces resulting in the accumulated assets of those wealthy people skyrocketing in value.“As the rich get richer in terms of income, it creates a saving glut,” Professor Mian said. “The saving glut forces interest rates to fall, which makes the rich even wealthier. Inequality begets inequality. It is a vicious cycle, and we are stuck in it.”Their paper is hardly definitive, and other economists at the symposium noted a few issues — for example, that the decline in the natural rate of interest has been a global phenomenon, taking place even in countries with different income inequality trends than those in the United States. And Jason Furman, the Harvard economist, noted that the widening of inequality was most intense in the years before 2000, while the decline in the natural interest rate has mostly taken place since then.But regardless of just how strong a factor income inequality is in driving low rates, high asset prices and higher wealth inequality, the situation does put the Fed and other global central banks in a difficult spot.“These forces pushing down r-star are probably so powerful that the Fed could never fight against them,” Professor Sufi said in an email.And whatever the causes, it has resulted in a situation where even a modest reversal of rates could make debt obligations burdensome, causing unpredictable ripple effects.“The transition to a higher-rate environment could be pretty bumpy, given that a lot of asset values and assessments of debt sustainability are built on very low interest rates” over a very long time, said Donald Kohn, a former vice-chair of the Fed who is now at the Brookings Institution, in a speech at the symposium calling for more aggressive action to stem risks in the financial system.If nothing else, the new paper is more evidence of how some of the world’s most entrenched economic problems intersect in complex ways. And it implies that what happens next, on interest rates, inflation, growth and everything else about the economic future, is more interrelated than it might first appear. More

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    Powell Signals Fed Could Start Removing Economic Support

    The Fed chair warned that the Delta variant remained a risk and suggested that a rate increase was not on the table for some time.Speaking virtually at an annual conference, Jerome H. Powell, the Federal Reserve chair, said that the economy had made significant gains and that the Fed had made sufficient progress in forestalling inflation.Kevin Lamarque/ReutersEighteen months into the pandemic, Jerome H. Powell, the Federal Reserve chair, has offered the strongest sign yet that the Fed is prepared to soon withdraw one leg of the support it has been providing to the economy as conditions strengthen.At the same time, Mr. Powell made clear on Friday that interest rate increases remained far away, and that the central bank was monitoring risks posed by the Delta variant of the coronavirus.The Fed has been trying to bolster economic activity by buying $120 billion in government-backed bonds each month and by leaving its policy interest rate at rock bottom. Officials have been debating when to begin slowing their bond buying, the first step in moving toward a more normal policy setting. They have said they would like to make “substantial further progress” toward stable inflation and full employment before doing so.Mr. Powell, speaking at a closely watched conference that the Kansas City Fed holds each year, used his remarks to explain that he thinks the Fed has met that test when it comes to inflation and is making “clear progress toward maximum employment.”As of the Fed’s last meeting, in July, “I was of the view, as were most participants, that if the economy evolved broadly as anticipated, it could be appropriate to start reducing the pace of asset purchases this year,” he said.But the Fed is navigating a difficult set of economic conditions. Growth has picked up and inflation is rising as consumers, flush with stimulus money, look to spend and companies struggle to meet that demand amid pandemic-related supply disruptions. Yet there are nearly six million fewer jobs than before the pandemic. And the Delta variant could cause consumers and businesses to pull back as it foils return-to-office plans and threatens to shut down schools and child care centers. That could lead to a slower jobs rebound.Mr. Powell made clear that the Fed wants to avoid overreacting to a recent burst in inflation that it believes will most likely prove temporary, because doing so could leave workers on the sidelines and weaken growth prematurely. While the Fed could start to remove one piece of its support, he emphasized that slowing bond purchases did not indicate that the Fed was prepared to raise rates.“We have much ground to cover to reach maximum employment, and time will tell whether we have reached 2 percent inflation on a sustainable basis,” he said in his address to the conference, which was held online instead of its usual venue — Jackson Hole in Wyoming — because of the latest coronavirus wave.The distinction he drew — between bond buying, which keeps financial markets chugging along, and rates, which are the Fed’s more traditional and arguably more powerful tool to keep money cheap and demand strong — sent an important signal that the Fed is going to be careful to let the economy heal more fully before really putting away its monetary tools, economists said.“He’s trying to reassure, in a time of extraordinary uncertainty,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist at the accounting firm Grant Thornton. “The takeaway is: We’re not going to snuff out a recovery. We’re not going to snuff it out too early.”Stocks rose on Friday, with gains picking up steam after Mr. Powell’s comments were released and investors realized that a rate increase was not in sight. Richard H. Clarida, the Fed’s vice chair, agreed with Mr. Powell’s approach, saying in an interview with CNBC that if the labor market continued to strengthen, “I would also support commencing a reduction in the pace of our purchases later this year.”Some Fed policymakers have called for the central bank to slow its purchases soon, and move swiftly toward ending them completely.Raphael Bostic, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, told CNBC on Friday that he supported winding down the purchases “as quickly as possible.”“Let’s start the taper, and let’s do it quickly,” he said. “Let’s not have this linger.”James Bullard, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, said on Friday that the central bank should finish tapering by the end of the first quarter next year. If inflation starts to moderate then, the country will be in “great shape,” Mr. Bullard told Fox Business.“If it doesn’t moderate, then I think the Fed is going to have to be more aggressive in 2022,” he said.Central bankers are trying avoid the mistakes of the last expansion, when they raised interest rates as unemployment dropped to fend off inflation — only to have price gains stagnate at uncomfortably low levels, suggesting that they had pulled back support too early. Mr. Powell ushered in a new policy framework at last year’s Jackson Hole gathering that dictates a more patient approach, one that might guard against a similar overreaction.But as Mr. Bullard’s comments reflected, officials may have their patience tested as inflation climbs.The Fed’s preferred price gauge, the personal consumption expenditures index, rose 4.2 percent last month from a year earlier, according to Commerce Department data released on Friday. The increase was higher than the 4.1 percent jump that economists in a Bloomberg survey had projected, and the fastest pace since 1991. That is far above the central bank’s 2 percent target, which it tries to hit on average over time.“The rapid reopening of the economy has brought a sharp run-up in inflation,” Mr. Powell said. A shuttered storefront in New York last week. Economists are not sure how much the Delta variant will slow growth, but many are worried that it could cause consumers and businesses to pull back.Gabriela Bhaskar/The New York TimesPolicymakers at the Fed are debating how to interpret the current price burst. Because it has come from categories of goods and services that have been affected by the pandemic and supply-chain disruptions, including used cars and airplane tickets, most expect inflation to abate. But some worry that the process will take long enough that consumers’ inflation expectations will move up, prompting workers to demand higher wages and leading to faster price gains in the longer run.Other officials worry that today’s hot prices are more likely to give way to slower gains once pandemic-related disruptions are resolved — and that long-run trends that have dragged inflation lower for decades, including population aging, will once again bite. They warn that if the Fed overreacts to today’s inflationary burst, it could wind up with permanently weak inflation, much as Japan and Europe have.White House economists sided with Mr. Powell’s interpretation in a new round of forecasts issued on Friday. In its midsession review of the administration’s budget forecasts, the Office of Management and Budget said it expected the Consumer Price Index inflation rate to hit 4.8 percent for the year. That is more than double the administration’s initial forecast of 2.1 percent.The forecast was an admission of sorts that prices have jumped higher and that the increase has lingered longer than administration officials initially expected. But they still insist that it will be short-lived and foresee inflation dropping to 2.5 percent in 2022. The White House also revised its forecast of growth for the year, to 7.1 percent from 5.2 percent.Slow price gains sound like good news to anyone who buys oat milk and eggs, but they can set off a vicious downward cycle. Interest rates include inflation, so when it slows, Fed officials have less room to make money cheap to foster growth during times of trouble. That makes it harder for the economy to recover quickly from downturns, and long periods of weak demand drag prices even lower — creating a cycle of stagnation.“While the underlying global disinflationary factors are likely to evolve over time, there is little reason to think that they have suddenly reversed or abated,” Mr. Powell said. “It seems more likely that they will continue to weigh on inflation as the pandemic passes into history.”Mr. Powell offered a detailed explanation of the Fed’s scrutiny of prices, emphasizing that inflation is “so far” coming from a narrow group of goods and services. Officials are keeping an eye on data to make sure prices for durable goods like used cars — which have recently taken off — slow and even fall.Mr. Powell said the Fed saw “little evidence” of wage increases that might threaten high and lasting inflation. And he pointed out that measures of inflation expectations had not climbed to unwanted levels, but had instead staged a “welcome reversal” of an unhealthy decline.Still, his remarks carried a tone of watchfulness.“We would be concerned at signs that inflationary pressures were spreading more broadly through the economy,” he said.Jim Tankersley More

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    The Pandemic Is Testing the Federal Reserve’s New Policy Plan

    Year 1 of the Fed’s framework, unveiled at its Jackson Hole conference in 2020, has included high inflation and job market healing. Now comes the hard part.When Jerome H. Powell speaks at the Federal Reserve’s biggest annual conference on Friday, he will do so at a tense economic moment, as prices rise rapidly while millions of jobs remain missing from the labor market. That combination promises to test the meaning of a quiet revolution the central bank chair ushered in one year ago.Mr. Powell used his remarks at last year’s conference, known as the Jackson Hole economic symposium and held by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, to announce that Fed officials would no longer raise interest rates to cool off the economy just because joblessness was falling and inflation was expected to heat up. They first wanted proof that prices were climbing sustainably, and they would welcome gains slightly above their 2 percent goal.He was laying groundwork for a far more patient Fed approach, acknowledging the grim reality that across advanced economies, interest rates, growth and inflation had spent the 21st century slipping lower in a strength-sapping downward spiral. The goal was to stop the decline.But a year later, that backdrop has shifted, at least superficially. Big government spending in response to the pandemic has pushed consumption and growth higher in the United States, and inflation has rocketed to levels not seen in more than a decade. The labor market is swiftly healing, though it has yet to fully recover. Now it falls to Mr. Powell to explain why full-blast support from the Fed remains necessary.Investors initially expected Mr. Powell to use Friday’s remarks at the Jackson Hole conference to lay out the Fed’s plan for “tapering” — or slowing down — a large-scale bond buying program it has been using to support the economy. Fed officials are debating the timing of such a move, which will mark their first step toward a more normal policy setting. But after minutes from the central bank’s July meeting suggested that the discussion remained far from resolved, and as the Delta variant pushes coronavirus infections higher and threatens the economic outlook, few now anticipate a clear announcement.“Two to three months ago, people were expecting the whole taper plan at Jackson Hole,” said Priya Misra, head of global rates strategy at TD Securities. “Now, it’s more the economic outlook that people are struggling with.”While Mr. Powell expects price increases to fade, he has been clear that the Fed will act to choke off inflationary pressures if they don’t abate.An Rong Xu for The New York TimesMr. Powell’s speech, which will be virtual, could instead give him a chance to explain how the Fed is thinking about Delta variant risks, recent rapid inflation and labor market progress — and how all three square with the central bank’s policy approach.The Fed is buying $120 billion in government-backed bonds each month, and it has kept its main interest rate near zero since March 2020. Both policies make borrowing cheap, fueling spending by businesses and households and bolstering the labor market.Officials have clearly linked their interest rate plans to their new framework: They said in September that they would not lift rates until the job market reached full employment. Bond buying ties back less directly, but it serves as a signal of the Fed’s continued patience.Critics of the Fed’s wait-and-see stance have questioned whether it is wise for the Fed to buy mortgage-backed and Treasury debt at a rapid clip when home prices have soared and inflation has been taking off. Republican lawmakers and some prominent Democrats alike have worried that the Fed is being insufficiently nimble as economic conditions change.“They chose a framework that was designed to provide a commitment to a highly dovish policy,” said Lawrence H. Summers, a Treasury secretary in the Clinton administration and an economist at Harvard University. “The problem morphed into overheating being the big concern, rather than underheating.”Inflation jumped to 4 percent in June, based on the Fed’s preferred measure. Most economists expect rapid price gains to fade as pandemic-related supply bottlenecks clear up, but it is unclear how quickly and fully that will happen.And while there are still nearly seven million fewer jobs than there were before the pandemic, unfilled positions have jumped, wages for lower earners are taking off, and employers widely complain about being unable to hire enough workers. If labor costs remain higher, that, too, could cause longer-lasting inflation pressures.Some Fed officials would prefer to slow bond purchases soon, and fast, so that the central bank is in a position to raise interest rates next year if price pressures do become pernicious.Other policymakers see today’s rising prices and job openings as trends that are destined to abate. Companies will work through supply-chain disruptions, and consumers will spend away savings they amassed from government stimulus checks and months stuck at home. Workers will settle into jobs. When things return to normal, they reason, the tepid inflation of years past will probably return.Given that view, and the fact that the labor market is still missing so many positions, they argue that the Fed’s new policy paradigm calls for patience.At the central bank’s meeting in late July, minutes showed, a few officials fretted that the Fed “would need to be mindful of the risk that a tapering announcement that was perceived to be premature could bring into question the committee’s commitment to its new monetary policy framework.”Mr. Powell typically tries to balance both concerns in his public remarks, acknowledging that inflation could remain elevated and pledging that the Fed will react if it does. But he has also emphasized that recent price pops are more likely to fade and that the central bank would prefer to remain helpful as the labor market healed.But in the months ahead, the Fed will need to make actual decisions, putting the meaning of its new framework to a very public test. Economists generally expect the central bank to announce a plan to slow its bond purchases in November or December.Once that taper is underway, attention will turn to interest rates, most likely with inflation still above 2 percent and the labor market recovery still at risk. When the Fed lifts rates will determine just how transformative the new policy framework has been.As of the Fed’s June economic forecasts, most officials did not expect to raise borrowing costs from rock bottom until 2023. If that transpires, it will be a notable shift from years past, one that allows the labor market to heal much more completely before significantly removing monetary help.In 2015, when the Fed last lifted interest rates from near zero, the joblessness rate was 5 percent and 77 percent of people between the ages of 25 and 54 worked. Already, joblessness is 5.4 percent and 78 percent of prime-age adults work.In fact, Fed officials projected that rates would remain on hold even as joblessness fell to 3.8 percent by the end of next year — below their estimate of the rate consistent with full employment in the longer run, which is about 4 percent.“That’s the most exciting part of what’s changed: They’re shooting for an ambitious prepandemic labor market,” said Skanda Amarnath, executive director of Employ America, a group that tries to persuade economic policymakers to focus on jobs. “Some fig leaf of progress is not enough.”But risks loom in both directions.If inflation remains high and an overly sanguine Fed has to rapidly reverse course to try to contain it, that could precipitate a painful recession.But if the Fed withdraws support unnecessarily, the labor market could take longer to heal, and investors might see the changes that Mr. Powell announced last year as a minor tweak rather than a meaningful commitment to raising inflation and fostering a more inclusive labor market.In that case, the economy might plunge back into a cycle of long-run stagnation, much like the one that has confronted Japan and much of Europe.“This is going to be an episode that will test the patience and credibility of the Federal Reserve,” said David Wilcox, a former Fed staff official who is now director of U.S. economics research at Bloomberg Economics. 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    Fed Minutes July 2021: Officials Debated Timing of Taper

    Federal Reserve officials are preparing to slow the central bank’s large purchases of government-backed bonds, the first step toward a more normal monetary policy setting as the economy heals from the pandemic — but when they met last month, they remained starkly divided over just when the pullback should happen.Minutes from the central bank’s July 27-28 gathering showed that Fed officials generally thought they would soon meet their standard for slowing bond purchases, which they had previously established as “substantial further progress” toward the central bank’s maximum employment and inflation goals.“Most” of the officials “judged that the standard set out in the committee’s guidance regarding asset purchases could be reached this year,” the release showed. But precisely when to begin remained a matter of active debate.Some officials wanted to slow bond purchases soon to guard against the risk of higher inflation, and “a few” were worried that continued big purchases could lead to financial system risks, the account of the meeting released Wednesday showed.But a few others argued for a slower process, stressing that rising Delta variant coronavirus cases posed risks to the economic outlook, and several worried that in coming years inflation — though high today — could dip to uncomfortably low levels again. Several of the officials also pointed to big lingering uncertainties, like when workers would return to jobs.The snapshot of Federal Open Market Committee deliberations comes ahead of the central bank’s most closely watched annual gathering, an economic symposium in Jackson Hole in Wyoming that will take place next week. Jerome H. Powell, the Fed’s chair, will deliver a speech at the event, and many investors expect he could provide hints or details about the central bank’s coming policy move.Mr. Powell and his colleagues are working against a complicated backdrop as the economy grows rapidly and as inflation and asset prices pop, but the labor market recovery remains incomplete, with nearly 7 million jobs still missing compared with employment levels at the start of the pandemic.The Fed is still holding interest rates near zero and plans to do so until the labor market is more fully healed, which means monetary policy will continue to support the economy even once the bond buying begins to slow. Fed officials have suggested that they may favor raising interest rates by late 2022 or — more popularly — 2023.Some officials who are eager to start to slow bond purchases soon have emphasized that moving early and quickly would allow the Fed to be more flexible when it comes to raising borrowing costs. The Fed is buying $120 billion in Treasury and mortgage-backed debt each month, and officials have said they would prefer to bring that policy to a close before lifting the federal funds rate.The debate over timing was still unresolved in July.“Various participants commented that economic and financial conditions would likely warrant a reduction in coming months,” the minutes released on Wednesday said. “Several others indicated, however, that a reduction in the pace of asset purchases was more likely to become appropriate early next year.”How quickly the slowdown in buying will happen was also up for discussion, and participants expressed “a range of views on the appropriate pace of tapering asset purchases.”The last Fed meeting came before the Labor Department reported that hiring in July was strong, creating a sunnier snapshot of the job market’s recovery.“Since the July F.O.M.C. meeting, the probability of a September announcement and an October or November start date to tapering those purchases has increased considerably, in our view,” Bob Miller, the head of fundamental fixed income in the Americas for BlackRock, wrote following the release.But the minutes also came before infections from the Delta variant of the coronavirus surged so drastically.“The uncertainty created by Delta, as well as the uncertainty over the post-summer labor market and the path of inflation, all reinforce our view that a tapering announcement is not imminent,” Ian Shepherdson, the chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, wrote in a research note. “We think it will come in November, and even that is contingent on the Delta wave clearly subsiding before then.”The Fed meets next on Sept. 21-22. More

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    This Is a Terrible Time for Savers

    In an upside-down world of financial markets, expected returns after inflation are at record lows.The Bank of England in London earlier this year. Worldwide demographic trends tied to the aging of the baby boom generation have contributed to a glut in savings.Matt Dunham/Associated PressIf you are saving money for the future, one way or another you had best be prepared to lose some of it.That is the implication of today’s upside-down world in the financial markets. The combination of high inflation, strong economic growth and very low interest rates has meant that “real” interest rates — what you can earn on your money after accounting for inflation — are lower than they have been in modern times.This outcome is a result of a glut of global savings and the Federal Reserve’s extraordinary efforts to bring the economy back to health. And it means the choice for a saver is stark. You can invest in safe assets and accept a high likelihood that you will get back less, in terms of purchasing power, than you put in. Or you can invest in risky assets in which you have a shot at positive returns but also a substantial risk of losing money should market sentiment turn negative.“For people who are risk averse, they have to get used to the worst of all possible worlds, which is watching their little pool of capital go down in real terms year after year after year,” said Sonal Desai, the chief investment officer of Franklin Templeton Fixed Income.Inflation outpacing interest rates is good news in certain circumstances: if you are able to borrow money at a fixed rate, for example, and use it to make an investment that will provide something of value over time, whether a house, farmland or equipment for a business.But consider the options if you are not in that position, and instead are saving money that you expect to need five years down the road — for the down payment on a house, or a child’s college expenses.You could keep the money in cash, such as through a bank deposit or money market mutual fund. Short-term interest rates are at zero or very close to it, depending on the specific place the money is parked, and Federal Reserve officials expect to keep rates there for perhaps another couple of years. Inflation has been at 4 percent to 5 percent over the last year, and many forecasters expect it to come down slowly.Or, you could buy a safe Treasury bond that matures in five years. The annual yield on that bond, as of Friday, was 0.77 percent. That means that if annual inflation is above that, the buying power of your savings will diminish over time. The highest-yielding federally insured bank certificates of deposit over that span offer only a little bit more, just over 1 percent.If you’re particularly nervous about rising prices, you could buy a Treasury Inflation Protected Security, a government-issued bond that is indexed to inflation. The five-year yield on TIPS? A negative 1.83 percent. That means that if inflation were 3 percent annually, your holding would return only 3 percent minus 1.83 percent, or 1.17 percent. In exchange for protection against the risk of high inflation, you must tolerate losing nearly 2 percent in purchasing power each year.Then again, you could take on a little more risk and buy, say, corporate bonds. But that adds the risk that the companies that issued the bonds will default — and it’s still only enough to roughly keep up with anticipated inflation. (An index of BBB-rated corporate bonds yielded only 2.19 percent late last week.)The stock market and other risky assets offer potentially higher returns, with some degree of protection from inflation. The corporate profits that are the basis for stock valuations are soaring, one reason major indexes hit record highs in recent days. But this comes with the omnipresent risk of a sell-off — tolerable for people investing for the long run but potentially problematic for those with shorter horizons.This extreme negative real interest rate environment leaves people whose job is to analyze and recommend bond investing strategies with few good options to advise.“It’s hard to even make an argument for fixed income at these levels,” said Rob Daly, the director of fixed income for Glenmede Investment Management. “It’s the old ‘pennies in front of a steamroller trade.’”That is to say: Someone who buys bonds with ultralow yields is collecting puny interest in exchange for taking the substantial risk that higher inflation or a surge in rates could more than wipe out gains (when interest rates rise, existing bonds fall in value).For those reasons, Mr. Daly recommends investors allocate more of their portfolios to cash. Yes, it will pay almost no interest, and so the saver will lose money in inflation-adjusted terms. But that money will be ready to invest in riskier, longer-term investments whenever conditions become more favorable.Similarly, Rick Rieder, the chief investment officer of global fixed income at BlackRock, the huge asset manager, recommends that investors focused on the medium term build a portfolio that combines stocks, which offer upside from rising corporate earnings, with cash, which offers safety even at the cost of negative real returns.“It’s surreal,” Mr. Rieder said. “This is one of those periods of time when the fundamentals are completely detached from reality. Where real rates are today makes no sense relative to the reality we live in.”The Fed, besides keeping its short-term interest rate target near zero, is buying $120 billion in securities every month through its quantitative easing program, and is only now starting to talk about plans to taper those purchases. That has the effect of putting an enormous buyer in the market that is bidding up the price of bonds, and thus pushing rates down.Fed officials believe the strategy of keeping easy monetary policy in place even as the economy is well into its recovery will help bring the American job market back to full health quickly. The aim is also to establish credibility that its 2 percent inflation target is symmetric, meaning that it will not panic when prices temporarily overshoot that target.Many of the people involved in market strategy are less than thrilled with this approach, and the consequences for would-be investors.“Nominal yields are low because of how much the Fed is buying,” said Ms. Desai of Franklin Templeton. “It’s ludicrous given where we are” with growth and inflation.At the same time, Americans have accumulated trillions in extra savings during the pandemic, money they are parking in all sorts of investments, which has been pushing asset prices upward and expected returns down. Arguably, the flip side of low expected returns on safe assets is stratospheric prices for real estate, meme stocks and cryptocurrencies.Globally, demographic trends tied to the aging of the enormous baby boom generation are causing a surge in savings. Gertjan Vlieghe, a top official with the Bank of England, has shown that the pattern of retirement savings evident in Britain and across advanced nations points to continued low interest rates.“We are only about two-thirds of the way through a multidecade demographic transition that is affecting interest rates,” Mr. Vlieghe said in a speech last month. “The key mechanism is not that older people have lower savings rates, but rather that, as people age, they hold higher levels of assets, in particular safe assets,” then spend those savings down slowly when they hit retirement years.That helps explain why interest rates have been persistently low across major economies — in Europe, the United States and Japan in particular — for years, even at times when those economies have been performing relatively well.In other words, Fed policy and the unique economics of the pandemic are major factors in the extremely low rates of summer 2021. But it doesn’t help that these come in an era when so much of the world is eager to save — and that part won’t change anytime soon. More

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    Big Economic Challenges Await Biden and the Fed This Fall

    Expiring unemployment benefits and the Delta variant add uncertainty to a recovery that has brought strong growth but an unusual labor market.WASHINGTON — The U.S. economy is heading toward an increasingly uncertain autumn as a surge in the Delta variant of the coronavirus coincides with the expiration of expanded unemployment benefits for millions of people, complicating what was supposed to be a return to normal as a wave of workers re-entered the labor market.That dynamic is creating an unexpected challenge for the Biden administration and the Federal Reserve in managing what has been a fairly swift recovery from a recession. For months, officials at the White House and the central bank have pointed toward the fall as a potential turning point for an economy that is struggling to fully shake off the effects of the pandemic — particularly in the job market, which remains millions of positions below prepandemic levels.The widespread availability of Covid-19 vaccines, the reopening of schools and the expiration of enhanced jobless benefits have been seen as a potent cocktail that should prod workers off the sidelines and into the millions of jobs that employers say they are having trouble filling.But that optimistic outlook might be imperiled by the resurgent virus and policymakers’ response to it. Big companies are already delaying return-to-office plans, an early and visible sign that life may not return to normal as rapidly as expected. At the same time, long-running federal supports for people hurt by the pandemic are going away, including a moratorium on evictions, which ended on Saturday, and an extra $300 per week for unemployed workers. That benefit expires on Sept. 6, and some states have moved to end it sooner.Federal lawmakers are also planning to repurpose more than $200 billion worth of Covid relief to help pay for a $1 trillion infrastructure plan. An infrastructure bill moving through the Senate would rescind previously allocated virus funds for colleges and universities along with unused unemployment benefits and airline aid. It would also claw back unspent funds from some expired small-business programs to help offset the plan’s $550 billion in new spending. Democratic leaders have been adamant that the Senate will vote on the infrastructure bill before leaving Washington for a scheduled August recess.White House economists have said they see no need yet to consider major new measures to bolster the recovery. After months of blockbuster economic growth, falling unemployment numbers, and complaints from business leaders and Republicans that government support is preventing workers from taking jobs, administration officials remain locked into their current policy stance despite renewed risks.Administration officials have said President Biden is not pushing to extend the extra $300 per week for jobless people. It’s unclear whether the administration will try to extend a program that expanded unemployment benefits to workers who would not typically qualify for them, including the self-employed, gig workers and part-timers.Officials say the $1.9 trillion economic aid package that Mr. Biden signed in March, and that caused forecasters to lift their estimates for growth this year, has given the economy enough cushion to endure another surge from the virus. Mr. Biden has also vowed that the virus will not lead to new “lockdowns, shutdowns, school closures and disruptions” like last year’s.“We are not going back to that,” he said last week.White House advisers say the most important thing the president can do for the economy is continue to make the case for more people to get vaccinated. On Thursday, Mr. Biden asked states to use money from the March stimulus package to pay $100 to every newly vaccinated person and said the government would reimburse employers who gave workers time off to be vaccinated or take others to get shots.“We have held the view from the beginning that addressing the pandemic and recovering the economy were inextricably linked. That continues to be true,” Brian Deese, who heads Mr. Biden’s National Economic Council, said in an interview. “But because of the progress that we have made in addressing the pandemic and in putting in place both historic and durable economic policy supports, we have a set of tools right now to address both of these challenges.”The Fed is taking an optimistic but wait-and-see approach. Central bankers voted at their July meeting to leave emergency support in place for now. They gave no precise date for when they may begin to reduce their help for the economy, though they are beginning to draw up a plan for paring back support.Much like their counterparts at the White House, officials at the Fed are counting on solid economic data this autumn. Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, said last week that he expected strong labor market progress in the months ahead, partly because virus fears and child care issues should subside.“There’s also been very generous unemployment benefits, which are now rolling off. They’ll be fully rolled off in a couple of months,” Mr. Powell said during a news conference after the Fed’s July meeting. “All of those factors should wane, and because of that we should see strong job creation moving forward.”Administration and Federal Reserve officials have expressed hope that children’s return to schools and fading fears of the virus will encourage more people to begin looking for work again.Whitney Curtis for The New York TimesMr. Biden told a CNN forum in Ohio on July 21 that he still sees no evidence that the supplemental benefits have had a “serious impact” on hiring. But even if they had, he said, they would soon run their course.“We’re ending all those things that are the things keeping people back from going back to work,” he said.That stance carries some risk. While the economy grew faster in the first half of this year than it had in decades, the job market is still missing 6.8 million positions from its February 2020 level, and while policymakers are optimistic, it is not clear how quickly those jobs will come back. The economy has never reopened from a pandemic before, and nobody knows to what degree unemployment insurance is dissuading workers.“Seven to nine million Americans should be working right now if the pandemic had never happened, so that’s a lot of Americans that we need to put back to work,” Neel Kashkari, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday. “But is it six months, or is it two years? I’m not sure.”If it takes workers more time to go back into jobs, it could make for a much slower economic recovery than either the Fed or the White House is banking on. Workers stuck on the sidelines without enhanced benefits might pull back on spending, hurting demand and slowing the rapid rebound that has been underway in recent months.So far, administration economists remain heartened by the economic data. Officials said last week that they saw no evidence yet of the Delta variant’s hurting economic activity, and that they were hopeful that the more than 160 million Americans who were vaccinated would not pull back spending even if the variant continued to spread — making this wave of the virus less economically damaging than past ones.And as government spending support for the economy slows down, the Fed is still keeping money cheap to borrow, which should continue to pad economic growth.Shoppers in Los Angeles, where masks are required indoors. New public health guidelines could again chill some economic activity.Alex Welsh for The New York TimesFed officials have said they want to see more proof of the labor market’s healing before they slow their monthly bond purchases, which will be their first step toward a more normal policy setting.Mr. Powell said at his news conference last week that “we’re some way away from having had substantial further progress toward the maximum employment goal.”“I would want to see some strong job numbers,” he added.In the text of a speech on Friday, Lael Brainard, an influential Fed governor, said she wanted to see September economic data to assess whether the labor market was strong enough for the Fed to begin dialing back support, which suggests she would not favor signaling a start to the slowdown until later this fall. But her colleague Christopher J. Waller said in a CNBC interview on Monday that he would probably prefer to begin pulling back bond purchases quickly, if jobs data hold up, perhaps as soon as October.Increases in interest rates — the Fed’s more traditional, and more potent, tool — remain farther away. Most Fed officials in June projected that they would not lift their federal funds rate until 2023 at earliest, because they would like the labor market to return to full strength first.How rapidly the economy can achieve that goal is an open question. Employers regularly complain about the enhanced benefits, but even they have sent mixed messages on whether those are the main driver keeping labor at bay.“Many contacts were optimistic that labor availability would improve in the fall as schools restart and enhanced unemployment benefits end,” the Atlanta Fed’s qualitative report on business conditions found in June. “However, there were several who do not expect labor supply to improve for six to nine months.”Peter Ganong, an economist at the University of Chicago, said that if the pattern that he and his fellow researchers had seen in employment data held, he would not expect a wave of workers to jump back into jobs just because supplemental benefits expired.“So far, we see small employment differences even when vaccines are becoming available,” he said. Mr. Ganong and his co-authors compared the job-finding rates of people whose wages were more fully replaced by supplemental benefits and people whose wages were less fully replaced. They found small and relatively steady differences, even as the economy reopened.But Mr. Ganong cautioned that his research tracked the supplemental insurance. For many workers, unemployment benefits could come to an end altogether as extensions lapse, which may have a bigger effect.There is plenty of room for labor market progress. People in their prime working years are participating in the labor market by working or searching for jobs at much lower rates than before the pandemic — and that metric has made little progress in recent months.“Generally speaking, Americans want to work, and they’ll find their way into the jobs that they want,” Mr. Powell said last week. “It may take some time, though.”Alan Rappeport More