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    Here Are The 5 Ways to Track the United States' Economic Recovery

    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

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    Is It Time to Panic About Inflation? Ask These 5 Questions First.

    Focus on exactly how and why prices are changing over time, and how these shifts might affect you.A price list at a bakery in 2017. Some price increases are more worrisome than others.Vincent Tullo for The New York TimesTo understand why inflation is so worrying to so many people, you could look at price charts for lumber or used cars or New York strip steaks. There is no doubt that the prices of many of the things people buy are rising at an uncomfortably rapid rate.But to really understand why there is a persistent longer-term buzz of inflation concern, you have to wrestle with the ways in which money itself is fundamentally ephemeral.Ultimately, most money is a mere electronic entry in the ledger of a bank. It is worth only what it will buy, and what it will buy changes all the time. Or as the humor publication The Onion once wrote, money is “just a symbolic, mutually shared illusion.”When prices move abruptly — as when an economy that has been partly shut down for more than a year tries to reboot — that inherent uncertainty becomes all too real. When wild swings like these can happen, what else might be possible?But inflation isn’t so scary if you focus on the precise mechanics by which the value of a dollar changes over time — and how it might affect you. In an inflation-scare moment like this one, you can boil that down to five essential questions:Is this a change in relative prices, or a change in overall prices? Are the prices of items becoming more expensive likely to rise further, stay the same, or go down? Are wages also rising? Is inflation so high and erratic that it is hard to plan ahead? And is this really inflation at all, or is it a shift in the price of investments like stocks and bonds?Let’s take these questions in turn, and look at what aspects of the current price surge look more benign, and which are worrying. Relative prices vs. overall pricesAt any given moment, some things are becoming more expensive and others are getting cheaper. That is how a market economy works; prices are what ensure that supply and demand eventually meet.Sometimes, this happens quickly. Airlines constantly adjust ticket prices; the prices of fresh vegetables bounce around depending on whether they are plentiful or scarce. Other times it happens more gradually. A hair salon may not raise prices the first day there is a line of customers out the door, but it will do so if it is consistently overbooked.Those shifts can be annoying — nobody wants to pay $1,000 for a short-haul plane ticket or see the price for a haircut double. But they are a healthy part of an economy working as it should.Typically, these relative price changes are not a problem of macroeconomics — something best solved by the Federal Reserve (by raising interest rates) or Congress (by raising taxes) — but a problem of the microeconomics of those industries.The core challenge of an economy emerging from a pandemic is that numerous industries are going through major shocks in demand and supply simultaneously. That means more big swings in relative price than usual.Last year, relative price changes cut in both directions (prices for energy and travel-related services fell, while prices for meat and other groceries rose). But this spring, the overwhelming thrust is toward higher prices. There are fewer goods and services with falling prices to offset the rises.Still, many of the most vivid and economically significant examples of price inflation so far, like for used cars, have unique industry dynamics at play, and therefore represent relative price changes, not economywide price rises. One important thing to watch is whether that changes — whether we start seeing uncomfortably high price increases more dispersed across the full range of goods and services.That would be a sign that we were in a period not simply of an economy adjusting itself, but one of too much money chasing too little stuff.One-off prices vs. long-term trendsNot all price changes have equal meaning for inflation. Much depends on what happens next.If the price of something rises but then is expected to fall back to normal, it will act as a drag on inflation in the future. This often happens when there is a shortage of something caused by an unusual shock, like weather that ruins a crop. In an opposite example, in 2017 a price war brought down the price of mobile phone service, pulling down inflation. But when the price war was over, the downward pull ended.On the other hand, a price that is expected to rise at exceptional rates year after year has considerably greater implications. Consider, for example, the multi-decade phenomenon in which health care prices rose faster than prices for most other goods, creating a persistent upward push on inflation.So an essential question for 2021 is in which bucket the inflationary forces now unleashed should be put.One piece of good news if you’re worried about an inflationary spiral: Futures prices for major commodities — including, oil, copper and corn — all point to falling prices in the years ahead.But then there are the labor-intensive service industries, those with no choice but to raise prices if workers are able to consistently demand higher pay. They bring us to a different essential question.Wage inflation vs. price inflationMedia coverage of inflation typically focuses on indexes that cover consumer prices: numbers that aim to capture what it costs to go to the grocery store, buy a car and obtain all the other things a person wants and needs.But more properly defined, inflation is about the full set of prices in the economy — including what people are paid for their labor. Whether there is wage inflation goes a long way to determining how people feel about the economy.Even relatively high price inflation is bearable if wages are rising faster. From 1995 to 2000, inflation averaged 2.6 percent a year. But the average hourly earnings of nonmanagerial workers were rising 3.7 percent a year, so it should be no surprise that workers felt good about the state of the economy.It is too soon to show up clearly in the data, but there are anecdotes aplenty that companies are rapidly increasing pay. Just this week, Bank of America said it would start a $25-per-hour minimum wage by 2025, up from $20, and major chains like McDonald’s, Starbucks and Chipotle have announced significant moves toward higher pay in recent weeks.For individuals who benefit from bigger paychecks, that will take the sting out of higher prices for goods. Some may end up better off financially than they had been in lower-inflation environments.Wages play an essential role in the linkage between higher prices and continuing inflation. In the 1970s, workers demanded­ — and received — higher pay. Then companies raised prices, which fueled further demands for pay raises.To experience a wage-price spiral like that, both parts of the equation need to come into play. That means it’s worth watching for evidence of whether pay raises are a one-time adjustment to an unusual job market, or the beginning of a shift in power toward workers after years of meager gains.Steady inflation vs. erratic inflationMany people take it for granted that high inflation is a bad thing.But in truth, it’s not obvious why a country couldn’t comfortably have prices rise significantly faster than they have in the United States in recent decades. Imagine a world where consumer prices rose 5 percent every year; workers’ wages rose 5 percent, plus a little more to account for rising productivity; and interest rates were consistently higher than Americans are accustomed to.In theory, the only problem would be what economists call “menu” costs, the inconvenience of companies having to revise their price lists frequently. (In a way, the pandemic shift away from physical menus in restaurants might even make that concern moot.)In practice, though, not many countries have managed to have higher inflation like that arrive steadily year after year. And there can be big negative consequences when inflation is erratic, swinging from 2 percent one year to 10 percent the next and so on.When inflation is erratic, it creates economic upheaval, essentially offering a windfall to either creditors (in the event of a surprise fall in inflation) or debtors (with rising prices).Over time, lenders would demand higher interest as compensation — an inflation risk premium. And that means that an economy with high and volatile inflation may get less investment, and hence less economic growth.So far, there is not much sign of that happening in the United States. Bond investors appear confident that whatever inflation takes place in the next year or two is a one-off event, not a new normal in which the value of a dollar is unpredictable.But keep an eye on markets for any evidence that is changing.Price inflation vs. asset inflationEven when consumer price inflation is low, some financial commentators may point to a worrying surge in asset inflation, meaning rising prices of stocks, bonds and other investments.Economists generally don’t think of asset price swings as a form of inflation at all. If stock prices rise, it may change the future returns on your savings, but it doesn’t change what a dollar can buy in terms of the goods and services you need to live.But semantics aside, it certainly seems apparent that millions of people have been plowing money into meme stocks and cryptocurrencies (as well as more traditional investments) that might otherwise have gone to bid up the price of home grilling equipment or other things in short supply.And while there is plenty to worry about in terms of bubbly signs in financial markets — and what it would mean if they corrected downward, as major cryptocurrencies did on Wednesday — that doesn’t mean they are making ordinary consumers worse off. You can’t eat Bitcoin; you can’t clothe yourself in shares of GameStop.Sometimes asset prices rise while consumer prices stand still, as in much of the 2010s. Sometimes consumer prices soar while financial assets languish, as in much of the 1970s. Other times, they move together.The implication: High asset prices and rising price inflation aren’t the same thing. Whether with asset prices or other aspects of inflation, being precise and detailed is a way to make the essential ephemerality of money a little more concrete. More

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    Fed Minutes April 2021: Officials Hint They Might Soon Talk About Slowing Bond-Buying

    Minutes from the Federal Reserve’s April meeting showed some officials wanted to soon talk about a plan to pull back some central bank support for the economy if “rapid progress” persisted.Federal Reserve officials were optimistic about the economy at their April policy meeting as government aid and business reopenings paved the way for a rebound — so much so that and “a number” of them began to tiptoe toward a conversation about dialing back some support for the economy.Fed policymakers have said they need to see “substantial” further progress toward their goals of inflation that averages 2 percent over time and full employment before slowing down their $120 billion in monthly bond purchases. The buying is meant to keep borrowing cheap and bolster demand, hastening the recovery from the pandemic recession.Officials said “it would likely be some time” before their desired standard was met, minutes from the central bank’s April 27-28 meeting released Wednesday showed. But the minutes also noted that a “number” of officials said that “if the economy continued to make rapid progress toward the committee’s goals, it might be appropriate at some point in upcoming meetings to begin discussing a plan for adjusting the pace of asset purchases.”The line was among the clearest signals yet that some Fed officials had considered beginning a serious conversation about pulling back monetary help. Jerome H. Powell, the Fed’s chair, has been repeatedly asked whether the central bank is “talking about talking about” slowing its so-called quantitative easing program — and he has consistently said “no.”In fact, when he faced the question at a news conference following the April meeting, Mr. Powell said, “No, it is not time yet. We have said we’ll let the public know when it is time to have that conversation, and we’ve said we’d do that well in advance of any actual decision to taper our asset purchases, and we will do so.”That could be because while a “number” of individual policymakers are beginning to think out loud about when to begin discussing the policy shift, the full committee has yet to decide to start the conversation.In any case, the April minutes may already be out of date. Surprising and at times confusing data released since the meeting could make the Fed’s assessment of when to dial back support — or even to start talking about doing so in earnest — more difficult. A report on the job market showed that employers added far fewer new hires than expected. At the same time, an inflation report showed that an expected increase in prices is materializing more rapidly than many economists had thought it would.“You just have to gather more information,” said Julia Coronado, founder of MacroPolicy Perspectives and a former Fed economist. “It’s going to be noisy for months, and months, and months.”The Fed has also set its policy interest rates at near-zero since March 2020, in addition to its bond purchases. Both policies are meant to help an economy damaged by pandemic shutdowns to recover more quickly.Officials have been clear that they plan to slow down bond-buying first, while leaving interest rates at rock bottom until the annual inflation rate has moved sustainably above 2 percent and the labor market has returned to full employment.Markets are extremely attuned to the Fed’s plans for bond purchases, which tend to keep asset prices high by getting money flowing around the financial system. Central bankers are, as a result, very cautious in talking about their plans to taper those purchases. They want to give plenty of forewarning before changing the policy to avoid inciting gyrations in stocks or bonds.Stocks whipsawed in the moments after the 2 p.m. release, tumbling as yields on government bonds spiked. The S&P 500 regained some of its losses by the end of the day, ending down 0.3 percent. The yield on 10-year Treasury notes jumped to 1.68 percent.Even before the recent labor market report showed job growth weakening, Fed officials thought it would take some time to reach full employment, the minutes showed.“Participants judged that the economy was far from achieving the committee’s broad-based and inclusive maximum employment goal,” the minutes stated. Many officials also noted that business leaders were reporting hiring challenges — which have since been blamed for the April slowdown in job gains — “likely reflecting factors such as early retirements, health concerns, child-care responsibilities, and expanded unemployment insurance benefits.”When it comes to inflation, Fed officials have repeatedly said they expect the ongoing pop in prices to be temporary. It makes sense that data are very volatile, they have said: The economy has never reopened from a pandemic before. That message echoed throughout the April minutes and has been reiterated by officials since.“We do expect to see inflationary pressures over the course, probably, of the next year — certainly over the coming months,” Randal K. Quarles, the Fed’s vice chair for supervision, said during congressional testimony on Wednesday. “Our best analysis is that those pressures will be temporary, even if significant.”“But if they turn out not to be, we do have the ability to respond to them,” Mr. Quarles added.Mr. Quarles pointed out that the central bank lifted interest rates to guard against inflationary pressures after the global financial crisis. The expected pickup never came, and in hindsight pre-emptive moves were “premature,” he said. He suggested that the central bank should avoid repeating that mistake.He said that the key was for the central bank to be prepared, but that if it tried to stay ahead of inflation now it could end up “significantly constraining the recovery.”Mr. Quarles’s comments came in response to repeated — and occasionally intense — questioning by Republican lawmakers during a House Financial Services Committee hearing, many of whom cited concerns about the recent price inflation report. The back-and-forth underlined how politically contentious the Fed’s patient approach could prove in the coming months. Inflation is expected to remain elevated amid reopening data quirks and as supply tries to catch up to consumer demand.Some lawmakers pressed Mr. Quarles on how long the Fed would be willing to tolerate faster price gains — a parameter the central bank as a whole has not clearly defined.When it comes to increases, “I don’t think that we can say that one month’s, or one quarter’s, or two quarters’ or more is necessarily too long,” Mr. Quarles said. More

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    A Fed vice chair says trying to choke off inflation could ‘constrain’ the recovery.

    Randal K. Quarles, the Federal Reserve’s vice chair for supervision and regulation, said that the central bank was monitoring inflation but that for now it expected the pickup underway to be temporary — and that reacting too soon would come at a cost.“For me, it’s a question of risk management,” Mr. Quarles said during testimony before the House Financial Services Committee. “History would tell us that the economy is unlikely to undergo these inflationary pressures for a long period of time.”Mr. Quarles pointed out that after the global financial crisis, the central bank lifted interest rates to guard against inflationary pressures. The expected pickup never came, and in hindsight the moves were “premature,” he said. He suggested that the central bank should avoid repeating that mistake.“We’re coming out of an unprecedented event,” Mr. Quarles said, noting that officials have the tools to tamp down inflation if it does surprise central bankers by remaining elevated. The Fed could dial back bond purchases or lift interest rates to slow growth and weigh down prices.He said that the key is for the central bank to be prepared, but that if it tried to stay ahead of inflation now it could end up “significantly constraining the recovery.”Mr. Quarles’s comments came in response to repeated — and occasionally intense — questioning by Republican lawmakers, many of whom cited concerns about a recent and rapid pickup in consumer prices. The back and forth underlined how politically contentious the Fed’s patient approach to its policy could prove in the coming months. Inflation is expected to remain elevated amid reopening data quirks and as supply tries to catch up to consumer demand.Some lawmakers pressed Mr. Quarles on how long the Fed would be willing to tolerate higher prices — a parameter the central bank as a whole has not clearly defined.When it comes to increases, “I don’t think that we can say that one month’s, or one quarter’s, or two quarters’ or more is necessarily too long,” Mr. Quarles said. He noted that it was possible that inflation expectations could climb amid a temporary real-world price increase. But if that happened and caused a “more durable inflationary environment, then the Fed has the tools to address it,” he said. More

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    Inflation Fears Rise as Prices Surge for Lumber, Cars and More

    Federal Reserve officials believe low and stable price expectations give them room to heal the job market. But what if outlooks change?Turn on the news, scroll through Facebook, or listen to a White House briefing these days and there’s a good chance you’ll catch the Federal Reserve’s least-favorite word: Inflation. If that bubbling popular concern about prices gets too ingrained in America’s psyche, it could spell trouble for the nation’s central bank. More

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    Yellen Says Rates Might Need to Rise as Economy Recovers

    Ms. Yellen, the Treasury secretary, said that some “modest” increases might be necessary. She later clarified to say that she was not making a recommendation or providing advice to the Federal Reserve, which sets monetary policy.WASHINGTON — Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen said higher interest rates might be needed to keep the economy from overheating given the large investments that the Biden administration is proposing to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure and remake its labor force.The comments, broadcast online on Tuesday at The Atlantic’s Future Economy Summit, come amid heightened concern from some economists and businesses that the United States is in for a period of higher inflation as stimulus money flows through the economy and consumers begin spending again.The Treasury secretary has no role in setting interest rate policies. That is the purview of the Federal Reserve, which is independent from the White House.But the words of Ms. Yellen, a former Fed chair, carry substantial weight, and her comments were seized on by investors and critics who said she was improperly exerting influence over her prior monetary policy portfolio. In separate remarks later on Tuesday, Ms. Yellen made clear that she respects the central bank’s independence and was not making a recommendation.The stock market, which had been down in early trading, declined further after Ms. Yellen’s initial comments. Shortly before noon, the S&P 500 touched its worst level of the day, down 1.5 percent. Shares of some high-growth technology companies — which are especially sensitive to the risk of higher interest rates — were hard hit and weighed on the market. But the blue chip index cut those losses in half in the afternoon, ending the trading day down just 0.7 percent.Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, said last month that the central bank is unlikely to raise interest rates this year and that officials want to see further healing in the American economy they will consider pulling back their support by slowing government-backed bond purchases and lifting borrowing costs.While the Fed is watching for signs of inflation, Mr. Powell and other Fed officials have said they believe any price spikes will be temporary. On Monday, John C. Williams, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, said that while the economy is recovering, “the data and conditions we are seeing now are not nearly enough” for the Fed’s policy-setting committee “to shift its monetary policy stance.”Ms. Yellen did not predict a huge spike in interest rates, which have been near zero since March 2020. But she said some “modest” increases might be necessary as the economy recovers from the pandemic downturn and the administration tries to push through infrastructure and other investments aimed at making the United States more competitive and productive.“It may be that interest rates will have to rise somewhat to make sure that our economy doesn’t overheat, even though the additional spending is relatively small relative to the size of the economy,” Ms. Yellen said when asked if the economy could handle the kind of robust spending that the Biden administration is proposing.“I think that our economy will grow faster because of them,” Ms. Yellen said of the proposed investments, such as research and development spending.The Biden administration has proposed spending approximately $4 trillion over a decade and would pay for the plan with tax increases on companies and the rich.Ms. Yellen’s comments drew some criticism on Tuesday among those who believed she was overstepping her bounds by weighing in on monetary policy.“Treasury secretaries shouldn’t talk about the Fed’s policy rate, and Fed governors shouldn’t talk about U.S. dollar policy,” Tony Fratto, a former official at Treasury and the White House during the Bush administration, said on Twitter.Francesco Bianchi, a Duke University economist who co-authored a 2019 research paper about the impact of former President Donald J. Trump’s tweets on perceptions of the Fed’s independence, called Ms. Yellen’s comments “unfortunate to the extent that the Fed is trying very hard to convince markets that interest rates will remain low.” However, he did not believe Ms. Yellen’s remarks were actually inappropriate.“It is not clear that the comment qualifies as central bank interference because Secretary Yellen was describing what she thinks would happen as the economy recovers and the Biden administration implements its policies,” Mr. Bianchi said in an email. “In other words, she did not ‘recommend’ that the Federal Reserve follows a particular policy prescription, but she seemed to reflect on how generally interest rates behave as the economy improves.”Asked about Ms. Yellen’s comments, Jen Psaki, White House press secretary, said the Treasury secretary was not trying to tell the Fed what to do or impeding on the central bank’s independence with her comment on interest rates.“I would say, of all people, Secretary Yellen certainly understands the independence and the role of the Federal Reserve, and I think she was simply answering a question and conveying how we balance decision-making here,” Ms. Psaki said.Speaking at a Wall Street Journal C.E.O. Council event on Tuesday afternoon, Ms. Yellen echoed that sentiment. She said she was not prescribing a rate hike and dismissed the idea that she would ever attempt to infringe on the Fed’s independence.“Let me be clear, it’s not something I’m predicting or recommending,” Ms. Yellen said of raising interest rates. “If anybody appreciates the independence of the Fed, I think that person is me.”Matt Phillips More

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    Fed Leaves Interest Rates Unchanged as Economy Begins to Heal

    The Federal Reserve said the economy had “strengthened” but opted to continue providing support while playing down a rise in inflation.Jerome H. Powell, the Federal Reserve chair, said on Wednesday that the nation would need to show greater progress toward substantial recovery before policies designed to bolster the economy would be lifted.Stefani Reynolds for The New York TimesJerome H. Powell, the Federal Reserve chair, made it clear on Wednesday that his central bank wants to see further healing in the American economy before officials will consider pulling back their support by slowing government-backed bond purchases and lifting interest rates.Mr. Powell spoke at a news conference after the Fed announced that it would leave rates near zero and continue buying bonds at a steady clip, as expected. He painted a picture of an economy bouncing back — helped by vaccines, government spending and the central bank’s own efforts.The Fed’s post-meeting statement also portrayed a sunnier image of the American economy, which is climbing back from a sudden and severe recession caused by state and local lockdowns meant to contain the coronavirus.“Amid progress on vaccinations and strong policy support, indicators of economic activity and employment have strengthened,” the policy-setting Federal Open Market Committee said in its release. “The ongoing public health crisis continues to weigh on the economy, and risks to the economic outlook remain.”Yet Fed officials signaled that they were looking for more progress toward their goals of full employment and stable inflation before reconsidering their cheap-money stance. Officials made it clear that they see a recent increase in inflation, which is expected to intensify in the months to come, as likely to be short-lived rather than worrying.And Mr. Powell was careful to avoid sounding as though he and his colleagues knew precisely what the future held. He pointed out, repeatedly, that reopening America’s giant economy from pandemic-era shutdowns was an uncharted project.“It’s going to be a different economy,” Mr. Powell said at one point, noting that some jobs may have disappeared as employers automated. At another, he said that when it came to inflation, “we’re making our way through an unprecedented series of events.”For now, things are looking up. After reaching a low point a year ago, employment is rebounding, consumers are spending and the outlook is increasingly optimistic as vaccines become widespread. Data that will be released on Thursday is expected to show gradual healing in the first three months of the year, which economists think will give way to rapid gains in the second quarter.Mr. Powell pointed out that even the areas hardest hit by the virus have shown improvement, but also that risks remain.“While the level of new cases remains concerning,” he said, “continued vaccinations should allow for a return to more normal economic conditions later this year.”Fed officials have signaled that they will keep interest rates low and bond purchases going at the current $120 billion-per-month pace until the recovery is more complete. The Fed has said it would like to see “substantial” further progress before dialing back government-backed bond buying, a policy meant to make many kinds of borrowing cheap. The hurdle for raising rates is even higher: Officials want the economy to return to full employment and achieve 2 percent inflation, with expectations that inflation will remain higher for some time.“A transitory rise in inflation above 2 percent this year would not meet this standard,” Mr. Powell said of the Fed’s criteria for achieving its average inflation target before raising interest rates. When it comes to bond buying, “the economy is a long way from our goals, and it is likely to take some time for substantial further progress to be achieved.”He later said that “it is not time yet” to talk about scaling back, or “tapering,” bond purchases.Unemployment, which peaked at 14.8 percent last April, has since declined to 6 percent. Retail spending is strong, supported by repeated government stimulus checks. Consumers have amassed a big savings stockpile over months of stay-at-home orders, so there is reason to expect that things could pick up further as the economy fully reopens.Yet there is room for improvement. The jobless rate remains well above its 3.5 percent reading coming into the pandemic, with Black workers and those in lower-paying jobs disproportionately out of work. Some businesses have closed forever, and it remains to be seen how post-pandemic changes in daily patterns will affect others, like corporate offices and the companies that service them.“There’s no playbook here,” said Michelle Meyer, the head of U.S. economics at Bank of America, adding that the Fed needed time to let inflation play out and the labor market heal, and that while the signs were encouraging, central bankers would only “react when they have enough evidence.”The Fed has repeatedly said it wants to see realized improvement in economic data — not just expected healing — before it reduces its support. Based on their March economic projections, most Fed officials are penciling in interest rates near zero through at least 2023.Still, some economists have warned that the government’s enormous spending to heal the economy from coronavirus may overdo it, sending inflation higher. If that happens, it might force the Fed to lift interest rates earlier than expected, and prominent academics have fretted that officials might prove too slow to act, hemmed in by their commitment to patience.Markets have at times shown jitters on signs of potential inflation, concerned that it would cause the Fed to lift rates, which tends to dent stock prices.Inflation Is Starting to Jump More

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    Fear of Inflation Finds a Foothold in the Bond Market

    There is little evidence for a big jump in prices, but some economists and bond investors fear President Biden’s policies could lead to inflation.The so-called bond vigilantes may be back, 30 years after they led a sell-off in Treasury securities over the prospect of higher government spending by a new Democratic administration.The Federal Reserve has downplayed the risk of inflation, and many experts discount the danger of a sustained rise in prices. But there is an intense debate underway on Wall Street about the prospects for higher inflation and rising interest rates.Yields on 10-year Treasury notes have risen sharply in recent weeks, a sign that traders are taking the inflation threat more seriously. If the trend continues, it will put bond investors on a collision course with the Biden administration, which recently won passage of a $1.9 trillion stimulus bill and wants to spend trillions more on infrastructure, education and other programs.The potential confrontation made some market veterans recall the 1990s, when yields on Treasury securities lurched higher as the Clinton administration considered plans to increase spending. As a result, officials soon turned to deficit reduction as a priority.Ed Yardeni, an independent economist, coined the term bond vigilante in the 1980s to describe investors who sell bonds amid signs that fiscal deficits are getting out of hand, especially if central bankers and others don’t act as a counterweight.As bond prices fall and yields rise, borrowing becomes more expensive, which can force lawmakers to spend less.“They seem to mount up and form a posse every time inflation is making a comeback,” Mr. Yardeni said. “Clearly, they’re back in the U.S. So while it’s fine for the Fed to argue inflation will be transitory, the bond vigilantes won’t believe it till they see it.”Yields on the 10-year Treasury note hit 1.75 percent last week before falling back this week, a sharp rise from less than 1 percent at the start of the year.Not all the sellers necessarily oppose more government spending — some are simply acting on a belief that yields will move higher as economic activity picks up, or jumping on a popular trade. But the effect is the same, pushing yields higher as prices for bonds fall.Yields remain incredibly low by historical standards and even recent trading. Two years ago, the 10-year Treasury paid 2.5 percent — many bond investors would happily welcome a return to those yields given that a government note bought today pays a relative pittance in interest. And during the Clinton administration, yields on 10-year Treasurys rose to 8 percent, from 5.2 percent between October 1993 and November 1994.Still, Mr. Yardeni believes the bond market is saying something policymakers today ought to pay attention to.“The ultimate goal of the bond vigilante is to be heard, and they are blowing the whistle,” he said. “It could come back to bite Biden’s plans.”Yet evidence of inflation remains elusive. Consumer prices, excluding the volatile food and energy sectors, have been tame, as have wages. And even before the pandemic, unemployment plumbed lows not seen in decades without stoking inflation.Indeed, the bond vigilantes remain outliers. Even many economists at financial firms who expect faster growth as a result of the stimulus package are not ready to predict inflation’s return.“The inflation dynamic is not the same as it was in the past,” said Carl Tannenbaum, chief economist at Northern Trust in Chicago. “Globalization, technology and e-commerce all make it harder for firms to increase prices.”What’s more, with more than nine million jobs lost in the past year and an unemployment rate of 6.2 percent, it would seem there is plenty of slack in the economy.That’s how Alan S. Blinder, a Princeton economist who was an economic adviser to President Bill Clinton and is a former top Fed official, sees it. Even if inflation goes up slightly, Mr. Blinder believes the Fed’s target for inflation, set at 2 percent, is appropriate.“Bond traders are an excitable lot, and they go to extremes,” he said. “If they are true to form, they will overreact.”Indeed, there have been rumors of the bond vigilantes’ return before, like in 2009 as the economy began to creep out of the deep hole of the last recession and rates inched higher. But in the ensuing decade, both yields and inflation remained muted. If anything, deflation was a greater concern than rising prices.It is not just bond traders who are concerned. Some of Mr. Blinder’s colleagues from the Clinton administration are warning that the conventional economic wisdom hasn’t fully accepted the possibility of higher rates or an uptick in prices..css-yoay6m{margin:0 auto 5px;font-family:nyt-franklin,helvetica,arial,sans-serif;font-weight:700;font-size:1.125rem;line-height:1.3125rem;color:#121212;}@media (min-width:740px){.css-yoay6m{font-size:1.25rem;line-height:1.4375rem;}}.css-1dg6kl4{margin-top:5px;margin-bottom:15px;}.css-k59gj9{display:-webkit-box;display:-webkit-flex;display:-ms-flexbox;display:flex;-webkit-flex-direction:column;-ms-flex-direction:column;flex-direction:column;width:100%;}.css-1e2usoh{font-family:inherit;display:-webkit-box;display:-webkit-flex;display:-ms-flexbox;display:flex;-webkit-box-pack:justify;-webkit-justify-content:space-between;-ms-flex-pack:justify;justify-content:space-between;border-top:1px solid #ccc;padding:10px 0px 10px 0px;background-color:#fff;}.css-1jz6h6z{font-family:inherit;font-weight:bold;font-size:1rem;line-height:1.5rem;text-align:left;}.css-1t412wb{box-sizing:border-box;margin:8px 15px 0px 15px;cursor:pointer;}.css-hhzar2{-webkit-transition:-webkit-transform ease 0.5s;-webkit-transition:transform ease 0.5s;transition:transform ease 0.5s;}.css-t54hv4{-webkit-transform:rotate(180deg);-ms-transform:rotate(180deg);transform:rotate(180deg);}.css-1r2j9qz{-webkit-transform:rotate(0deg);-ms-transform:rotate(0deg);transform:rotate(0deg);}.css-e1ipqs{font-size:1rem;line-height:1.5rem;padding:0px 30px 0px 0px;}.css-e1ipqs a{color:#326891;-webkit-text-decoration:underline;text-decoration:underline;}.css-e1ipqs a:hover{-webkit-text-decoration:none;text-decoration:none;}.css-1o76pdf{visibility:show;height:100%;padding-bottom:20px;}.css-1sw9s96{visibility:hidden;height:0px;}#masthead-bar-one{display:none;}#masthead-bar-one{display:none;}.css-1cz6wm{background-color:white;border:1px solid #e2e2e2;width:calc(100% – 40px);max-width:600px;margin:1.5rem auto 1.9rem;padding:15px;box-sizing:border-box;font-family:’nyt-franklin’,arial,helvetica,sans-serif;text-align:left;}@media (min-width:740px){.css-1cz6wm{padding:20px;width:100%;}}.css-1cz6wm:focus{outline:1px solid #e2e2e2;}#NYT_BELOW_MAIN_CONTENT_REGION .css-1cz6wm{border:none;padding:20px 0 0;border-top:1px solid #121212;}Frequently Asked Questions About the New Stimulus PackageThe stimulus payments would be $1,400 for most recipients. Those who are eligible would also receive an identical payment for each of their children. To qualify for the full $1,400, a single person would need an adjusted gross income of $75,000 or below. For heads of household, adjusted gross income would need to be $112,500 or below, and for married couples filing jointly that number would need to be $150,000 or below. To be eligible for a payment, a person must have a Social Security number. Read more. Buying insurance through the government program known as COBRA would temporarily become a lot cheaper. COBRA, for the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, generally lets someone who loses a job buy coverage via the former employer. But it’s expensive: Under normal circumstances, a person may have to pay at least 102 percent of the cost of the premium. Under the relief bill, the government would pay the entire COBRA premium from April 1 through Sept. 30. A person who qualified for new, employer-based health insurance someplace else before Sept. 30 would lose eligibility for the no-cost coverage. And someone who left a job voluntarily would not be eligible, either. Read moreThis credit, which helps working families offset the cost of care for children under 13 and other dependents, would be significantly expanded for a single year. More people would be eligible, and many recipients would get a bigger break. The bill would also make the credit fully refundable, which means you could collect the money as a refund even if your tax bill was zero. “That will be helpful to people at the lower end” of the income scale, said Mark Luscombe, principal federal tax analyst at Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting. Read more.There would be a big one for people who already have debt. You wouldn’t have to pay income taxes on forgiven debt if you qualify for loan forgiveness or cancellation — for example, if you’ve been in an income-driven repayment plan for the requisite number of years, if your school defrauded you or if Congress or the president wipes away $10,000 of debt for large numbers of people. This would be the case for debt forgiven between Jan. 1, 2021, and the end of 2025. Read more.The bill would provide billions of dollars in rental and utility assistance to people who are struggling and in danger of being evicted from their homes. About $27 billion would go toward emergency rental assistance. The vast majority of it would replenish the so-called Coronavirus Relief Fund, created by the CARES Act and distributed through state, local and tribal governments, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. That’s on top of the $25 billion in assistance provided by the relief package passed in December. To receive financial assistance — which could be used for rent, utilities and other housing expenses — households would have to meet several conditions. Household income could not exceed 80 percent of the area median income, at least one household member must be at risk of homelessness or housing instability, and individuals would have to qualify for unemployment benefits or have experienced financial hardship (directly or indirectly) because of the pandemic. Assistance could be provided for up to 18 months, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Lower-income families that have been unemployed for three months or more would be given priority for assistance. Read more.Robert E. Rubin, Mr. Clinton’s second Treasury secretary, echoed that concern but took pains to support the stimulus package.“There is a deep uncertainty,” Mr. Rubin said in an interview. “We needed this relief bill, and it served a lot of useful purposes. But we now have an enormous amount of stimulus, and the risks of inflation have increased materially.”Mr. Rubin acknowledged that predicting inflation was very difficult, but he said policymakers ought to be ready to fight it. “If inflationary pressures do take off, it’s important to get ahead of them quickly before they take on a life of their own.”The Federal Reserve has plenty of options. Not only is it buying up debt, which keeps yields down, but the Fed chair, Jerome H. Powell, has called for keeping monetary policy relatively loose for the foreseeable future. If higher prices do materialize, the Fed could halt asset purchases and raise rates sooner.“We’re committed to giving the economy the support that it needs to return as quickly as possible to a state of maximum employment and price stability,” Mr. Powell said at a news conference last week. That help will continue “for as long as it takes.”While most policymakers expect faster growth, falling unemployment and a rise in inflation to above 2 percent, they nonetheless expect short-term rates to stay near zero through 2023.But the Fed’s ability to control longer-term rates is more limited, said Steven Rattner, a veteran Wall Street banker and former New York Times reporter who served in the Obama administration.“At some point, if this economy takes off bigger than any one of us expect, the Fed will have to raise rates, but it’s not this year’s issue and probably not next year’s issue,” he said. “But we are in uncharted waters, and we are to some extent playing with fire.”The concerns about inflation expressed by Mr. Rattner, Mr. Rubin and others has at least a little to do with a generational angst, Mr. Rattner, 68, points out. They all vividly remember the soaring inflation of the 1970s and early 1980s that prompted the Fed to raise rates into the double digits under the leadership of Paul Volcker.The tightening brought inflation under control but caused a deep economic downturn.“People my age remember well the late 1970s and 1980s,” Mr. Rattner said. “I was there, I covered it for The Times, and lived through it. Younger people treat it like it was the Civil War.”Some younger economists, like Gregory Daco of Oxford Economics, who is 36, think these veterans of past inflation scares are indeed fighting old wars. Any rise in inflation above 2 percent is likely to be transitory, Mr. Daco said. Bond yields are up, but they are only returning to normal after the distortions caused by the pandemic.“If you have memories of high inflation and low growth in the 1970s, you may be more concerned with it popping up now,” he said. “But these are very different circumstances today.” More