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    Consumer Spending Rose More Than Expected in April

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

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    Fed Officials Were Split Over June Rate Pause, Minutes Show

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

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    Inflation Persists and Car Prices Are a Big Reason

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

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

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

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

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    How the G7 Oil Price Cap Has Helped Choke Revenue to Russia

    Group of 7 leaders are prepared to celebrate the results of a novel effort to stabilize global oil markets and punish Moscow.In early June, at the behest of the Biden administration, German leaders assembled top economic officials from the Group of 7 nations for a video conference with the goal of striking a major financial blow to Russia.The Americans had been trying, in a series of one-off conversations last year, to sound out their counterparts in Europe, Canada and Japan on an unusual and untested idea. Administration officials wanted to try to cap the price that Moscow could command for every barrel of oil it sold on the world market. Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen had floated the plan a few weeks earlier at a meeting of finance ministers in Bonn, Germany.The reception had been mixed, in part because other countries were not sure how serious the administration was about proceeding. But the call in early June left no doubt: American officials said they were committed to the oil price cap idea and urged everyone else to get on board. At the end of the month, the Group of 7 leaders signed on to the concept.As the Group of 7 prepares to meet again in this week in Hiroshima, Japan, official and market data suggest the untried idea has helped achieve its twin initial goals since the price cap took effect in December. The cap appears to be forcing Russia to sell its oil for less than other major producers, when crude prices are down significantly from their levels immediately after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.Data from Russia and international agencies suggest Moscow’s revenues have dropped, forcing budget choices that administration officials say could be starting to hamper its war effort. Drivers in America and elsewhere are paying far less at the gasoline pump than some analysts feared.Russia’s oil revenues in March were down 43 percent from a year earlier, the International Energy Agency reported last month, even though its total export sales volume had grown. This week, the agency reported that Russian revenues had rebounded slightly but were still down 27 percent from a year ago. The government’s tax receipts from the oil and gas sectors were down by nearly two-thirds from a year ago.Russian officials have been forced to change how they tax oil production in an apparent bid to make up for some of the lost revenues. They also appear to be spending government money to try to start building their own network of ships, insurance companies and other essentials of the oil trade, an effort that European and American officials say is a clear sign of success.“The Russian price cap is working, and working extremely well,” Wally Adeyemo, the deputy Treasury secretary, said in an interview. “The money that they’re spending on building up this ecosystem to support their energy trade is money they can’t spend on building missiles or buying tanks. And what we’re going to continue to do is force Russia to have these types of hard choices.”Some analysts doubt the plan is working nearly as well as administration officials claim, at least when it comes to revenues. They say the most frequently cited data on the prices that Russia receives for its exported oil is unreliable. And they say other data, like customs reports from India, suggests Russian officials may be employing elaborate deception measures to evade the cap and sell crude at prices well above its limit.“I’m concerned the Biden administration’s desperation to claim victory with the price cap is preventing them from actually acknowledging what isn’t working and taking the steps that might actually help them win,” said Steve Cicala, an energy economist at Tufts University who has written about potential evasion under the cap.The price cap was invented as an escape hatch to the financial penalties that the United States, Europe and others announced on Russian oil exports in the immediate aftermath of the invasion. Those penalties included bans preventing wealthy democracies from buying Russian oil on the world market. But early in the war, they essentially backfired. They drove up the cost of all oil globally, regardless of where it was produced. The higher prices delivered record exports revenues to Moscow, while driving American gasoline prices above $5 a gallon and contributing to President Biden’s sagging approval rating.A new round of European sanctions was set to hit Russian oil hard in December. Economists on Wall Street and in the Biden administration warned those penalties could knock oil off the market, sending prices soaring again. So administration officials decided to try to leverage the West’s dominance of the oil shipping trade — including how it is transported and financed — and force a hard bargain on Russia.Oil tankers near the port city of Nakhodka, Russia. Many analysts were concerned that a price cap might prompt Russia to restrict how much oil it pumped and sold. But the country has mostly kept producing at about the same levels it did when the war began.Tatiana Meel/ReutersUnder the plan, Russia could keep selling oil, but if it wanted access to the West’s shipping infrastructure, it had to sell at a sharp discount. In December, European leaders agreed to set the cap at $60 a barrel. They followed with other caps for different types of petroleum products, like diesel.Many analysts were skeptical it could work. A cap that was too punitive had the potential to encourage Russia to severely restrict how much oil it pumps and sells. Such a move could drive crude prices skyward. Alternatively, a cap that was too permissive might have failed to affect Russian oil sales and revenues at all.Neither scenario has happened. Russia announced a modest production cut this spring but has mostly kept producing at about the same levels it did when the war began.Fatih Birol, the executive director of the International Energy Agency, has called the price cap an important “safety valve” and a crucial policy that has forced Russia to sell oil for far less than international benchmark prices. Russian oil now trades for $25 to $35 a barrel less than other oil on the global market, Treasury Department officials estimate.“Russia played the energy card, and it didn’t win,” Mr. Birol wrote in a February report. “Given that energy is the backbone of Russia’s economy, it’s not surprising that its difficulties in this area are leading to wider problems. Its budget deficit is skyrocketing as military spending and subsidies to its population largely exceed its export income.”Biden administration officials say that there is no evidence of widespread evasion by Russia, and that Mr. Cicala’s analysis of Indian customs reports does not account for the rising cost of transporting Russian oil to India, which is embedded in the customs data. A White House official told reporters traveling with Mr. Biden in Hiroshima on Thursday that the Group of 7 leaders would adopt new measures meant to counter price-cap evasion in their meeting this weekend.There is no dispute that the world has avoided what was privately the largest concern for Biden officials last summer: another round of skyrocketing oil prices.American drivers were paying about $3.54 a gallon on average for gasoline on Monday. That was down nearly $1 from a year ago, and it is nowhere near the $7 a gallon some administration officials feared if the cap had failed to prevent a second oil shock from the Russian invasion. Gas prices are a mild source of relief for Mr. Biden as high inflation continues to hamper his approval among voters.After rising sharply in the months surrounding the Russian invasion, global oil prices have fallen back to late-2021 levels. The plunge is partly driven by economic cooling around the world, and it has persisted even as large producers like Saudi Arabia have curtailed production.Falling global prices have contributed to Russia’s falling revenues, but they are not the whole story. Reported sales prices for exported Russian oil, known as Urals, have dropped by twice as much as the global price for Brent crude.The Group of 7 leaders meeting in Japan this week will probably not spend much time on the cap, instead turning to other collective efforts to constrict Russia’s economy and revenues. And the biggest winners from the cap decision will not be at the summit.“The direct beneficiaries are mostly emerging market and lower-income countries that import oil from Russia,” Treasury officials noted in a recent report.The officials were referring to a handful of countries outside the Group of 7 — particularly India and China — that have used the cap as leverage to pay a discount for Russian oil. Neither India nor China joined the formal cap effort, but it is their oil consumers who are seeing the lowest prices from it. More

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    Inflation Slowed in April, Marking 10th Month of Moderation

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

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

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    Inflation Cooled in March, but Stubborn Price Increases Remain

    The Federal Reserve’s preferred inflation gauge, the Personal Consumption Expenditures index, slowed in March. But signs point to staying power.Inflation is slowing, a fresh reading of the Federal Reserve’s preferred index showed, but costs continue to climb rapidly after stripping out volatile food and fuel — which shows that price pressures retain staying power and it could be a long road back to normal.The Personal Consumption Expenditures index climbed by 4.2 percent in the year through March, down notably from 5.1 percent in the year through February.But after stripping out food and fuel prices, a closely watched “core” index held nearly steady last month. That measure rose by 4.6 percent over the year, compared with 4.7 percent in the previous reading — a figure that was revised up slightly.The data provide further evidence that inflation is moderating, but that the process remains bumpy and could take a long time to fully play out. Fed officials have raised interest rates sharply over the past year to make money more expensive to borrow and slow demand, and those moves are only slowly trickling through the economy and weighing down price increases.The central bank meets on May 3 to make its next policy decision, and officials are widely expected to raise rates by a quarter percentage point to just above 5 percent. Markets will be just as focused on what they signal for the future: Central bankers forecast in March that they might stop lifting interest rates after their next adjustment. Both incoming price and wage data and financial news could inform whether they feel comfortable hitting pause.The Fed will also need to weigh turmoil in the banking sector as it considers its next move. A series of prominent bank failures in March sent tremors through the system, and those persist. First Republic has continued to struggle, and its stock plummeted this week. Problems in the industry can slow lending to consumers and businesses, weighing on the economy.With growth slowing and the bank issues further weighing consumers down, companies may find in the coming months that they are less able to charge more for their goods and services without scaring away customers. So far, though, many have retained an ability to raise prices.“If we see inflation that warrants us needing to take additional pricing, we’ll take it,” Brian Niccol, chief executive at the burrito chain Chipotle, said during an earnings call this week. “I think we’ve now demonstrated we do have pricing power.” More

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    Inflation Is Still High. What’s Driving It Has Changed.

    Two years ago, high inflation was about supply shortages and pricier goods. Then it was about war in Ukraine and energy. These days, services are key.America is now two years into abnormally high inflation — and while the nation appears to be past the worst phase of the biggest spike in price increases in half a century, the road back to normal is a long and uncertain one.The pop in prices over the 24 months that ended in March eroded wage gains, burdened consumers and spurred a Federal Reserve response that has the potential to cause a recession.What generated the painful inflation, and what comes next? A look through the data reveals a situation that arose from pandemic disruptions and the government’s response, was worsened by the war in Ukraine and is now cooling as supply problems clear up and the economy slows. But it also illustrates that U.S. inflation today is drastically different from the price increases that first appeared in 2021, driven by stubborn price increases for services like airfare and child care instead of by the cost of goods.Fresh wage and price data set for release on Friday are expected to show continued evidence of slow and steady moderation in March. Now Fed officials must judge whether the cool-down is happening fast enough to assure them that inflation will promptly return to normal — a focus when the central bank releases its next interest rate decision on Wednesday.Inflation Is Slowly Coming DownYear-over-year percentage change in the Consumer Price Index

    Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics; New York Fed’s Global Supply Chain Pressure IndexBy The New York TimesThe Fed aims for 2 percent inflation on average over time using the Personal Consumption Expenditures index, which will be released on Friday. That figure pulls some of its data from the Consumer Price Index report, which was released two weeks ago and offered a clear picture of the recent inflation trajectory.Before the pandemic, inflation hovered around 2 percent as measured by the overall Consumer Price Index and by a “core” measure that strips out food and fuel prices to get a clearer sense of the underlying trend. It dropped sharply at the pandemic’s start in early 2020 as people stayed home and stopped spending money, then rebounded starting in March 2021.Some of that initial pop was due to a “base effect.” Fresh inflation data were being measured against pandemic-depressed numbers from the year before, which made the new figures look elevated. But by the end of summer 2021, it was clear that something more fundamental was happening with prices.Demand for goods was unusually high: Families had more money than usual after months at home and repeated stimulus checks, and they were spending it on cars, couches and deck furniture. At the same time, the pandemic had shut down many factories, limiting how much supply the world’s companies could churn out. Shipping costs surged, goods shortages mounted, and the prices of physical purchases from appliances to cars jumped.Higher Prices for Services Are Now Driving InflationBreakdown of the inflation rate, by category

    Note: The services category excludes energy services, and the goods category excludes food and energy goods.Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics; New York Times analysisBy The New York TimesBy late 2021, a second trend was also getting started. Services costs, which include nonphysical purchases like tutoring and tax preparation, had begun to climb quickly.As with goods prices, that tied back to the strong demand. Because households were in good spending shape, landlords, child care providers and restaurants could charge more without losing customers.Across the economy, firms seized the moment to pad their bottom lines; profit margins soared in late 2021 before moderating late last year.Businesses were also covering their growing costs. Wages had started to climb more quickly than usual, which meant that corporate labor bills were swelling.Pay Has Climbed Quickly, but Not as Fast as PricesYear-over-year percentage change in the Employment Cost Index, a measure of labor costs, and the Consumer Price Index, a measure of living costs

    Note: The Consumer Price Index is reported monthly. The Employment Cost Index is reported quarterly and is as of Q4 2022. Early 2023 data is a Goldman Sachs forecast.Source: Bureau of Labor StatisticsBy The New York TimesFed officials had expected goods shortages to fade, but the combination of faster inflation for services and accelerating wage growth captured their attention.Even if pay gains had not been the original cause of inflation, policymakers were concerned that it would be difficult for price increases to return to a normal pace with pay rates rising briskly. Companies, they thought, would keep raising prices to pass on those labor expenses.Worried central bankers started raising interest rates in March 2022 to hit the brakes on growth by making it more expensive to borrow to buy a car or house or expand a business. The goal was to slow the labor market and make it harder for firms to raise prices. In just over a year, they lifted rates to nearly 5 percent — the fastest adjustment since the 1980s.Yet in early 2022, Fed policy started fighting yet another force stoking inflation. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that February caused food and fuel prices to surge. Between that and the cost increases in goods and services, overall inflation reached its highest peak since the 1980s: about 9 percent in July.In the months since, inflation has slowed as cost increases for energy and goods have cooled. But food prices are still climbing swiftly, and — crucially — cost increases in services remain rapid.In fact, services prices are now the very center of the inflation story.They could soon start to fade in one key area. Housing costs have been picking up quickly for months, but rent increases have recently slowed in real-time private sector data. That is expected to feed into official inflation numbers by later this year.That has left policymakers focused on other services, which span an array of purchases including medical care, car repairs and many vacation expenses. How quickly those prices — often called “core services ex-housing” — can retreat will determine whether and when inflation can return to normal.Excluding Housing Costs, Prices of Core Services Are RisingYear-over-year percentage change in the Consumer Price Index for services, stripping out housing and energy costs

    Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics; New York Times analysisBy The New York TimesNow, Fed officials will have to assess whether the economy is poised to slow enough to bring down the cost of those critical services.Between the central bank’s rate moves and recent banking turmoil, some officials think that it may be. Policymakers projected in March that they would raise interest rates just once more in 2023, a move that is widely expected at their meeting next week.But market watchers will listen intently when Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, gives his postmeeting news conference. He could offer hints at whether officials think the inflation saga is heading for a speedy conclusion — or another chapter.Ben Casselman More

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    America’s Inflation Antihero Gets a Makeover

    As the Fed fights inflation with a wary eye on the 1970s, some are arguing that Arthur Burns, the Fed chair at the time, gets too bad a rap.The years have not been kind to Arthur Burns, who led the Federal Reserve from 1970 to 1978 and is often remembered as perhaps the worst chair ever to head America’s central bank. His poor policy decisions, critics say, allowed inflation in the 1970s to jump out of control.Chris Hughes thinks he deserves another look. Mr. Hughes, 39, is a newly accepted doctoral student focused on central bank history at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. This is a third career for Mr. Hughes, who was Mark Zuckerberg’s college roommate and a founder of Facebook, a first act that left him with a personal fortune estimated to total hundreds of millions of dollars.Mr. Hughes then bought and for four years served as publisher of The New Republic, the liberal magazine. Starting this fall, he will spend his days studying the law and politics of central bank development and writing a book on the history of financial markets and politics.As a person who knows something about reinvention, Mr. Hughes thinks Mr. Burns should get one, too.He wrote a 6,000-word article for the journal Democracy on how America has misunderstood the former Fed chair, made the argument on NPR’s Planet Money and is now taking his spiel to academic gatherings.His point? He thinks Mr. Burns is portrayed in ways that are unfair to him — and which may offer the wrong lessons as America approaches the inflation burdening the rest of us at the grocery store, used car lot and day-care center today.Mr. Burns is frequently remembered in central banking and economic circles as a weak leader who failed to lift interest rates enough to control inflation because he feared harming the economy too much; Mr. Hughes and other Burns revisionists — a small but growing group of historians and economists who don’t necessarily love him, but do think he got an unfair rap — see him as someone who tried to balance concerns about hurting workers with a dedication to slowing down price increases. History often paints him as a political shill; the contrarians argue that he saw controlling inflation as a project that the Fed and elected officials in the White House and Congress could and should share.And because Mr. Burns gets blamed, without much nuance, for his failure to contain inflation, Mr. Hughes thinks that people miss the possible virtues of his more complicated view of price increases — as a problem that required multiple players, alongside the Fed, to successfully tackle.“I think he’s easily weaponized,” Mr. Hughes said in an interview. “The caricature is worth revisiting.”Mr. Burns plays the role of antihero in most stories about the Great Inflation of the 1970s — tales that are repeated often in academic circles and the news media as a warning about what not to do.Mr. Burns, a conservative economist, presided over rate increases during the 1970s, but he never pushed them far enough to bring inflation under control. And he may have pursued that start-and-stop approach partly because he was bending to political pressure.Richard Nixon with Arthur Burns in 1968. In the run-up to the 1972 election, President Nixon, who appointed Mr. Burns as Fed chair, urged him to cut rates.Associated PressPresident Richard Nixon, who appointed Mr. Burns as Fed chair, wanted him to cut rates in the run-up to the 1972 election. In taped conversations, Nixon urged Mr. Burns to push the Fed’s policy committee to lower borrowing costs.“Just kick ’em in the rump a little,” Nixon was recorded saying. Fed officials did cut rates in the latter part of 1971.Inflation deepened as the Fed’s rate moves remained more dawdling than decisive, and Mr. Burns’s name eventually became synonymous with bad central banking: irresolute and politicized. He remains the key historical foil to Paul Volcker, Fed chair from 1979 to 1987, who pushed interest rates up to nearly 20 percent in 1981, crashed the economy into a deep recession and ultimately saw price increases cool. Mr. Volcker, hated by many in his time, is now recalled as an almost heroic figure.The parable of Mr. Burns and Mr. Volcker retains a powerful hold today, as the Fed contends with the first major burst of inflation since the 1970s and ’80s. Fed officials regularly emphasize that they view a noncommittal approach to raising interest rates to slow the economy and choke off inflation — Mr. Burns’s style — as a mistake.Meanwhile, Mr. Volcker described his own approach as one of “keeping at it.” Jerome H. Powell, the current Fed chair, has echoed that phrase aspirationally.It is not clear whether the Fed would pursue a strategy just like Mr. Volcker’s. Mr. Powell has publicly noted that today’s circumstances differ from those of the 1970s. Nor do officials plan to push rates to the double-digit heights they reached in 1981 and 1982. But Mr. Volcker’s policies came at such a cost to workers, pushing unemployment up to a staggering 10.8 percent, that mere admiration of his approach has been enough to stir concern among some liberal economists and historians.Mr. Hughes agrees that rate increases have been necessary, but he is also pushing for a more detailed reading of Mr. Burns’ legacy. He has spent the past four years researching central bank history, including as a graduate student of economics at the New School in New York City, where he lives with his husband — a former Democratic congressional candidate — and their two children. He remains a senior fellow at the Institute on Race, Power and Political Economy at the New School.Chris Hughes, a doctoral student on Fed history at Wharton, wrote a 6,000-word journal article defending Mr. Burns’s actions as Fed chair.Gili Benita for The New York TimesHis own rapid jump from an adolescence in North Carolina’s middle class to a young adulthood at the upper end of the Bay Area elite, one that pushed his net worth to just shy of $500 million before his 30th birthday, piqued his interested in the design of the nation’s economic system — in particular, how it intersects with government policy and how it allows immense inequality.Perhaps no part of that design is more complicated, or less well understood, than the Fed. “Some are looking at Burns as an example of what not to do,” said Mr. Hughes, who quickly became intrigued by the 1970s. “But I think that’s not necessarily right.”Tradeoffs between inflation and employment could be particularly stark in the coming months. Officials have rapidly lifted their main policy rate over the past year to nearly 5 percent. At their upcoming meeting in May or shortly thereafter, central bankers are poised to wrestle with when they ought to stop raising interest rates.And as 2023 progresses and growth slows, unemployment is expected to rise. Policymakers will most likely need to decide how they want to strike the balance between fostering a strong job market and controlling inflation in a slowing economy. Should policymakers keep rates high even if unemployment rises substantially?Mr. Burns avoided punishingly high rates for reasons beyond his politics, Mr. Hughes and those who agree with him argue. While he deeply hated inflation, he blamed supply-related forces, including union bargaining power, for the jump in prices. The Fed’s tools affect mostly demand, so he thought other parts of the government could do a better job of tackling those forces. Relying on rates alone to fully control inflation would come at an untenable economic cost.He was working from “a place of ideological conviction,” Mr. Hughes said.Still, many economists think Mr. Burns deserves his bad reputation, whatever his motivations.Because his Fed took so long to control inflation, households and businesses came to expect fast price increases in the future, said Donald Kohn, a former Fed vice chair who worked at a regional Fed during the Burns era. That changed consumer and corporate behavior — people asked for bigger raises and companies instituted regular price jumps.As that happened, inflation became a more permanent feature of daily life, making it harder to stamp out. If Mr. Burns hadn’t let inflation spin so far out of control, this argument goes, Mr. Volcker might never have needed to cause such a painful recession to tame it.Paul Volcker, the Fed chair from 1979 to 1987, raised interest rates to nearly 20 percent in 1981, crashing the economy into a deep recession.Chick Harrity/Associated Press“It felt like he was trying to find a way to bring down inflation without paying the price — and it just wasn’t possible,” said Mr. Kohn, who remembered Mr. Burns as an “autocratic” leader who did not accept differing views from the Fed’s research staff.“The Fed was dealt a bad hand and played it poorly,” he added.When Mr. Burns’s reputation went down in flames, so did the idea that controlling inflation should be a joint effort of the Fed, Congress and the White House. Since Mr. Volcker’s stand, inflation has been seen, first and foremost, as the central bank’s problem.Many economists see the Fed’s independence from politics and clear focus on controlling prices as a feature, not a bug: Someone now stands ready to promptly clamp down on price increases. Economists even argue that today’s Fed won’t have to act like Mr. Volcker specifically because it will not act like Mr. Burns.Yet skeptics of Mr. Volcker’s economic shock treatment have pointed out that he partly got lucky. Oil embargoes that had pushed inflation much higher eased during his tenure.Given the towering costs Mr. Volcker’s policies inflicted on workers, some are asking: Even if it failed to stem inflation, is it fair to conclude that everything about Mr. Burns’s approach was wrong?“Our simple story about what happened makes it harder to see the complexities of what is happening now,” said Lev Menand, who researches money and central banking at Columbia Law School.Mr. Hughes argued in his essay published last fall that modern policymakers could learn from Mr. Burns’s cross-government collaboration. Raising taxes, revising zoning rules, and other frequent Democratic priorities could help temper price increases, he thinks.Other suggestions for government intervention to tame price increases have gone even further: Isabella Weber, an economist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has suggested that price and wage controls should be reconsidered. Their design and implementation in the 1970s did not work, but that does not mean they never could.But such interventions — even if successful, which is far from assured — would take time. The way today’s central bankers understand Mr. Burns as disaster and Mr. Volcker as savior could matter more immediately.And while Peter Conti-Brown, a Fed historian at Wharton and Mr. Hughes’s thesis adviser, said he thought Mr. Burns deserved most of the blame he received for failing to control inflation, he also thought it was possible that Mr. Volcker had been improperly lionized.To foster both maximum employment and stable inflation — the Fed’s twin jobs — is a balancing act, and to do it requires acting like neither Mr. Volcker, with his firm concentration on inflation, nor Mr. Burns, with his yielding one, he said.“I think in the history of central banking, there are few if any heroes,” Mr. Conti-Brown said. “There are also few if any villains.” More