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    As Western Oil Giants Cut Production, State-Owned Companies Step Up

    In the Middle East, Africa and Latin America, government-owned energy companies are increasing oil and natural gas production as U.S. and European companies pare supply because of climate concerns.HOUSTON — After years of pumping more oil and gas, Western energy giants like BP, Royal Dutch Shell, Exxon Mobil and Chevron are slowing down production as they switch to renewable energy or cut costs after being bruised by the pandemic.But that doesn’t mean the world will have less oil. That’s because state-owned oil companies in the Middle East, North Africa and Latin America are taking advantage of the cutbacks by investor-owned oil companies by cranking up their production.This massive shift could reverse a decade-long trend of rising domestic oil and gas production that turned the United States into a net exporter of oil, gasoline, natural gas and other petroleum products, and make America more dependent on the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, authoritarian leaders and politically unstable countries.The push by governments to increase oil and gas production means it could take decades for global fossil fuel supplies to decline unless there is a sharp drop in demand for such fuels. President Biden has effectively accepted the idea that the United States will rely more on foreign oil, at least for the next few years. His administration has been calling on OPEC and its allies to boost production to help bring down rising oil and gasoline prices, even as it seeks to limit the growth of oil and gas production on federal lands and waters.The administration’s approach is a function of two conflicting priorities: Mr. Biden wants to get the world to move away from fossil fuels while protecting Americans from a spike in energy prices. In the short run, it is hard to achieve both goals because most people cannot easily replace internal-combustion engine cars, gas furnaces and other fossil fuel-based products with versions that run on electricity generated from wind turbines, solar panels and other renewable sources of energy.Western oil companies are also under pressure from investors and environmental activists who are demanding a rapid transition to clean energy. Some U.S. producers have said they are reluctant to invest more because they fear oil prices will fall again or because banks and investors are less willing to finance their operations. As a result, some are selling off parts of their fossil fuel empires or are simply spending less on new oil and gas fields.That has created a big opportunity for state-owned oil companies that are not under as much pressure to reduce emissions, though some are also investing in renewable energy. In fact, their political masters often want these oil companies to increase production to help pay down debt, finance government programs and create jobs.Saudi Aramco, the world’s leading oil producer, has announced that it plans to increase oil production capacity by at least a million barrels a day, to 13 million, by the 2030s. Aramco increased its exploration and production investments by $8 billion this year, to $35 billion.“We are capitalizing on the opportunity,” Aramco’s chief executive, Amin H. Nasser, recently told financial analysts. “Of course we are trying to benefit from the lack of investments by major players in the market.”Aramco not only has vast reserves but it can also produce oil much more cheaply than Western companies because its crude is relatively easy to pump out of the ground. So even if demand declines because of a rapid shift to electric cars and trucks, Aramco will most likely be able to pump oil for years or decades longer than many Western energy companies.“The state companies are going their own way,” said René Ortiz, a former OPEC secretary general and a former energy minister in Ecuador. “They don’t care about the political pressure worldwide to control emissions.”State-owned oil companies in Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Libya, Argentina, Colombia and Brazil are also planning to increase production. Should oil and natural gas prices stay high or rise further, energy experts say, more oil-producing nations will be tempted to crank up supply.The global oil market share of the 23 nations that belong to OPEC Plus, a group dominated by state oil companies in OPEC and allied countries like Russia and Mexico, will grow to 75 percent from 55 percent in 2040, according to Michael C. Lynch, president of Strategic Energy and Economic Research in Amherst, Mass., who is an occasional adviser to OPEC.If that forecast comes to pass, the United States and Europe could become more vulnerable to the political turmoil in those countries and to the whims of their rulers. Some European leaders and analysts have long argued that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia uses his country’s vast natural gas reserves as a cudgel — a complaint that has been voiced again recently as European gas prices have surged to record highs.A pump jack in Stanton, Texas. American companies have been cautiously holding back exploration and production.Brandon Thibodeaux for The New York TimesOther oil and gas producers like Iraq, Libya and Nigeria are unstable, and their production can rise or fall rapidly depending on who is in power and who is trying to seize power.“By adopting a strategy of producing less oil, Western oil companies will be turning control of supply over to national oil companies in countries that could be less reliable trading partners and have weaker environmental regulations,” Mr. Lynch said.An overreliance on foreign oil can be problematic because it can limit the options American policymakers have when energy prices spike, forcing presidents to effectively beg OPEC to produce more oil. And it gives oil-producing countries greater leverage over the United States.“Today when U.S. shale companies are not going to respond to higher prices with investment for financial reasons, we are depending on OPEC, whether it is willing to release spare production or not,” said David Goldwyn, a senior energy official in the State Department in the Obama administration. He compared the current moment to one in 2000 when the energy secretary, Bill Richardson, “went around the world asking OPEC countries to release spare capacity to relieve price pressure.”This time, state-owned energy companies are not merely looking to produce more oil in their home countries. Many are expanding overseas.In recent months, Qatar Energy invested in several African offshore fields while the Romanian national gas company bought an offshore production block from Exxon Mobil. As Western companies divest polluting reserves such as Canadian oil sands, energy experts say state companies can be expected to step in.“There is a lot of low-hanging fruit state companies can pick up,” said Raoul LeBlanc, an oil analyst at IHS Markit, a consulting and research firm. “It is a huge opportunity for them to become international players.”Kuwait announced last month that it planned to invest more than $6 billion in exploration over the next five years to increase production to four million barrels a day, from 2.4 million now.This month, the United Arab Emirates, a major OPEC member that produces four million barrels of oil a day, became the first Persian Gulf state to pledge to a net zero carbon emissions target by 2050. But just last year ADNOC, the U.A.E.’s national oil company, announced it was investing $122 billion in new oil and gas projects.Iraq, OPEC’s second-largest producer after Saudi Arabia, has invested heavily in recent years to boost oil output, aiming to raise production to eight million barrels a day by 2027, from five million now. The country is suffering from political turmoil, power shortages and inadequate ports, but the government has made several major deals with foreign oil companies to help the state-owned energy company develop new fields and improve production from old ones.Even in Libya, where warring factions have hamstrung the oil industry for years, production is rising. In recent months, it has been churning out 1.3 million barrels a day, a nine-year high. The government aims to increase that total to 2.5 million within six years.National oil companies in Brazil, Colombia and Argentina are also working to produce more oil and gas to raise revenue for their governments before demand for oil falls as richer countries cut fossil fuel use.After years of frustrating disappointments, production in the Vaca Muerta, or Dead Cow, oil and gas field in Argentina has jumped this year. The field had never supplied more than 120,000 barrels of oil in a day but is now expected to end the year at 200,000 a day, according to Rystad Energy, a research and consulting firm. The government, which is considered a climate leader in Latin America, has proposed legislation that would encourage even more production.“Argentina is concerned about climate change, but they don’t see it primarily as their responsibility,” said Lisa Viscidi, an energy expert at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington research organization. Describing the Argentine view, she added, “The rest of the world globally needs to reduce oil production, but that doesn’t mean that we in particular need to change our behavior.” More

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    September Consumer Price Index: Inflation Rises

    A key reading of consumer prices jumped more than expected last month, data released on Wednesday showed, raising the stakes for the White House and Federal Reserve as they continue to wager that rapid inflation will cool as the economy returns to normal.The Consumer Price Index climbed 5.4 percent in September when compared with the prior year, more than expected in a Bloomberg survey of economists and faster than its 5.3 percent increase through August. From August to September, the index rose 0.4 percent, also above expectations.The gains came as housing prices firmed, and as food — especially meat and eggs — cost consumers more. Stripping out volatile food and fuel, inflation is still rapid, at 4 percent in the year through last month.Monthly gains have slowed from their breakneck pace earlier this year — they popped as much as 0.9 percent this summer — but they remain abnormally rapid. And price pressures have not been fading as rapidly as policymakers had hoped.

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    Change in monthly Consumer Price Index from a year ago
    Source: Bureau of Labor StatisticsBy The New York TimesInflation jumped early in 2021 as prices for airfares, restaurant meals and apparel recovered after slumping as the economy locked down during the depths of the pandemic. That was expected. But more recently, prices have continued to climb as supply shortages mean businesses can’t keep up with fast-rising demand. Factory shutdowns, clogged shipping routes and labor shortages at ports and along trucking lines have combined to make goods difficult to produce and transport.The snarls show no obvious signs of easing, and while Fed officials still think inflation will fade, they are increasingly concerned that supply disruptions could last long enough to prompt consumers and businesses to expect higher prices. If people believe that their lifestyles will cost more, they may demand higher compensation — and as employers lift pay, they may charge more for their goods to cover the costs, setting off an upward spiral.Already, companies are raising wages to lure back employees who left the job market during the pandemic and have yet to return, and landlords are raising rents rapidly. Both factors could feed into inflation in the months ahead — and unlike pandemic-tied quirks that should eventually resolve themselves, higher wages and housing costs could become a more persistent source of price pressures.Fed officials have signaled that they would use the central bank’s policies to control inflation if it proves persistent — but they would prefer to leave borrowing costs at low levels until the job market is more fully healed. Those potentially conflicting goals could set the stage for a tense 2022.Wall Street is watching every fresh inflation data print closely, because higher rates from the Fed could dent growth and stock prices.And the White House is under pressure to come up with whatever fixes it can. Later on Wednesday, President Biden is expected to address the supply-chain problems — which are weighing on his approval ratings as they push prices higher. More

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    Biden to Announce Expansion of Port of Los Angeles's Hours

    The expansion of the Port of Los Angeles’s hours comes as the administration has struggled to untangle kinks in global supply chains and curb the resulting inflation.WASHINGTON — President Biden will announce on Wednesday that the Port of Los Angeles will begin operating around the clock as his administration struggles to relieve growing backlogs in the global supply chains that deliver critical goods to the United States.Product shortages have frustrated American consumers and businesses and contributed to rising prices that are hurting the president politically. And the problems appear poised to worsen, enduring into late next year or beyond and disrupting shipments of necessities like medications, as well as holiday purchases.Mr. Biden is set to give a speech on Wednesday addressing the problems in ports, factories and shipping lanes that have helped produce shortages, long delivery times and rapid price increases for food, televisions, automobiles and much more. The resulting inflation has chilled consumer confidence and weighed on Mr. Biden’s approval ratings. The Labor Department is set to release a new reading of monthly inflation on Wednesday morning.Administration officials say that they have brokered a deal to move the Port of Los Angeles toward 24/7 operations, joining Long Beach, which is already operating around the clock, and that they are encouraging states to accelerate the licensing of more truck drivers. UPS, Walmart and FedEx will also announce they are moving to work more off-peak hours.Mr. Biden’s team, including a supply chain task force he established earlier this year, is working to make tangible progress toward unblocking the flow of goods and helping the retail industry return to a prepandemic normal. On Wednesday, the White House will host leaders from the Port of Los Angeles, the Port of Long Beach, and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union to discuss the difficulties at ports, as well as hold a round table with executives from Walmart, UPS and Home Depot.But it is unclear how much the White House’s efforts can realistically help. The blockages stretch up and down supply chains, from foreign harbors to American rail yards and warehouses. Companies are exacerbating the situation by rushing to obtain products and bidding up their own prices. Analysts say some of these issues may last into late next year or even 2023.Administration officials acknowledged on Tuesday in a call with reporters that the $1.9 trillion economic aid package Mr. Biden signed into law in March had contributed to supply chain issues by boosting demand for goods, but said the law was the reason the U.S. recovery has outpaced those of other nations this year.Consumer demand for exercise bikes, laptops, toys, patio furniture and other goods is booming, fueled by big savings amassed over the course of the pandemic.Imports for the fourth quarter are on pace to be 4.7 percent higher than in the same period last year, which was also a record-breaking holiday season, according to Panjiva, the supply chain research unit of S&P Global Market Intelligence.Meanwhile, the pandemic has shut down factories and slowed production around the world. Port closures, shortages of shipping containers and truck drivers, and pileups in rail and ship yards have led to long transit times and unpredictable deliveries for a wide range of products — problems that have only worsened as the holiday season approaches.Home Depot, Costco and Walmart have taken to chartering their own ships to move products across the Pacific Ocean. On Tuesday, 27 container ships were anchored in the Port of Los Angeles waiting to unload their containers, and the average anchorage time had stretched to more than 11 days.Jennifer McKeown, the head of the Global Economics Service at Capital Economics, said that worsening supplier delivery times and conditions at ports suggested that product shortages would persist into mid- to late next year.“Unfortunately, it does look like things are likely to get worse before they get better,” she said.Ms. McKeown said governments around the world could help to smooth some shortages and dampen some price increases, for example by encouraging workers to move into industries with labor shortages, like trucking.President Biden is set to give a speech on Wednesday addressing the problems in ports, factories and shipping lanes that have helped create shortages.Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times“But to some extent, they need to let markets do their work,” she said.Phil Levy, the chief economist at the logistics firm Flexport and a former official in the George W. Bush administration, said a Transportation Department official gathering information on what the administration could do to address the supply chain shortages had contacted his company. Flexport offered the administration suggestions on changing certain regulations and procedures to ease the blockages, but warned that the problem was a series of choke points “stacked one on top of the other.”“Are there things that can be done at the margin? Yes, and the administration has at least been asking about this,” Mr. Levy said. However, he cautioned, “from the whole big picture, the supply capacity is really hard to change in a noteworthy way.”The shortages have come as a shock for many American shoppers, who are used to buying a wide range of global goods with a single click, and seeing that same product on their doorstep within hours or days.The political risk for the administration is that shortfalls, mostly a nuisance so far, turn into something more existential. Diapers are already in short supply. As aluminum shortages develop, packaging pharmaceuticals could become a problem, said Robert B. Handfield, a professor of supply chain management at North Carolina State University.And even if critical shortages can be averted, slow deliveries could make for slim pickings this Christmas and Hanukkah.“I think Johnny is going to get a back-order slip in his stocking this year,” Dr. Handfield said. Discontent is only fueled by the higher prices the shortages are causing. Consumer price inflation probably climbed by 5.3 percent in the year through September, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics is expected to show on Wednesday. Before the pandemic, that inflation gauge had been oscillating around 2 percent.Officials at the White House and the Federal Reserve, which has primary responsibility for price stability, have repeatedly said that they expect the rapid price increases to fade. They often point out that much of the surge has been spurred by a jump in car prices, caused by a lack of computer chips that delayed vehicle production.But with supply chains in disarray, it is possible that some new one-off could materialize. Companies that had been trying to avoid passing on higher costs to customers may find that they need to as higher costs become longer lived.Others have been raising prices already. Tesla, for instance, had been hoping to reduce the cost of its electric vehicles and has struggled to do that amid the bottlenecks.“We are seeing significant cost pressure in our supply chain,” Elon Musk, the company’s chief executive, said during an annual shareholder meeting Oct. 7. “So we’ve had to increase vehicle prices, at least temporarily, but we do hope to actually reduce the prices over time and make them more affordable.”For policymakers at the White House and the Fed, the concern is that today’s climbing prices could prompt consumers to expect rapid inflation to last. If people believe that their lifestyles will cost more, they may demand higher wages — and as employers lift pay, they may charge more to cover the cost.What happens next could hinge on when — and how — supply chain disruptions are resolved. If demand slumps as households spend away government stimulus checks and other savings they stockpiled during the pandemic downturn, that could leave purveyors of couches and lawn furniture with fewer production backlogs and less pricing power down the road.If buying stays strong, and shipping remains problematic, inflation could become more entrenched.Some of the factors leading to supply chain disruptions are temporary, including shutdowns in Asian factories and severe weather that has led to energy shortages. Consumer habits, including spending on travel and entertainment, are expected to slowly return to normal as the pandemic subsides.But most companies have enormous backlogs of orders to work through. And company inventories, which provide a kind of insulation from future shocks to the supply chain, are extremely low.To get their own orders fulfilled, companies have placed bigger orders and offered to pay higher prices. The prospect of inflation has further encouraged companies to lock in large purchases of products or machinery in advance.“The customers that are willing to pay the most are most likely to get those orders filled,” said Eric Oak, an analyst at Panjiva. “It’s a vicious cycle.”Emily Cochrane More

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    World’s Growth Cools and the Rich-Poor Divide Widens

    The International Monetary Fund says the persistence of the coronavirus and global supply chain crisis weighs on economies.As the world economy struggles to find its footing, the resurgence of the coronavirus and supply chain chokeholds threaten to hold back the global recovery’s momentum, a closely watched report warned on Tuesday.The overall growth rate will remain near 6 percent this year, a historically high level after a recession, but the expansion reflects a vast divergence in the fortunes of rich and poor countries, the International Monetary Fund said in its latest World Economic Outlook report.Worldwide poverty, hunger and unmanageable debt are all on the upswing. Employment has fallen, especially for women, reversing many of the gains they made in recent years.Uneven access to vaccines and health care is at the heart of the economic disparities. While booster shots are becoming available in some wealthier nations, a staggering 96 percent of people in low-income countries are still unvaccinated.“Recent developments have made it abundantly clear that we are all in this together and the pandemic is not over anywhere until it is over everywhere,” Gita Gopinath, the I.M.F.’s chief economist, wrote in the report.The outlook for the United States, Europe and other advanced economies has also darkened. Factories hobbled by pandemic-related restrictions and bottlenecks at key ports around the world have caused crippling supply shortages. A lack of workers in many industries is contributing to the clogs. The U.S. Labor Department reported Tuesday that a record 4.3 million workers quit their jobs in August — to take or seek new jobs, or to leave the work force.A street in São Paulo, Brazil, in July. Poverty in many nations is on the upswing.Mauricio Lima for The New York TimesIn the United States, weakening consumption and large declines in inventory caused the I.M.F. to pare back its growth projections to 6 percent from the 7 percent estimated in July. In Germany, manufacturing output has taken a hit because key commodities are hard to find. And lockdown measures over the summer have dampened growth in Japan.Fear of rising inflation — even if likely to be temporary — is growing. Prices are climbing for food, medicine and oil as well as for cars and trucks. Inflation worries could also limit governments’ ability to stimulate the economy if a slowdown worsens. As it is, the unusual infusion of public support in the United States and Europe is winding down.“Overall, risks to economic prospects have increased, and policy trade-offs have become more complex,” Ms. Gopinath said. The I.M.F. lowered its 2021 global growth forecast to 5.9 percent, down from the 6 percent projected in July. For 2022, the estimate is 4.9 percent.The key to understanding the global economy is that recoveries in different countries are out of sync, said Gregory Daco, chief U.S. economist at Oxford Economics. “Each and every economy is suffering or benefiting from its own idiosyncratic factors,” he said.For countries like China, Vietnam and South Korea, whose economies have large manufacturing sectors, “inflation hits them where it hurts the most,” Mr. Daco said, raising costs of raw materials that reverberate through the production process.The pandemic has underscored how economic success or failure in one country can ripple throughout the world. Floods in Shanxi, China’s mining region, and monsoons in India’s coal-producing states contribute to rising energy prices. A Covid outbreak in Ho Chi Minh City that shuts factories means shop owners in Hoboken won’t have shoes and sweaters to sell.South Africa has sent a train with vaccines into one of its poorest provinces to get doses to areas where health care facilities are stretched.Jerome Delay/Associated PressThe I.M.F. warned that if the coronavirus — or its variants — continued to hopscotch across the globe, it could reduce the world’s estimated output by $5.3 trillion over the next five years.The worldwide surge in energy prices threatens to impose more hardship as it hampers the recovery. This week, oil prices hit a seven-year high in the United States. With winter approaching, Europeans are worried that heating costs will soar when temperatures drop. In other spots, the shortages have cut even deeper, causing blackouts in some places that paralyzed transport, closed factories and threatened food supplies.In China, electricity is being rationed in many provinces and many companies are operating at less than half of their capacity, contributing to an already significant slowdown in growth. India’s coal reserves have dropped to dangerously low levels.And over the weekend, Lebanon’s six million residents were left without any power for more than 24 hours after fuel shortages shut down the nation’s power plants. The outage is just the latest in a series of disasters there. Its economic and financial crisis has been one of the world’s worst in 150 years.Oil producers in the Middle East and elsewhere are lately benefiting from the jump in prices. But many nations in the region and North Africa are still trying to resuscitate their pandemic-battered economies. According to newly updated reports from the World Bank, 13 of the 16 countries in that region will have lower standards of living this year than they did before the pandemic, in large part because of “underfinanced, imbalanced and ill-prepared health systems.”Other countries were so overburdened by debt even before the pandemic that governments were forced to limit spending on health care to repay foreign lenders.A power outage on Monday in Beirut. Lebanon’s economic and financial crisis has been one of the world’s worst in 150 years.Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesIn Latin America and the Caribbean, there are fears of a second lost decade of growth like the one experienced after 2010. In South Africa, over one-third of the population is out of work.And in East Asia and the Pacific, a World Bank update warned that “Covid-19 threatens to create a combination of slow growth and increasing inequality for the first time this century.” Businesses in Indonesia, Mongolia and the Philippines lost on average 40 percent or more of their typical monthly sales. Thailand and many Pacific island economies are expected to have less output in 2023 than they did before the pandemic.Overall, though, some developing economies are doing better than last year, partly because of the increase in the prices of commodities like oil and metals that they produce. Growth projections ticked up slightly to 6.4 percent in 2021 compared with 6.3 percent estimated in July.“The recovery has been incredibly uneven,” and that’s a problem for everyone, said Carl Tannenbaum, chief economist at Northern Trust. “Developing countries are essential to global economic function.”The outlook is clouded by uncertainty. Erratic policy decisions — like Congress’s delay in lifting the debt ceiling — can further set back the recovery, the I.M.F. warned.But the biggest risk is the emergence of a more infectious and deadlier coronavirus variant.Ms. Gopinath at the I.M.F. urged vaccine manufacturers to support the expansion of vaccine production in developing countries.Earlier this year, the I.M.F. approved $650 billion worth of emergency currency reserves that have been distributed to countries around the world. In this latest report, it again called on wealthy countries to help ensure that these funds are used to benefit poor countries that have been struggling the most with the fallout of the virus.“We’re witnessing what I call tragic reversals in development across many dimensions,” said David Malpass, the president of the World Bank. “Progress in reducing extreme poverty has been set back by years — for some, by a decade.”Ben Casselman More

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    There Is Shadow Inflation Taking Place All Around Us

    Some companies haven’t been raising prices. Instead, they’ve been cutting back customer services and conveniences, but how should that be measured?Inflation has surged in 2021, with various official measurements of consumer prices rising faster than they have in years. But in a crucial respect, the data may be understating things.Many types of businesses facing supply disruptions and labor shortages have dealt with those problems not by raising prices (or not by only raising prices), but by taking steps that could give their customers a lesser experience.A hotel room might cost the same as a year ago — but no longer include daily cleaning services because of a shortage of housekeepers. Some restaurants are offering limited service, with waiters stretched thin. Would-be car buyers are being advised to be flexible on the color and even make and model, lest they face a long wait to get their new wheels.Customer sentiment on restaurant cleanliness fell 4.2 percent this year, according to Black Box Intelligence, which tracks online reviews of 60,000 restaurants. Complaints have been frequent about the cleanliness of tables, floors and bathrooms. Satisfaction with customer service was also down, especially regarding beverages, with guests complaining more about receiving the wrong order or no drink at all.People trying to buy appliances and other retail goods are waiting longer. According to J.D. Power, even at the highest-rated retailers, only 57 percent of customers were able to get customer service within five minutes this year, down from 68 percent in 2018.Government statistics agencies try to take changes in product quality into account when calculating inflation. But that process, known as hedonic adjustment, most commonly applies to physical objects. It is relatively straightforward to estimate the value of, say, the quality of stitching on a shirt or the value of a backup camera on a new car. There is a whole world of inflation alarmists who argue that this process leads to the understating of true inflation.But quality changes involving customer service can be ambiguous and hard to measure. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, which generates the Consumer Price Index, does not incorporate quality adjustment on 237 out of 273 components that go into the index, including the vast majority of services.Alan Cole, a former staffer for Congress’s Joint Economic Committee who writes the newsletter Full Stack Economics, noticed these sorts of annoyances during a long drive through the Northeast this summer — fast food that took an awfully long time to come, poorly stocked condiment stations, soda machines that were out of stock. The dynamic became even more clear to him when he stayed in a hotel that had a large area designated for offering hot breakfast to guests — it was mostly empty, with a few sad mini-boxes of cereal.For years, he had argued that official inflation measures actually overstated inflation, because there were many below-the-radar product improvements not captured by the data, like software that was becoming less buggy. Now, he concluded, the reverse seemed to be happening.When there are shortages of labor or supplies, some businesses adjust mostly or entirely by raising their prices. Others find less obvious, less easily measurable ways to adapt. Consider, for example, rental cars versus hotels. Both were dealing with shortages. But they showed up in different ways.“The car company just had to charge higher prices, while the hotel could take the hit through service quality instead,” Mr. Cole said in an email exchange. “We measure them in different ways. The car company’s problem gets measured as inflation, while the hotel’s problem is mostly relayed by anecdote.”It is not unusual for businesses to deal with supply shortages through mechanisms other than price increases. Retailers don’t want to attract accusations of price gouging when goods are in short supply, especially in times of natural disaster. So they end up with empty shelves, a back-door form of rationing. In the 1970s, gasoline prices skyrocketed — but not enough to prevent long lines and rules around which cars could fill up on which days.This particular economic crisis has had far-reaching consequences that have made economic data harder to interpret than usual. “Usually when there is a disaster, if you’re a macroeconomist it’s a blip on the radar screen,” said Carol Corrado, a distinguished principal research fellow at the Conference Board who has researched inflation measurements. “But we’re talking a different kettle of fish with the Covid shock, and the economic implications and costs have become much more challenging to measure than in the past.”It would be difficult for government statistics agencies to try to measure these hidden costs and factor them into inflation measures, say people who study the data closely.Customer service preferences — particularly how much good service is worth — varies highly among individuals and is hard to quantify. How much extra would you pay for a fast-food hamburger from a restaurant that cleans its restroom more frequently than the place across the street?“What gets up to the level of a quality adjustment does become pretty subjective,” said Alan Detmeister, a senior economist at UBS who formerly tracked inflation data for the Federal Reserve. “If the Labor Department even decided they wanted to quality-adjust some of these things, they would have an extremely hard time doing it.”In some cases, one person’s quality enhancement is another’s deterioration. Is online check-in at a hotel a desirable timesaving feature, or a loss of personal touch that has real value? Reasonable people can disagree.Moreover, while there appears to be some shadow inflation in service industries, the reverse has arguably held true for many years.Suppose you believe that restaurant food has become more varied and delicious over the last few decades, as chefs have become more skilled and creative. If so, maybe the 2.7 percent average annual inflation in full-service restaurant prices from 2000 to 2019 that the Bureau of Labor reported was too high.It’s plausible to believe that’s true, and also that the 4.9 percent rise in those prices over the 12 months ended in August was too low if the effects of labor shortages had been fully accounted for.This hints at why inflation bothers people so much — and why it’s a political minefield for the Biden administration. It’s not just the prices you see and the numbers that are fed into economic models, or the news headlines and central bank inflation targets.It’s also that a given amount of spending buys experiences that are a little less satisfying, and that this adds up to an accumulation of frustrations that don’t necessarily show in the numbers. More

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    Wholesale Used Car Prices Rise, Pointing to Higher Inflation

    One of the most closely watched leading indicators of inflation on Wall Street has hit a record high, a sign that upward pressure on prices could last for months to come.The prices that dealers pay for used cars in the wholesale market jumped 5.3 percent from August to September, according to the Manheim Used Vehicle Value Index. It’s up 27.1 percent from last year.Used car prices have soared since the pandemic hit, when production snarls at automakers cut the supply of new vehicles as many Americans left urban centers for the suburbs, pushing up demand for personal vehicles.While used car prices are normally a tiny contributor to the overall movement of the Consumer Price Index, one broad measure of inflation, they have become a key influence on the direction of prices.Analysts hoping to get a good read on where inflation is heading have taken note of the Manheim index’s predictive power. As a wholesale price index, it offers a preview of the price changes that consumers will see roughly two months later, after dealers pass on their costs to buyers at the lot.The movement of the Manheim index this summer suggested that consumer prices for used cars were set to cool off, which might mean overall price increases would moderate. But the latest reading suggested that the demand and prices for used cars had reinvigorated as production issues for computer chips continued to hamper new car production. Recent storms, which resulted in potentially hundreds of thousands of flooded cars, have also contributed to demand.“The new-vehicle production problem worsened instead of getting better in Q3,” wrote Jonathan Smoke, the chief economist for Cox Automotive, the company that produces the index. “Used inventory issues were further exacerbated by damage to vehicles caused by Hurricane Ida in late August, putting pressure on an already historically tight market.” More

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    Oil and Gas Prices May Stay High as Investors Chase Clean Energy

    Even as more costly fuel poses political risks for President Biden, oil companies and OPEC are not eager to produce more because they worry prices will drop.HOUSTON — Americans are spending a dollar more for a gallon of gasoline than they were a year ago. Natural gas prices have shot up more than 150 percent over the same time, threatening to raise prices of food, chemicals, plastic goods and heat this winter.The energy system is suddenly in crisis around the world as the cost of oil, natural gas and coal has climbed rapidly in recent months. In China, Britain and elsewhere, fuel shortages and panic buying have led to blackouts and long lines at filling stations.The situation in the United States is not quite as dire, but oil and gasoline prices are high enough that President Biden has been calling on foreign producers to crank up supply. He is doing so as he simultaneously pushes Congress to address climate change by moving the country away from fossil fuels toward renewable energy and electric cars.U.S. energy executives and the Wall Street bankers and investors who finance them are not doing anything to bolster production to levels that could bring down prices. The main U.S. oil price jumped nearly 3 percent on Monday, to about $78 a barrel, a seven-year high, after OPEC and its allies on Monday declined to significantly increase supply.Producers are still chafing at memories of the price crash early in the pandemic. Wall Street is even less enthusiastic. Not only have banks and investors lost money in the boom-bust cycles that whipsawed the sector over the past decade, but many also say they are prepared to pare their exposure to fossil fuels to meet the commitments they have made to fight climate change.“Everyone is very wary since it was just 15 or 16 months ago we had negative-$30-a-barrel oil prices,” said Kirk Edwards, president of Latigo Petroleum, which has interests in 2,000 oil and natural gas wells in Texas and Oklahoma. He was recalling a time of so little demand and storage capacity that some traders paid buyers to take oil off their hands.If the drillers don’t increase production, fuel prices could stay high and even rise. That would present a political problem for Mr. Biden. Many Americans, especially lower-income families, are vulnerable to big swings in oil and gas prices. And while use of renewable energy and electric cars is growing, it remains too small to meaningfully offset the pain of higher gasoline and natural gas prices.Goldman Sachs analysts say energy supplies could further tighten, potentially raising oil prices by $10 before the end of the year.That helps explain why the Biden administration has been pressing the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries to produce more oil. “We continue to speak to international partners, including OPEC, on the importance of competitive markets and setting prices and doing more to support the recovery,” Jen Psaki, Mr. Biden’s press secretary, said last week.But OPEC and its allies on Monday merely reconfirmed existing plans for a modest rise in November. They are reluctant to produce more for the same reasons that many U.S. oil and gas companies are unwilling to do so.Oil executives contend that while prices may seem high, there is no guarantee that they will stay elevated, especially if the global economy weakens because coronavirus cases begin to increase again. Since the pandemic began, the oil industry has laid off tens of thousands of workers, and dozens of companies have gone bankrupt or loaded up on debt.Oil prices may seem high relative to 2020, but they are not stratospheric, executives said. Prices were in the same territory in the middle of 2018 and are still some ways from the $100-a-barrel level they topped as recently as 2014.Largely because of the industry’s caution, the nationwide count of rigs producing oil is 528, roughly half its 2019 peak. Still, aside from recent interruptions in Gulf of Mexico production from Hurricane Ida, U.S. oil output has nearly recovered to prepandemic days as companies pull crude out of wells they drilled years ago.Another reason for the pullback from drilling is that banks and investors are reluctant to put more money into the oil and gas business. The flow of capital from Wall Street has slowed to a trickle after a decade in which investors poured over $1.4 trillion into North American oil and gas producers through stock and bond issues and loans, according to the research firm Dealogic.“The banks have pulled away from financing,” said Scott Sheffield, chief executive of Pioneer Natural Resources, a major Texas oil and gas producer. The flow of money supplied by banks and other investors had slowed even before the pandemic because shale wells often produced a lot of oil and gas at first but were quickly depleted. Many oil producers generated little if any profit, which led to bankruptcies whenever energy prices fell.Companies constantly sold stock or borrowed money to drill new wells. Pioneer, for example, did not generate cash as a business between 2008 and 2020. Instead, it used up $3.8 billion running its operations and making capital investments, according to the company’s financial statements.Industry executives have come to preach financial conservatism and tell shareholders they’re going to raise dividends and buy back more stock, not borrow for big expansions. Mr. Sheffield said Pioneer now intended to return 80 percent of its free cash flow, a measure of money generated from operations, to shareholders. “The model has totally changed,” he said.Among oil executives, there are still vivid memories of the collapse in energy prices last year, as the pandemic curtailed commuting and travel.Tamir Kalifa for The New York TimesOil company shares, after years of declines, have soared this year. Still, investors remain reluctant to finance a big expansion in production.With oil and gas exploration and production businesses taking a cautious approach and returning money to shareholders, the first company “that deviates from that strategy will be vilified by public investors,” said Ben Dell, managing director of Kimmeridge, an energy-focused private equity firm. “No one is going down that path soon.”This aversion to expanding oil and gas production is driven in part by investors’ growing enthusiasm for renewable energy. Stock funds focusing on investments like wind and solar energy manage $1.3 trillion in assets, a 40 percent increase this year, according to RBC Capital.And the biggest investment firms are demanding that companies cut emissions from their operations and products, which is much harder for oil and gas companies than for technology companies or other service-sector businesses.BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, wants the businesses it invests in to eventually remove as much carbon dioxide from the environment as they emit, reaching what is known as net-zero emissions. The New York State Common Retirement Fund, which manages the pension funds of state and local government workers, has said it will stop investing in companies that aren’t taking sufficient steps to reduce carbon emissions.But even some investors pushing for emissions reductions express concern that the transition from fossil fuels could drive up energy prices too much too quickly.Mr. Dell said limited supply of oil and natural gas and the cost of investing in renewable energy — and battery storage for when the sun is not shining and the wind is not blowing — could raise energy prices for the foreseeable future. “I am a believer that you’re going to see a period of inflating energy prices this decade,” he said.Laurence D. Fink, chairman and chief executive of BlackRock, said this could undermine political support for moving away from fossil fuels.“We risk a supply crisis that drives up costs for consumers — especially those who can least afford it — and risks making the transition politically untenable,” he said in a speech in July.There are already signs of stress around the world. Europe and Asia are running low on natural gas, causing prices to rise even before the first winter chill. Russia, a major gas supplier to both regions, has provided less gas than its customers expected, making it hard for some countries to replace nuclear and coal power plants with ones running on gas.OPEC, Russia and others have been careful not to raise oil production for fear that prices could fall if they flood the market. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Russia and a few other producers have roughly eight million barrels of spare capacity.“The market is not structurally short on oil supply,” said Bjornar Tonhaugen, head of oil markets for Rystad Energy, a Norwegian energy consulting firm.Helima Croft, head of global commodity strategy at RBC Capital Markets, said she expected that OPEC and Russia would be willing to raise production if they saw the balance between supply and demand “tighten from here.”If OPEC raises production, U.S. producers like Mr. Edwards of Latigo Petroleum will be even more reluctant to drill. So far, he has stuck to the investment plans he made at the beginning of the year to drill just eight new wells over the last eight months.“Just because prices have jumped for a month or two doesn’t mean there will be a stampede of drilling rigs,” he said. “The industry always goes up and down.”Clifford Krauss reported from Houston, and Peter Eavis from New York. More

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    These Online Publications Are Not Free … and Readers Don’t Mind

    Defector, The Daily Memphian, The Dispatch and other outlets of recent vintage are driving a shift in the digital media business.You had to pay to get in.Roughly 250 people paid $15 or $20 apiece to attend a party hosted by the staff of Defector, a subscription website started a year ago by journalists who had quit (or were fired from) the sports news site Deadspin after refusing to heed a request from their bosses that they “stick to sports.”The party guests were accustomed to paying. They were Defector subscribers, for the most part, meaning they had paid $79 for a year’s subscription, allowing them to get past a strict paywall to read articles like “What 1993 Video Game Tony La Russa Taught Me About Baseball” and “Please, I Am Begging You, Stop Putting the Giants in Primetime.” (Subscribers also received the discounted $15 ticket price.)In charging for access to its website, Defector differs from its predecessor, Deadspin, which belongs to a digital-media generation that gives readers free access and tries to make money by selling ads.It remains a challenge for online publications to persuade readers to pay, and it’s perhaps more difficult to get them to pay again after the initial subscription. Defector is optimistic that it will hang on to its fan base as it heads into its second year.In an annual report sent to subscribers on Monday, Defector, which is owned by its employees, reported that nearly all of its $3.2 million in revenue had come from its more than 36,000 subscribers. Roughly 85 percent have renewed for a second year, according to the report, suggesting that the site will pass the do-or-die test.“This is the math problem now, for the rest of eternity,” Tom Ley, the editor in chief, said in an interview last week. “We’ve got to keep this number about where it is, or else we’re in trouble.”The staff of Defector, a subscription website started a year ago by journalists who had quit (or were fired from) the sports news site Deadspin.Gabby Jones for The New York TimesPrint newspapers charged readers for a century, and readers never questioned the idea that they would have to pay for journalism. The first generations of online-only news sites, eager to build their audiences by pulling readers away from old habits, offered up their work free of charge.Defector and the digital newsletter platform Substack are part of a wider shift, one made possible by readers who have come to see paying for journalism as the right thing to do, rather than an annoyance.The Daily Memphian, a nonprofit news site in Memphis, is also part of the wave, with readers contributing the bulk of its revenue. It started in 2018 in response to the shrinking of the local newspaper, The Commercial Appeal. Nearly 17,000 subscribers pay $99 per year (or $12.99 per month) for The Memphian, and they have renewed their subscriptions at a rate of 90 percent, said Eric Barnes, the publication’s chief executive. Ad sales, sponsorships and donations cover the rest of a $5 million annual budget that supports a newsroom of 38.“People paid for news for decades,” Mr. Barnes said. “Why can’t they pay for it now?”The imperative to hold on to subscribers has influenced The Memphian’s journalism, he added, bringing an emphasis on straightforward articles on local issues. The publication connected with readers, for instance, through its coverage of the replacement of East Memphis’s elegant Century Building with a Woodie’s Wash Shack convenience store and carwash.Mr. Barnes added that he was against offering discounts to subscribers, a strategy that is backed by Matt Lindsay, the president of the subscription consultant Mather Economics, who said the price of a subscription was not the main factor for readers who declined to renew.“Usually, it’s some other reason,” said Mr. Lindsay, whose clients include The New York Times. “They lose the habit of reading every day, there’s other competition for their entertainment, someone else has attracted their attention.”The business news site Quartz started in the days of giveaway journalism and made the shift to asking readers to pay in 2018. In addition to 1.3 million regular readers of its newsletters, which are still offered free of charge, it has 27,000 subscribers who pay $99.99 a year (or $14.99 a month), a Quartz spokeswoman said, and the renewal rate is 97 percent.“Listening and responding to readers is what’s necessary for retention,” said Katherine Bell, the editor in chief.Writers who have a significant number of loyal readers have had success on Substack. Heather Havrilesky started publishing extra bits of her advice column for New York magazine, “Ask Polly,” on Substack in 2020 before moving the column there full time. That newsletter — and another, “Ask Molly,” which she described in an email as “written by Polly’s evil twin” — have more than 30,000 subscribers and a paying list above 3,000. The figures have grown every month and especially in recent months, Ms. Havrilesky said.Stephen F. Hayes, the chief executive of The Dispatch, says the key to keeping subscribers is “making sure your stuff is good.”William B. Plowman/NBCSubstack also hosts news outlets run not by solo practitioners like Ms. Havrilesky but by staffs of journalists. The Dispatch, started in 2019 by conservative journalists opposed to Donald J. Trump, has a newsroom of 17, nine newsletters and four podcasts. With 150,000 readers signed up for free newsletters and nearly 30,000 paying subscribers — at $10 per month, or $100 a year — The Dispatch has reached the conclusion of its “start-up phase,” said its chief executive, Stephen F. Hayes.He added that the publication had a 91 percent retention rate, and that the reason was simple: “I still think the first and most important aspect of mitigating churn is making sure your stuff is good.”Still, The Dispatch has recently hired a publishing executive, Justin Fritz, who most recently worked on — what else? — subscriber retention at the sports news site The Athletic. More