More stories

  • in

    U.S. Government Shutdown Is Unlikely to Cause an Immediate Recession

    White House and Wall Street estimates suggested the economy could withstand a brief shutdown, with risks mounting the longer it lasts.Federal government shutdowns have become so common in recent years that forecasters have a good read on how another one would affect the American economy. The answer is fairly simple: The longer a shutdown lasts, the more damage it is likely to inflict.A brief shutdown would be unlikely to slow the economy significantly or push it into recession, economists on Wall Street and inside the Biden administration have concluded. That assessment is based in part on the evidence from prior episodes where Congress stopped funding many government operations.But a prolonged shutdown could hurt growth and potentially President Biden’s re-election prospects. It would join a series of other factors that are expected to weigh on the economy in the final months of this year, including high interest rates, the restart of federal student loan payments next month and a potentially lengthy United Automobile Workers strike.A halt to federal government business would not just dent growth. It would further dampen the mood of consumers, whose confidence slumped in September for the second straight month amid rising gas prices. In the month that previous shutdowns began, the Conference Board’s measure of consumer confidence slid by an average of seven points, Goldman Sachs economists noted recently, although much of that decline reversed in the month after a reopening.Gregory Daco, the chief economist at EY-Parthenon, said a government shutdown would not be a “game changer in terms of the trajectory of the economy.” But, he added, “the fear is that, if it combines with other headwinds, it could become a significant drag on economic activity.”Jared Bernstein, the chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, said in a statement on Wednesday that the council’s internal estimates suggest potential losses of 0.1 to 0.2 percentage points of quarterly economic growth for every week a shutdown persists.“Programmatic impacts from a shutdown would also cause unnecessary economic stress and losses that don’t always show up in G.D.P. — from delaying Small Business Administration loans to eliminating Head Start slots for thousands of children with working parents to jeopardizing nutrition assistance for nearly 7 million mothers and children,” Mr. Bernstein added. “It is irresponsible and reckless for a group of House Republicans to threaten a shutdown.”Goldman Sachs economists have estimated that a shutdown would reduce growth by about 0.2 percentage points for each week it lasts. That’s largely because most federal workers go unpaid during shutdowns, immediately pulling spending power out of the economy. But the Goldman researchers expect growth to increase by the same amount in the quarter after the shutdown as federal work rebounded and furloughed employees received back pay.That estimate tracks with previous work from economists at the Fed, on Wall Street and prior presidential administrations. Trump administration economists calculated that a monthlong shutdown in 2019 reduced growth by 0.13 percentage points per week.After that shutdown ended, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that real gross domestic product was reduced by 0.1 percent in the fourth quarter of 2018 and 0.2 percent in the first quarter of 2019. Although the office said most of the lost growth would be recovered, it estimated that annual G.D.P. in 2019 would be 0.02 percent lower than it would have been otherwise, amounting to a loss of roughly $3 billion. Because growth and confidence tend to snap back, previous shutdowns have left few permanent scars on the economy. Some economists worry that might not be the case today.Mr. Daco said federal workers might not spend as much as they would have absent a shutdown, and government contractors might not recoup all of their lost business.A long shutdown would also delay the release of important government data on the economy, like monthly reports on jobs and inflation, by forcing the closure of federal statistical agencies. That could prove to be a bigger risk for growth than in the past, by effectively blinding policymakers at the Federal Reserve to information they need to determine whether to raise interest rates again in their fight against inflation.The economy appears healthy enough to absorb a modest temporary hit. The consensus forecast from top economists is for growth to approach 3 percent, on an annualized basis, this quarter. But economists expect growth to slow in the final months of the year, raising the risks of recession if a shutdown lasts several weeks.Diane Swonk, the chief economist at KPMG, said she expected G.D.P. to rise about 4 percent in the third quarter, and then slow to roughly 1 percent in the fourth quarter. She said a two-week shutdown would have a limited impact, but one that lasted for a full quarter would be more problematic, potentially resulting in G.D.P. entering negative territory.“When you start nicking away even a tenth here or there, that’s pretty weak,” Ms. Swonk said.A shutdown could also further convey political dysfunction in Washington, which could rattle investors and push up yields on Treasury bonds, leading to higher borrowing costs, Ms. Swonk said.Biden administration officials had hoped to avoid such dysfunction when they reached a deal with Republicans in June to raise the nation’s borrowing limit. That agreement included caps on federal spending that were meant to be a blueprint for congressional appropriations. A faction of Republicans in the House has pushed for even deeper cuts, driving Congress toward a shutdown.Michael Linden, a former economic aide to Mr. Biden who is now a senior policy fellow at a think tank, the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, said immediate economic effects from the shutdown could force Republican leaders in the House to quickly pass a funding bill to reopen the government.“There’s a reason shutdowns tend to be pretty short,” Mr. Linden said. “They end up causing disruptions that people don’t like.” More

  • in

    Strong Economic Data Buoys Biden, but Many Voters Are Still Sour

    Voters continue to rate the president poorly on economic issues, but there are signs the national mood is beginning to improve.President Biden and his aides are basking in what is arguably the best run of economic data to date in his presidency. Inflation is cooling, business investment is rising, job growth is powering on and surveys suggest rising economic optimism among consumers and voters.Polls still show Mr. Biden remains underwater on his handling of the economy, with voters more likely to disapprove of his performance than approve of it. Yet there are signs that voters may be brightening their assessment of the economy under Mr. Biden, in part thanks to the mounting effects of the infrastructure, manufacturing and climate bills he has signed into law.The run of positive economic news comes as his administration looks to credit “Bidenomics” for a sustained run of positive data.The economy grew at a 2.4 percent annual rate in the second quarter of the year, handily beating economists’ expectations, the Commerce Department reported last week. Price growth slowed in June even as consumer spending picked up. The Federal Reserve’s preferred measure of year-over-year inflation, the Personal Consumption Expenditures Index, has now fallen to 3 percent this year from about 7 percent last June — easing the pressure on Mr. Biden from the economic problem that has bedeviled his presidency thus far.And in less visible but significant ways, there are signs that Mr. Biden’s signature economic policies may be starting to bear fruit, most notably in a steep rise in factory construction. Government data released Tuesday showed that boom continued in June, with spending on manufacturing facilities up nearly 80 percent over the previous year. The manufacturing sector as a whole has added nearly 800,000 jobs since Mr. Biden took office and now employs the most people since 2008.“The public policy changes that have been put in place over the past two years are now starting to show up in the data,” said Joseph Brusuelas, chief economist at RSM. He said the increased investment was “undoubtedly linked” to government policies, in particular the CHIPS Act, which aimed to promote domestic manufacturing, and the Inflation Reduction Act, which targeted low-emission energy technologies to combat climate change.As Mr. Biden gears up for his re-election campaign, perhaps what is most encouraging to him is that consumer confidence is rising to levels not seen since the early months of his tenure in the White House, before inflation surged. Measures by the University of Michigan and the Conference Board suggest consumers have grown happier with the current state of the economy and more hopeful about the year ahead.That change in attitude may reflect an underlying economic reality: The combination of cooling inflation, low unemployment and rising pay means that American workers are seeing their standard of living improve. Hourly wages outpaced price gains in the spring for the first time in two years, giving consumers more purchasing power.National opinion polls still show a sour economic mood — but it appears to be improving slightly.In a new New York Times/Siena College poll, 49 percent of respondents rated the economy as “poor,” compared with 20 percent who called it “excellent” or “good.” That’s an improvement from last summer, when 58 percent of Americans in another Times/Siena poll called the economy “poor” and just 10 percent rated it “excellent” or “good.”Administration officials attribute the economy’s strength, particularly in the labor market, to the direct aid to individuals, businesses and state and local governments that was included in the $1.9 trillion stimulus package that Mr. Biden signed into law in 2021.Economists generally blame that same stimulus package for some of the rapid spike in inflation that ensued largely after its passage. But the recent moderation in price growth is emboldening officials to cite the bill as more of a positive factor, saying it helped keep consumers spending and businesses operating, speeding the return to a low unemployment rate.“The American Rescue Plan was designed for both getting the economy back up and running but making sure there was enough wiggle room to deal with challenges that could come down the pipeline,” Heather Boushey, a member of Mr. Biden’s Council of Economic Advisers, said in an interview. “And that has been, I think, very, very successful in getting people back to work. This has been the sharpest recovery in decades, in terms of job creation. We have outperformed our economic competitors.”Economic officials inside and outside the administration warn that risks remain as policymakers seek to achieve a so-called soft landing, bringing down sky-high inflation without triggering a recession. And many Republicans dispute the president’s claims that his policies have bolstered the economy. They note that inflation remains well above historical averages and that for many American workers, wage gains under Mr. Biden have failed to keep pace with rising prices.“Even if inflation ‘is less,’ those prices are not going down,” Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, a Republican presidential candidate, told Fox News this week. For a middle-class family, “affording a home is prohibitive,” he said. “If you look at the median income compared to the median home price, there’s a bigger gap than there was when the financial crisis hit after the big housing increase in 2006 and 2007. Cars are becoming less affordable; people feel that squeeze.”Some forecasters, including at the Conference Board, continue to predict the economy will fall into recession by the end of the year. They cite indicators that have frequently signaled downturns in the past, most notably the rapid decline in lending from both small and large banks.Tightening credit conditions, as reported this week by the Fed, “are consistent with G.D.P. growth slowing to recession territory in coming quarters,” researchers at BNP Paribas wrote this week.Yet most independent economists agree that the U.S. recovery has been stronger than expected. They are less united on how much credit Mr. Biden’s policies deserve for it. The decline in inflation, they say, is mostly the result of the Fed’s aggressive efforts to combat it, helped along by some good luck as oil prices have fallen and the pandemic’s disruptions have faded.Consumer confidence is rising to levels not seen since the early months of Mr. Biden’s presidency.Amir Hamja/The New York TimesThe resilience of the labor market — and the strength of the broader economy — is almost certainly the result, at least in part, of the trillions of dollars of aid that the federal government pumped into the economy in 2020 and 2021, which helped prevent the widespread bankruptcies, foreclosures and business failures that stymied the recovery from the Great Recession a decade and a half ago. But much of that came under President Donald J. Trump, and economists disagree about how much Mr. Biden’s stimulus package specifically helped the recovery.Still, recent economic developments have seemed to bear out one of the arguments that Democrats made early in Mr. Biden’s term: that the risks of doing too little to help the economy outweighed the risks of doing too much. Too little aid could leave the U.S. economy facing another “lost decade” of slow growth similar to the one that followed the last recession. Too much aid might cause inflation — but that, unlike slow growth, is a problem the Fed knows how to solve.Risks remain in the months to come. Inflation could pick back up, particularly if oil prices continue to rise, as they have in recent weeks. The job market could deteriorate, leading to a sharp rise in unemployment. Many forecasters still expect a recession to begin this year or early next.Drawing a straight line from government policies to economic outcomes is always difficult, especially in real time. But recent economic data has, at the very least, looked consistent with the Biden administration’s theory of how its policies would affect the economy.Administration officials point in particular at what they have begun referring to as the “hockey-stick graph”: a steep upward climb in investment in factory construction over the past two years, which they attribute to spending and tax incentives in several bills that Mr. Biden championed and signed into law. Those include bipartisan measures to boost infrastructure and advanced manufacturing, and a bill passed last year by Democrats when they controlled Congress that focused heavily on spurring new development in low-emission energy technologies to combat climate change.Private-sector analysts have largely agreed that policies have played a significant — though hard to quantify — role in the manufacturing construction boom in recent months. That, in turn, has helped to fuel a surprising increase in business investment more broadly, which helped lift economic growth in the spring even as consumer spending slowed.Even Treasury officials acknowledge significant risks to the economy in the months to come. Privately, many of Mr. Biden’s aides express at least some uncertainty about whether a soft landing is now assured.But the combination of solid growth, low unemployment and cooling inflation has made forecasters increasingly optimistic that the United States can avoid a recession that many of them once thought was inevitable.“You’ve got to look at that and say the probability of a soft landing has gone up,” said Jay Bryson, chief economist at Wells Fargo. More

  • in

    Soft Landing Optimism Is Everywhere. That’s Happened Before.

    People are often sure that the economy is going to settle down gently right before it plunges into recession, a reason for caution and humility.In late 1989, an economic commentary newsletter from the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland asked the question that was on everyone’s mind after a series of Federal Reserve rate increases: “How Soft a Landing?” Analysts were pretty sure growth was going to cool gently and without a painful downturn — the question was how gently.In late 2000, a column in The New York Times was titled “Making a Soft Landing Even Softer.” And in late 2007, forecasters at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas concluded that the United States should manage to make it through the subprime mortgage crisis without a downturn.Within weeks or months of all three declarations, the economy had plunged into recession. Unemployment shot up. Businesses closed. Growth contracted.It is a point of historical caution that is relevant today, when soft-landing optimism is, again, surging.Inflation has begun to cool meaningfully, but unemployment remains historically low at 3.6 percent and hiring has been robust. Consumers continue to spend at a solid pace and are helping to boost overall growth, based on strong gross domestic product data released on Thursday.Given all that momentum, Fed staff economists in Washington, who had been predicting a mild recession late this year, no longer expect one, said Jerome H. Powell, the central bank’s chair, during a news conference on Wednesday. Mr. Powell said that while he was not yet ready to use the term “optimism,” he saw a possible pathway to a relatively painless slowdown.But it can be difficult to tell in real time whether the economy is smoothly decelerating or whether it is creeping toward the edge of a cliff — one reason that officials like Mr. Powell are being careful not to declare victory. On Wednesday, policymakers lifted rates to a range of 5.25 to 5.5 percent, the highest level in 22 years and up sharply from near zero as recently as early 2022. Those rate moves are trickling through the economy, making it more expensive to buy cars and houses on borrowed money and making it pricier for businesses to take out loans.Such lags and uncertainties mean that while data today are unquestionably looking sunnier, risks still cloud the outlook.“The prevailing consensus right before things went downhill in 2007, 2000 and 1990 was for a soft landing,” said Gennadiy Goldberg, a rates strategist at TD Securities. “Markets have trouble seeing exactly where the cracks are.”The term “soft landing” first made its way into the economic lexicon in the early 1970s, when America was fresh from a successful moon landing in 1969. Setting a spaceship gently on the lunar surface had been difficult, and yet it had touched down.By the late 1980s, the term was in widespread use as an expression of hope for the economy. Fed policymakers had raised rates to towering heights to crush double-digit inflation in the early 1980s, costing millions of workers their jobs. America was hoping that a policy tightening from 1988 to 1989 would not have the same effect.The recession that stretched from mid-1990 to early 1991 was much shorter and less painful than the one that had plagued the nation less than a decade earlier — but it was still a downturn. Unemployment began to creep up in July 1990 and peaked at 7.8 percent.The 2000s recession was also relatively mild, but the 2008 downturn was not: It plunged America into the deepest and most painful downturn since the Great Depression. In that instance, higher interest rates had helped to prick a housing bubble — the deflation of which set off a chain reaction of financial explosions that blew through global financial markets. Unemployment jumped to 10 percent and did not fall back to its pre-crisis low for roughly a decade.Higher Rates Often Precede RecessionsUnemployment often jumps after big moves in the Fed’s policy interest rate

    Note: Data is as of June 2023.Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics; Business Cycle Dating Committee; Federal ReserveBy The New York TimesThe episodes all illustrate a central point. It is hard to predict what might happen with the economy when rates have risen substantially.Interest rates are like a slow-release medicine given to a patient who may or may not have an allergy. They take time to have their full effect, and they can have some really nasty and unpredictable side effects if they end up prompting a wave of bankruptcies or defaults that sets off a financial crisis.In fact, that is why the Fed is keeping its options open when it comes to future policy. Mr. Powell was clear on Wednesday that central bankers did not want to commit to how much, when or even whether they would raise rates again. They want to watch the data and see if they need to do more to cool the economy and ensure that inflation is coming under control, or whether they can afford to hold off on further interest rate increases.“We don’t know what the next shoe to drop is,” said Subadra Rajappa, head of U.S. rates strategy at the French bank Société Générale, explaining that she thought Mr. Powell took a cautious tone while talking about the future of the economy on Wednesday in light of looming risks — credit has been getting harder to come by, and that could still hit the brakes on the economy.“It looks like we’re headed toward a soft landing, but we don’t know the unknowns,” Ms. Rajappa said.That is not to say there isn’t good reason for hope, of course. Growth does look resilient, and there is some historical precedent for comfortable cool-downs.In 1994 and 1995, the Fed managed to slow the economy gently without plunging it into a downturn in what is perhaps its most famous successful soft landing. Ironically, commentators quoted then in The Times weren’t convinced that policymakers were going to pull it off.And the historical record may not be particularly instructive in 2023, said Michael Feroli, the chief U.S. economist at J.P. Morgan. This has not been a typical business cycle, in which the economy grew headily, fell into recession and then clawed its way back.Instead, growth was abruptly halted by coronavirus shutdowns and then rocketed back with the help of widespread government stimulus, leading to shortages, bottlenecks and unusually strong demand in unexpected parts of the economy. All of the weirdness contributed to inflation, and the slow return to normal is now helping it fade.That could make the Fed’s task — slowing inflation without causing a contraction — different this time.“There’s so much that has been unusual about this inflation episode,” Mr. Feroli said. “Just as we don’t want to overlearn the lessons of this episode, I don’t think we should over-apply the lessons of the past.” More

  • in

    GDP Grew at 2.4% Rate in Q2 as US Economy Stayed on Track

    The reading on gross domestic product was bolstered by consumer spending, showing that recession forecasts early in the year were premature, at least.The economic recovery stayed on track in the spring, as American consumers continued spending despite rising interest rates and warnings of a looming recession.Gross domestic product, adjusted for inflation, rose at a 2.4 percent annual rate in the second quarter, the Commerce Department said Thursday. That was up from a 2 percent growth rate in the first three months of the year and far stronger than forecasters expected a few months ago.Consumers led the way, as they have throughout the recovery from the severe but short-lived pandemic recession. Spending rose at a 1.6 percent rate, with much of that coming from spending on services, as consumers shelled out for vacation travel, restaurant meals and Taylor Swift tickets.“The consumer sector is really keeping things afloat,” said Yelena Shulyatyeva, an economist at BNP Paribas.The resilience of the economy has surprised economists, many of whom thought that high inflation — and the Federal Reserve’s efforts to stamp it out through aggressive interest-rate increases — would lead to a recession, or at least a clear slowdown in the first half of the year. For a while, it looked as if they were going to be right: Tech companies were laying off tens of thousands of workers, the housing market was in a deep slump and a series of bank failures set up fears of a financial crisis.Instead, layoffs were mostly contained to a handful of industries, the banking crisis did not spread and even the housing market has begun to stabilize.“The things we were all freaked out about earlier this year all went away,” said Michael Gapen, chief U.S. economist at Bank of America.Inflation has also slowed significantly. That has eased pressure on the Fed to keep raising rates, leading some forecasters to question whether a recession is such a sure thing after all. Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, said on Wednesday that the central bank’s staff economists no longer expected a recession to begin this year.Still, many economists say consumers are likely to pull back their spending in the second half of the year, putting a drag on the recovery. Savings built up earlier in the pandemic are dwindling. Credit card balances are rising. And although unemployment remains low, job growth and wage growth have slowed.“All those tailwinds and buffers that were supporting consumption are not as strong anymore,” said Blerina Uruci, chief U.S. economist at T. Rowe Price. “It feels to me like this hard landing has been delayed rather than canceled.” More

  • in

    Global Economy Shows Signs of Resilience Despite Lingering Threats

    The International Monetary Fund upgraded its global growth forecast for 2023.The world economy is showing signs of resilience this year despite lingering inflation and a sluggish recovery in China, the International Monetary Fund said on Tuesday, raising the odds that a global recession could be avoided barring unexpected crises.The signs of optimism in the I.M.F.’s latest World Economic Outlook may also give global policymakers additional confidence that their efforts to contain inflation without causing serious economic damage are working. Global growth, however, remains meager by historical standards, and the fund’s economists warned that serious risks remained.“The global economy continues to gradually recover from the pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but it is not yet out of the woods,” Pierre-Olivier Gourinchas, the I.M.F.’s chief economist said a news conference on Tuesday.The I.M.F. raised its forecast for global growth this year to 3 percent, from 2.8 percent in its April projection. It predicted that global inflation would ease from 8.7 percent in 2022 to 6.8 percent this year and 5.2 percent in 2024, as the effects of higher interest rates filter throughout the world.The outlook was rosier in large part because financial markets — which had been roiled by the collapse of several large banks in the United States and Europe — have largely stabilized. Another big financial risk was averted in June when Congress acted to lift the U.S. government’s borrowing cap, ensuring that the world’s largest economy would continue to pay its bills on time.The new figures from the I.M.F. come as the Federal Reserve is widely expected to raise interest rates by a quarter point at its meeting this week, while keeping its future options open. The Fed has been aggressively raising rates to try to tamp down inflation, lifting them from near zero as recently as March 2022 to a range of 5 percent to 5.25 percent today. Policymakers have been trying to cool the economy without crushing it and held rates steady in June in order to assess how the U.S. economy was absorbing the higher borrowing costs that the Fed had already approved.As countries like the United States continue to grapple with inflation, the I.M.F. urged central banks to remain focused on restoring price stability and strengthening financial supervision.“Hopefully with inflation starting to recede, we have entered the final stage of the inflationary cycle that started in 2021,” Mr. Gourinchas said. “But hope is not a policy and the touchdown may prove quite difficult to execute.”He added: “It remains critical to avoid easing monetary policy until underlying inflation shows clear signs of sustained cooling.”Fed officials will release their July interest rate decision on Wednesday, followed by a news conference with Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair. Policymakers had previously forecast that they might raise rates one more time in 2023 beyond the expected move this week. While investors doubt that they ultimately will make that final rate move, officials are likely to want to see more evidence that inflation is falling and the economy is cooling before committing in any direction.The I.M.F. said on Tuesday that it expected growth in the United States to slow from 2.1 percent last year to 1.8 percent in 2023 and 1 percent in 2024. It expects consumption, which has remained strong, to begin to wane in the coming months as Americans draw down their savings and interest rates increase further.Growth in the euro area is projected to be just 0.9 percent this year, dragged down by a contraction in Germany, the region’s largest economy, before picking up to 1.5 percent in 2024.European policymakers are still occupied by the struggle to slow down inflation. On Thursday, the European Central Bank is expected to raise interest rates for the 20 countries that use the euro currency to the highest level since 2000. But after a year of pushing up interest rates, policymakers at the central bank have been trying to shift the focus from how high rates will go to how long they may stay at levels intended to restrain the economy and stamp out domestic inflationary pressures generated by rising wages or corporate profits.Policymakers have raised rates as the economy has proved slightly more resilient than expected this year, supported by a strong labor market and lower energy prices. But the economic outlook is still relatively weak, and some analysts expect that the European Central Bank is close to halting interest rate increases amid signs that its restrictive policy stance is weighing on economic growth. On Monday, an index of economic activity in the eurozone dropped to its lowest level in eight months in July, as the manufacturing industry contracted further and the services sector slowed down.Next week, the Bank of England is expected to raise interest rates for a 14th consecutive time in an effort to force inflation down in Britain, where prices in June rose 7.9 percent from a year earlier.Britain has defied some expectations, including those of economists at the I.M.F., by avoiding a recession so far this year. But the country still faces a challenging set of economic factors: Inflation is proving stubbornly persistent in part because a tight labor market is pushing up wages, while households are growing increasingly concerned about the impact of high interest rates on their mortgages because the repayment rates tend to be reset every few years.A weaker-than-expected recovery in China, the world’s second-largest economy, is also weighing on global output. The I.M.F. pointed to a sharp contraction in the Chinese real estate sector, weak consumption and tepid consumer confidence as reasons to worry about China’s outlook.Official figures released this month showed that China’s economy slowed markedly in the spring from earlier in the year, as exports tumbled, a real estate slump deepened and some debt-ridden local governments had to cut spending after running low on money.Mr. Gourinchas said that measures that China has taken to restore confidence in the property sector are a positive step and suggested that targeted support for families to bolster confidence could strengthen consumption.Despite reasons for optimism, the I.M.F. report makes plain that the world economy is not in the clear.Russia’s war in Ukraine continues to pose a threat that could send global food and energy prices higher, and the fund noted that the recently terminated agreement that allowed Ukrainian grain to be exported could portend headwinds. The I.M.F. predicts that the termination of the agreement could lead grain prices to rise by as much as 15 percent.“The war in Ukraine could intensify, further raising food, fuel and fertilizer prices,” the report said. “The recent suspension of the Black Sea Grain Initiative is a concern in this regard.”It also reiterated its warning against allowing the war in Ukraine and other sources of geopolitical tension to further splinter the world economy.“Such developments could contribute to additional volatility in commodity prices and hamper multilateral cooperation on providing global public goods,” the I.M.F. said. More

  • in

    U.S. Recession Appears Less Likely, Economists Say

    Rising interest rates were widely expected to put the U.S. economy in reverse. Now things are looking rosier, but don’t pop the Champagne corks yet.The recession was supposed to have begun by now.Last year, as policymakers relentlessly raised interest rates to combat the fastest inflation in decades, forecasters began talking as though a recession — economic contraction rather than growth — was a question not of “if” but of “when.” Possibly in 2022. Probably in the first half of 2023. Surely by the end of the year. As recently as December, less than a quarter of economists expected the United States to avoid a recession, a survey found.But the year is more than half over, and the recession is nowhere to be found. Not, certainly, in the job market, as the unemployment rate, at 3.6 percent, is hovering near a five-decade low. Not in consumer spending, which continues to grow, nor in corporate profits, which remain robust. Not even in the housing market, the industry that is usually most sensitive to rising interest rates, which has shown signs of stabilizing after slumping last year.At the same time, inflation has slowed significantly, and looks set to keep cooling — offering hope that interest-rate increases are nearing an end. All of which is leading economists, after a year spent being surprised by the resilience of the recovery, to wonder whether a recession is coming at all.“The chances of a soft landing are higher — there’s no question about that,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist at KPMG US, referring to the possibility of bringing down inflation without causing an economic downturn. “I’m more optimistic than I was six months ago: That’s the good news.”The public is feeling sunnier, too, though hardly ebullient. Measures of consumer confidence have picked up recently, although surveys show that most Americans still expect a recession, or believe the country is already in one.There is still plenty that could go wrong, which Ms. Swonk noted. Inflation could, again, prove more stubborn than expected, leading the Federal Reserve to press on with interest rate increases to curb it. Or, on the flip side, the steps the Fed has already taken could hit with a delay, sharply cooling the economy in a way that has not surfaced yet. And even a slowdown short of a recession could be painful, leading to layoffs that are likely to disproportionately hit Black and Hispanic workers.“Soft is in the eye of the beholder,” said Nick Bunker, director of North American economic research at the career site Indeed.Economists are wary of declaring victory prematurely — burned, perhaps, by past episodes in which they did just that. In early 2008, for example, a string of positive economic data led some forecasters to conclude that the United States had navigated the subprime mortgage crisis without falling into a recession; researchers later concluded that one had already begun.But for now, at least, talk of worst-case scenarios — runaway inflation that the Fed struggles to tame, or “stagflation” in which prices and unemployment rise in tandem — has been ceding the conversation to cautious optimism.“We have seen a huge string of shocks, so I can’t predict what the future will hold,” Lael Brainard, a top White House economic adviser, said in an interview last week. “But so far, the data is very much consistent with moderating inflation and a still-resilient job market.”Inflation has come down.Economists have become more optimistic for two main reasons.The first is inflation itself, which has cooled rapidly in recent months. The Consumer Price Index in June was up just 3 percent from a year earlier, compared with a peak of 9 percent last summer. That is partly a result of factors that are unlikely to repeat — no one expects oil prices to keep falling 30 percent per year, for example.But measures of underlying inflation have also shown significant progress. And consumers and businesses appear to expect price increases to return to normal over the next few years, which makes it less likely that inflation will become embedded in the economy.Cooling inflation could allow the Fed to continue to slow its campaign of interest rate increases, or perhaps even to stop raising rates altogether earlier than planned. That could reduce the chances that policymakers go too far in their effort to control inflation and cause a recession by mistake.“Things have been going in the direction you would need them to go in order for you to get a soft landing,” said Louise Sheiner, a former Fed economist who is now at the Brookings Institution. “It doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed to get it, but certainly it’s more likely than if inflation was still 7 percent.”The job market has been resilient.The second reason for optimism has been the gradual cooling of the labor market from a rolling boil to a strong simmer.The rapid reopening of the economy in 2021 led to a huge imbalance between supply and demand: Restaurants, hotels, airlines and other businesses suddenly had hundreds of thousand of jobs to fill and not enough people to fill them. For workers, it was a rare moment of leverage, resulting in the fastest wage growth in decades. But economists worried that those rapid gains could make it hard to get inflation under control.In recent months, however, the frenzy has subsided. Employers are not posting as many openings. Employees are not hopping from job to job as freely in search of higher pay. At the same time, millions of workers have joined or rejoined the work force, helping to ease the labor shortage.So far, however, that easing has happened without a significant increase in unemployment. The jobless rate is roughly where it was in the strong labor market that preceded the pandemic. Some industries, such as tech and finance, have laid off employees, but most of those workers have found other jobs relatively quickly.“Labor market overheating is diminishing substantially, to levels where it’s no longer so worrisome,” said Jan Hatzius, chief economist for Goldman Sachs.Mr. Hatzius, who has long been more optimistic about the prospects for a soft landing than many of his peers on Wall Street, on Monday lowered his estimated probability of a recession to 20 percent from 25 percent. He said the recent progress in inflation and the labor market — as well as in consumer spending and other areas — suggested that the economy was gradually moving past the disruptions of the past few years.“We’re seeing the other side of the pandemic,” he said. “The pandemic created all of this enormous turbulence in economies, and now I think it’s going away, and to me that’s the overriding theme.”Risks remain.Still, many economists are less sanguine. Inflation, at least excluding volatile food and energy prices, remains well above the Fed’s 2 percent annual target, at 4.8 percent in June. And although the progress on inflation so far may have been relatively painless, there is no guarantee that will continue — employers that initially responded to higher interest rates by hiring fewer workers may soon begin cutting jobs outright.“People taking victory laps declaring a soft landing I think are premature,” said Laurence M. Ball, a Johns Hopkins economist who last year wrote an influential paper concluding that it would be difficult for the Fed to get inflation back to 2 percent without a significant increase in unemployment.Part of the problem is that the Fed has little margin for error. Act too aggressively to tame inflation, and the central bank could push the economy into a recession. Do too little, and inflation could pick back up — forcing policymakers to clamp back down.Neil Dutta, head of economic research at Renaissance Macro, said he worried that the strong labor market would fuel a new acceleration in the economy, leading to a resumption of rapid price increases — an “inflationary boom” that reverses much of the recent progress.“The next three to six months, the inflation dynamics will look pretty good — it will feel like a soft landing,” he added. “The question is, what comes after?”Then there are the factors outside policymakers’ control. Oil prices, which soared last year when Russia invaded Ukraine, could do so again. Food prices could start rising again, too — a possibility that became more real this week when Russia canceled a deal to allow Ukraine to export grain on the Black Sea.With the economy already slowing, even relatively small developments — such as the looming resumption of student loan payments, which will strain the finances of many younger adults in particular — could be enough to knock the recovery off course, said Jay Bryson, chief economist for Wells Fargo.“The student loan thing is not, in and of itself, enough to cause a recession, but if you do have a downturn, it could be a kind of death by a thousand paper cuts,” he said.Mr. Bryson still expects a recession to start this year. But he has become less certain in recent months. He recently asked the nearly 20 people on his team to write down how likely they thought a recession was in the next year. Answers ranged from 30 percent to 65 percent, with an average of exactly 50 percent — coin-flip odds for a soft landing that many people once thought impossible.“Keep the Champagne on ice,” Mr. Bryson said. “Hopefully early next year we can start popping it.” More

  • in

    The Pandemic’s Job Market Myths

    Remember the “she-cession”? What about the early-retirement wave, or America’s army of quiet quitters?For economists and other forecasters, the pandemic and postpandemic economy has been a lesson in humility. Time and again, predictions about ways in which the labor market had been permanently changed have proved temporary or even illusory.Women lost jobs early in the pandemic but have returned in record numbers, making the she-cession a short-lived phenomenon. Retirements spiked along with coronavirus deaths, but many older workers have come back to the job market. Even the person credited with provoking a national conversation by posting a TikTok video about doing the bare minimum at your job has suggested that “quiet quitting” may not be the way of the future — he’s into quitting out loud these days.That is not to say nothing has changed. In a historically strong labor market with very low unemployment, workers have a lot more power than is typical, so they are winning better wages and new perks. And a shift toward working from home for many white-collar jobs is still reshaping the economy in subtle but important ways.But the big takeaway from the pandemic recovery is simple: The U.S. labor market was not permanently worsened by the hit it suffered. It echoes the aftermath of the 2008 recession, when economists were similarly skeptical of the labor market’s ability to bounce back — and similarly proved wrong once the economy strengthened.“The profession has not fully digested the lessons of the recovery from the Great Recession,” said Adam Ozimek, the chief economist at the Economic Innovation Group, a research organization in Washington. One of those lessons, he said: “Don’t bet against the U.S. worker.”Here is a rundown of the labor market narratives that rose and fell over the course of the pandemic recovery.True but Over: The ‘She-cession’Women lost jobs heavily early in the pandemic, and people fretted that they would be left lastingly worse off in the labor market — but that has not proved to be the case.

    Note: Data is as of June 2023 and is seasonally adjusted.Source: Bureau of Labor StatisticsBy The New York TimesIn the wake of the pandemic, employment has actually rebounded faster among women than among men — so much so that, as of June, the employment rate for women in their prime working years, commonly defined as 25 to 54, was the highest on record. (Employment among prime-age men is back to where it was before the pandemic, but is still shy of a record.)Gone: Early RetirementsAnother frequent narrative early in the pandemic: It would cause a wave of early retirements.Historically, when people lose jobs or leave them late in their working lives, they tend not to return to work — effectively retiring, whether or not they label it that way. So when millions of Americans in their 50s and 60s left the labor force early in the pandemic, many economists were skeptical that they would ever come back.

    Notes: Percentages compare June 2023 with the 2019 average. Data is seasonally adjusted.Source: Bureau of Labor StatisticsBy The New York TimesBut the early retirement wave never really materialized. Americans between ages 55 and 64 returned to work just as fast as their younger peers and are now employed at a higher rate than before the pandemic. Some may have been forced back to work by inflation; others had always planned to return and did so as soon as it felt safe.The retirement narrative wasn’t entirely wrong. Americans who are past traditional retirement age — 65 and older — still haven’t come back to work in large numbers. That is helping to depress the size of the overall labor force, especially because the number of Americans in their 60s and 70s is growing rapidly as more baby boomers hit their retirement years.Questionable: The White-Collar RecessionTechnology layoffs at big companies have prompted discussion of a white-collar recession, or one that primarily affects well-heeled technology and information-sector workers. While those firings have undoubtedly been painful for those who experienced them, it has not shown up prominently in overall employment data.

    Note: Data is seasonally adjusted.Source: Bureau of Labor StatisticsBy The New York TimesFor now, the nation’s high-skilled employees seem to be shuffling into new and different jobs pretty rapidly. Unemployment remains very low both for information and for professional and business services — hallmark white-collar industries that encompass much of the technology sector. And layoffs in tech have slowed recently.Nuanced: The Missing MenIt looked for a moment like young and middle-aged men — those between about 25 and 44 — were not coming back to the labor market the way other demographics had been. Over the past few months, though, they have finally been regaining their employment rates before the pandemic.That recovery came much later than for some other groups: For instance, 35-to-44-year-old men have yet to consistently hold on to employment rates that match their 2019 average, while last year women in that age group eclipsed their employment rate before the pandemic. But the recent progress suggests that even if men are taking longer to recover, they are slowly making gains.False (Again): The Labor Market Won’t Fully Bounce BackAll these narratives share a common thread: While some cautioned against drawing early conclusions, many labor market experts were skeptical that the job market would fully recover from the shock of the pandemic, at least in the short term. Instead, the rebound has been swift and broad, defying gloomy narratives.This isn’t the first time economists have made this mistake. It’s not even the first time this century. The crippling recession that ended in 2009 pushed millions of Americans out of the labor force, and many economists embraced so-called structural explanations for why they were slow to return. Maybe workers’ skills or professional networks had eroded during their long periods of unemployment. Maybe they were addicted to opioids, or drawing disability benefits, or trapped in parts of the country with few job opportunities.In the end, though, a much simpler explanation proved correct. People were slow to return to work because there weren’t enough jobs for them. As the economy healed and opportunities improved, employment rebounded among pretty much every demographic group.The rebound from the pandemic recession has played out much faster than the one that took place after the 2008 downturn, which was worsened by a global financial blowup and a housing market collapse that left long-lasting scars. But the basic lesson is the same. When jobs are plentiful, most people will go to work.“People want to adapt, and people want to work: Those things are generally true,” said Julia Coronado, the founder of MacroPolicy Perspectives, a research firm. She noted that the pool of available workers expanded further with time and amid solid immigration. “People are resilient. They figure things out.” More