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    How the U.S. Government Amassed $31 Trillion in Debt

    Two decades of tax cuts, recession responses and bipartisan spending fueled more borrowing — contributing $25 trillion to the total and setting the stage for another federal showdown.WASHINGTON — America’s debt is now six times what it was at the start of the 21st century. It is the largest it has been, compared with the size of the U.S. economy, since World War II, and it’s projected to grow an average of about $1.3 trillion a year for the next decade.The United States hit its $31.4 trillion legal limit on borrowing this past week, putting Washington on the brink of another fiscal showdown. Republicans are refusing to raise that limit unless President Biden agrees to steep spending cuts, echoing a partisan standoff that has played out multiple times in the last two decades.But America’s ballooning debt is the result of choices made by both Republicans and Democrats. Since 2000, politicians from both parties have made a habit of borrowing money to finance wars, tax cuts, expanded federal spending, care for baby boomers and emergency measures to help the nation endure two debilitating recessions.“There have been bipartisan tax cuts and bipartisan spending increases” driving that growth, said Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget and perhaps the pre-eminent deficit hawk in Washington. “It’s not the simple story of Republicans cut taxes and Democrats grow spending. Actually, they all like to do all of it.”Few economists believe the level of debt is an economic crisis at the moment, though some believe the federal government has become so large that it is taking the place of private businesses, hurting growth in the process. But economists in Washington and on Wall Street are warning that failing to raise the debt limit before the government begins shirking its bills — as early as June — could prove catastrophic.Despite all the fighting, lawmakers have taken few steps to reduce the federal budget deficit they have produced. It has been nearly a quarter-century since the last time the government spent less than it received in taxes.Because spending programs today are so politically popular, and because retiring baby boomers are driving up the cost of programs like Social Security and Medicare every year, budget experts say it is unrealistic to expect the books to balance again for another decade or more.The White House estimates that borrowed money will be necessary to cover about one-fifth of a $6 trillion federal budget this fiscal year — a budget that includes military spending, the national parks, safety net programs and everything else the government provides.In just two decades, America has added $25 trillion in debt. How it got itself into this fiscal position has its roots in a political miscalculation at the end of the Cold War.President Lyndon B. Johnson signing Medicare into law in 1965. In part because of the popularity and rising costs of programs like Medicare, federal deficits are expected to continue for at least a decade.Associated PressIn the 1990s, America reaped a so-called peace dividend. It reduced spending on the military, believing it would never have to invest as much in national security as it had when the Soviet Union was a threat. At the same time, a dot-com boom delivered the highest federal tax receipts, as a share of the economy, in several decades.Understand the U.S. Debt CeilingCard 1 of 5What is the debt ceiling? More

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    After a Burst of New Businesses, a Cooling Economy Intrudes

    The pandemic has brought a boom in entrepreneurship, but higher interest rates, a chill in venture capital and fears of recession now pose obstacles.An unexpected result of the pandemic era has been a surge in entrepreneurial activity. Since 2020, applications to start new businesses have skyrocketed, reversing a decades-long slump.The reasons for the boom are manifold. Millions of people were suddenly laid off, giving them the time, and inclination, to start new businesses. Personal savings jumped, buoyed partly by a frothy stock market and government stimulus payments, providing would-be entrepreneurs with the means to fulfill their visions. Rock-bottom interest rates made money cheap and widely available.But the ebullient economic environment that helped foster this entrepreneurial spirit has given way to high inflation, rising interest rates and dwindling savings. That has left these nascent businesses to navigate challenging financial crosscurrents — and a possible recession — at a moment when they are at their most fragile. Even under normal conditions, roughly half of new businesses fail within five years.“Young businesses are inherently vulnerable,” said John Haltiwanger, an economist at the University of Maryland who studies entrepreneurship. “They’re likely to fail, and they are especially likely to fail in a recession.”In 2021, Americans filed applications to start 5.4 million new businesses, according to data from the Census Bureau. That was on top of the 4.4 million applications filed in 2020, which had been the highest by far in the more than 15 years the government had been keeping track. (Filings last year through November were running ahead of 2020 but behind 2021; figures for December will be released this week.)Data on actual business formation will not become available for several years, so it is not possible yet to measure the effects of the cooling economy on new ventures. Whether these new businesses pull through could have broad implications for the health and dynamism of the overall economy.“Innovation drives gains in productivity,” said John Dearie, president of the Center for American Entrepreneurship, an advocacy organization. “And innovation comes disproportionately from new businesses.”Jennifer Sutton started a juice and wellness bar in Park City, Utah. She is worried about the prospect of a recession and how it would affect the tourism that supports her business.Kim Raff for The New York TimesBut he cautioned that the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy — intended to tamp down the fastest price increases in decades — is “ramping up the headwinds facing entrepreneurs to gale force by crushing demand and by increasing the price of money.”In interviews, entrepreneurs expressed a mix of resolve and resignation about the months ahead. Some said they had learned lessons from the pandemic’s upheaval about how to endure financial adversity that they believed had recession-proofed their business models. Others were cleareyed about needing outside funding that they feared would no longer arrive.Inflation F.A.Q.Card 1 of 5What is inflation? More

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    Speaker Drama Raises New Fears on Debt Limit

    An emboldened conservative flank and concessions made to win votes could lead to a protracted standoff on critical fiscal issues, risking economic pain.WASHINGTON — Representative Kevin McCarthy of California finally secured the House speakership in a dramatic middle-of-the-night vote early Saturday, but the deal he struck to win over holdout Republicans also raised the risks of persistent political gridlock that could destabilize the American financial system.Economists, Wall Street analysts and political observers are warning that the concessions he made to fiscal conservatives could make it very difficult for Mr. McCarthy to muster the votes to raise the debt limit. That could prevent Congress from doing the basic tasks of keeping the government open, paying the country’s bills and avoiding default on America’s trillions of dollars in debt.The speakership battle suggests President Biden and Congress could be on track later this year for the most perilous debt-limit debate since 2011, when former President Barack Obama and a new Republican majority in the House nearly defaulted on the nation’s debt before cutting an 11th-hour deal.“If everything we’re seeing is a symptom of a totally splintered House Republican conference that is going to be unable to come together with 218 votes on virtually any issue, it tells you that the odds of getting to the 11th hour or the last minute or whatever are very high,” Alec Phillips, the chief political economist for Goldman Sachs Research, said in an interview Friday.Representative Kevin McCarthy won the speakership early Saturday only after making a deal with hard-right lawmakers.Kenny Holston/The New York TimesThe federal government spends far more money each year than it receives in revenues, producing a budget deficit that is projected to average in excess of $1 trillion a year for the next decade. Those deficits will add to a national debt that topped $31 trillion last year.Federal law puts a limit on how much the government can borrow. But it does not require the government to balance its budget. That means lawmakers must periodically pass laws to raise the borrowing limit to avoid a situation in which the government is unable to pay all of its bills, jeopardizing payments including military salaries, Social Security benefits and debts to holders of government bonds. Goldman Sachs researchers estimate Congress will likely need to raise the debt limit sometime around August to stave off such a scenario.Understand the U.S. Debt CeilingCard 1 of 4What is the debt ceiling? More

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    US Added 223,000 Jobs in December, a Slight Easing in Pace

    The Federal Reserve’s moves to cool the economy with higher interest rates seem to be taking gentle hold. Wage growth lost momentum.The U.S. economy produced jobs at a slower but still comfortable rate at the end of 2022, as higher interest rates and changing consumer habits downshifted the labor market without bringing it to a halt.Employers added 223,000 jobs in December on a seasonally adjusted basis, the Labor Department reported on Friday, in line with economists’ expectations although the smallest gain since President Biden took office.The gradual cooling indicates that the economy may be coming back into balance after years of pandemic-era disruptions — so far with limited pain for workers. The unemployment rate ticked down to 3.5 percent, back to its level from early 2020, which matched a low last seen in 1969.“If the U.S. economy is slipping into recession, nobody told the labor market,” said Chris Varvares, co-head of U.S. economics for S&P Global Market Intelligence, noting that the December number is still nearly double the approximately 100,000 jobs needed to keep up with population growth.Monthly change in jobs More

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    Even a Soft Landing for the Economy May Be Uneven

    Small businesses and lower-income families could feel pinched in the months ahead whether or not a recession is avoided this year.One of the defining economic stories of the past year was the complex debate over whether the U.S. economy was going into a recession or merely descending, with some altitude sickness, from a peak in growth after pandemic lows.This year, those questions and contentions are likely to continue. The Federal Reserve has been steeply increasing borrowing costs for consumers and businesses in a bid to curb spending and slow down inflation, with the effects still making their way through the veins of commercial activity and household budgeting. So most banks and large credit agencies expect a recession in 2023.At the same time, a budding crop of economists and major market investors see a firm chance that the economy will avoid a recession, or scrape by with a brief stall in growth, as cooled consumer spending and the easing of pandemic-era disruptions help inflation gingerly trend toward more tolerable levels — a hopeful outcome widely called a soft landing.“The possibility of getting a soft landing is greater than the market believes,” said Jason Draho, an economist and the head of Americas asset allocation for UBS Global Wealth Management. “Inflation has now come down faster than some recently expected, and the labor market has held up better than expected.”What seems most likely is that even if a soft landing is achieved, it will be smoother for some households and businesses and rockier for others.In late 2020 and early 2021, talk of a “K-shaped recovery” took root, inspired by the early pandemic economy’s split between secure remote workers — whose savings, house prices and portfolios surged — and the millions more navigating hazardous or tenuous in-person jobs or depending on a large-yet-porous unemployment aid system.Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, said: “I wish there were a completely painless way to restore price stability. There isn’t. And this is the best we can do.”Haiyun Jiang/The New York TimesIn 2023, if there’s a soft landing, it could be K-shaped, too. The downside is likely to be felt most by cash-starved small businesses and by workers no longer buoyed by the savings and labor bargaining power they built up during the pandemic.In any case, more turbulence lies ahead as fairly low unemployment, high inflation and shaky growth continue to queasily coexist.Generally healthy corporate balance sheets and consumer credit could be bulwarks against the forces of volatile prices, global instability and the withdrawal of emergency-era federal aid. Chief executives of companies that cater to financially sound middle-class and affluent households remain confident in their outlook. Al Kelly, the chief executive of Visa, the credit card company, said recently that “we are seeing nothing but stability.”The State of Jobs in the United StatesEconomists have been surprised by recent strength in the labor market, as the Federal Reserve tries to engineer a slowdown and tame inflation.Retirees: About 3.5 million people are missing from the U.S. labor force. A large number of them, roughly two million, have simply retired.Switching Jobs: A hallmark of the pandemic era has been the surge in employee turnover. The wave of job-switching may be taking a toll on productivity.Delivery Workers: Food app services are warning that a proposed wage increase for New York City workers could mean higher delivery costs.A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?: Employees seeking wage increases to cover their costs of living amid rising prices could set off a cycle in which fast inflation today begets fast inflation tomorrow.But the Fed’s projections indicate that 1.6 million people could lose jobs by late this year — and that the unemployment rate will rise at a magnitude that in recent history has always been accompanied by a recession.“There will be some softening in labor market conditions,” Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, said at his most recent news conference, explaining the rationale for the central bank’s recent persistence in raising rates. “And I wish there were a completely painless way to restore price stability. There isn’t. And this is the best we can do.”Will the bottom 50 percent backslide?Over the past two years, researchers have frequently noted that, on average, lower-wage workers have reaped the greatest pay gains, with bumps in compensation that often outpaced inflation, especially for those who switched jobs. But those gains are relative and were often upticks from low baselines.Consumer spending accounts for roughly 70 percent of economic activity.Jim Wilson/The New York TimesAccording to the Realtime Inequality tracker, created by economists at the University of California, Berkeley, inflation-adjusted disposable income for the bottom 50 percent of working-age adults grew 4.2 percent from January 2019 to September 2022. Among the top 50 percent, income lagged behind inflation. But that comparison leaves out the context that the average income for the bottom 50 percent in 2022 was $25,500 — roughly a $13 hourly pay rate.“As we look ahead, I think it is entirely possible that the households and the people we usually worry about at the bottom of the income distribution are going to run into some kind of combination of job loss and softer wage gains, right as whatever savings they had from the pandemic gets depleted,” said Karen Dynan, a former chief economist at the Treasury Department and a professor at Harvard University. “And it’s going to be tough on them.”Consumer spending accounts for roughly 70 percent of economic activity. The widespread resilience of overall consumption in the past year despite high inflation and sour business sentiment was largely attributed to the savings that households of all kinds accumulated during the pandemic: a $2.3 trillion gumbo of government aid, reduced spending on in-person services, windfalls from mortgage refinancing and cashed-out stock gains.What’s left of those stockpiles is concentrated among wealthier households.After spiking during the pandemic, the overall rate of saving among Americans has quickly plunged amid inflation.The personal saving rate — a monthly measure of the percentage of after-tax income that households save overall — has dropped precipitously in recent months. 

    Note: The personal saving rate is also referred to as “personal saving as a percentage of disposable personal income.” Personal saving is defined as overall income minus spending and taxes paid.Source: U.S. Bureau of Economic AnalysisBy The New York TimesMost major U.S. banks have reported that checking balances are above prepandemic levels across all income groups. Yet the cost of living is higher than it was in 2019 throughout the country. And depleted savings among the bottom third of earners could continue to ebb while rent and everyday prices still rise, albeit more slowly.Most key economic measures are reported in “real” terms, subtracting inflation from changes in individual income (real wage growth) and total output (real gross domestic product, or G.D.P.). If government calculations of inflation continue to abate as quickly as markets expect, inflation-adjusted numbers could become more positive, making the decelerating economy sound healthier.That wonky dynamic could form a deep tension between resilient-looking official data and the sentiment of consumers who may again find themselves with little financial cushion.Does small business risk falling behind?Another potential factor for a K-shaped landing could be the growing pressure on small businesses, which have less wiggle room than bigger companies in managing costs. Small employers are also more likely to be affected by the tightening of credit as lenders become far pickier and pricier than just a year ago.In a December survey of 3,252 small-business owners by Alignable, a Boston-based small business network with seven million members, 38 percent said they had only one month or less of cash reserves, up 12 percentage points from a year earlier. Many landlords who were lenient about payments at the height of the pandemic have stiffened, asking for back rent in addition to raising current rents.Many landlords who were lenient about payments at the height of the pandemic have stiffened, asking for back rent in addition to raising current rents.Gabby Jones for The New York TimesUnlike many large-scale employers that have locked in cheap long-term funding by selling corporate bonds, small businesses tend to fund their operations and payrolls with a mix of cash on hand, business credit cards and loans from commercial banks. Higher interest rates have made the latter two funding sources far more expensive — spelling trouble for companies that may need a fresh line of credit in the coming months. And incoming cash flows depend on sales remaining strong, a deep uncertainty for most.A Bank of America survey of small-business owners in November found that “more than half of respondents expect a recession in 2023 and plan to reduce spending accordingly.” For a number of entrepreneurs, decisions to maintain profitability may lead to reductions in staff.Some businesses wrestling with labor shortages, increased costs and a tapering off in customers have already decided to close.Susan Dayton, a co-owner of Hamilton Street Cafe in Albany, N.Y., closed her business in the fall once she felt the rising costs of key ingredients and staff turnover were no longer sustainable.She said the labor shortage for small shops like hers could not be solved by simply offering more pay. “What I have found is that offering people more money just means you’re paying more for the same people,” Ms. Dayton said.That tension among profitability, staffing and customer growth will be especially stark for smaller businesses. But it exists in corporate America, too. Some industry analysts say company earnings, which ripped higher for two years, could weaken but not plunge, with input costs leveling off, while businesses manage to keep prices elevated even if sales slow.That could limit the bulk of layoffs to less-valued workers during corporate downsizing and to certain sectors that are sensitive to interest rates, like real estate or tech — creating another potential route for a soft, if unequal, landing.The biggest challenge to overcome is that the income of one person or business is the spending of another. Those who feel that inflation can be tamed without a collapse in the labor market hope that spending slows just enough to cool off price increases, but not so much that it leads employers to lay off workers — who could pull back further on spending, setting off a vicious circle.Those who feel that inflation can be tamed without a collapse in the labor market hope that spending slows just enough to cool off price increases.Jim Wilson/The New York TimesWhat are the chances of a soft landing?If the strained U.S. economy is going to unwind rather than unravel, it will need multiple double-edged realities to be favorably resolved.For instance, many retail industry analysts think the holiday season may have been the last hurrah for the pandemic-era burst in purchases of goods. Some consumers may be sated from recent spending, while others become more selective in their purchases, balking at higher prices.That could sharply reduce companies’ “pricing power” and slow inflation associated with goods. Service-oriented businesses may be somewhat affected, too. But the same phenomenon could lead to layoffs, as slowdowns in demand reduce staffing needs.In the coming months, the U.S. economy will be influenced in part by geopolitics in Europe and the coronavirus in China. Volatile shifts in what some researchers call “systemically significant prices,” like those for gas, utilities and food, could materialize. People preparing for a downturn by cutting back on investments or spending could, in turn, create one. And it is not clear how far the Fed will go in raising interest rates.Then again, those risk factors could end up relatively benign.“It’s 50-50, but I have to take a side, right? So I take the side of no recession,” said Mark Zandi, the chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. “I can make the case on either side of this pretty easily, but I think with a little bit of luck and some tough policymaking, we can make our way through.” More

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    Why It’s Hard to Predict What the Economy Will Look Like in 2023

    Historical data has always been critical to those who make economic predictions. But three years into the pandemic, America is suffering through an economic whiplash of sorts — and the past is proving anything but a reliable guide.Forecasts have been upended repeatedly. The economy’s rebound from the hit it incurred at the onset of the coronavirus was faster and stronger than expected. Shortages of goods then collided with strong demand to fuel a burst in inflation, one that has been both more extreme and more stubborn than anticipated.Now, after a year in which the Federal Reserve raised interest rates at the fastest pace since the 1980s to slow growth and bring those rapid price increases back under control, central bankers, Wall Street economists and Biden administration officials are all trying to guess what might lie ahead for the economy in 2023. Will the Fed’s policies spur a recession? Or will the economy gently cool down, taming high inflation in the process?With typical patterns still out of whack across big parts of the economy — including housing, cars and the labor market — the answer is far from certain, and past experience is almost sure to serve as a poor map.“I don’t think anyone knows whether we’re going to have a recession or not, and if we do, whether it’s going to be a deep one or not,” Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, said during a news conference last week. “It’s not knowable.”Doubt about what comes next is one reason the Fed is reorienting its monetary policy approach. Officials are now nudging borrowing costs up more gradually, giving them time to see how their policies are affecting the economy and how much more is needed to ensure that inflation returns to a slow and steady pace.As policymakers try to guess what lies ahead, the markets that have been most disrupted in recent years illustrate how big changes — some spurred by the pandemic, others tied to demographic shifts — continue to ricochet through the economy and make forecasting an exercise in uncertainty.Housing is strange.The pandemic era has repeatedly upended the housing market. The virus’s onset sent urbanites rushing for more space in suburban and small-city homes, a trend that was reinforced by rock-bottom mortgage rates.Then, reopenings from lockdown pulled people back toward cities. That helped push up rents in major metropolitan areas — which make up a big chunk of inflation — and, paired with the Fed’s rate increases, it has helped to sharply slow home buying in many markets.The question is what happens next. When it comes to the rental market, new lease data from Zillow and Apartment List suggests that conditions are cooling. The supply of available apartments and homes is also expected to climb in 2023 as long-awaited new residential buildings are finished.The Biden PresidencyHere’s where the president stands after the midterm elections.A New Primary Calendar: President Biden’s push to reorder the early presidential nominating states is likely to reward candidates who connect with the party’s most loyal voters.A Defining Issue: The shape of Russia’s war in Ukraine, and its effects on global markets, in the months and years to come could determine Mr. Biden’s political fate.Beating the Odds: Mr. Biden had the best midterms of any president in 20 years, but he still faces the sobering reality of a Republican-controlled House for the next two years.2024 Questions: Mr. Biden feels buoyant after the better-than-expected midterms, but as he turns 80, he confronts a decision on whether to run again that has some Democrats uncomfortable.“The frame I would put on 2023 is that we’re really going to enter the year back in a demand-constrained environment,” said Igor Popov, chief economist at Apartment List. “We’re going to see more apartments competing for fewer renters.”Mr. Popov expects “small growth” in rents in 2023, but he said that outlook is uncertain and hinges on the state of the labor market. If unemployment soars, rents could fall. If workers do really well, rents could rise more quickly.At the same time, existing leases are still catching up to the big run-up that has happened over the past year as tenants renew at higher rates. It is hard to guess both how much official inflation will converge with market-based rent data, and how long the trend will take to fully play out.“It could resolve in months, or it could take a year,” said Adam Ozimek, the chief economist at the Economic Innovation Group.Then there’s the market for owned housing, which does not count into inflation but does matter for the pace of overall economic growth. New home sales have fallen off a cliff as surging mortgage costs and the recent price run-up has put purchasing a house out of reach for many families. Even so, new mortgage applications have ticked up at the slightest sign of relief in recent months, evidence that would-be buyers are waiting on the sidelines.Demographics explain that underlying demand. Many millennials, the roughly 26- to 41-year-olds who are America’s largest generation, were entering peak home-buying ages right around the onset of the pandemic, and many are still in the market — which could put a floor under how much home prices will moderate.Plus, “sellers don’t have to sell,” said Mike Fratantoni, chief economist at the Mortgage Bankers Association, who expects home prices to be “flattish” next year as demand wanes but supply, which was already sharply limited after a decade of under-building following the 2007 housing crash, further pulls back.Given all the moving parts, many analysts are either much more optimistic or very pessimistic.“It’s almost comical to see the house price growth forecasts,” Mr. Popov said. “It’s either 3 percent growth or double-digit declines, with almost nothing in between.”The car market remains weird, too.The car market, a major driver of America’s initial inflation burst, is another economic puzzle. Years of too little supply have unleashed pent-up demand that is spurring unusual consumer and company behavior.Used cars were in especially short supply early in the pandemic, but are finally more widely available. The wholesale prices that dealers pay to stock their lots have plummeted in recent months.But car sellers are taking longer to pass those steep declines along to consumers than many economists had expected. Wholesale prices are down about 14.2 percent from a year ago, while consumer prices for used cars and trucks have declined only 3.3 percent. Many experts think that means bigger markdowns are coming, but there’s uncertainty about how soon and how steep.The new car market is even stranger. It remains undersupplied amid a parts shortages, though that is beginning to change as supply chain issues ease and production recovers. But both dealers and auto companies have made big profits during the low-supply, high-price era, and some have floated the idea of maintaining leaner production and inventories to keep their returns high.Jonathan Smoke, chief economist at Cox Automotive, thinks the normal laws of supply and demand will eventually reassert themselves as companies fight to retain customers. But getting back to normal will be a gradual, and perhaps halting, process.Still, “we’re at an inflection point,” Mr. Smoke said. “I think new vehicles are going to be less and less inflationary.”Labor markets are the most important question mark.Perhaps the most critical economic mystery is what will happen next in America’s labor market — and that is hard to game out.Part of the problem is that it’s not entirely clear what is happening in the labor market right now. Most signs suggest that hiring has been strong, job openings are plentiful, and wages are climbing at the fastest pace in decades. But there is a huge divergence between different data series: The Labor Department’s survey of households shows much weaker hiring growth than its survey of employers. Adding to the confusion, recent research has suggested that revisions could make today’s labor growth look much more lackluster.“It’s a huge mystery,” said Mr. Ozimek from the Economic Innovation Group. “You have to figure out which data are wrong.”That confusion makes guessing what comes next even more difficult. If, like most economists, one accepts that the labor market is hot right now, Fed policy is clearly poised to cool it down: The central bank has raised interest rates from near zero to about 4.4 percent this year, and expects to lift them to 5.1 percent in 2023.Those moves are explicitly aimed at slowing down hiring and wage growth, because central bankers believe that inflation for many types of services will remain elevated if pay gains remain as strong as they are now. Dentist offices and restaurants will, in theory, try to pass climbing labor costs along to consumers to protect their profits. But it is unclear how much the job market needs to slow to bring pay gains back to the more normal levels the Fed is looking for, and whether it can decelerate sufficiently without plunging America into a painful recession.Companies seem to be facing major labor shortages, partly as a wave of baby boomers retires, and Fed officials hope that will make firms more inclined to hang onto their workers even if the broader economy slows drastically. Some policymakers have suggested that such “labor hoarding” could help them achieve a soft landing that bucks historical precedent: Unemployment could rise notably without spiraling higher, cooling the economy without tipping it into a painful downturn.Typically, when the unemployment rate rises by more than 0.5 percentage points, like the Fed forecasts it will do next year, the jobless rate keeps rising. Loss of economic momentum feeds on itself, and the nation plunges into a recession. That pattern is so established it has a name: the Sahm Rule, for the economist Claudia Sahm.Yet Ms. Sahm herself said that if the axiom were to break down, this wacky economic moment would be the time. Consumers are sitting on unusual savings piles that could help sustain middle-class spending even through some job losses, preventing a downward spiral.“The thing that has never happened would have to happen,” she said. “But hey, things that have never happened have been happening left and right.” More

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    Inflation Cooled Notably in November, Good News for the Fed

    Inflation slowed more sharply than expected in November, an encouraging sign for both Federal Reserve officials and consumers that 18 months of rapid and unrelenting price increases are beginning to meaningfully abate.The new data is unlikely to alter the Fed’s plan to raise interest rates by another half point at the conclusion of its two-day meeting on Wednesday. But the moderation in inflation, which affected used cars, some types of food and airline tickets, caused investors to speculate that the Fed could pursue a less aggressive policy path next year — potentially increasing the chances of a “soft landing,” or one in which the economy slows gradually and without a painful recession.Stock prices jumped sharply higher after government data showed that inflation eased to 7.1 percent in the year through November, down from 7.7 percent in the previous reading and less than economists had expected.The Fed, which has been rapidly raising rates in three-quarter point increments, is expected to make a smaller move on Wednesday, bringing rates to a range between 4.25 and 4.5 percent. Central bankers will also release economic projections showing how much they expect to raise interest rates next year, and investors are now betting that they will slow to quarter-point adjustments by their February meeting as fading price pressures give them latitude to proceed more cautiously.“The overall picture is definitely improving,” said Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics. “It’s unambiguously good news, but it would not be fair to say that inflation is falling everywhere — there are still pockets of big increases.”While price increases are not yet slowing across the board, they are moderating for key goods and services that consumers buy every day, including gas and meat. That is good news for President Biden, who has struggled to convince Americans that the economy is strong as the surging cost of living erodes voter confidence.“Inflation is coming down in America,” Mr. Biden said during remarks at the White House on Tuesday morning. He hailed the report as “news that provides some optimism for the holiday season, and I would argue, the year ahead.”Inflation F.A.Q.Card 1 of 5What is inflation? More

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    Why Are Middle-Aged Men Missing From the Labor Market?

    Men ages 35 to 44 are staging a lackluster rebound from pandemic job loss, despite a strong economy.For the past five months Paul Rizzo, 38, has been delivering food and groceries through the DoorDash app. But he spent the first half of 2022 earning no paycheck at all — reflecting a surprising trend among middle-aged men.After learning last Christmas that his job as an analyst at a hospital company was being automated, Mr. Rizzo chose to stay at home to care for his two young sons. His wife wanted to go back to work, and he was discouraged in his own career after more than a decade of corporate tumult and repeated disappointment. He thought he might be able to earn enough income on his investments to pull it off financially.Mr. Rizzo’s decision to step away from employment during his prime working years hints at one of the biggest surprises in today’s job market: Hundreds of thousands of men in their late 30s and early 40s stopped working during the pandemic and have lingered on the labor market’s sidelines since. While Mr. Rizzo has recently returned to earning money, many men his age seem to be staying out of the work force altogether. They are an anomaly, as employment rates have rebounded more fully for women of the same age and for both younger and older men.About 87 percent of men ages 35 to 44 were working as of October, down from 88.3 percent before the pandemic struck in 2020. The stubborn decline has spanned racial groups, but it has been most heavily concentrated among men who — like Mr. Rizzo — do not have a four-year college degree. The pullback comes despite the fact that wages are rising and job openings are plentiful, including in fields like truck driving and construction, where college degrees are not required and men tend to dominate.Economists have not determined any single factor that is keeping men from returning to work. Instead, they attribute the trend to a cocktail of changing social norms around parenthood and marriage, shifting opportunities, and lingering scars of the 2008 to 2009 downturn — which cost many people in that age group jobs just as they were starting their careers.“Now, all of a sudden, you’re kind of getting your life together, and if you’re in the wrong industry …” Mr. Rizzo said, trailing off as he discussed his recent labor market experience. “I wasn’t the only one who dropped out. I can tell you that.”How male employment shifted during the pandemicMen ages 35-44 are working at a notably lower rate than before the pandemic.

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    Change in male employment rate since Feb. 2020 by age group
    Note: Three-month rolling average of seasonally adjusted dataSource: Bureau of Labor StatisticsBy The New York TimesHow female employment shifted during the pandemicWomen’s employment has rebounded across age groups.

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    Change in female employment rate since Feb. 2020 by age group
    Note: Three-month rolling average of seasonally adjusted dataSource: Bureau of Labor StatisticsBy The New York TimesMen have been withdrawing from the labor force for decades. In the years following World War II, more than 97 percent of men in their prime working years — defined by economists as ages 25 to 54 — were working or actively looking for work, according to federal data. But starting in the 1960s, that share began to fall, mirroring the decline in domestic manufacturing jobs.What is new is that a small demographic slice — men who were early in their careers during the 2008 recession — seems to be most heavily affected.“I think there’s a lot of very discouraged people out there,” said Jane Oates, a former Labor Department official who now heads WorkingNation, a nonprofit focused on work force development. Men lost jobs in astonishing numbers during the 2008 financial crisis as the construction and home-building industries contracted. It took years to regain that ground — for men who were then in their 20s and early 30s and just getting started in their careers, employment rates never fully recovered. Economists came up with a range of explanations for the men’s slow return to the labor force. After the war on crime of the 1980s and 1990s, more men had criminal records that made it difficult to land jobs. The rise of opioid addiction had sidelined others. Video games had improved in quality, so staying home might have become more attractive. And the decline of nuclear family units may have diminished the traditional male role as economic provider.Now, recent history appears to be repeating itself — but for one specific age group. The question is why 35- to 44-year-old men seem to be staying out of work more than other demographics.Patricia Blumenauer, vice president of data and operations at Philadelphia Works, a work force development agency, said she had observed a dip in the number of men in that age range coming in for services. A disproportionately high share of those who do come in leave without taking a job.Ms. Blumenauer said that age range is a group “that we’re not seeing show up.” She thinks some men who lost their blue-collar jobs early in the pandemic may be looking for something with flexibility and higher pay. “The ability to work from home three days a week, or have a four-day weekend — things that other jobs have figured out — aren’t possible for those types of occupations.”When men don’t find those flexible jobs or can’t compete for them, they might choose to make ends meet by staying with relatives or doing under-the-table work, Ms. Blumenauer said.The pandemic has probably also slowed America’s already-weak family formation, giving single or childless men less of an incentive to settle into steady jobs, said the economist Ariel Binder. On the flip side, disruptions to schooling and child care meant that some men who already had families may have stopped doing paid work to take on more household tasks.“So on the one hand you get these men who are just not expecting to have a stable romantic relationship for most of their lives and are setting their time use accordingly,” Dr. Binder said. “Then there are men who are participating in these family structures, but doing so in nontraditional ways.”Like labor force experts, government data suggest that a combination of forces are at play.A growing number of men do seem to be taking on more child care duties, time use and other survey data suggests. But a shift toward being stay-at-home dads is unlikely to be the full story: Employment trends look the same for men in the age group who report having young kids living with them and those who don’t.What clearly does matter is education. The employment decline is more heavily concentrated among people who have not graduated from college and who live in metropolitan areas or suburbs, based on detailed government survey data.An education gap among menMen without a four-year college degree have returned to work more slowly than others in the same age group.

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    Change in employment rate for people ages 35-44
    Note: Three-month rolling average of seasonally adjusted data.Source: Current Population Survey via IPUMSBy The New York TimesSome economists speculate that the disproportionate decline could be because the age group has been buffeted by repeated crises, making their labor market footing fragile. They lost work early in their careers in 2008, faced a slow recovery after and found their jobs at risk again amid 2020 layoffs and an ongoing shift toward automation.“This group has been hit by automation, by globalization,” said David Dorn, a Swiss economist who studies labor markets.That fragility theory makes sense to Mr. Rizzo.He had seen the Navy as his ticket out of poverty in Louisiana and had expected to have a career in the service until he broke his back during basic training. He retired from the military after a few years. Then he pivoted, earning a two-year degree in Georgia and beginning a bachelor’s degree at Arizona State University — with dreams of one day working to cure cancer.Then the Great Recession hit. Mr. Rizzo had been working nights in a laboratory to afford rent and tuition, but the job ended abruptly in 2009. Phoenix was ground zero for the financial implosion’s fallout.Frantic job applications yielded nothing, and Mr. Rizzo had to drop out of school. Worse, he found himself staring down imminent homelessness. His tax refund saved him by allowing him and his wife to move back to Louisiana, where jobs were more plentiful. But after they divorced, he hit a low point.“I had nothing to show for my life after my 20s,” he explained.Mr. Rizzo spent the next decade rebuilding. He worked his way through various corporate positions where he taught himself skills in Excel and Microsoft SharePoint, married again, had two sons and bought a house.Yet he was regularly at risk of losing work to downsizing or technology — including late last year. The company he worked for wanted him to move into a new role, perhaps as a traveling salesperson, when his desk job disappeared. But his sons have special needs and that was not an option.He quit in January. He watched the kids, posted on his investment-related YouTube channel and watched Netflix. He thought he might be able to live on military payments and dividend income, becoming part of the “Financial Independence, Retire Early,” or FIRE, trend. But then the Federal Reserve raised interest rates and markets gyrated.“I got FIRE, all right,” he said. “My whole portfolio got set on fire.”Mr. Rizzo, who began working for DoorDash in July, making a delivery in Kenner.Emily Kask for The New York TimesMr. Rizzo turned to DoorDash, earning his first paycheck on July 4. While he is technically back in the labor market, gig work like his isn’t well measured in jobs data. If many men are taking a similar path but do not work every week, they might be overlooked in surveys, which ask if someone worked for pay in the previous week to determine whether they were employed.Mr. Rizzo is waiting to see what happens to his DoorDash income in an economic pullback before he rules out corporate work forever. Already, other dashers are complaining that business is slowing as people have spent down pandemic savings.The veteran counts himself fortunate. He knows men in his generation who have struggled to find any footing in the labor market.“It feels like it’s the after-affects of 2008 and 2009,” he said. “Everyone had to restart their lives from scratch.” More