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    Falling Used-Car Demand Puts Pressure on Carvana and Other Dealers

    Dealerships are seeing sales and prices drop as consumers tighten their belts, putting financial pressure on companies like Carvana that grew fast in recent years.About a year ago, the used-car business was a rollicking party. The coronavirus pandemic and a global semiconductor shortage forced automakers to stop or slow production of new cars and trucks, pushing consumers to used-car lots. Prices for pre-owned vehicles surged.Now, the used-car business is suffering a brutal hangover. Americans, especially people on tight budgets, are buying fewer cars as interest rates rise and fears of a recession grow. And improved auto production has eased the shortage of new vehicles.As a result, sales and prices of used cars are falling and the auto dealers that specialize in them are hurting.“After a huge run up in 2021, last year was a reality check,” Chris Frey, senior manager of economic and industry insights at Cox Automotive, a market research firm. “The used market now faces a challenging year as demand weakens.”According to Cox, used-car values fell 14 percent in 2022 and are expected to fall more than 4 percent this year. That shift means many dealers may have no choice but to sell some vehicles for less than they paid.The industry’s difficulties have been exemplified by Carvana, which sells cars online and became famous for building “vending machine” towers where cars can be picked up. The company recently reported a quarterly loss of more than $500 million, and has laid off 4,000 employees.In the last 12 months, Carvana piled up debt. Its stock price has fallen by more than 95 percent in the last 12 months, and three states temporarily suspended its operating license after consumer complaints.“We think there’s a decent chance the company will end up having to file for bankruptcy protection,” said Seth Basham, an Wedbush analyst. “They have too much debt for the level of sales and profitability and can’t support that debt load, and likely will need to restructure.”In a statement to The New York Times, Carvana said it was confident it had “sufficient” funds to turn its business around, noting the company had $2 billion in cash and an additional $2 billion in “other liquidity resources” at the end of the third quarter.It has also hired the investment bank Moelis & Company and is working to reduce its inventory of vehicles and cut the cost of reconditioning them.Used-car values fell 14 percent in 2022. Some dealers may have no choice but to sell some vehicles for less than they paid.An Rong Xu for The New York Times“Millions of satisfied customers have responded positively to Carvana’s e-commerce model for buying and selling cars,” the company said. “Although the current environment and market has drawn attention to the near term, we continued to gain market share in the third quarter of 2022, and we remain focused on our plan to drive to profitability.”CarMax, another used-car giant, is also hurting, although it is on much steadier ground. In the three months that ended in November, its vehicle sales fell 21 percent to 180,000, and net income tumbled 86 percent, to $37.6 million.Inflation F.A.Q.Card 1 of 5What is inflation? More

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    Supply Problems Hurt Auto Sales in 2022. Now Demand Is Weakening.

    A global semiconductor shortage is easing, which could allow carmakers to lift production this year. But higher interest rates could keep sales low.Last year, sales of new cars and trucks fell to their lowest level in a decade because automakers could not make enough vehicles for consumers to buy. This year, sales are likely to remain soft, but for an entirely different reason — weakening demand.The Federal Reserve’s interest rate increases, which are intended to slow inflation, have made it harder and more expensive for consumers to finance automobile purchases, after prices had already risen to record highs.Analysts expect that higher rates and a slowing economy will force some U.S. shoppers to delay car purchases or steer away from showrooms altogether in 2023 even if automakers crank out more vehicles than they did last year because they can get more parts.“For over a decade, low interest rates have helped people buy the big cars that Americans like,” said Jessica Caldwell, executive director of insights at Edmunds, a market research firm. “Low rates from the Fed are what made those attractive offers for zero-percent financing and 72-month loans possible, but with the higher rates, it’s a pretty unfriendly market for people buying a car.”Edmunds estimates that automakers will sell 14.8 million cars and trucks in the United States this year, which would be well below the sales that automakers became accustomed to in the previous decade.Inflation F.A.Q.Card 1 of 5What is inflation? More

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    Russia’s War on Ukraine Worsens Global Starvation

    Moscow blocks most shipments from Ukraine, one of the world’s largest wheat producers, and its attacks on the country’s energy grid also disrupt the flow of food.ISTANBUL — Hulking ships carrying Ukrainian wheat and other grains are backed up along the Bosporus here in Istanbul as they await inspections before moving on to ports around the world.The number of ships sailing through this narrow strait, which connects Black Sea ports to wider waters, plummeted when Russia invaded Ukraine 10 months ago and imposed a naval blockade. Under diplomatic pressure, Moscow has begun allowing some vessels to pass, but it continues to restrict most shipments from Ukraine, which together with Russia once exported a quarter of the world’s wheat.And at the few Ukrainian ports that are operational, Russia’s missile and drone attacks on Ukraine’s energy grid periodically cripple the grain terminals where wheat and corn are loaded onto ships.An enduring global food crisis has become one of the farthest-reaching consequences of Russia’s war, contributing to widespread starvation, poverty and premature deaths.The United States and allies are struggling to reduce the damage. American officials are organizing efforts to help Ukrainian farmers get food out of their country through rail and road networks that connect to Eastern Europe and on barges traveling up the Danube River.But as deep winter sets in and Russia presses assaults on Ukraine’s infrastructure, the crisis is worsening. Food shortages are already being exacerbated by a drought in the Horn of Africa and unusually harsh weather in other parts of the world.The United Nations World Food Program estimates that more than 345 million people are suffering from or at risk of acute food insecurity, more than double the number from 2019.“We’re dealing now with a massive food insecurity crisis,” Antony J. Blinken, the U.S. secretary of state, said last month at a summit with African leaders in Washington. “It’s the product of a lot of things, as we all know,” he said, “including Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.”The food shortages and high prices are causing intense pain across Africa, Asia and the Americas. U.S. officials are especially worried about Afghanistan and Yemen, which have been ravaged by war. Egypt, Lebanon and other big food-importing nations are finding it difficult to pay their debts and other expenses because costs have surged. Even in wealthy countries like the United States and Britain, soaring inflation driven in part by the war’s disruptions has left poorer people without enough to eat.A line for food aid in Kabul. An enduring global food crisis has become one of the farthest-reaching consequences of Russia’s war.Agence France-Presse — Getty Images“By attacking Ukraine, the breadbasket of the world, Putin is attacking the world’s poor, spiking global hunger when people are already on the brink of famine,” said Samantha Power, the administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, or USAID.The State of the WarAerial Attacks: A deadly New Year’s Eve assault is the latest strike in Russia’s three-month campaign on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, which analysts say is an effort to demoralize the Ukrainian population by plunging it into cold and darkness.A New Alliance: The United States is scrambling to stop Iran from producing drones, as officials believe the Middle Eastern nation is building a partnership with Russia.Hopes Dim for Peace Talks: Both Ukrainian and Russian officials say they are willing to discuss making peace, but their terms for sitting down at a negotiating table suggest otherwise.Clergymen or Spies?: To Ukraine’s security services, the Russian Orthodox Church poses a uniquely subversive threat — a trusted institution that is not only an incubator of pro-Russia sentiment but is also infiltrated by priests, monks and nuns who have aided Russia in the war.Ukrainians are likening the events to the Holodomor, when Joseph Stalin engineered a famine in Soviet-ruled Ukraine 90 years ago that killed millions.Mr. Blinken announced on Dec. 20 that the U.S. government would begin granting blanket exceptions to its economic sanctions programs worldwide to ensure that food aid and other assistance kept flowing. The action is intended to ensure that companies and organizations do not withhold assistance for fear of running afoul of U.S. sanctions.State Department officials said it was the most significant change to U.S. sanctions policy in years. The United Nations Security Council adopted a similar resolution on sanctions last month.But Russia’s intentional disruption of global food supplies poses an entirely different problem.Moscow has restricted its own exports, increasing costs elsewhere. Most important, it has stopped sales of fertilizer, needed by the world’s farmers. Before the war, Russia was the biggest exporter of fertilizer.Its hostilities in Ukraine have also had a major impact. From March to November, Ukraine exported an average of 3.5 million metric tons of grains and oilseeds per month, a steep drop from the five million to seven million metric tons per month it exported before the war began in February, according to data from the country’s Ministry of Agrarian Policy and Food.That number would be even lower if not for an agreement forged in July by the United Nations, Turkey, Russia and Ukraine, called the Black Sea Grain Initiative, in which Russia agreed to allow exports from three Ukrainian seaports.Russia continues to block seven of the 13 ports used by Ukraine. (Ukraine has 18 ports, but five are in Crimea, which Russia seized in 2014.) Besides the three on the Black Sea, three on the Danube are operational.The initial deal was only for four months but was extended in November for another four months. When Russia threatened to leave it in October, global food prices surged five to six percent, said Isobel Coleman, a deputy administrator at USAID.“The effects of this war are hugely, hugely disruptive,” she said. “Putin is pushing millions of people into poverty.”While increases in the price of food this past year have been particularly sharp in the Middle East, North Africa and South America, no region has been immune.“You’re looking at price increases of everything from 60 percent in the U.S. to 1900 percent in Sudan,” said Sara Menker, the chief executive of Gro Intelligence, a platform for climate and agriculture data that tracks food prices.Before the war, food prices had already climbed to their highest levels in over a decade because of pandemic disruptions in the supply chain and pervasive drought.The United States, Brazil and Argentina, key grain producers for the world, have experienced three consecutive years of drought. The level of the Mississippi River fell so much that the barges that carry American grain to ports were temporarily grounded.The weakening of many foreign currencies against the U.S. dollar has also forced some countries to buy less food on the international market than in years past.Russia attacked the port of Kherson, on Ukraine’s Black Sea coast, in November. Before the war, farmers shipped out 95 percent of the country’s wheat and grain exports through the Black Sea.Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times“There were a lot of structural issues, and then the war just made it that much worse,” Ms. Menker said.U.S. officials say the Russian military has deliberately targeted grain storage facilities in Ukraine, a potential war crime, and has destroyed wheat processing plants.Many farmers in Ukraine have gone to war or fled their land, and the infrastructure that processed and carried wheat and sunflower oil to foreign markets has broken down.At a farm 190 miles south of Kyiv, 40 of the 350 employees have enlisted in the army. And the farm is struggling with other shortages. Kees Huizinga, the Dutch co-owner, said Russia’s attacks on the energy grid have led to the shutdown of a plant that provides his farm and others with nitrogen fertilizer.Other fertilizer plants in Europe were forced to shut down or slow production last year as natural gas prices soared, a result of the war. Natural gas is critical for fertilizer production.“So this year’s harvest has already been reduced,” Mr. Huizinga said in November. “And if Russians continue like this, next year’s harvest might even be worse.”He added that transportation costs have risen sharply for farmers in Ukraine.Before the war, farmers shipped out 95 percent of the country’s wheat and grain exports through the Black Sea. Mr. Huizinga’s farm paid $23 to $24 per ton to transport its products to ports and onto ships. Now, the cost has more than doubled, he said. And an alternative route — by truck to Romania — costs $85 per ton.Mr. Huizinga said Russia’s compromise on Black Sea shipments has helped, but he suspects Moscow is hobbling operations by slowing inspections. Under the arrangement, each vessel leaving one of three Ukrainian ports on the Black Sea has to be inspected by joint teams of Ukrainian, Russian, Turkish and United Nations employees once the ship reaches Istanbul.The teams look for any unauthorized cargo or crew members, and vessels heading to Ukraine need to be empty of cargo, said Ismini Palla, a spokeswoman for the U.N. office overseeing the program.U.N. data shows that the rate of inspections has dropped in recent weeks. The parties agreed to deploy three teams each day, Ms. Palla said, adding that the United Nations has requested more.“We hope that this will change soon, so that the Ukrainian ports can operate again at higher capacity,” she said. “Ukrainian exports remain a vital element in combating global food insecurity.”Ms. Palla said the parties’ decision in November to extend the agreement contributed to a 2.8 percent drop in global wheat prices.Over the last six months, food prices have retreated from highs reached this spring, according to an index compiled by the United Nations. But they remain much higher than in previous years.An uncertainty for farmers this winter is the soaring price of fertilizer, one of their biggest costs.Farmers have passed on the higher cost by increasing the price of food products. And many farmers are using less fertilizer in their fields. That will result in lower crop yields in the coming seasons, pushing food prices higher.Subsistence farms, which produce nearly a third of the world’s food, are being hit even harder, Ms. Coleman said.Food rations were distributed in Sana, Yemen. The war in that country has left its people vulnerable to food insecurity.Yahya Arhab/EPA, via ShutterstockIn a communiqué issued at the close of their meeting in Bali, Indonesia, in November, leaders of the Group of 20 nations said they were deeply concerned by the challenges to global food security and pledged to support the international efforts to keep food supply chains functioning.“We need to strengthen trade cooperation, not weaken it,” Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the director general of the World Trade Organization, said at the summit.The U.S. government spends about $2 billion per year on global food security, and it started a program called Feed the Future after the last big food crisis, in 2010, that now encompasses 20 countries.Since the start of the Ukraine war, the United States has provided more than $11 billion to address the food crisis. That includes a $100 million program called AGRI-Ukraine, which has helped about 13,000 farmers in Ukraine — 27 percent of the total — gain access to financing, technology, transportation, seeds, fertilizer, bags and mobile storage units, Ms. Coleman said.The efforts could help rebuild the country while alleviating the global food crisis — one-fifth of Ukraine’s economy is in the agriculture sector, and a fifth of the country’s labor force is connected to it.“It’s hugely important for Ukraine’s economy,” she said, “and for Ukraine’s economic survival.”Edward Wong 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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    If There Is a ‘Male Malaise’ With Work, Could One Answer Be at Sea?

    Before dawn on a recent day in the port of Seattle, dense autumn fog hugged Puget Sound and ship-to-shore container cranes hovered over the docks like industrial sentinels. Under the dim glimmer of orange floodlights, the crew of the tugboat Millennium Falcon fired up her engines for a long day of towing oil barges and refueling a variety of large vessels, like container ships.The first thing to know about barges is that they don’t move themselves. They are propelled and guided by tugs like the Falcon, which is owned by Centerline Logistics, one of the largest U.S. transporters of marine petroleum. Such companies may not be household names, but the nation’s energy supply chain would have broken under the pandemic’s pressure without the steady presence of their fleets — and their crews.“We’re a floating gas station,” said Bowman Harvey, a director of operations at Centerline, as he stood aboard the Falcon, his neck tattoo of the Statue of Liberty pivoting from the base of his flannel whenever he gestured at a machine or busy colleague nearby. Demand is solid, he said, and the enterprise is profitable. The company’s client list, which includes Exxon Mobil and Maersk, the global shipping giant, is robust. But manning the fleet has become a struggle.Multiyear charter contracts for key lines of business — refueling ships, transporting fuel for refineries and general towing jobs — are locked in across all three coasts, plus Hawaii, Alaska and Puerto Rico, Mr. Harvey said. Yet as pandemic-related staffing shortages have eased in other industries, Centerline is still short on staff. “Hands down,” Mr. Harvey said, “our biggest challenge right now is finding crew.”Safely moving, loading and unloading oil at sea requires both simple and high-skill jobs that cannot be automated. And the labor supply issues in merchant marine transportation are emblematic of the conundrum seen in a variety of decently paying, male-heavy jobs in the trades.Overall Labor Force Participation Has Fallen Among Men

    Note: The overall labor force, as defined by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, includes all Americans age 16 and older who are classified as either working or actively looking for work.Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics By The New York TimesOver the past 50 years, male labor force participation, the share of men working or actively looking for work, has steadily fallen as female participation has climbed.Some scholars have a grim explanation for the trend. Nicholas Eberstadt, the conservative-leaning author of “Men Without Work,” argues that there has been a swell in men who are “inert, written off or discounted by society and, perhaps, all too often, even by themselves.” Others, like the Brookings Institution senior fellow Richard V. Reeves, put less emphasis on potential social pathologies but say a “male malaise” is hampering households and the economy.“Hands down, our biggest challenge right now is finding crew,” said Bowman Harvey, a director of operations at Centerline.Members of the Millennium Falcon crew.Centerline employees are among about 75,000 categorized by the Department of Labor as water transportation workers, a group in which men outnumber women five to one.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.October Jobs Report: U.S. employers continued to hire at a fast clip, adding 261,000 jobs in the 10th month of the year despite the Fed’s push to cool the economy.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.Disabled Workers: With Covid prompting more employers to consider remote arrangements, employment has soared among adults with disabilities.A Feast or Famine Career: America’s port truck drivers are a nearly-invisible yet crucial part of the global supply chain. And they are sinking into desperation.Though the gender split in the industry is more even for onshore office roles, workers and applicants for jobs on the water are predominantly male. Centerline says it has roughly 220 offshore crew members and about 35 openings. Captains and company managers agree that changing attitudes toward work among young men play a part in the labor shortage. But the strongest consensus opinion is that structural demographic shifts are against them. “We’re seeing a gray wave of retirement,” said Mr. Harvey, who is 38.Even though replacements are needed and, on the whole, lacking, there are new young recruits who are thriving, such as Noah Herrera Johnson, 19, who has joined Centerline as a cadet deckhand, an entry-level role.On a Thursday morning out in the harbor, Mr. Herrera Johnson deftly unknotted, flipped and refastened a series of sailing knots as the crew unmoored from a sister boat that was aiding the refueling of a Norwegian Cruise Line ship. A small crowd of curious cruise passengers peeked down as he bopped through the sequences and the sun’s glare began to pierce the fog, bouncing off the undulating waves.“I enjoy it a lot,” Mr. Herrera Johnson said of his work, as he sliced some meat in the galley later on. (Some kitchen work and cleaning are part of the gig and the fraternal ritual of paying dues.) “I get along with everyone — everyone has stories to tell,” he said. “And I was never good at school.”Mr. Herrera Johnson, who is Mexican American and whose mother is from Seattle, spent most of his life in Cabo San Lucas, in Baja California, until he moved back to the United States shortly after turning 18.Though entry-level roles aboard don’t require college credentials, new regulations have made at least briefly attending a vocational maritime academy a necessity for those who want to rise quickly up the crew ladder. Because he is interested in becoming a captain by his late 20s, he began a two-year program at the nearby Pacific Maritime Institute in March, and he earns course credits for work at Centerline between classes.Noah Herrera Johnson, left, preparing to throw a line to Andrew Nelson, right, as the Millennium Falcon docked in Seattle.Mr. Herrera Johnson, right, joined the Falcon crew as a cadet deckhand, an entry-level role.He got his “first tug” in May: an escapade from New Orleans through the Panama Canal to San Francisco, patched with some bad weather. “Two months, two long months — it was fun,” he said. “We had a few things going on. We lost steering a few times. But it was cool.”In short, the industry needs far more Noahs. Many Centerline employees have informally become part-time recruiters — handing out cards, encouraging seemingly capable young men who may be between jobs, undecided about college or disillusioned with the standard 9-to-5 existence to consider being a mariner instead.“When I’m trying to get friends or family members to come into the business,” Mr. Harvey said, “I make sure to remind them: Don’t think of this as a job, think of it as a lifestyle.”Internet connections aboard are common these days, and there is plenty of downtime for movies, TV, reading, cooking and joking around with sea mates. (On slow days, captains will sometimes do doughnuts in the water like victorious racecar drivers, turning the whole vessel into a Tilt-a-Whirl ride for the crew: sea legs required.)Of course, those leisurely moments punctuate days and nights of heaving lines, tying knots, making repairs, executing multiple refueling jobs and helping to navigate the tugboat: rain or shine, heat or heavy seas.It’s “an adventurous life,” Mr. Harvey said, one that he and others acknowledge has its pros and cons. Mariners in this sector — whether they are entry-level deckhands, midtier mates and engineers, or crew-leading tankermen and captains — are usually on duty at sea in tight quarters and bunk beds for a month or more.On the bright side, however, because of an “equal time” policy, full-time crew members are given roughly just as much time off for the same annual pay.“When I go home, you know, I’m taking essentially 35 days off,” said Capt. Ryan Buckhalter, 48, who’s been a mariner for 20 years. For many, it’s a refreshing work-life balance, he said: None of the nettlesome emails or nagging office politics in between shifts often faced by the average modern office worker trying to get ahead.Still, Captain Buckhalter, who has a wife and a young daughter, echoed other crew members when he admitted that the setup could also be “tough at times” for families, including his own.Capt. Ryan Buckhalter piloted the Millennium Falcon on Elliott Bay.A checklist in the wheelhouse of the tugboat.Crew members say they value knowing that their work, unlike more abstract service jobs, is essential to world trade. And average starting salaries for deckhand jobs are $55,000 a year (or about $26 an hour) and as high as $75,000 in places like the San Francisco area, with higher living costs.The company also offers low-cost health, vision and dental care for employees, and a 401(k) plan with a company match. So the chief executive, Matt Godden, said in an interview that he didn’t feel that wages or benefits were a central reason that his company and competitors with similar offerings had struggled to hire.“Right now a lot of companies are really hurting,” Captain Buckhalter said. “You kind of got a little gap here with the younger generation not really showing up.”If the labor market, like any other, operates by supply and demand, managers within the maritime industry say the supply side of the nation’s education and training system is also at fault: It has given priority to the digital over the physical economy, putting what are often called “the jobs of the future” over those society still needs.Mr. Harvey adds that his industry is also grappling with increased Coast Guard licensing requirements for skilled roles, like boat engineers or tankermen, who lead the loading and discharging of oil barges. The regulations help ensure physical and environmental safety standards, Mr. Harvey said, but reduce the already limited pool of adequately credentialed candidates.Women remain a rare sight aboard. Some captains make the case that this stems from hesitance toward a life of bunking and sharing a bathroom with a crop of guys at sea — a self-reinforcing dynamic that company officials say they are working to alleviate.“We actually do have women that work on the vessels!” said Kimberly Cartagena, the senior manager for marketing and public relations at Centerline. “Definitely not as much as men, but we do have a handful.”Several economists and industry analysts suggested in interviews that another way for companies like Centerline to add crew members would be to expand their digital presence and do social media outreach. Mr. Godden, Centerline’s chief executive, said he remained wary.“If you did something very simple, like you set up a TikTok account, and you sent somebody out every day to create varied little snippets, and you get viral videos of strong men pulling lines and big waves and big pieces of machinery,” Mr. Godden said, then a company would risk introducing an inefficient churn of young recruits who would “like the idea of being on a boat” but not be a fan of the unsexy “calluses” that come with the job.Crew members say they value knowing their work is essential to world trade. But in the long term, he said, there is reason for optimism. He pointed to the recent establishment of the Maritime High School, which opened a year ago just south of the Seattle-Tacoma airport with its first ninth-grade class.“I think their first class is looking to graduate a hundred people, and then they got goals of getting up to 300, 400 graduates a year,” Mr. Godden said. He has been meeting with the school’s leaders this fall and is convinced they will help create the next pipeline in the profession.“Yes, labor shortages may increase or decrease depending upon how the market works — but I always have this sense that there’s always going to be this sort of built-in group of folks who cannot — just cannot — stand seeing themselves sitting at a desk for 30, 40, 50 years,” he said. “It’s this hands-on business almost like, you know, when you’re a kid and you’re playing with trucks or toys, and then you get to do it in the life-size version.” More

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    Price of Diesel, Which Powers the Economy, Is Still Climbing

    Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is one reason that the fuel is scarce. Another is a series of yearslong, intertwined events that cover the globe.HOUSTON — Gasoline prices have dropped as much as a dollar a gallon since early summer, easing a financial strain on many people. But the price of diesel, the fuel that moves trucks, trains, barges, tractors and construction equipment, has remained stubbornly high, helping to prop up the prices of many goods and services.On Wednesday, a gallon of diesel fuel in the United States cost $5.357 on average, according to AAA. That was down from a record of $5.816 in June but well above the $3.642 it cost a year ago. (A gallon of regular gasoline now averages $3.805.)The surge in diesel costs has not garnered the attention from politicians and the public that the jump in gasoline prices did, because most of the cars in the United States run on gas. But diesel prices are a critical source of pain for the economy because they affect the cost of practically every product.“The economic impact is insidious because everything moves across the country powered by diesel,” said Tom Kloza, the global head of energy analysis at the Oil Price Information Service. “It’s an inflation accelerant, and the consumer ultimately has to pay for it.”Sherri Garner Brumbaugh, the president of Garner Trucking in Findlay, Ohio, said the weekly cost of fueling one of her heavy-duty trucks in September was $1,300, more than double the $600 she paid two years earlier. “A good portion gets passed onto my customers with a fuel surcharge,” she said.Both gasoline and diesel prices are tied to the price of oil, which is set on the global market. The price of each fuel immediately shot up after Russia invaded Ukraine in February. But their paths have diverged sharply. Over the last year, the cost of diesel has ballooned by over 40 percent, compared with 11 percent for gasoline.Diesel prices are high because the fuel is scarce worldwide, including in the United States, which in recent years became a net exporter of oil and petroleum products. Oil analysts said there were simply not enough refineries to meet the demand for diesel, especially after Russia’s energy exports fell when the United States, Britain and some other countries stopped buying them.Diesel inventories are always a bit low in the spring and fall, during agricultural planting and harvesting seasons, but this fall supplies are at their lowest level since 1982, when the government began reporting data on the fuel.The tightest market is in the Northeast, where oil refineries have closed in recent years and where the diesel crunch is complicated by winter demand for heating oil. The two fuels are virtually the same but are taxed differently. An especially cold winter could make the situation worse by increasing the demand for heating oil.In Massachusetts, for example, diesel is selling for more than $5.90 a gallon (about $2.33 more than it did a year earlier). In Texas, it costs $4.73 a gallon.Trucks, trains, barges, tractors and construction equipment all use diesel, and its price affects the cost of practically every product.Jim Watson/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesWhile Russia’s war in Ukraine sent diesel prices soaring, the current situation is partly the result of an interconnected, slow-building series of events that extends across the globe. Some analysts trace the roots of the U.S. diesel shortage to a fire at Philadelphia Energy Solutions in 2019, which forced the refinery to shut down, taking out one of the Northeast’s important diesel producers.But refineries have been closing elsewhere. Over the last several years, 5 percent of U.S. refinery capacity, and 6 percent of European refinery capacity, has been shut down. A few refineries closed or scaled back because of the collapse in energy demand in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic. Some older refineries were shut down because they were inefficient and their profits weren’t large enough for Wall Street investors. Other refineries were closed so that their owners could convert them to produce biofuels, which are made from plants, waste and other organic material.“Because we shut those refineries down, we don’t have enough capacity,” said Sarah Emerson, the president of ESAI Energy, a consulting firm.As much of the global economy recovered in 2021 and 2022, demand for diesel climbed quickly. But then, after Russia invaded Ukraine, the Biden administration banned Russian oil and petroleum imports, which amounted to 700,000 barrels of diesel and other fuels a day, much of it intended for the Northeast.Diesel prices have also soared so much higher than the cost of gasoline in part because of a decision by the International Maritime Organization several years ago to require most oceangoing ships to replace their high-sulfur bunker fuel with less polluting fuels starting in 2020. That has slowly increased demand for diesel over the last two years.“A substantial amount of diesel is needed in the new bunker blends, and that is a hidden demand for diesel molecules,” said Richard Joswick, the head of global oil analysis for S&P Global Platts. He estimated that the global shipping fleet was now consuming half a million barrels of diesel a day, or roughly 2 percent of the world’s supplies.At the same time, while American refiners are now making tidy profits, 30 percent of their production is being exported. Latin America has become a particularly profitable market, as American diesel replaces fuel from Venezuela, where the state-controlled oil sector has been hobbled by corruption, mismanagement and U.S. sanctions. Some American diesel also goes to Europe.The impact of exports on domestic prices has led some analysts to speculate that the Biden administration could eventually restrict exports to boost supplies at home. But energy experts said that might not have the desired effect because diesel had become a globally traded commodity. Denying Latin America fuel could also backfire because many countries in the region sell crude oil to the United States.“We have a symbiotic relationship with Latin America on diesel and crude,” said Ms. Emerson of ESAI Energy. “We can disrupt that, but it doesn’t immediately fix the problem.”The global diesel shortage was also exacerbated by labor strikes at French refineries this fall. And utilities in Europe have been stockpiling diesel in case they cannot find enough natural gas to fuel their power plants.Russian diesel has continued to flow to Europe since the war began, but stricter sanctions that the European Union plans to impose on Russia in February could potentially cause havoc to the diesel business of traders, banks, insurance companies and shippers.Still, some energy experts said prices could soon begin to ease.Help may be on the way from an unlikely source: China. In recent months, China has been loosening export controls on diesel. Its exports rose from 200,000 barrels a day in August to 430,000 barrels a day in September, and the country has the capacity to sell even more, according to estimates by ESAI Energy.Nearly a third of Chinese diesel exports went to the Netherlands in recent months, taking some pressure off the European market. And oil refineries being built in Kuwait and China could come online as early as next year, further increasing supply.Demand for diesel and its price could also fall if much of the world slides into a recession next year, as some economists and policymakers are expecting.“A deep recession would certainly cut into diesel demand,” said Mr. Joswick of S&P Global Platts. “We don’t forecast a recession, but that is certainly a possibility.” More

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    Job Openings Rose in September Despite Higher Interest Rates

    The labor market has remained stronger than expected even as the Federal Reserve has tried to get inflation under control.The nation’s extreme shortage of job seekers worsened in September, the Labor Department reported Tuesday, after easing the previous month.Employers had 10.7 million positions open as summer ended, up from 10.3 million in August. That left roughly 1.9 posted jobs for every unemployed worker, a persistently high ratio even as the economy appears to be decelerating because the Federal Reserve is working to quell inflation.Pulling down job postings — or holding off on new ones — is usually the first step that employers take as the economy weakens, in hopes that hiring more conservatively could avoid the need to lay people off later. But the labor market has been slow to respond to rising interest rates, even as other indicators point toward an impending recession.The report is the last piece of significant economic data to land before policymakers at the Fed meet on Wednesday, and only reinforces the likely outcome. Most analysts expect the central bank to raise its benchmark interest rate by 0.75 percentage points, even if job openings tumbled in Tuesday’s Labor Department report.“What if all the JOLTS dropped to zero?” said Dana Peterson, chief economist at the Conference Board, using shorthand for the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey. “I don’t think that would cause them to not go 75 basis points, because they’re focused on inflation. They’ve already said there’s going to be some pain, and pain is code for the labor market.”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.September Jobs Report: Job growth eased slightly in September but remained robust, indicating that the economy was maintaining momentum despite higher interest rates.A Cooling Market?: Unemployment is low and hiring is strong, but there are signs that the red-hot labor market may be coming off its boiling point.Disabled Workers: With Covid prompting more employers to consider remote arrangements, employment has soared among adults with disabilities.A Feast or Famine Career: America’s port truck drivers are a nearly-invisible yet crucial part of the global supply chain. And they are sinking into desperation.The number of open jobs is consistent with surveys of businesses, which have continued to report difficulty hiring. The National Federation of Independent Business found in its September survey that 23 percent of its members planned to create new jobs in the next three months, and of those, 89 percent said they had few qualified applicants.The jump in job openings was largely due to huge increases at hotels and restaurants, which added 215,000 postings. And the health care and social assistance sector was looking for 115,000 more workers than the previous month, reaching 2.1 million openings total, the highest level on record.At the same time, the number of people hired declined to about 6.1 million, continuing a downward slide that began this spring. That could be a consequence of employers having a tougher time finding qualified applicants, or deciding to hold positions open longer as they wait for the economic dust to settle.The number of people quitting their jobs voluntarily, usually a sign that workers have confidence they’ll be able to find a better one, declined slightly to about 4.1 million. As a share of total employment, that was about level with recent months but down from record highs at the end of 2021.Inflation has forced some workers to find ways to increase their earnings — whether by asking for raises or finding other jobs. At the same time, fear of a looming recession has prompted some workers to stay put unless they have another offer in hand.Quitting fell most in industries that are facing the strongest headwinds from higher interest rates and weakening consumer spending, including construction, transportation and warehousing, and manufacturing.The number of layoffs also declined from recent months. That’s in line with the weekly reports of initial claims for unemployment insurance, which have remained near record lows. After hiring aggressively over the past year — and often at higher salaries — employers may be less eager to let people go, even as business wavers.In an August survey of hiring managers by the polling firm Morning Consult, about 57 percent of respondents said they were retaining more employees than they normally would because of how difficult it was to replace people. That may lead to a reversal of the typical “last-in, first-out” pattern that has been common in other downturns.“If you spent a lot of money attracting workers, you don’t want to let them go right away, because then all that money just goes down the drain,” Ms. Peterson said. “Six months later you have to find them again, and they might be asking for a different asking price. You want to keep all your talent, but if you think about it, it’s very expensive to let go of those workers you just hired and invested a lot in.” More

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    How the Car Market Is Shedding Light on a Key Inflation Question

    How easily companies give up swollen profits could determine how easily the Federal Reserve can cool inflation. Dealerships offer clues.In a recent speech pointedly titled “Bringing Inflation Down,” Lael Brainard, the Federal Reserve’s vice chair, zoomed in on the automobile market as a real-world example of a major uncertainty looming over the outlook for price increases: What will happen next with corporate profits.Many companies have been able to raise prices beyond their own increasing costs over the past two years, swelling their profitability but also exacerbating inflation. That is especially true in the car market. While dealerships are paying manufacturers more for inventory, they have been charging customers even higher prices, sending their profits toward record highs.Dealers could pull that off because demand has been strong and, amid disruptions in the supply of parts, there are too few trucks and sedans to go around. But — in line with its desire for the economy as a whole — the Fed is hoping both sides of that equation could be on the cusp of changing.“With production now increasing, and interest-sensitive demand cooling, there may soon be pressures to reduce vehicle margins and prices in order to move the higher volume of cars being produced off dealer lots,” Ms. Brainard explained during her remarks.The Fed has been raising interest rates to make borrowing for big purchases — cars, houses, business expansions — more expensive. The goal is to cool demand and slow the fastest inflation in four decades. Whether it can pull that off without inflicting serious pain on the economy will hinge partly on how easily companies surrender their hefty profits.If companies begin to lower prices to compete for customers as demand abates, price increases might slow without costing a lot of jobs. But if they try to hold on to big profits, the transition could be bumpier as the Fed is forced to squeeze the economy more drastically and quash demand more severely.“There has been a giant shift in bargaining power between consumers and corporations,” said Gennadiy Goldberg, senior U.S. rates strategist at TD Securities. “That’s where the next adjustment has to come — corporations have to see some pain.”The example of the auto industry offers reasons for hope but also caution. While there are signs that price increases for used cars are beginning to moderate as supply recovers, that process has been halting, and the new-car market illustrates why the path toward lower profits that help slow inflation could be a long one.That’s because three big forces that are playing out across the broader economy are on particularly clear display in the car market. Supply chains have not completely healed. Demand may be slowing down, but it still has momentum. And companies that have grown used to charging high prices and raking in big profits are proving hesitant to give up.The auto market split into two segments that are now diverging — new cars and used cars.New-car production was upended as the pandemic shut down factories making semiconductors and other parts, and it is only limping back. Freshly minted vehicles remain extraordinarily scarce, according to dealers and data, and several industry experts said they didn’t see a return to normal levels of output for years as supply problems continue. Prices are still increasing swiftly, and dealer profits remain sharply elevated with little sign of cracking.Inflation F.A.Q.Card 1 of 5What is inflation? More