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    The Fed Wants to Fight Inflation Without a Recession. Is It Too Late?

    Federal Reserve officials took a while to recognize that inflation was lasting. The question is whether they can tame it gently now.The Federal Reserve is poised to set out a path to rapidly withdraw support from the economy at its meeting on Wednesday — and while it hopes it can contain inflation without causing a recession, that is far from guaranteed.Whether the central bank can gently land the economy is likely to serve as a referendum on its policy approach over the past two years, making this a tense moment for a Fed that has been criticized for being too slow to recognize that America’s 2021 price burst was turning into a more serious problem.The Fed chair, Jerome H. Powell, and his colleagues are expected to raise interest rates half a percentage point on Wednesday, which would be the largest increase since 2000. Officials have also signaled that they will release a plan for shrinking their $9 trillion balance sheet starting in June, a policy move that will further push up borrowing costs.That two-front push to cool off the economy is expected to continue throughout the year: Several policymakers have said they hope to get rates above 2 percent by the end of 2022. Taken together, the moves could prove to be the fastest withdrawal of monetary support in decades.The Fed’s response to hot inflation is already having visible effects: Climbing mortgage rates seem to be cooling some booming housing markets, and stock prices are wobbling. The months ahead could be volatile for both markets and the economy as the nation sees whether the Fed can slow rapid wage growth and price inflation without constraining them so much that unemployment jumps sharply and growth contracts.“The task that the Fed has to pull off a soft landing is formidable,” said Megan Greene, chief global economist at the Kroll Institute, a research arm of the Kroll consulting firm. “The trick is to cause a slowdown, and lean against inflation, without having unemployment tick up too much — that’s going to be difficult.”Optimists, including many at the Fed, point out that this is an unusual economy. Job openings are plentiful, consumers have built up savings buffers, and it seems possible that growth will be resilient even as business conditions slow somewhat.Understand Inflation in the U.S.Inflation 101: What is inflation, why is it up and whom does it hurt? Our guide explains it all.Your Questions, Answered: Times readers sent us their questions about rising prices. Top experts and economists weighed in.Interest Rates: As it seeks to curb inflation, the Federal Reserve announced that it was raising interest rates for the first time since 2018.How Americans Feel: We asked 2,200 people where they’ve noticed inflation. Many mentioned basic necessities, like food and gas.Supply Chain’s Role: A key factor in rising inflation is the continuing turmoil in the global supply chain. Here’s how the crisis unfolded.But many economists have said cooling price increases down when labor is in demand and wages are rising could require the Fed to take significant steam out of the job market. Otherwise, firms will continue to pass rising labor costs along to customers by raising prices, and households will maintain their ability to spend thanks to growing paychecks.“They need to engineer some kind of growth recession — something that raises the unemployment rate to take the pressure off the labor market,” said Donald Kohn, a former Fed vice chair who is now at the Brookings Institution. Doing that without spurring an outright downturn is “a narrow path.”Fed officials cut interest rates to near-zero in March 2020 as state and local economies locked down to slow the coronavirus’s spread at the start of the pandemic. They kept them there until March this year, when they raised rates a quarter point.But the Fed’s balance-sheet approach has been the more widely criticized policy. The Fed began buying government-backed debt in huge quantities at the outset of the pandemic to calm bond markets. Once conditions settled, it bought bonds at a pace of $120 billion, and continued making purchases even as it became clear that the economy was healing more swiftly than many had anticipated and inflation was high.Late-2021 and early-2022 bond purchases, which are what critics tend to focus on, came partly because Mr. Powell and his colleagues did not initially think that inflation would become longer lasting. They labeled it “transitory” and predicted that it would fade on its own — in line with what many private-sector forecasters expected at the time.When supply chain disruptions and labor shortages persisted into the fall, pushing up prices for months on end and driving wages higher, central bankers reassessed. But even after they pivoted, it took time to taper down bond buying, and the Fed made its final purchases in March. Because officials preferred to stop buying bonds before lifting rates, that delayed the whole tightening process.The central bank was trying to balance risks: It did not want to quickly withdraw support from a healing labor market in response to short-lived inflation earlier in 2021, and then officials did not want to roil markets and undermine their credibility by rapidly reversing course on their balance sheet policy. They did speed up the process in an attempt to be nimble.Under Jerome H. Powell, the Fed, which meets on Wednesday, is trying to walk a thin line.Nate Palmer for The New York Times“In hindsight, there’s a really good chance that the Fed should have started tightening earlier,” said Karen Dynan, an economist at the Harvard Kennedy School and a former Treasury Department chief economist. “It was really hard to judge in real time.”Nor was the Fed’s policy the only thing that mattered for inflation. Had the Fed begun to pull back policy support last year, it might have slowed the housing market more quickly and set the stage for slower demand, but it would not have fixed tangled supply chains or changed the fact that many consumers have more cash on hand than usual after repeated government relief checks and months spent at home early in the pandemic.Inflation F.A.Q.Card 1 of 6What is inflation? More

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    As Biden Pleads for More Covid Aid, States Are Awash in Federal Dollars

    States pushed back on a plan to take back some of their stimulus money to fund President Biden’s emergency spending request. Now Congress is trying to find other ways to offset the cost.FRANKFORT, Ky. — Gov. Andy Beshear has been toting oversize checks around his state in recent weeks, handing them out to city and county officials for desperately needed water improvements.The tiny city of Mortons Gap got $109,000 to bring running water to six families who do not have it. The people of Martin County, whose water has been too contaminated to drink since a coal slurry spill two decades ago, got $411,000. The checks bear Mr. Beshear’s signature, but the money comes from the federal government, part of a huge infusion of coronavirus relief aid that is helping to fuel record budget surpluses in Kentucky and many other states.Therein lies a Washington controversy. The funds, which Congress approved at a moment when the pandemic was still raging, are allowed to be used for far broader purposes than combating the virus, including water projects like those in Kentucky. Most states will get another round of “fiscal recovery funds” — part of President Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan — next month.But in Washington, Mr. Biden is out of money to pay for the most basic means of protecting people during the pandemic — medications, vaccines, testing and reimbursement for care. Republicans have refused to sign off on new spending, citing the state recovery funds as an example of money that could be repurposed for urgent national priorities.“These states are awash in money — everybody from Kentucky to California,” said Scott Jennings, a former aide to Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader. “People are like: ‘We’ve printed all this money; we’ve sent it out. These states have these massive surpluses, and now you need more?’”Republicans were never fans of Mr. Biden’s rescue plan, which Democrats muscled through Congress without their support. Despite the many ways it is benefiting his state, Mr. McConnell once called it a “multitrillion-dollar, nontargeted Band-Aid” that would dump “another huge mountain of debt on our grandkids.”On Capitol Hill on Thursday, a day after Mr. Biden made a public appeal to Congress for more money, Senate Republicans and Democrats were nearing a deal on a $10 billion emergency aid package — less than half of Mr. Biden’s initial request. But they had not resolved crucial differences over the size and how to pay for it. Republicans want to use unspent money already approved by Congress, but the parties have been unable to agree on which programs should be tapped.Since the outset of the pandemic, the Trump and Biden administrations have injected $5 trillion into the American economy, including the rescue plan. With midterm elections approaching, the gush of federal stimulus spending will draw even greater scrutiny as Republicans accuse Democrats of wasting funds and fueling inflation, and demand a precise accounting of how the money has been spent.David Adkins, the executive director and chief executive of the Council of State Governments, said such questions were inevitable now that policymakers could catch their collective breath.“We have to lean into the notion that states are laboratories of democracy,” Mr. Adkins said. “Some of these things will fail; some of this money will not be spent well. But that is the nature of trying to navigate disruptive times.”The rescue plan set aside $195 billion to help states recover from the economic and health effects of the pandemic. When Mr. Biden made his initial aid request, senior lawmakers in both parties negotiated a plan to pay for it partly by taking back $7 billion from states, as part of a $1.5 trillion spending bill.Governors and rank-and-file Democrats balked, saying that to do so would disproportionately hurt the 31 states that have not yet gotten all their rescue funds, and the deal fell apart. Now it appears the state funds will be spared, though the fracas has cast a sharp spotlight on how the fiscal recovery funds are being spent.“I was never for giving this money to the states, but I was always of the belief that once you gave it to them, politics would not allow you to get it back,” Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, the top Republican on the subcommittee that controls health spending, said in a recent interview.All told, the White House says 93 percent of the American Rescue Plan dollars that are currently available have been “legally obligated,” meaning they have either already been spent or are committed to being spent.Most states have either started spending their fiscal recovery funds, or have plans to do so. A recent analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that while most states are still developing budgets for the upcoming fiscal year, states have already budgeted 78 percent of their fiscal recovery fund allocation.Kentucky, where Mr. Beshear, a Democrat, is promoting record job growth and economic boom times, ended 2021 with a record $1.1 billion surplus, and another surplus is expected this year. The state has already received $1.1 billion in federal funds and expects another $1 billion in May. It is spending the money on broadband, bolstering tourism and shoring up the unemployment insurance fund as well as coronavirus testing, in addition to water improvements.Martin County recently received $411,000 in federal stimulus funds to help pay for desperately needed water improvements.Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times“These dollars are too important and too transformational to get caught up in a partisan fight,” Mr. Beshear said in an interview, adding: “These are dollars that are helping us as we emerge from Covid. We’ve got a choice to limp out of the pandemic or sprint out of the pandemic, and cutting off this aid only hurts the people that need it.”Congress specified four broad purposes for the money: to respond to the pandemic’s health and economic impacts; to provide bonus pay to essential workers; to prevent cuts in public services; and to invest in sewer, water or broadband infrastructure. But states can also use the funds to replace lost revenues, which gives them great flexibility in spending the money.Arkansas, for instance, has awarded $374,000 to a rape crisis center; $6.3 million to the Arkansas Coalition Against Sexual Assault; and another $6.3 million to the Arkansas Alliance of Boys & Girls Clubs. But the bulk of the money has gone toward improving broadband access and addressing the needs of the health care system.“The Omicron variant came in, cases skyrocketed, hospitals filled up and so we had to utilize a significant amount of our ARPA money for expanding hospital space, home testing and other public health response,” said Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, using the acronym for the rescue plan. “So that’s obviously the first responsibility, and then we looked at these other needs.”Other states are using the money in ways that are only tangentially related to Covid-19, but that are permissible under guidelines issued by the Treasury Department.Alabama devoted $400 million of its allocation, or roughly one-fifth, to building two new prisons, despite a public outcry from advocates for racial justice and civil liberties. Florida devoted $2 billion, nearly one-quarter of its $8.8 billion allotment, to highway construction — a decision that has drawn criticism from the nonpartisan Florida Policy Institute.“The intended purpose of the American Rescue Plan Act dollars was to ensure that individuals and communities could recover from the pandemic, and I think in many ways there were better uses for this money,” said Esteban Leonardo Santis, the group’s tax and revenue analyst.Twenty states, including Kentucky, spent a total of $15 billion to build up their depleted unemployment insurance trust funds. Independent analysts say that is effectively a tax break for businesses, which otherwise may have had to make up for the lost revenues. But Mr. Beshear defended it, saying that Kentucky businesses stepped up during the pandemic. A local Toyota plant made face shields, and bourbon distillers manufactured hand sanitizer, he said.The governor’s Twitter feed is rife with photos of big checks and smiling city and county officials; he is running for re-election in 2023.“If there’s one thing a governor knows how to do, it’s drive around their state and hand out huge checks and cut big ribbons with oversized scissors,” Mr. Jennings said. “They’re like game show hosts out there.”Chris McDaniel, a Kentucky state senator, spent much of this week immersed in budget talks, including planning how to use Kentucky’s next tranche of fiscal recovery funds.Luke Sharrett for The New York TimesExperts say, and the White House acknowledges, that the fiscal recovery funds have helped create state budget surpluses. Gene B. Sperling, a senior adviser to the president who is overseeing the American Rescue Plan, said the surpluses were proof that Mr. Biden’s stimulus package was working — and this was no time to pare back.“Ensuring that states and localities have a cushion for some pretty serious bumps in the road is smart policy,” Mr. Sperling said, “and a lesson learned from what happened after the Great Recession.”But those surpluses are likely to be temporary, and how states are using them has played into the controversy over Covid relief funds. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says 14 states are using temporary budget surpluses “to call for costly and permanent tax cuts targeted more to wealthy people” — a move the center described as a “bad choice.”Here in Frankfort, the state capital, Kentucky lawmakers in a hurry to wrap up their 2022 legislative session were working on pushing through a hefty income tax cut this week. But a proposal to use the state’s budget surplus to give Kentuckians a tax rebate of up to $500 seemed unlikely to pass, said its author, State Senator Chris McDaniel, the appropriations committee chairman.Mr. McDaniel, a Republican, spent much of this week immersed in budget talks, including planning how to use Kentucky’s next tranche of fiscal recovery funds. Another $1 billion is coming, and despite some philosophical misgivings, he said he saw no reason not to spend it.“I believe firmly that it was too much money that came down,” Mr. McDaniel said. “But I also believe that Kentuckians will bear the tax burden eventually, just like everyone else down the line, and I am not going to disadvantage future Kentuckians out of a point of philosophical pride.”Emily Cochrane More

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    Covid Stimulus Money Brings Clashes Within Cities and Counties

    Last June, a meeting of the Dutchess County Legislature in New York’s Hudson Valley quickly turned heated over how to spend some of the county’s $57 million in federal pandemic relief aid.For more than two hours, residents and Democratic lawmakers implored the Republican majority to address longstanding problems that the pandemic had exacerbated. They cited opioid abuse, poverty and food insecurity. Some pointed to decrepit sewer systems and inadequate high-speed internet. Democrats offered up amendments directing funds to addiction recovery and mental health services.In the end, the Legislature rebuffed their appeals. It voted 15 to 10 to devote $12.5 million to renovate a minor-league baseball stadium that’s home to the Hudson Valley Renegades, a Yankees affiliate.“Who created this plan? Some legislators?” asked Carole Pickering, a resident of Hyde Park. “These funds were intended to rescue our citizens to the extent possible, not to upgrade a baseball field.”“I think we should be a little bit ashamed,” Brennan Kearney, a Democrat in the Legislature, told her fellow lawmakers.Cities and counties across the United States have found themselves in the surprisingly uncomfortable position of deciding how best to spend a windfall of federal relief funds intended to help keep them afloat amid deadly waves of Covid-19 infections.The pandemic, which is showing signs of waning as it enters its third year, prompted the largest infusion of federal money into the U.S. economy since the New Deal. President Biden and former President Donald J. Trump got Congress to approve roughly $5 trillion to help support families, shop owners, unemployed workers, schools and businesses.Where $5 Trillion in Pandemic Stimulus Money WentIt is the largest government relief effort in recorded history, and two years after Covid-19 crisis began, money is still flowing to communities. Here’s where it went and how it was spent.A large portion of the aid went to state, local and tribal governments, many of which had projected revenue losses of as much as 20 percent at the pandemic’s onset. The largest chunk came from Mr. Biden’s $1.9 trillion recovery bill, the American Rescue Plan, which earmarked $350 billion. That money is just beginning to flow to communities, which have until 2026 to spend it.“We’ve sent you a whole hell of a lot of money,” Mr. Biden said during a meeting with the nation’s governors in January.In many cases, the money has become an unusually public and contentious marker of what matters most to a place — and who gets to make those decisions. The debates are sometimes partisan, but not always divided by ideology. They pit colleagues against each other, neighbors against neighbors, people who want infrastructure improvements against those who want to help people experiencing homelessness.“It’s both breathtaking in its magnitude but it still requires some hard and strategic choices,” said Brad Whitehead, who is a nonresident senior fellow at Brookings Metro, a metropolitan policy project, and advises cities on how to use their funds. “One of the difficulties for elected leaders is everyone has a claim and a thought for how these dollars should be used.”Poughkeepsie, N.Y., part of Dutchess County. At a meeting last summer, county residents implored leaders to use pandemic aid to address longstanding problems.Amir Hamja for The New York TimesA person who is homeless in Poughkeepsie. Homelessness and poverty were among the issues that residents said deserved funding.Amir Hamja for The New York TimesLocal governments were given broad discretion over how to use the money. In addition to addressing immediate health needs, they were allowed to make up for pandemic-related revenue losses from empty transit systems, tourist attractions and other areas that suffered financially.That money is often equivalent to a third or nearly half of a city’s annual budget. St. Louis, for instance, will receive $498 million, more than 40 percent of its 2021 budget of $1.1 billion. Cleveland, with a city budget of $1.8 billion, will get $511 million.But the relief comes with strings: Governments are prohibited from using the funds to subsidize tax cuts or to make up for pension shortfalls. And because the aid is essentially a one-time installment, it wouldn’t necessarily help cover salaries for new teachers or other recurring costs.Several states have sued the Biden administration over the tax cut restriction, claiming it violates state sovereignty. Some governments have refused to take the money over concerns that it would give the federal government power to control local decision-making.In Saginaw, Mich., the mayor formed a 15-person advisory group to recommend ways to spend the city’s $52 million allotment. Harrisburg, Pa., which received $49 million, has held public events seeking input from residents. Massillon, Ohio, identified the biggest source of public complaints — flooding and sanitation issues — and proposed using its $16 million share to address those areas.“We listened to the people, and we’re trying to make improvements for them,” said Kathy Catazaro-Perry, Massillon’s mayor. “Our city is old. We have a lot of areas that did not have storm drains, and so for us, this is going to be huge because we’re going to be able to rectify some of those older neighborhoods.”But many have found their communities mired in clashes over who has the power to spend the money.Poughkeepsie residents picked up free meals at the Family Partnership Center in February. The food was distributed through the Lunch Box, a program that provides hot meals in Dutchess County five days a week.Amir Hamja for The New York TimesIn New York’s Onondaga County, which includes Syracuse, legislators from both parties have been trying to claw back spending authority from the county executive, Ryan McMahon, a Republican.When the first half of the county’s $89 million stimulus share arrived last spring, Mr. McMahon placed it into an account that he controlled and began committing funds to projects, including a $1 million restaurant voucher program, $5 million in incentives for filmmakers to produce in the area and $25 million for a multisport complex featuring 10 synthetic turf fields.Lawmakers, who questioned why they were not being asked to vote on the spending, were told by the county attorney’s office that they had ceded that authority in December 2020 when they approved an emergency resolution that gave the county executive authority “to address budget issues specifically related to Covid-19 global pandemic.”Legislators argued that they had never intended for that control to extend beyond the immediate pandemic response.James Rowley, who was elected chair of the Onondaga County Legislature in January, hired a lawyer and spent $11,000 preparing a lawsuit to challenge Mr. McMahon.“We have the power of the purse,” Mr. Rowley, a Republican, said in an interview. “I didn’t want to set a precedent that gave the county executive power to spend county money.”Mr. McMahon did not respond to a request for comment. On Feb. 22, he sent a letter to the Legislature proposing that it regain control of the stimulus funds that had not yet been allocated.“I recognize your concern,” he wrote, noting that “our cooperative actions should comport with county charter principles of separation of powers.” An abandoned property in Poughkeepsie. One county legislator called the investment in the baseball stadium “a betrayal of our community.”Boarded-up buildings in Poughkeepsie. Local governments were given broad discretion in how the pandemic aid could be spent.The rush of money from the federal government is in part an attempt to avoid the mistakes of the last recession, when state and local governments cut spending and fired workers, prolonging America’s economic recovery. But analysts say it will take years to fully assess whether all the spending this time was successful. Critics argue that the overall $5 trillion effort has added to a ballooning federal deficit and helped propel rapid inflation. And many states report increasing revenue, and even surpluses, as the economy strengthens.The money has led to ideological fights over the role of the federal government.In January, dozens of residents crowded into a City Council meeting in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, where they demanded that the mayor and other officials turn down the city’s $8.6 million share of stimulus funds, saying it was a ruse by Washington to take control of the town.Residents booed and called the Council members “fascists.” Several referred to the money as a Trojan horse, lamenting that taking it would allow the federal government to impose restrictions on Idaho, including establishing vaccine checkpoints. Amid cries of “Recall!” one woman shouted repeatedly that “you have given up our sovereignty.”“Nobody wants this money,” Mark Salazar, a resident, said to applause. “I don’t want to be under the chains of the federal government. Nobody does.”The council eventually voted 5 to 1 to accept the funds, saying they would go toward expanding a police station and other areas.Dutchess County residents were similarly agitated, if less rowdy, at their June 14 meeting about the stadium. Guidance on using the funds issued by the Treasury Department specifically cited stadiums as “generally not reasonably proportional to addressing the negative economic impacts of the pandemic.”So why, those in attendance asked, was this happening?Marc Molinaro, the county executive, defended the spending, saying Dutchess County had identified $33 million in lost revenue as a result of the pandemic and that, according to the Biden administration’s guidance, stimulus funds could indeed go toward investing in things like the stadium.“It’s basically any structure, facility, thing you own as a government, you can invest these dollars in with broad latitude,” Mr. Molinaro said.In a recent interview, Mr. Molinaro said that because the funds were one-time money, the county needed to be careful not to create expenses that could not be paid for once the federal funds ran out.He added that investing in the stadium would produce an ongoing revenue stream for Dutchess County — money that he said would allow the government to pay for the types of programs that Democrats wanted.The investment, he said, “allows us to create 25 years of revenue that we can invest in the expansion of mental health services, homelessness and substance abuse.”That explanation has not mollified everyone.“I was just devastated that we spent the money that way,” Ms. Kearney, the Democratic legislator, said in an interview. “It was such a betrayal of our community. So grossly inappropriate and grossly tone deaf to the needs of the people in Dutchess who have suffered.” More

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    Where $5 Trillion in Pandemic Stimulus Money Went

    At the outset of the pandemic, governments used the funds largely to cover virus-related costs.

    As the months dragged on, they found themselves covering unexpected shortfalls created by the pandemic, including lost revenue from parking garages and museums where attendance dropped off. They also funded longstanding priorities like upgrading sewer systems and other infrastructure projects.

    K-12 schools used early funds to transition to remote learning, and they received $122 billion from the American Rescue Plan that was intended to help them pay salaries, facilitate vaccinations and upgrade buildings and ventilation systems to reduce the virus’s spread. At least 20 percent must be spent on helping students recover academically from the pandemic.

    While not all of the state and local aid has been spent, the scope of the funding has been expansive:

    Utah set aside $100 million for “water conservation” as it faces historic drought conditions.

    Texas has designated $100 million to “maintain” the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin.

    The San Antonio Independent School District in Texas plans to spend $9.4 million on increasing staff compensation, giving all permanent full-time employees a 2 percent pay raise and lifting minimum wages to $16 an hour, from $15.

    Alabama approved $400 million to help fund 4,000-bed prisons.

    Summerville, S.C., allocated more than $1.3 million for premium pay for essential workers.

    What was the impact?

    The aim of the money was to prevent the kind of painful budget cuts that state and local governments were forced to make in the wake of the Great Recession, when revenues plunged and costs soared, a recipe that prolonged America’s sluggish recovery and hampered some local economies for years.

    Economists largely agree that the money helped local governments shoulder significant pandemic-related costs, and many governments avoided deep budget cuts. Many states have even reported surpluses.

    But federal rules prevented local governments from using CARES Act funds to fill budget shortfalls, and state and local governments wound up slashing hundreds of thousands of public sector jobs anyway. Several states have sued the Biden administration over restrictions it imposed on the use of funds.

    What hasn’t been spent?

    A significant portion has yet to be spent, in part because more than $100 billion remains to be distributed by the Treasury Department. Only 19 states, plus Washington, D.C., received their entire allotments of American Rescue Plan funds in 2021. A second batch will be distributed this year.

    Governments have until 2026 tospend the funds, and disagreements over where the money should go and who has authority to spend it have slowed planning in some communities.

    School districts have until January 2025 to spend the money allocated to them. But even with several years left, schools have voiced concerns about meeting that deadline as many districts struggle with labor shortages and supply-chain delays. More

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    Black Farmers Fear Foreclosure as Debt Relief Remains Frozen

    Lawsuits from white farmers have blocked $4 billion of pandemic aid that was allocated to Black farmers in the American Rescue Plan.WASHINGTON — For Brandon Smith, a fourth-generation cattle rancher from Texas, the $1.9 trillion stimulus package that President Biden signed into law nearly a year ago was long-awaited relief.Little did he know how much longer he would have to wait.The legislation included $4 billion of debt forgiveness for Black and other “socially disadvantaged” farmers, a group that has endured decades of discrimination from banks and the federal government. Mr. Smith, a Black father of four who owes about $200,000 in outstanding loans on his ranch, quickly signed and returned documents to the Agriculture Department last year, formally accepting the debt relief. He then purchased more equipment for his ranch, believing that he had been given a financial lifeline.Instead, Mr. Smith has fallen deeper into debt. Months after signing the paperwork he received a notice informing him that the federal government intended to “accelerate” foreclosure on his 46-acre property and cattle if he did not start making payments on the loans he believed had been forgiven.“I trusted the government that we had a deal, and down here at the end of the day, the rug gets pulled out from under me,” Mr. Smith, 43, said in an interview.Black farmers across the nation have yet to see any of Mr. Biden’s promised relief. While the president has pledged to pursue policies to promote racial equity and correct decades of discrimination, legal issues have complicated that goal.In May 2021, the Agriculture Department started sending letters to borrowers who were eligible to have their debt cleared, asking them to sign and return forms confirming their balances. The payments, which also are supposed to cover tax liabilities and fees associated with clearing the debt, were expected to come in phases beginning in June.But the entire initiative has been stymied amid lawsuits from white farmers and groups representing them that questioned whether the government could offer debt relief based on race.Courts in Wisconsin and Florida have issued preliminary injunctions against the initiative, siding with plaintiffs who argued that the debt relief amounted to discrimination and could therefore be illegal. A class-action lawsuit against the U.S.D.A. is proceeding in Texas this year.The Biden administration has not appealed the injunctions but a spokeswoman for the Agriculture Department said it was continuing to defend the program in the courts as the cases move forward.The legal limbo has created new and unexpected financial strains for Black farmers, many of whom have been unable to make investments in their businesses given ongoing uncertainty about their debt loads. It also poses a political problem for Mr. Biden, who was propelled to power by Black voters and now must make good on promises to improve their fortunes.The law was intended to help remedy years of discrimination that nonwhite farmers have endured, including land theft and the rejection of loan applications by banks and the federal government. The program designated aid to about 15,000 borrowers who receive loans directly from the federal government or have their bank loans guaranteed by the U.S.D.A. Those eligible included farmers and ranchers who have been subject to racial or ethnic prejudice, including those who are Black, Native American, Alaskan Native, Asian American, Pacific Islander or Hispanic.After the initiative was rolled out last year, it met swift opposition.Banks were unhappy that the loans would be repaid early, depriving them of interest payments. Groups of white farmers in Wisconsin, North Dakota, Oregon and Illinois sued the Agriculture Department, arguing that offering debt relief on the basis of skin color is discriminatory, suggesting that a successful Black farmer could have his debts cleared while a struggling white farm could go out of business. America First Legal, a group led by the former Trump administration official Stephen Miller, filed a lawsuit making a similar argument in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas.Last June, before the money started flowing, a federal judge in Florida blocked the program on the basis that it applied “strictly on racial grounds” irrespective of any other factor.The delays have angered the Black farmers that the Biden administration and Democrats in Congress were trying to help. They argue that the law was poorly written and that the White House is not defending it forcefully enough in court out of fear that a legal defeat could undermine other policies that are predicated on race.Those concerns became even more pronounced late last year when the government sent thousands of letters to minority farmers who were behind on their loan payments warning that they faced foreclosure. The letters were sent automatically to any borrowers who were past due on their loans, including about a third of the 15,000 socially disadvantaged farmers who applied for the debt relief, according to the Agriculture Department.Leonard Jackson, a cattle farmer in Muskogee, Okla., received such a letter despite being told by the U.S.D.A. that he did not need to make loan payments because his $235,000 in debt would be paid off by the government. The letter was jarring for Mr. Jackson, whose father, a wheat and soybean farmer, had his farm equipment foreclosed on by the government years earlier. The prospect of losing his 33 cows, house and trailer was unfathomable.“They said that they were paying off everybody’s loans and not to make payments and then they sent this,” Mr. Jackson, 55, said.The legal fight over the funds has stirred widespread confusion, with Black and other farmers stuck in the middle. This year, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives has been fielding calls from minority farmers who said their financial problems have been compounded. It has become even harder for them to get access to credit now, they say, that the fate of the debt relief is unclear.“It has definitely caused a very significant panic and a lot of distress among our members,” said Dãnia Davy, director of land retention and advocacy at the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund.Mr. Smith bought more equipment for his ranch when he thought aid was finally on the way. But now he’s deeper in debt.Montinique Monroe for The New York TimesThe Agriculture Department said that it was required by law to send the warnings but that the government had no intention of foreclosing on farms, citing a moratorium on such action that was put in place early last year because of the pandemic. After The New York Times inquired about the foreclosure letters, the U.S.D.A. sent borrowers who had received notices another letter late last month telling them to disregard the foreclosure threat.“We want borrowers to know the bottom line is, actions such as acceleration and foreclosure remain suspended for direct loan borrowers due to the pandemic,” Kate Waters, a department spokeswoman, said. “We remain under the moratorium, and we will continue to communicate with our borrowers so they understand their rights and understand their debt servicing options.”The more than 2,000 minority farmers who receive private loans that are guaranteed by the U.S.D.A. are not protected by the federal moratorium and could still face foreclosure. Once the moratorium ends, farmers will need to resume making their payments if the debt relief program or an alternative is not in place.Some Black farmers argue that the Agriculture Department, led by Secretary Tom Vilsack, was too slow to disburse the debt relief and allowed critics time to mount a legal assault on the law.The Biden administration has been left with few options but to let the legal process play out, which could take months or years. The White House had been hopeful that a new measure in Mr. Biden’s sweeping social policy and climate bill would ultimately provide the farmers the debt relief they have been expecting. But that bill has stalled in the Senate and is unlikely to pass in its current form.“While we continue to defend in court the relief in the American Rescue Plan, getting the broader relief provision that the House passed signed into law remains the surest and quickest way to help farmers in economic distress across the nation, including thousands and thousands of farmers of color,” Gene Sperling, the White House’s pandemic relief czar, said in a statement.For Black farmers, who have seen their ranks fall from more than a million to fewer than 40,000 in the last century amid industry consolidation and onerous loan terms, the disappointment is not surprising. John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association, said that rather than hearing about more government reports on racial equity, Black farmers want to see results.“We need implementation, action and resources to farm,” Mr. Boyd said. More

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    Modern Monetary Theory Got a Pandemic Tryout. Inflation Is Now Testing It.

    The sun was sinking low over Long Island Sound as Stephanie Kelton, wearing the bright red suit jacket she had donned to give a virtual guest lecture to university students in London that morning, perched before a pillow fort she had constructed atop the heavy wooden desk in her home office.The setup was meant to keep out noise as she recorded the podcast she co-hosts, a MarketWatch production called the “Best New Ideas in Money.” The room was hushed except for Ms. Kelton, who bantered energetically with the producers she was hearing through noise-blocking headphones, sang a Terri Gibbs song and made occasional edits to the script. At one point, she muttered, “That sounds like Stephanie.”What Stephanie Kelton sounds like, circa early 2022, is the star architect of a movement that is on something of a victory lap. A victory lap with an asterisk.Ms. Kelton, 52, is the most familiar public face of Modern Monetary Theory, which posits that if a government controls its own currency and needs money — to make sure its citizens have food and places to live when, say, a global pandemic pushes many out of work — it can just print it, as long as its economy has the ability to churn out the needed goods and services.In the M.M.T. view of the world, “How will you pay for it?” is a vapid policy question. Real-world resources and political priorities determine how much lawmakers can and should spend.It is an idea that was forged, and put to something of a test, during a low-inflation era.When Ms. Kelton’s book, “The Deficit Myth,” was published in June 2020 and shot onto best seller lists, inflation had been weak for decades and had dropped below 1 percent as consumers retrenched in the pandemic. The government had begun to spend rapidly to try to prop up flailing households.When Ms. Kelton appeared on a Bloomberg podcast episode, “How M.M.T. Won the Fiscal Policy Debate,” in early 2021, inflation had bounced back to around 2 percent.But by a chilly January afternoon, as ducks flew over the frosty estuary outside Ms. Kelton’s house near Stony Brook University, where she teaches, inflation had rocketed up to 7 percent. The government’s debt pile has exploded to $30 trillion, up from about $10 trillion at the start of the 2008 downturn and $5 trillion in the mid-1990s.The good news: The government has had no trouble selling bonds to fund its spending, contrary to the direst projections of deficit scolds.The bad news: Some economists blame big spending in the pandemic for today’s rapid price increases. The government will release fresh Consumer Price Index data this week, and it is expected to show inflation running at its fastest pace since 1982.And that may be why Ms. Kelton, and the movement she has come to represent, now seem anxious to control the narrative. The pandemic spending wasn’t entirely consistent with M.M.T principles, they say — it wasn’t assessed carefully for its inflationary effects as it was being drawn up, because it was crisis policy. But the situation has underlined how hard it is to know just where the economy’s constraints lay, and how difficult it is to fix things once you run into them.Last summer, Ms. Kelton called inflation a temporary sign of “growing pains.” By the fall, she painted it as a good problem to solve, compared with a continued weak economy. As it lingers, she has argued that diagnosing what is causing it is key.“Can we blame ‘MMT’ for the run-up in inflation?” she tweeted rhetorically last month, just hours before her podcast recording.Understand Inflation in the U.S.Inflation 101: What is inflation, why is it up and whom does it hurt? Our guide explains it all.Your Questions, Answered: We asked readers to send questions about inflation. Top experts and economists weighed in.What’s to Blame: Did the stimulus cause prices to rise? Or did pandemic lockdowns and shortages lead to inflation? A debate is heating up in Washington.Supply Chain’s Role: A key factor in rising inflation is the continuing turmoil in the global supply chain. Here’s how the crisis unfolded.“Of course not.”Emon Hassan for The New York TimesThe economy is the limitTo understand how M.M.T. fits in with other dominant ways of thinking, it’s helpful to take a trip to the beach.In economics, there’s a school of thought sometimes called “freshwater.” It’s the set of ideas that became popular at inland universities in the 1970s, when they began to embrace rational markets and limited government intervention to fight recessions. There’s also “saltwater” thinking, an updated version of Keynesianism that argues that the government occasionally needs to jump-start the economy. It has traditionally been championed in the Ivy League and other top-ranked schools on the coasts.You might call the school of thought Ms. Kelton is popularizing, from a bay that feeds into the East River, brackish economics.M.M.T. theorists argue that society should feel capable of spending to achieve its goals to the extent that there are resources available to fulfill them. Deficit spending need not be constrained to recessions, even theoretically. Want to build a road? No problem, so long as you have asphalt and construction workers. Want to feed children free lunches? Also not a problem, so long as you have the food and the cafeteria workers.What became Modern Monetary Theory began to percolate among a small group of academics when Ms. Kelton, a former military brat and one-time furniture saleswoman, was a graduate student.She had a gap period between graduating with a bachelor’s degree from California State University, Sacramento and attending Cambridge University on a Rotary scholarship, and her college economics professor recommended that she spend the time studying with L. Randall Wray, an early pioneer in the set of ideas.They hit it off. She remained in Mr. Wray’s circle, and he — and Warren Mosler, a hedge fund manager who had written a book on what we get wrong about money — convinced her that the way America understood cash, revenues and budgeting was all backward.Ms. Kelton earned her doctorate at The New School, long a booster of out-of-mainstream economic thinking, and went on to teach at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She, Mr. Wray, who was there at the time, and their colleagues mentored doctoral students and began to write academic papers on the new way of thinking.But academic missives reached only a small circle of readers. After the 2008 financial crisis punched a hole in the economy that would take more than a decade to fill, Ms. Kelton and her colleagues, invigorated with a new urgency, began a blog called “New Economic Perspectives.” It was a bare bones white, red and black layout, using a standard WordPress template, that served as a place for M.M.T. writers to make their case (and, in its early days, featured a #Occupy[YourCityHere] tab).The theory picked up some fervent followers but limited popular acceptance, charitably, and outright derision, uncharitably. Mainstream economists panned it as overly simplistic. Many were confused about what it was arguing.“I have heard pretty extreme claims attributed to that framework and I don’t know whether that’s fair or not,” Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, said in 2019. “The idea that deficits don’t matter for countries that can borrow in their own currency is just wrong.”Ms. Kelton kept the faith. She and her colleagues held conferences, including one in 2018 at The New School where she gave a lecture on “mainstreaming M.M.T.”Rohan Grey organized the conference and a media reception afterward at an Irish pub (“‘Shades of Green,’ monetary pun intended,” he said). It was attended by organizers, academics, “lay people” and lots of journalists. At the happy hour — which lasted until 1 a.m. — Ms. Kelton was mobbed when she walked in the door. “She was already on her way to super celebrity status at that point,” said Mr. Grey, an assistant professor at Willamette Law.When she gave presentations on her ideas, Ms. Kelton would occasionally display a quote often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you. Then you win.”And her star was rising more broadly. She advised Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaigns in 2016 and 2020, getting to know the Vermont senator. He never fully publicly embraced M.M.T., but he nevertheless advanced policies — like Medicare for All — that reflected its ideals.She amassed a following of tens of thousands, later growing to 140,000, on Twitter. Her first handle, @deficitowl, prompted ardent fans to gift her wise bird figurines, some of which are still on display in her home office. She cultivated a small coterie of prominent journalists who were interested in the idea, most notably Joe Weisenthal at Bloomberg. She signed a book deal. She was regularly talking to Democratic lawmakers, sometimes in groups.Her idea percolated through Washington’s media and liberal policy circles. Mainstream economic predictions that huge debt loads would come back to haunt nations like Japan had not played out, the anemic rebound from 2008 had scarred society and called the size of the crisis response into question. Ms. Kelton and her colleagues were ensuring that their theory on benign deficits was an ever-present feature of the blossoming debate.Then the pandemic hit, and suddenly the theoretical question of just how much the government could spend before it ran into limits faced a real-world experiment.The $1.9 Trillion FloorWithout thinking about paying for it, Donald J. Trump’s government quickly passed a $2.3 trillion relief package in late March 2020. In December, it followed that up with another $900 billion. President Biden took office in early 2021, and promptly added $1.9 trillion more.Inflation F.A.Q.Card 1 of 6What is inflation? More

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    Fed Signals Rate Increase in March, Citing Inflation and Strong Job Market

    Federal Reserve officials signaled on Wednesday that they were on track to raise interest rates in March, given that inflation has been running far above policymakers’ target and that labor market data suggests employees are in short supply.Central bankers left rates unchanged at near-zero — where they have been set since March 2020 — but the statement after their two-day policy meeting laid the groundwork for higher borrowing costs “soon.” Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, said officials no longer thought America’s rapidly healing economy needed so much support, and he confirmed that a rate increase was likely at the central bank’s next meeting.“I would say that the committee is of a mind to raise the federal funds rate at the March meeting, assuming that the conditions are appropriate for doing so,” Mr. Powell said.While he declined to say how many rate increases officials expected to make this year, he noted that this economic expansion was very different from past ones, with “higher inflation, higher growth, a much stronger economy — and I think those differences are likely to be reflected in the policy that we implement.”The Fed was already slowing a bond-buying program it had been using to bolster the economy, and that program remains on track to end in March. The Fed’s post-meeting statements and Mr. Powell’s remarks signaled that central bankers could begin to shrink their balance sheet holdings of government-backed debt soon after they begin to raise interest rates, a move that would further remove support from markets and the economy.Investors have been nervously eyeing the Fed’s next steps, worried that its policy changes will hurt stock and other asset prices and rapidly slow down the economy. Stocks on Wall Street gave up their gains and yields on government bonds rose as Mr. Powell spoke. The S&P 500 ended with a loss of 0.2 percent after earlier rising as much as 2.2 percent. The yield on 10-year Treasury notes, a proxy for investor expectations for interest rates, jumped as high as 1.87 percent.The Fed has pivoted sharply from boosting growth to preparing to cool it down as businesses report widespread labor shortages and as prices across the economy — for rent, cars and couches — soar. Consumer prices are rising at the fastest pace since 1982, eating away at paychecks and creating a political liability for President Biden and Democrats. It is the Fed’s job to keep inflation under control and to set the stage for a strong job market.Understand Inflation in the U.S.Inflation 101: What is inflation, why is it up and whom does it hurt? Our guide explains it all.Your Questions, Answered: We asked readers to send questions about inflation. Top experts and economists weighed in.What’s to Blame: Did the stimulus cause prices to rise? Or did pandemic lockdowns and shortages lead to inflation? A debate is heating up in Washington.Supply Chain’s Role: A key factor in rising inflation is the continuing turmoil in the global supply chain. Here’s how the crisis unfolded.“The Fed has completed its pivot from being patient to panicked on inflation,” Diane Swonk, the chief economist at Grant Thornton, wrote in a research note to clients after the meeting. “Its next move will be to raise rates.”The Fed’s withdrawal of policy support could temper consumer and corporate demand as borrowing money to buy a car, a boat, a house or a business becomes more expensive. Slower demand could give supply chains, which have fallen behind during the pandemic, room to catch up. By slowing down hiring, the Fed’s moves could also limit wage growth, which might otherwise feed into inflation if employers raised prices to cover higher labor costs.Investors nudged up their expectations for rate increases following the meeting and now project the Fed to raise rates five times this year, based on market pricing, and for the Fed’s policy rate to end the year between 1.25 and 1.5 percent. And economists increasingly warn that it is possible central bankers could move quickly — perhaps lifting borrowing costs at each consecutive meeting instead of leaving gaps, or in half-percentage point increases instead of the quarter-point moves that are more typical.But Mr. Powell demurred when asked about the pace of rate increases, saying that it was important to be “humble and nimble” and that “we’re going to be led by the incoming data and the evolving outlook.”“He went out of his way not to commit to a preset course,” said Subadra Rajappa, the head of U.S. rates strategy at Société Générale. The lack of clarity over what happens next “is a setup for a volatile market.”While interest rates are expected to rise over the coming years, most economists and investors do not expect them to return to anything like the double-digit levels that prevailed in the early 1980s. The Fed anticipates that its longer-run interest rate might hover around 2.5 percent.Investors also have been eagerly watching to see how quickly the Fed will shrink its balance sheet of asset holdings. The Fed’s policy committee released a statement of principles for that process on Wednesday, setting out plans to “significantly” reduce its holdings “in a predictable manner” and “primarily” by adjusting how much it reinvests as assets expire.“They are trying, I think, to reduce market uncertainty around the balance sheet — but they’re telling us it’s happening,” said Priya Misra, the global head of rates strategy at TD Securities, adding that the release suggested that the process would begin within a few months.Mr. Powell noted during his news conference that both of the areas the Fed is responsible for — fostering price stability and maximum employment — had prodded the central bank to “move steadily away” from helping the economy so much.“There are many millions more job openings than there are unemployed people,” Mr. Powell said. “I think there’s quite a bit of room to raise interest rates without threatening the labor market.”The unemployment rate has fallen to 3.9 percent, down from its peak of 14.7 percent at the worst economic point in the pandemic and near its February 2020 level of 3.5 percent. Wages are growing at the fastest pace in decades.Inflation F.A.Q.Card 1 of 6What is inflation? More

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    Why Critics Fear the Fed's Policy Shift May Prove Late and Abrupt

    The Federal Reserve is still buying bonds as prices surge. Some praise the central bank’s continuing policy pivot; others ask if it was fast enough.The Federal Reserve has moved at warp speed by central banking standards over the past six months as it prepares to lean against a surge in prices: first slowing its economy-stoking bond purchases, then deciding to end that buying program earlier and finally signaling that interest rate increases are coming.Some on Wall Street and in Washington are questioning whether it moved rapidly enough.Consumer prices increased by 7 percent in December from the prior year, the fastest pace since 1982, as rapid spending on goods collides with limited supply as a result of shuttered factories and backlogged ports. While price increases were initially expected to fade quickly, they have instead lasted and broadened to rents and restaurant meals.The Fed is charged with maintaining full employment and stable prices. The burst in inflation is causing some to question whether the central bank was too slow to recognize how persistent price increases were becoming, and whether it will be forced to respond so rapidly that it pushes markets into a free fall and the economy into a sharp slowdown or even recession.“The first policy mistake was completely misunderstanding inflation,” said Mohamed El-Erian, the chief economic adviser at the financial services company Allianz. He thinks the Fed now runs the risk of having to pull support away so rapidly that it disrupts markets and the economy. The Fed’s Board of Governors “maintained its transitory inflation narrative for 2021 way too long, missing window after window to slowly ease its foot off the stimulus accelerator.”Plenty of economists disagree with Mr. El-Erian, pointing out that the Fed reacted swiftly as it realized that conditions did not match its expectations. And market forecasts for inflation have remained under control, suggesting that investors believe that the Fed will manage to stabilize prices over the long run. Even so, stocks are shuddering and consumers are watching nervously as the central bank prepares for what could an unusually rapid withdraw of monetary support — ramping up pressure on its policymakers.“The downturn was faster, the upturn was faster: It was an unprecedented event, so not forecasting it properly was not the end of the world,” said Gennadiy Goldberg, a senior U.S. rates strategist at TD Securities. “What matters is what their readjustment is once the forecast has changed.”Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, and his colleagues meet this week in Washington and will release their latest policy decision at 2 p.m. on Wednesday.Understand Inflation in the U.S.Inflation 101: What is inflation, why is it up and whom does it hurt? Our guide explains it all.Your Questions, Answered: We asked readers to send questions about inflation. Top experts and economists weighed in.What’s to Blame: Did the stimulus cause prices to rise? Or did pandemic lockdowns and shortages lead to inflation? A debate is heating up in Washington.Supply Chain’s Role: A key factor in rising inflation is the continuing turmoil in the global supply chain. Here’s how the crisis unfolded.The Fed is on track to end its asset buying program in March, at which point markets expect policymakers to begin raising interest rates. Investors expect officials to raise interest rates as many as four times this year, while allowing their balance sheet of asset holdings to shrink. Both policy changes would work together to remove juice from the rapidly recovering economy.The path the Fed is now following differs starkly from the one it was projecting as recently as September, when many Fed officials had not come around to the idea that rates would rise in 2022. Likewise, the Fed began tapering off its bond buying program only in late 2021, so it is now in the uncomfortable position of making its final purchases — giving markets and the economy an added lift — even as inflation comes in hot.The central bank’s critics argue that it should have started to withdraw its help earlier and faster. That would have begun to cool off demand and inflation sooner, and it would allow for a more gradual drawdown of support now.“I don’t think the Fed caused this inflation problem, but I do think they were late to recognize it,” said Aneta Markowska, chief financial economist at Jefferies, an investment bank. “And, therefore, they will have to catch up very quickly.”Sudden Fed moves carry an economic risk: Failing to give markets time to digest and adjust often sends them into tumult. Rocky markets can make it hard for households and businesses to borrow money, causing the economy to slow sharply, and perhaps more than the central bank intended.That is why the Fed typically tries to engineer what policymakers often refer to as a “soft landing.” The goal is to avoid upending markets, and to allow the economy to decelerate without slowing it down so abruptly that it tips into recession.But the economy has surprised the central bank lately.In 2021, Fed policymakers bet that rapid inflation would fade as the economy got through an unusual reopening period and the pandemic abated. They wanted to be patient in removing support as the labor market healed, and they did not meaningfully change their plans for policy after Democrats took the White House and Senate and it became clear that they would pass a large stimulus package.The path the Fed is now following differs starkly from the one it was projecting as recently as September.Stefani Reynolds for The New York TimesAs those dollars trickled out into the economy and the pandemic persisted, though, demand remained strong, supply chains remained roiled, and inflation began to broaden out from pandemic-disrupted products like cars and airfares into rents, which move slowly and matter a lot to overall price increases. Workers returned to the job market more slowly than many economists expected, and wages began to pick up sharply as labor shortages surfaced.That caused the Fed to change course late last year — and to do so fairly abruptly.“Inflation really popped up in the late spring last year, and we had a view — it was very, very widely held in the forecasting community — that this would be temporary,” Mr. Powell said in December. But officials grew more concerned as employment cost data moved higher and inflation indicators showed hot readings, he said, so they pivoted on policy.Inflation F.A.Q.Card 1 of 6What is inflation? More