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    Economic Aid, Once Plentiful, Falls Off at a Painful Moment

    Food insecurity is rising again as relief provided by President Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package wanes.PORTLAND, Ore. — For the better part of last year, the pandemic eased its grip on Oregon’s economy. Awash in federal assistance, including direct checks to individuals and parents, many of the state’s most vulnerable found it easier to afford food, housing and other daily staples.Most of that aid, which was designed to be a temporary bridge, has run out at a particularly bad moment. Oregon, like states across the nation, has seen its economy improve, but prices for everything from eggs to gas to rent have spiked. Demand is growing at food banks like William Temple House in Northwest Portland, where the line for necessities like bread, vegetables and toilet paper stretched two dozen people deep on a recent day.“I’m very worried, like I was in the first month of the pandemic, that we will run out of food,” said Susannah Morgan, who runs the Oregon Food Bank, which helps supply William Temple House and 1,400 other meal assistance sites.In March 2021, President Biden signed into law a $1.9 trillion aid package aimed at helping people stay afloat when the economy was still reeling from the coronavirus. In addition to direct checks, the package included rental assistance and other measures meant to prevent evictions. It ensured free school lunches and offered expanded food assistance through several programs.Those programs helped the U.S. economy recover far more quickly than many economists had expected, but they have run their course as prices soar at the fastest pace in 40 years. The Federal Reserve, in an attempt to tame inflation, is rapidly raising borrowing costs, slowing the economy’s growth and stoking fears of a recession. While the labor market remains remarkably strong, the Fed’s interest rate increases risk slamming the brakes on the economy and pushing millions of people out of work, which would hurt lower-wage workers and risk adding to evictions and food insecurity.Several factors have driven prices higher in the last year, including a shift in spending toward goods like couches and cars and away from services. Supply chain snarls, a buying frenzy in the housing market and an oil price spike surrounding the Russian invasion of Ukraine have also contributed. While gas prices have fallen in recent months, rent continues to rise, and food and other staples remain elevated.Another factor fueling inflation, at least in small part, is the stimulus spending that helped speed the economy’s recovery and keep people out of poverty. More money in people’s bank accounts translated into more consumer spending.While the extent to which the rescue package fed inflation remains a matter of disagreement, almost no one, in Washington or on the front lines of helping vulnerable people across the country, expects another round of federal aid even if the economy tips into a recession. Lawmakers have grown increasingly concerned that more stimulus could exacerbate rising prices.In the meantime, the progress that the Biden administration hailed in fighting poverty last year has faded. The national child poverty rate and the food hardship rate for families with children, which dipped in 2021, have both rebounded to their highest levels since December 2020, according to researchers at Columbia University’s Center on Poverty and Social Policy. Two in five Americans surveyed by the Census Bureau at the end of July said they had difficulty paying a usual household expense in the previous week, the highest rate in two years of the survey.What is happening at the William Temple House is emblematic of the economic situation. Demand for food is swelling again, and officials here blame rising prices and lost federal aid. The people seeking help come from a wide variety of backgrounds: parents, retirees struggling to stretch Social Security benefits, immigrants who speak Mandarin, college graduates with jobs.Inflation F.A.Q.Card 1 of 5Inflation F.A.Q.What is inflation? More

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    In an Unequal Economy, the Poor Face Inflation Now and Job Loss Later

    For Theresa Clarke, a retiree in New Canaan, Conn., the rising cost of living means not buying Goldfish crackers for her disabled daughter because a carton costs $11.99 at her local Stop & Shop. It means showering at the YMCA to save on her hot water bill. And it means watching her bank account dwindle to $50 because, as someone on a fixed income who never made much money to start with, there aren’t many other places she can trim her spending as prices rise.“There is nothing to cut back on,” she said.Jordan Trevino, 28, who recently took a better paying job in advertising in Los Angeles with a $100,000 salary, is economizing in little ways — ordering a cheaper entree when out to dinner, for example. But he is still planning a wedding next year and a honeymoon in Italy.And David Schoenfeld, who made about $250,000 in retirement income and consulting fees last year and has about $5 million in savings, hasn’t pared back his spending. He has just returned from a vacation in Greece, with his daughter and two of his grandchildren.“People in our group are not seeing this as a period of sacrifice,” said Mr. Schoenfeld, who lives in Sharon, Mass., and is a member of a group called Responsible Wealth, a network of rich people focused on inequality that pushes for higher taxes, among other stances. “We notice it’s expensive, but it’s kind of like: I don’t really care.”Higher-income households built up savings and wealth during the early stages of the pandemic as they stayed at home and their stocks, houses and other assets rose in value. Between those stockpiles and solid wage growth, many have been able to keep spending even as costs climb. But data and anecdotes suggest that lower-income households, despite the resilient job market, are struggling more profoundly with inflation.That divergence poses a challenge for the Federal Reserve, which is hoping that higher interest rates will slow consumer spending and ease pressure on prices across the economy. Already, there are signs that poorer families are cutting back. If richer families don’t pull back as much — if they keep going on vacations, dining out and buying new cars and second homes — many prices could keep rising. The Fed might need to raise interest rates even more to bring inflation under control, and that could cause a sharper slowdown.In that case, poorer families will almost certainly bear the brunt again, because low-wage workers are often the first to lose hours and jobs. The bifurcated economy, and the policy decisions that stem from it, could become a double whammy for them, inflicting higher costs today and unemployment tomorrow.“That’s the perfect storm, if unemployment increases,” said Mark Brown, chief executive of West Houston Assistance Ministries, which provides food, rental assistance and other forms of aid to people in need. “So many folks are so very close to the edge.”America’s poor have spent part of the savings they amassed during coronavirus lockdowns, and their wages are increasingly struggling to keep up with — or falling behind — price increases. Because such a big chunk of their budgets is devoted to food and housing, lower-income families have less room to cut back before they have to stop buying necessities. Some are taking on credit card debt, cutting back on shopping and restaurant meals, putting off replacing their cars or even buying fewer groceries.But while lower-income families spend more of each dollar they earn, the rich and middle classes have so much more money that they account for a much bigger share of spending in the overall economy: The top two-fifths of the income distribution account for about 60 percent of spending in the economy, the bottom two-fifths about 22 percent. That means the rich can continue to fuel the economy even as the poor pull back, a potential difficulty for policymakers.The Federal Reserve has been lifting interest rates rapidly since March to try to slow consumer spending and raise the cost of borrowing for companies, which will in turn lead to fewer business expansions, less hiring and slower wage growth. The goal is to slow the economy enough to lower inflation but not so much that it causes a painful recession.Officials at West Houston Assistance Ministries said its food bank served 200 households on Friday.Meridith Kohut for The New York TimesBut job growth accelerated unexpectedly in July, with wages climbing rapidly. Consumer spending, adjusted for inflation, has cooled, but Americans continue to open their wallets for vacations, restaurant meals and other services. If solid demand and tight labor market conditions continue, they could help to keep inflation rapid and make it more difficult for the Fed to cool the economy without continuing its string of quick rate increases. That could make widespread layoffs more likely.“The one, singular worry is the jobs market — if demand is constrained to the point that companies have to start laying off workers, that’s what hits Main Street,” said Nela Richardson, chief economist at the job market data provider ADP. “That’s what hits low-income workers.”8 Signs That the Economy Is Losing SteamCard 1 of 9Worrying outlook. More

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    Stock Market Drop Accelerated as Recession Seemed More Likely

    Further losses may be on the way, even after a 20 percent drop in the first half of the year, as Wall Street continues to price in the Fed’s aggressive interest rate policy.Investors had an awful start to the year as stocks twice entered bear market territory, falling more than 20 percent. Stocks didn’t hang there long the first time, but the second drop has proved more durable, as Wall Street has come to accept that inflation is more persistent and that the Federal Reserve will have to be more aggressive in combating it.The S&P 500 lost 16.4 percent in the second quarter, leaving it 20.6 percent below its level at the end of 2021.Where to now? While a bounce in stocks certainly seems due, investment advisers say a lasting recovery is unlikely for now. They warn that a recession is probably on the way, if it’s not here already, and that valuations remain high, even after the big decline.“I think we’re in for a lot more pain, probably, in U.S. stocks,” said Meb Faber, chief investment officer of Cambria Investment Management. “Just to get back to historical valuations, we could easily go down a third from here.”Ella Hoxha, a manager of global bond portfolios for Pictet Asset Management, said expectations still haven’t been adjusted to incorporate the likely risk of a recession. It may seem surprising that a recession could catch Wall Street by surprise when the conversation there is about little else. But until recently, Wall Street played down its chances and talked up the prospects of a soft landing, in which growth slows but the economy avoids major, prolonged disruption.“The odds of a recession have gone up, but the markets have not fully priced in the recession case yet,” Ms. Hoxha said. “Not only is the Fed having to correct being too dovish last year, it has to unwind its balance sheet” by selling the bonds and other securities it bought to support the economy and markets.Mutual FundsHighlights of mutual fund performance in the second quarter. More

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    Inflation Expected to Remain High Even as Economy Slows and Layoffs Rise

    Kat Johnston didn’t expect the pandemic to make her less stressed about her finances. After all, she temporarily lost her job at the library where she worked full time. But, like many Americans, she found an unexpected reprieve from money worries: Months at home limited her spending, and she received expanded unemployment insurance and two one-time checks from the government.“When I first came back to work, I had probably $2,200 in savings — which I know is not much, but it’s more than I’d had in a while,” she said. But it was no match for the inflation that has come since. “That savings is pretty much gone now. As things have gotten so expensive, it’s been almost a paycheck-to-paycheck life.”Ms. Johnston, 31, lives in the Dallas area in a studio apartment and had hoped to upgrade to a one-bedroom — her cat will occasionally use her bed as a litter box, so being able to shut the door would be good. Yet rent is increasing enough that she is considering moving in with a roommate instead.Gas is so expensive that she is buying just a quarter of a tank at a time. Her $65,000 in student loans from undergraduate and graduate school were in forbearance before the pandemic because she was struggling to afford them on her roughly $40,000 annual income. She has been able to continue not paying them because of a government moratorium, but she knows that may not last forever.She’d like to find a better-paying job, but she’s unsure about leaving a secure position — and embarking on a draining job search — at a moment when economists and investors warn of an impending recession. “It does feel like whatever I was thinking I was going to do is on hold,” she said.Kat Johnston has returned to work full time but her savings are depleted and she is thinking about getting a roommate as rents in the Dallas area climb sharply.Dylan Hollingsworth for The New York TimesMillions of Americans are feeling similarly stuck as their savings run low and their cost of living runs high. Now, the economy appears poised to slow — potentially sharply — in ways that could limit wage growth and cause job losses even as prices remain elevated. But instead of rushing to the economy’s aid by giving Americans money, as they did in March 2020, policymakers are engineering this slowdown. Then, the problem was a global pandemic; now, it’s stubbornly high inflation, and the main way the government knows to solve that is by inflicting some economic pain.In other words, the long-predicted “cliff” may finally have arrived.When the first round of pandemic aid programs began to expire in the summer of 2020, economists warned of a looming cliff facing both Americans who still needed government help and the pandemic-addled economy that was not yet ready to stand on its own. They repeated those warnings last fall, when Congress allowed unemployment benefits to expire for millions of workers, and again in January, when monthly payments for families with children came to an end.The loss of those programs and others, including enhanced nutrition benefits, was painful for many families. But for the economy as a whole, the cliffs turned out to be more like potholes. Consumers kept on spending, in part because trillions in government aid had allowed many Americans to build up at least a small financial buffer — as Ms. Johnston did — and in part because a record-setting recovery in the job market gave workers an income boost that helped offset the loss in government aid.Now, as savings run dry and consumers struggle under the weight of higher prices and rising interest rates, early cracks are beginning to show — and are likely to widen from here.Understand Inflation and How It Impacts YouInflation 101: What is inflation, why is it up and whom does it hurt? Our guide explains it all.Greedflation: Some experts contend that big corporations are supercharging inflation by jacking up prices. We take a closer look at the issue. Inflation Calculator: How you experience inflation can vary greatly depending on your spending habits. Answer these seven questions to estimate your personal inflation rate.For Investors: At last, interest rates for money market funds have started to rise. But inflation means that in real terms, you’re still losing money.Pay gains have been falling behind inflation for months. Credit card balances, which fell early in the pandemic, are rising toward a record high. Subprime borrowers — those with weak credit scores — are increasingly falling behind on payments on car loans in particular, credit bureau data show. Measures of hunger are rising, even with unemployment still low and the overall economy still strong.“It’s a grim picture already,” said Elizabeth Ananat, an economist at Barnard College who has studied the pandemic’s impact on low-income families. “Families are doing much worse than they were a few months ago.”Matrice Moore-Carr, a registrar at a public hospital in Nashville, Tenn., kept her job during the pandemic, and even managed to get a bit ahead, thanks to stimulus checks that helped her pay off her electric bill and stop worrying, at least for a little while, about whether she could afford gas for her car.When prices began to rise last year, Ms. Moore-Carr took on overtime shifts in the emergency room to make ends meet. When that wasn’t enough, she took a part-time job as a hotel receptionist. Now she is working seven days a week, often multiple jobs in one day, and still struggling to pay her bills.“That’s what’s been helping me keep the gas in the car and food on the table and the electricity going,” she said. “I’ve been making it work. I’m tired, I’ll tell you that. I’m so sleepy.”Ms. Moore-Carr, 52, owns her home, which she said is the only thing that allows her to keep living in Nashville, where both rents and home prices have soared in the pandemic. But the price of everything else has gone up — she joked about buying a horse to save on gas. On Tuesday, she stopped by the bank and turned in $47 in pennies.What she said she really worries about is the prospect of losing her overtime hours.“I don’t know what I’m going to do if anything gets any worse than it is now,” she said. “Am I going to have to cut my meals back? Am I going to have to eat once a day as opposed to three? I don’t know. It’s just tough.”Low-income households, at least on average, emerged from the first two years of the pandemic in remarkably strong financial shape. Trillions of dollars in government aid ensured that poverty fell in 2020, despite the loss of tens of millions of jobs. New rounds of assistance in 2021, including monthly payments through an expanded Child Tax Credit, led to a sharp drop in measures of childhood poverty and hunger. Those programs came from a very different economic moment, however. In 2020, and to a lesser degree in 2021, the needs of individual households and the needs of the broader economy were aligned: Stimulus checks and other forms of government aid helped jobless workers and their families avoid eviction, while at the same time helping businesses avoid bankruptcy, landlords avoid foreclosure, and cities and states avoid a collapse in their tax revenue.Today, that alignment has broken down. Giving people money now might help them pay their bills, but it could also make inflation worse by adding to demand as businesses are already failing to produce enough goods and hire enough workers.The Federal Reserve is instead trying to cool off the economy by raising interest rates, making it more expensive to borrow money to buy a house or expand a company. Weaker business activity will slow hiring, leading to slower wage growth and, most likely, more layoffs. It could also allow America’s goods and services — limited for more than a year by supply chain snarls and labor shortages — to catch up to demand, putting a damper on rising prices.Fed policymakers argue that this strategy is necessary to put the economy on a more sustainable path. But even as conditions take a turn for the worse, inflation will probably take a while to slow, and Fed officials themselves think it will still be elevated at the end of the year.“The transition is going to be very difficult,” said Seth Carpenter, global chief economist at Morgan Stanley and a former Fed economist. “At least historically, it takes a really long time for inflation to come down, even after the economy slows.”Even if the Fed can avoid causing a recession, a weakening labor market will bring hardship for many. Job losses can be devastating, often setting off a downward spiral of eviction and debt. Those who keep their jobs are likely to get fewer hours of work and to lose bargaining power.“Low-income workers, workers with low levels of education, Black and brown workers are the first to lose their jobs and the last to get them back,” said Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, a Northwestern University economist who studies anti-poverty programs.Inflation F.A.Q.Card 1 of 5What is inflation? More

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    White House Struggles to Talk About Inflation, the ‘Problem From Hell’

    Inflation is upending voter confidence and posing a glaring political liability that looms over the Biden administration’s major policy decisions.WASHINGTON — President Biden was at a private meeting discussing student debt forgiveness this year when, as happens uncomfortably often these days, the conversation came back to inflation.“He said with everything he does, Republicans are going to attack him and use the word ‘inflation,’” said Representative Tony Cárdenas, Democrat of California, referring to Mr. Biden’s meeting with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in April. Mr. Cárdenas said Mr. Biden was aware he would be attacked over rising prices “no matter what issue we’re talking about.”The comment underscored how today’s rapid price increases, the fastest since the 1980s, pose a glaring political liability that looms over every major policy decision the White House makes — leaving Mr. Biden and his colleagues on the defensive as officials discover that there is no good way to talk to voters about inflation.The administration has at times splintered internally over how to discuss price increases and has revised its inflation-related message several times as talking points fail to resonate and new data comes in. Some Democrats in Congress have urged the White House to strike a different — and more proactive — tone ahead of the November midterm elections.But the reality the White House faces is a hard one: There is little politicians can do to quickly bring price increases to heel. Federal Reserve policy is the nation’s main solution to inflation, but the central bank tempers price gains by making money more expensive to borrow to cool off demand, a slow and potentially painful process for the economy.“For a president, inflation is the problem from hell — you can’t win,” said Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the founding director of the Center for Effective Public Management. “Because it’s so difficult economically, politically it is even worse: There’s nothing you can do in the short run to solve it.”Consumer prices increased by 8.3 percent in the year through April, and data this week is expected to show inflation at 8.2 percent in May. Inflation averaged 1.6 percent annual gains in the five years leading up to the pandemic, making today’s pace of increase painfully high by comparison. A gallon of gas, one of the most tangible household costs, hit an average of $4.92 this week. Consumer confidence has plummeted as families pay more for everyday purchases and as the Fed raises interest rates to cool the economy, which increases the risk of a recession.A gallon of gas surpassed $5 at a Sunoco station in Sloatsburg, N.Y., last month.An Rong Xu for The New York TimesThe White House has long realized that rising prices could sink Mr. Biden’s support, with that risk telegraphed in a series of confidential memos sent to Mr. Biden last year by one of his lead pollsters, John Anzalone. Inflation has only continued to fuel frustration among voters, according to a separate memo compiled by Mr. Anzalone’s team last month, which showed the president’s low approval rating on the economy rivaling only his approach to immigration.“Economic sentiment among the public remains poor, with most worried about both inflation and the possibility of a recession in the coming months,” according to the memo, dated May 20. The information was sent to “interested parties,” and it was not clear if the White House had received or reviewed the memo.The polling data shows that about eight in 10 Americans “consider the national economy to be in poor condition” and that “concerns are high about the potential for an economic recession in the near future.”Economic anxieties have been echoed by members of Congress, leading academics and pop culture standard bearers. “When y’all think they going to announce that we going into a recession?” Cardi B, the Grammy-winning rapper, wrote in a tweet that went viral this weekend.The White House knows it is in a tricky position, and the administration’s approach to explaining inflation has evolved over time. Officials spent the early stages of the current price burst largely describing price pressures as temporary.When it became clear that rising costs were lasting, administration officials began to diverge internally on how to frame that phenomenon. While it was clear that much of the upward pressure on prices came from supply chain shortages exacerbated by continued waves of the coronavirus, some of it also tied back to strong consumer demand. That big spending had been enabled, in part, by the government’s stimulus packages, including direct checks to households, expanded unemployment insurance and other benefits.Some economists in the White House have begun to emphasize that inflation was a trade-off: To the extent that Mr. Biden’s stimulus spending spurred more inflation, it also aided economic growth and a faster recovery.“Inflation is absolutely a problem, and it’s critical to address it,” Janet L. Yellen, the Treasury secretary, recently told members of Congress. “But I think at the same time, we should recognize how successful that plan was in leading to an economy where instead of having a large number of workers utterly unable to find jobs, exactly the opposite is true.”Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has said she supports relaxing tariffs on Chinese goods to ease prices.Jason Andrew for The New York TimesBut the president’s more political aides have tended to sharply minimize that the March 2021 package, known as the American Rescue Plan, helped to goose inflation, even as they have claimed credit for strong economic growth.“Some have a curious obsession with exaggerating impact of the Rescue Plan while ignoring the degree high inflation is global,” Gene Sperling, a senior White House adviser overseeing the implementation of the stimulus package, wrote on Twitter last week, adding that the law “has had very marginal impact on inflation.”Brian Deese, the director of the National Economic Council, acknowledged in an interview last week that there were some disagreements among White House economic officials when it came to how to talk about and respond to inflation, but he portrayed that as a positive — and as something that is not leading to any kind of dysfunction.“If there wasn’t healthy disagreement, debate and people feeling comfortable bringing issues and ideas to the table, then I think we would be not serving the president and the public interest well,” he said.He also pushed back on the idea that the administration was deeply divided on the March 2021 package’s aftereffects, saying in a separate emailed comment that “there is agreement across the administration that many factors contributed to inflation, and that inflation has been driven by elevated demand and constrained supply across the globe.”How to portray the Biden administration’s stimulus spending is far from the only challenge the White House faces. As price increases last, Democrats have grappled with how to discuss their plans to combat them.The president and his top political aides have trotted out a few main talking points, including blaming President Vladimir V. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine for what Mr. Biden calls the “Putin price hike,” pointing to deficit reduction as a way to lower inflation and arguing that Republicans have a bad plan to deal with rising costs. Mr. Biden regularly acknowledges the pain that higher prices are causing and has emphasized that the problem of taming inflation rests largely with the Fed, an independent entity whose work he has promised not to interfere with.The administration has also highlighted that inflation is widespread globally, and that the United States is better off than many other nations.Student Loans: Key Things to KnowCard 1 of 4Corinthian Colleges. More

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    Is ‘Greedflation’ Rewriting Economics, or Do Old Rules Still Apply?

    Economists and politicians are debating whether monopolistic companies are fueling inflation in ways that confound longstanding theory.There are few good things about living through a period with the highest inflation in four decades, but here’s one: It’s a chance to re-examine what happens in an economy that’s gone haywire.Since prices started to escalate a year ago, politicians and economists have seized on inflation to tell their preferred story about what went wrong, and what policies would bring it back into line. Some say it’s very straightforward: Supply and demand, Economics 101.“There’s simply a lot of cash out there,” said Joe Brusuelas, chief economist for the accounting firm RSM US, referring to the several trillion dollars in pandemic stimulus that’s filtered into the economy since early 2020. “The competition for those goods is up and that’s sending prices up, whether we’re talking about getting a Nissan Sentra or a seat on an American Airlines flight.”The White House and progressive organizations, however, say wait a minute: This time is different. In a time of extraordinary disruption, they contend, increasingly dominant corporations are taking the opportunity to jack up prices more than they otherwise could, which is squeezing consumers and supercharging inflation. Or “greedflation,” as the hypothesis has come to be known.The argument comports with the Biden administration’s focus on the ills of economic concentration. Congressional Democrats have run with the idea, introducing bills that would impose a temporary “excess profits tax” on companies that charge prices they deem unreasonably high, or simply ban those high prices altogether. Critics, including the nation’s largest business lobby, deride these efforts as based on a “conspiracy theory” and a “flimsy argument.”So what’s really going on?It’s hard to tease out. A pandemic, a trade war, a land war, huge government spending, and a global economy that’s become vastly more integrated might be too complex for traditional macroeconomic theory to explain. Josh Bivens, research director at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, thinks that’s a good reason to revisit what the discipline thought it had figured out.“When I hear stories about an overheating labor market, I don’t think about falling real wages, and yet we have falling real wages,” Dr. Bivens said. Nor is the rise in profits typical when unemployment is so low. “The idea that ‘there’s nothing to see here’ — there’s everything to see here! It’s totally different.”When thinking about greedflation, it’s helpful to break it down into three questions: Are companies charging more than necessary to cover their rising costs? If so, is that enough to meaningfully accelerate inflation? And is all this happening because large companies have market power they didn’t decades ago?Productive Profits, or Gouging?There is not much disagreement that many companies have marked up goods in excess of their own rising costs. This is especially evident in industries like shipping, which had record profits as soaring demand for goods filled up boats, driving up costs for all traded goods. Across the economy, profit margins surged during the pandemic and remained elevated.When all prices are rising, consumers lose track of how much is reasonable to pay. “In the inflationary environment, everybody knows that prices are increasing,” said Z. John Zhang, a professor of marketing at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied pricing strategy. “Obviously that’s a great opportunity for every firm to realign their prices as much as they can. You’re not going to have an opportunity again like this for a long time.”Understand Inflation and How It Impacts YouInflation 101: What is inflation, why is it up and whom does it hurt? Our guide explains it all.Measuring Inflation: Over the years economists have tweaked one of the government’s standard measures of inflation, the Consumer Price Index. What is behind the changes?Inflation Calculator: How you experience inflation can vary greatly depending on your spending habits. Answer these seven questions to estimate your personal inflation rate.Interest Rates: As it seeks to curb inflation, the Federal Reserve began raising interest rates for the first time since 2018. Here is what that means for inflation.The real disagreement is over whether higher profits are natural and good.Basic economic theory teaches that charging what the market can bear will prompt companies to produce more, constraining prices and ensuring that more people have access to the good that’s in short supply. Say you make empanadas, and enough people want to buy them that you can charge $5 each even though they cost only $3 to produce. That might allow you to invest in another oven so you can make more empanadas — perhaps so many that you can lower the price to $4 and sell enough that your net income still goes up.Here’s the problem: What if there’s a waiting list for new ovens because of a strike at the oven factory, and you’re already running three shifts? You can’t make more empanadas, but their popularity has risen to the point where you would charge $6. People might buy calzones instead, but eventually the oven shortage makes all kinds of baked goods hard to find. In that situation, you make a tidy margin without doing much work, and your consumers lose out.This has happened in the real world. Consider the supply of fertilizer, which shrank when Russia’s invasion of Ukraine prompted sanctions on the chemicals needed to make it. Fertilizer companies reported their best profits in years, even as they struggle to expand supply. The same is true of oil. Drillers haven’t wanted to expand production because the last time they did so, they wound up in a glut. Ramping up production is expensive, and investors are demanding profitability, so supply has lagged while drivers pay dearly.Even if high prices aren’t able to increase supply and the shortage remains, an Economics 101 class might still teach that price is the best way to allocate scarce resources — or at least, that it’s better than the government price controls or rationing. As a consequence, less wealthy people may simply have no access to empanadas. Michael Faulkender, a finance professor at the University of Maryland, says that’s just how capitalism works.“With a price adjustment, people who have substitutes or maybe can do with less of it will choose to consume less of it, and you have the allocation of goods for which there is a shortage go to the highest-value usage,” Dr. Faulkender said. “Every good in our society is based on pricing. People who make more money are able to consume more.”Sorting Chickens and EggsThe question of whether profit margins are speeding inflation is harder to figure out.Economists have run some numbers on how much other variables might have contributed to inflation. The Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco found that fiscal stimulus programs accounted for 3 percentage points, for example, while the St. Louis Fed estimated that manufacturing sector inflation would have been 20 percentage points lower without supply chain bottlenecks. Dr. Bivens, of the Economic Policy Institute, performed a simple calculation of the share of price increases attributable to labor costs, other inputs, and profits over time, and found that profit’s contribution had risen significantly since the beginning of 2020 as compared with the previous four decades.That’s an interesting fact, but it’s not proof that profits are driving inflation. It’s possible that causality runs the other way — inflation drives higher profits, as companies hide price increases amid broader rises in costs. The St. Louis Fed’s Ana Maria Santacreu, who did the manufacturing inflation analysis, said that it would be very hard to pin down.“It would be interesting to get data on profit margins by industry and correlate those with inflation by industry,” she said. “But I still think it is difficult to capture any causal relationship.”Concentration’s Double EdgeIf you think that’s complicated, try establishing whether market power is playing a role in any of this.It is well established that the American economy has grown more concentrated. On a fundamental level, domination by a few companies may have made supply chains more brittle. If there are two empanada factories and one of them has a Covid-19 outbreak, that in itself creates a more serious shortage than it would if there were 10 factories.“Concentration has affected prices during the pandemic, even setting aside any potentially nefarious actions on the part of leaders,” said Heather Boushey, a member of President Biden’s Council of Economic Advisers.But most of the public argument has been about whether companies with more market share have been affecting prices once goods are finished and delivered. And that’s where many economists become skeptical, noting that if these increasingly powerful corporations had so much leverage, they would have used it before the pandemic.Inflation F.A.Q.Card 1 of 5What is inflation? More

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    Biden’s Curious Talking Point: Lower Deficits Offer Inflation Relief

    The administration says federal spending trends are helping rein in price increases, but the economic calculus may be more complicated.As Americans deal with the highest inflation in decades, President Biden has declared that combating rising costs is a priority for his administration. Lately, he has cited one policy in particular as an inflation-fighting tool: shrinking the nation’s budget deficit.“Bringing down the deficit is one way to ease inflationary pressures in an economy,” Mr. Biden said this month. “We reduce federal borrowing and we help combat inflation.”The federal budget deficit — the gap between what the government spends and the tax revenue it takes in — remains large. But Mr. Biden has pointed out that it shrank by $350 billion during his first year in office and is expected to fall more than $1 trillion by October, the end of this federal budget year.Rather than stemming from any recent budget measures by his administration or Congress, the deficit reduction largely reflects the rise in tax receipts from strong economic growth and the winding down of pandemic-era emergency programs, like expanded unemployment insurance. And for many experts, that — plus the reality that deficits have a complicated relationship with inflation — makes the budget gap a surprising talking point.“It’s probably not something they should be taking credit for,” Dan White, director of government consulting and fiscal policy research at Moody’s Analytics, said of the Biden team’s emphasis on deficit reduction. The expiration of the programs is mostly “not making things worse,” he said.The Biden administration’s March 2021 spending package helped the economic rebound, but it also meant the deficit shrank less than it otherwise would have last year. In fact, the $1.9 trillion relief plan probably added to inflation, because it pumped money into the economy when the labor market was starting to heal and businesses were reopening.But the White House has explained its new emphasis on deficit reduction and fiscal moderation in terms of timing. Administration officials argue that back in March 2021, the world was uncertain, vaccines were only beginning to roll out and spending heavily on support programs was an insurance policy. Now, as the labor market is booming and consumer demand remains high, the administration says it wants to avoid ramping up spending in ways that could feed further inflation.“Supply chains have created challenges in ramping up production as quickly as we were able to support demand,” said Heather Boushey, a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers. “The point he’s trying to make is that the plan, moving forward, is responsible and is not aimed at adding to demand.”Moody’s Analytics estimates that inflation will be about a percentage point lower this year than it would be had the government continued spending at last year’s levels.But few people, if anyone, expected those programs to continue. And while it is possible to make a rough estimate about how much fading fiscal support is helping with the inflation situation, as Moody’s did, a range of economists have said that it is hard to know how much it matters for inflation with precision.Understand Inflation and How It Impacts YouInflation 101: What is inflation, why is it up and whom does it hurt? Our guide explains it all.Inflation Calculator: How you experience inflation can vary greatly depending on your spending habits. Answer these seven questions to estimate your personal inflation rate.Interest Rates: As it seeks to curb inflation, the Federal Reserve began raising interest rates for the first time since 2018. Here is what that means for inflation.State Intervention: As inflation stays high, lawmakers across the country are turning to tax cuts to ease the pain, but the measures could make things worse. How Americans Feel: We asked 2,200 people where they’ve noticed inflation. Many mentioned basic necessities, like food and gas.The tie between budget deficits and inflation is also more complex than Mr. Biden’s statements suggest.Deficits, which are financed by government borrowing, are not inherently inflationary: Whether they push up prices hinges on the economic environment as well as the nature of the spending or cutback in revenue that created the budget shortfall.Policies that reduce the deficit could be inflationary, for instance. A big, broadly distributed stimulus that gives direct cash aid to low- and middle-income households could be more than offset in a budget by revenue from large tax increases on the wealthy. But shuffling much of that money to people who are likely to spend it quickly could cause demand to outstrip supply, leading to inflation. Alternatively, spending that would enlarge deficits — like debt-financed investments in energy infrastructure — could reduce inflation over time if the program improves efficiency, expands capacity or makes production cheaper.“I’ll fall back on the typical economist answer and say: It depends,” said Andrew Patterson, a senior international economist at Vanguard.The last time the federal government had a budget surplus was 2001. Since 1970, there have only been four years in which the U.S. government taxed more than it spent. Over that period, there have been times of both high and low inflation.“There’s no simple-minded deficit-to-inflation link — you have to look at both the demand and the supply side of the economy,” said Glenn Hubbard, a professor of finance and economics at Columbia University who headed the Council of Economic Advisers under President George W. Bush. The existence or absence of high inflation has more to do with imbalances in the real economy than with complex budget math. “If aggregate demand grows much faster than aggregate supply, you will see inflation,” he said.Complicating matters in the current situation, the stimulus from the last couple of years is still trickling out into the economy because consumers have amassed savings stockpiles that they are spending down, and because state and local governments continue to use untapped relief funds.And stimulus-stoked demand is far from the only reason prices are rising. Over the past year, because of factory shutdowns and overburdened transit routes, companies have struggled to expand supply to meet booming demand. Shortages of cars, couches and construction materials and raw components have helped to push costs higher.Grocery shoppers in Los Angeles. The White House has argued that a shrinking federal budget deficit will help rein in consumer prices.Alisha Jucevic for The New York TimesRecent global developments are worsening the situation. The Chinese government’s latest lockdowns to contain the coronavirus threaten to shake up factory production and shipping, while the war in Ukraine has caused fuel and food prices to increase.Employers are also raising wages as they scramble to hire in a hot job market, and that increase in labor costs is prompting some companies to raise prices to protect their profit levels. Some companies are even increasing their profits, having discovered that they can charge more in an era of hot demand.The demand drag from fading pandemic relief doesn’t appear to have been large enough to substantially offset those other forces. To date, price gains for a range of goods and services have mostly accelerated.Inflation F.A.Q.Card 1 of 5What is inflation? More

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    States Turn to Tax Cuts as Inflation Stays Hot

    WASHINGTON — In Kansas, the Democratic governor has been pushing to slash the state’s grocery sales tax. Last month, New Mexico lawmakers provided $1,000 tax rebates to households hobbled by high gas prices. Legislatures in Iowa, Indiana and Idaho have all cut state income taxes this year.A combination of flush state budget coffers and rapid inflation has lawmakers across the country looking for ways to ease the pain of rising prices, with nearly three dozen states enacting or considering some form of tax relief, according to the Tax Foundation, a right-leaning think tank.The efforts are blurring typical party lines when it comes to tax policy. In many cases, Democrats are joining Republicans in supporting permanently lower taxes or temporary cuts, including for high earners.But while the policies are aimed at helping Americans weather the fastest pace of inflation in 40 years, economists warn that, paradoxically, cutting taxes could exacerbate the very problem lawmakers are trying to address. By putting more money in people’s pockets, policymakers risk further stimulating already rampant consumer demand, pushing prices higher nationally.Jason Furman, an economist at Harvard University who was an economic adviser under the Obama administration, said that the United States economy was producing at full capacity right now and that any additional spending power would only drive up demand and prices. But when it comes to cutting taxes, he acknowledged, the incentives for states do not always appear to be aligned with what is best for the national economy.“I think all these tax cuts in states are adding to inflation,” Mr. Furman said. “The problem is, from any governor’s perspective, a lot of the inflation it is adding is nationwide and a lot of the benefits of the tax cuts are to the states.”States are awash in cash after a faster-than-expected economic rebound in 2021 and a $350 billion infusion of stimulus funds that Congress allocated to states and cities last year. While the Biden administration has restricted states from using relief money to directly subsidize tax cuts, many governments have been able to find budgetary workarounds to do just that without violating the rules.Last week, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida signed a $1.2 billion tax cut that was made possible by budget surpluses. The state’s coffers were bolstered by $8.8 billion in federal pandemic relief money. Mr. DeSantis, a Republican, hailed the tax cuts as the largest in the state’s history.“Florida’s economy has consistently outpaced the nation, but we are still fighting against inflationary policies imposed on us by the Biden administration,” he said.Adding to the urgency is the political calendar: Many governors and state legislators face elections in November, and voters have made clear they are concerned about rising prices for gas, food and rent.“It’s very difficult for policymakers to see the inflationary pressures that taxpayers are burdened by right now while sitting on significant cash reserves without some desire to return that,” said Jared Walczak, vice president of state projects with the Center for State Tax Policy at the Tax Foundation. “The challenge for policymakers is that simply cutting checks to taxpayers can feed the inflationary environment rather than offsetting it.”The tax cuts are coming in a variety of forms and sizes. According to the Tax Foundation, which has been tracking proposals this year, some would be phased in, some would be permanent and others would be temporary “holidays.”Next month, New York will suspend some of its state gas taxes through the end of the year, a move that Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, said would save families and businesses an estimated $585 million.In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, has called for gradually lowering the state’s corporate tax rate to 5 percent from 10 percent — taking a decidedly different stance from many of his political peers in Congress, who have called for raising corporate taxes. Mr. Wolf said in April that the proposal was intended to make Pennsylvania more business friendly.States are acting on a fresh appetite for tax cuts as inflation is running at a 40-year high.OK McCausland for The New York TimesMr. Furman pointed to the budget surpluses as evidence that the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package handed too much money to local governments. “The problem was there was just too much money for states and localities.”A new report from the Tax Policy Center, a left-leaning think tank, said total state revenues rose by about 17.6 percent last year. State rainy day funds — money that is set aside to cover unexpected costs — have reached “new record levels,” according to the National Association of State Budget Officers.Yet those rosy budget balances may not last if the economy slows, as expected. The Federal Reserve has begun raising interest rates in an attempt to cool economic growth, and there are growing concerns about the potential for another recession. Stocks fell for another session on Monday, with the S&P 500 down 3.2 percent, as investors fretted about a slowdown in global growth, high inflation and other economic woes.Cutting taxes too deeply now could put states on weaker financial footing.The Tax Policy Center said its state tax revenue forecasts for the rest of this year and next year were “alarmingly weak” as states enacted tax cuts and spending plans. Fitch, the credit rating agency, said recently that immediate and permanent tax cuts could be risky in light of evolving economic conditions.“Substantial tax policy changes can negatively affect revenues and lead to long-term structural budget challenges, especially when enacted all at once in an uncertain economic environment,” Fitch said.The state tax cuts are taking place as the Biden administration struggles to respond to rising prices. So far, the White House has resisted calls for a gas tax holiday, though Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said in April that President Biden was open to the idea. The administration has responded by primarily trying to ease supply chain logjams that have created shortages of goods and cracking down on price gouging, but taming inflation falls largely to the Fed.The White House declined to assess the merits of states’ cutting taxes but pointed to the administration’s measures to expand fuel supplies and proposals for strengthening supply chains and lowering health and child care costs as evidence that Mr. Biden was taking inflation seriously.“President Biden is taking aggressive action to lower costs for American families and address inflation,” Emilie Simons, a White House spokeswoman, said.The degree to which state tax relief fuels inflation depends in large part on how quickly the moves go into effect.Gov. Laura Kelly backed a bill last month that would phase out the 6.5 percent grocery sales tax in Kansas, lowering it next January and bringing it to zero by 2025. Republicans in the state pushed for the gradual reduction despite calls from Democrats to cut the tax to zero by July.Understand the 2022 Midterm ElectionsCard 1 of 6Why are these midterms so important? More