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    This Is a Terrible Time for Savers

    In an upside-down world of financial markets, expected returns after inflation are at record lows.The Bank of England in London earlier this year. Worldwide demographic trends tied to the aging of the baby boom generation have contributed to a glut in savings.Matt Dunham/Associated PressIf you are saving money for the future, one way or another you had best be prepared to lose some of it.That is the implication of today’s upside-down world in the financial markets. The combination of high inflation, strong economic growth and very low interest rates has meant that “real” interest rates — what you can earn on your money after accounting for inflation — are lower than they have been in modern times.This outcome is a result of a glut of global savings and the Federal Reserve’s extraordinary efforts to bring the economy back to health. And it means the choice for a saver is stark. You can invest in safe assets and accept a high likelihood that you will get back less, in terms of purchasing power, than you put in. Or you can invest in risky assets in which you have a shot at positive returns but also a substantial risk of losing money should market sentiment turn negative.“For people who are risk averse, they have to get used to the worst of all possible worlds, which is watching their little pool of capital go down in real terms year after year after year,” said Sonal Desai, the chief investment officer of Franklin Templeton Fixed Income.Inflation outpacing interest rates is good news in certain circumstances: if you are able to borrow money at a fixed rate, for example, and use it to make an investment that will provide something of value over time, whether a house, farmland or equipment for a business.But consider the options if you are not in that position, and instead are saving money that you expect to need five years down the road — for the down payment on a house, or a child’s college expenses.You could keep the money in cash, such as through a bank deposit or money market mutual fund. Short-term interest rates are at zero or very close to it, depending on the specific place the money is parked, and Federal Reserve officials expect to keep rates there for perhaps another couple of years. Inflation has been at 4 percent to 5 percent over the last year, and many forecasters expect it to come down slowly.Or, you could buy a safe Treasury bond that matures in five years. The annual yield on that bond, as of Friday, was 0.77 percent. That means that if annual inflation is above that, the buying power of your savings will diminish over time. The highest-yielding federally insured bank certificates of deposit over that span offer only a little bit more, just over 1 percent.If you’re particularly nervous about rising prices, you could buy a Treasury Inflation Protected Security, a government-issued bond that is indexed to inflation. The five-year yield on TIPS? A negative 1.83 percent. That means that if inflation were 3 percent annually, your holding would return only 3 percent minus 1.83 percent, or 1.17 percent. In exchange for protection against the risk of high inflation, you must tolerate losing nearly 2 percent in purchasing power each year.Then again, you could take on a little more risk and buy, say, corporate bonds. But that adds the risk that the companies that issued the bonds will default — and it’s still only enough to roughly keep up with anticipated inflation. (An index of BBB-rated corporate bonds yielded only 2.19 percent late last week.)The stock market and other risky assets offer potentially higher returns, with some degree of protection from inflation. The corporate profits that are the basis for stock valuations are soaring, one reason major indexes hit record highs in recent days. But this comes with the omnipresent risk of a sell-off — tolerable for people investing for the long run but potentially problematic for those with shorter horizons.This extreme negative real interest rate environment leaves people whose job is to analyze and recommend bond investing strategies with few good options to advise.“It’s hard to even make an argument for fixed income at these levels,” said Rob Daly, the director of fixed income for Glenmede Investment Management. “It’s the old ‘pennies in front of a steamroller trade.’”That is to say: Someone who buys bonds with ultralow yields is collecting puny interest in exchange for taking the substantial risk that higher inflation or a surge in rates could more than wipe out gains (when interest rates rise, existing bonds fall in value).For those reasons, Mr. Daly recommends investors allocate more of their portfolios to cash. Yes, it will pay almost no interest, and so the saver will lose money in inflation-adjusted terms. But that money will be ready to invest in riskier, longer-term investments whenever conditions become more favorable.Similarly, Rick Rieder, the chief investment officer of global fixed income at BlackRock, the huge asset manager, recommends that investors focused on the medium term build a portfolio that combines stocks, which offer upside from rising corporate earnings, with cash, which offers safety even at the cost of negative real returns.“It’s surreal,” Mr. Rieder said. “This is one of those periods of time when the fundamentals are completely detached from reality. Where real rates are today makes no sense relative to the reality we live in.”The Fed, besides keeping its short-term interest rate target near zero, is buying $120 billion in securities every month through its quantitative easing program, and is only now starting to talk about plans to taper those purchases. That has the effect of putting an enormous buyer in the market that is bidding up the price of bonds, and thus pushing rates down.Fed officials believe the strategy of keeping easy monetary policy in place even as the economy is well into its recovery will help bring the American job market back to full health quickly. The aim is also to establish credibility that its 2 percent inflation target is symmetric, meaning that it will not panic when prices temporarily overshoot that target.Many of the people involved in market strategy are less than thrilled with this approach, and the consequences for would-be investors.“Nominal yields are low because of how much the Fed is buying,” said Ms. Desai of Franklin Templeton. “It’s ludicrous given where we are” with growth and inflation.At the same time, Americans have accumulated trillions in extra savings during the pandemic, money they are parking in all sorts of investments, which has been pushing asset prices upward and expected returns down. Arguably, the flip side of low expected returns on safe assets is stratospheric prices for real estate, meme stocks and cryptocurrencies.Globally, demographic trends tied to the aging of the enormous baby boom generation are causing a surge in savings. Gertjan Vlieghe, a top official with the Bank of England, has shown that the pattern of retirement savings evident in Britain and across advanced nations points to continued low interest rates.“We are only about two-thirds of the way through a multidecade demographic transition that is affecting interest rates,” Mr. Vlieghe said in a speech last month. “The key mechanism is not that older people have lower savings rates, but rather that, as people age, they hold higher levels of assets, in particular safe assets,” then spend those savings down slowly when they hit retirement years.That helps explain why interest rates have been persistently low across major economies — in Europe, the United States and Japan in particular — for years, even at times when those economies have been performing relatively well.In other words, Fed policy and the unique economics of the pandemic are major factors in the extremely low rates of summer 2021. But it doesn’t help that these come in an era when so much of the world is eager to save — and that part won’t change anytime soon. More

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    Big Economic Challenges Await Biden and the Fed This Fall

    Expiring unemployment benefits and the Delta variant add uncertainty to a recovery that has brought strong growth but an unusual labor market.WASHINGTON — The U.S. economy is heading toward an increasingly uncertain autumn as a surge in the Delta variant of the coronavirus coincides with the expiration of expanded unemployment benefits for millions of people, complicating what was supposed to be a return to normal as a wave of workers re-entered the labor market.That dynamic is creating an unexpected challenge for the Biden administration and the Federal Reserve in managing what has been a fairly swift recovery from a recession. For months, officials at the White House and the central bank have pointed toward the fall as a potential turning point for an economy that is struggling to fully shake off the effects of the pandemic — particularly in the job market, which remains millions of positions below prepandemic levels.The widespread availability of Covid-19 vaccines, the reopening of schools and the expiration of enhanced jobless benefits have been seen as a potent cocktail that should prod workers off the sidelines and into the millions of jobs that employers say they are having trouble filling.But that optimistic outlook might be imperiled by the resurgent virus and policymakers’ response to it. Big companies are already delaying return-to-office plans, an early and visible sign that life may not return to normal as rapidly as expected. At the same time, long-running federal supports for people hurt by the pandemic are going away, including a moratorium on evictions, which ended on Saturday, and an extra $300 per week for unemployed workers. That benefit expires on Sept. 6, and some states have moved to end it sooner.Federal lawmakers are also planning to repurpose more than $200 billion worth of Covid relief to help pay for a $1 trillion infrastructure plan. An infrastructure bill moving through the Senate would rescind previously allocated virus funds for colleges and universities along with unused unemployment benefits and airline aid. It would also claw back unspent funds from some expired small-business programs to help offset the plan’s $550 billion in new spending. Democratic leaders have been adamant that the Senate will vote on the infrastructure bill before leaving Washington for a scheduled August recess.White House economists have said they see no need yet to consider major new measures to bolster the recovery. After months of blockbuster economic growth, falling unemployment numbers, and complaints from business leaders and Republicans that government support is preventing workers from taking jobs, administration officials remain locked into their current policy stance despite renewed risks.Administration officials have said President Biden is not pushing to extend the extra $300 per week for jobless people. It’s unclear whether the administration will try to extend a program that expanded unemployment benefits to workers who would not typically qualify for them, including the self-employed, gig workers and part-timers.Officials say the $1.9 trillion economic aid package that Mr. Biden signed in March, and that caused forecasters to lift their estimates for growth this year, has given the economy enough cushion to endure another surge from the virus. Mr. Biden has also vowed that the virus will not lead to new “lockdowns, shutdowns, school closures and disruptions” like last year’s.“We are not going back to that,” he said last week.White House advisers say the most important thing the president can do for the economy is continue to make the case for more people to get vaccinated. On Thursday, Mr. Biden asked states to use money from the March stimulus package to pay $100 to every newly vaccinated person and said the government would reimburse employers who gave workers time off to be vaccinated or take others to get shots.“We have held the view from the beginning that addressing the pandemic and recovering the economy were inextricably linked. That continues to be true,” Brian Deese, who heads Mr. Biden’s National Economic Council, said in an interview. “But because of the progress that we have made in addressing the pandemic and in putting in place both historic and durable economic policy supports, we have a set of tools right now to address both of these challenges.”The Fed is taking an optimistic but wait-and-see approach. Central bankers voted at their July meeting to leave emergency support in place for now. They gave no precise date for when they may begin to reduce their help for the economy, though they are beginning to draw up a plan for paring back support.Much like their counterparts at the White House, officials at the Fed are counting on solid economic data this autumn. Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, said last week that he expected strong labor market progress in the months ahead, partly because virus fears and child care issues should subside.“There’s also been very generous unemployment benefits, which are now rolling off. They’ll be fully rolled off in a couple of months,” Mr. Powell said during a news conference after the Fed’s July meeting. “All of those factors should wane, and because of that we should see strong job creation moving forward.”Administration and Federal Reserve officials have expressed hope that children’s return to schools and fading fears of the virus will encourage more people to begin looking for work again.Whitney Curtis for The New York TimesMr. Biden told a CNN forum in Ohio on July 21 that he still sees no evidence that the supplemental benefits have had a “serious impact” on hiring. But even if they had, he said, they would soon run their course.“We’re ending all those things that are the things keeping people back from going back to work,” he said.That stance carries some risk. While the economy grew faster in the first half of this year than it had in decades, the job market is still missing 6.8 million positions from its February 2020 level, and while policymakers are optimistic, it is not clear how quickly those jobs will come back. The economy has never reopened from a pandemic before, and nobody knows to what degree unemployment insurance is dissuading workers.“Seven to nine million Americans should be working right now if the pandemic had never happened, so that’s a lot of Americans that we need to put back to work,” Neel Kashkari, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday. “But is it six months, or is it two years? I’m not sure.”If it takes workers more time to go back into jobs, it could make for a much slower economic recovery than either the Fed or the White House is banking on. Workers stuck on the sidelines without enhanced benefits might pull back on spending, hurting demand and slowing the rapid rebound that has been underway in recent months.So far, administration economists remain heartened by the economic data. Officials said last week that they saw no evidence yet of the Delta variant’s hurting economic activity, and that they were hopeful that the more than 160 million Americans who were vaccinated would not pull back spending even if the variant continued to spread — making this wave of the virus less economically damaging than past ones.And as government spending support for the economy slows down, the Fed is still keeping money cheap to borrow, which should continue to pad economic growth.Shoppers in Los Angeles, where masks are required indoors. New public health guidelines could again chill some economic activity.Alex Welsh for The New York TimesFed officials have said they want to see more proof of the labor market’s healing before they slow their monthly bond purchases, which will be their first step toward a more normal policy setting.Mr. Powell said at his news conference last week that “we’re some way away from having had substantial further progress toward the maximum employment goal.”“I would want to see some strong job numbers,” he added.In the text of a speech on Friday, Lael Brainard, an influential Fed governor, said she wanted to see September economic data to assess whether the labor market was strong enough for the Fed to begin dialing back support, which suggests she would not favor signaling a start to the slowdown until later this fall. But her colleague Christopher J. Waller said in a CNBC interview on Monday that he would probably prefer to begin pulling back bond purchases quickly, if jobs data hold up, perhaps as soon as October.Increases in interest rates — the Fed’s more traditional, and more potent, tool — remain farther away. Most Fed officials in June projected that they would not lift their federal funds rate until 2023 at earliest, because they would like the labor market to return to full strength first.How rapidly the economy can achieve that goal is an open question. Employers regularly complain about the enhanced benefits, but even they have sent mixed messages on whether those are the main driver keeping labor at bay.“Many contacts were optimistic that labor availability would improve in the fall as schools restart and enhanced unemployment benefits end,” the Atlanta Fed’s qualitative report on business conditions found in June. “However, there were several who do not expect labor supply to improve for six to nine months.”Peter Ganong, an economist at the University of Chicago, said that if the pattern that he and his fellow researchers had seen in employment data held, he would not expect a wave of workers to jump back into jobs just because supplemental benefits expired.“So far, we see small employment differences even when vaccines are becoming available,” he said. Mr. Ganong and his co-authors compared the job-finding rates of people whose wages were more fully replaced by supplemental benefits and people whose wages were less fully replaced. They found small and relatively steady differences, even as the economy reopened.But Mr. Ganong cautioned that his research tracked the supplemental insurance. For many workers, unemployment benefits could come to an end altogether as extensions lapse, which may have a bigger effect.There is plenty of room for labor market progress. People in their prime working years are participating in the labor market by working or searching for jobs at much lower rates than before the pandemic — and that metric has made little progress in recent months.“Generally speaking, Americans want to work, and they’ll find their way into the jobs that they want,” Mr. Powell said last week. “It may take some time, though.”Alan Rappeport More

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    Home Prices Are Soaring. Is That the Fed’s Problem?

    Low interest rates are one reason that the housing market has taken off. They are far from the only one.Robert S. Kaplan, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, has been nervously eyeing the housing market as he ponders the path ahead for monetary policy. Home prices are rising at a double-digit pace this year. The typical house in and around the city he calls home sold for $306,031 in June of this year, Zillow estimates, up from $261,710 a year earlier.Several of Mr. Kaplan’s colleagues harbor similar concerns. They are worried that the housing boom could end up looking like a bubble, one that threatens financial stability. And some fret that the central bank’s big bond purchases could be helping to inflate it.“It’s making me nervous that you’ve got this incipient housing bubble, with anecdotal reports backed up by a lot of the data,” James Bullard, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, said during a call with reporters Friday. He doesn’t think things are at crisis levels yet, but he believes the Fed should avoid fueling the situation further. “We got in so much trouble with the housing bubble in the mid-2000s.”Policymakers don’t need to look far to see escalating prices, because housing is growing more expensive nearly everywhere. Buying a typical home in Boise, Idaho, cost about $469,000 in June, up from $335,000 a year ago, based on Zillow estimates of local housing values. A typical house in Boone, N.C., is worth $362,000, up from $269,000. Prices nationally have risen 15 percent over the past year, Zillow’s data shows, in line with the closely watched S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller index of home prices, which rose a record 16.6 percent in the year through May.Bidding wars are frustrating buyers. Agents are struggling to navigate frantic competition. About half of small bankers in a recent industry survey said the current state of the housing market poses “a serious risk” to the United States economy. Lawmakers and economic policymakers alike are hoping things calm down — especially because frothy home prices could eventually spill into rent prices, worsening affordability for low-income families just as they face the end of pandemic-era eviction moratoriums and, in some cases, months of owed rent.Industry experts say the current home price boom emerged from a cocktail of low interest rates, booming demand and supply bottlenecks. In short, it’s a situation that many are feeling acutely with no single policy to blame and no easy fix.Fed officials face a particularly tricky calculus when it comes to housing.Their policies definitely help to drive demand. Bond-buying and low Fed interest rates make mortgages cheap, inspiring people to borrow more and buy bigger. But rates aren’t the sole factor behind the home price craze. It also traces back to demographics, a pandemic-spurred desire for space, and a very limited supply of new and existing homes for sale — factors outside of the central bank’s control.“Interest rates are one factor that’s supporting demand, but we really can’t do much about the supply side,” Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, explained during recent congressional testimony.It’s an unattractive prospect to pull back monetary support to try to rein in housing specifically, because doing so would slow the overall economy, making it harder for the central bank to foster full employment. The Fed’s policy-setting committee voted Wednesday to keep policy set to full-support mode, and Mr. Powell said at a subsequent news conference that the economy remains short of central bank’s jobs target.But central bank officials also monitor financial stability, so they are keenly watching the price surge.Demand for housing was strong in 2018 and 2019, but it really took off early last year, after the Fed cut interest rates to near-zero and began buying government-backed debt to soothe markets at the start of the pandemic. Mortgage rates dropped, and mortgage applications soared.That was partly the point as the Fed fought to keep the economy afloat: Home-buying boosts all kinds of spending, on washing machines and drapes and kiddie pools, so it is a key lever for lifting the entire economy. Stoking it helps to revive floundering growth.Those low interest rates hit just as housing was entering a societal sweet spot. Americans born in 1991, the country’s largest group by birth year, just turned 30. And as Millennials — the nation’s largest generation — were beginning to think about trading in that fifth-floor walk-up for a home of their own, coronavirus lockdowns took hold.Suddenly, having more space became paramount. For some, several rounds of government stimulus checks made down payments seem more workable. For others, remote work opened the door to new home markets and possibilities.Reina and David Pomeroy, 36 and 35, were living in a rental in Santa Clara, Calif., with their children, ages 2 and 7, when the pandemic hit. Buying at California prices seemed like a pipe dream and they wanted to live near family, so they decided to relocate to the Boulder, Colo., area, near Mr. Pomeroy’s brother.When Reina and David Pomeroy were ready to give up their rented townhouse and buy, they looked outside California to avoid the state’s high home prices.Ulysses Ortega for The New York TimesThey closed in late July, and they move in a few days. Ms. Pomeroy was able to take her job at a start-up remote, and Mr. Pomeroy is hoping that Google, his employer, will allow him to move to its Boulder office. The pair saw between 20 and 30 houses and made — and lost — six offers before finally sealing the deal, over their original budget and $200,000 above the $995,000 asking price on their new 5-bedroom.Their experience underlines the other key issue driving prices up: “There’s not enough inventory for everyone that’s looking,” said Corey Keach, the Redfin agent who helped the Pomeroys find their home.Home supply fell across the residential real estate market following the mid-2000s housing bust, as construction slumped thanks in part to zoning regulations and tough financing standards. Shortages in lumber, appliances and labor have emerged since the pandemic took hold, making it hard for builders to churn out units fast enough.“The rapid price appreciation we’re seeing is Econ 101 unfolding in real time,” said Chris Glynn, an economist at Zillow.There are early signs that the market might be bringing itself under control. Applications for new mortgages have slowed this year, and existing home inventories have risen somewhat. Many housing economists think price increases should moderate later this year.And while the heady moment in American housing does have some echoes of the run-up to the 2008 financial crisis — borrowing made cheap by the Fed is enabling ambitious buying, and investors are increasingly jumping into the market — the differences may be even more critical.Homeowners, like the Pomeroys, have been more able to afford the homes they are buying than they were back in 2005 and 2006. People who get mortgages these days tend to have excellent credit scores, unlike that earlier era.And a big part of the problem in mid-2000s lay on Wall Street, where banks were slicing and dicing bundles of mortgages into complicated financial structures that ultimately came crashing down. Banks were holding a lot of those inventive securities on their balance sheets, and their implosion caused widespread pain in the financial sector that brought lending — and thus business expansions, hiring and spending — to a screeching halt.Banks are now much better regulated. But that isn’t to say that no financial stability risks hide in the current boom.The home price run-up could also help to keep inflation high. The government measures inflation by capturing the costs of what people are regularly consuming — so it counts housing expenses in terms of rents, not home prices.But a skyrocketing housing market is connected to rising rents: it makes it harder for people to make the leap to homeownership, which increases demand for rentals and pushes rents up. That can matter a lot to inflation data, since housing costs tied to rents make up about a third of one key measure. So what can the Fed do about any of this? Officials, including Mr. Bullard, have suggested that it might make sense for the Fed to slow its monthly purchases of Treasury debt and mortgage-backed securities soon, and quickly, to avoid giving housing an unneeded boost by keeping mortgages so cheap.Discussions about how and when the Fed will taper off its buying are ongoing, but most economists expect bond-buying to slow late this year or early next. That should nudge mortgage rates higher and slow the booming market a little.But borrowing costs are likely to remain low by historical standards for years to come. Longer-term interest rates have fallen even as the Fed considers dialing back bond purchases, because investors have grown more glum about the global growth outlook. And the Fed is unlikely to lift its policy interest rate — its more powerful tool — away from rock bottom anytime soon.Ideally, officials would like to see the economy return to full employment before lifting rates, and most don’t expect that moment to arrive until 2023. They’re unlikely to speed up the plan just to cool off housing. Fed officials have for decades maintained that bubbles are difficult to spot in real time and that monetary policy is the wrong tool to pop them.For now, your local housing market boom is probably going to be left to its own devices — meaning that while first time home buyers may end up paying more, they will also have an easier time financing it.“We felt a little bit more comfortable paying more for the house to lock in low interest rates,” said Mr. Pomeroy, explaining that they could have compromised on amenities they wanted but didn’t.“Interest rates are so low and money is cheap,” he said. “Why not do it?” More

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    Covid Aid Programs Spur Record Drop in Poverty

    WASHINGTON — The huge increase in government aid prompted by the coronavirus pandemic will cut poverty nearly in half this year from prepandemic levels and push the share of Americans in poverty to the lowest level on record, according to the most comprehensive analysis yet of a vast but temporary expansion of the safety net.The number of poor Americans is expected to fall by nearly 20 million from 2018 levels, a decline of almost 45 percent. The country has never cut poverty so much in such a short period of time, and the development is especially notable since it defies economic headwinds — the economy has nearly seven million fewer jobs than it did before the pandemic.The extraordinary reduction in poverty has come at extraordinary cost, with annual spending on major programs projected to rise fourfold to more than $1 trillion. Yet without further expensive new measures, millions of families may find the escape from poverty brief. The three programs that cut poverty most — stimulus checks, increased food stamps and expanded unemployment insurance — have ended or are scheduled to soon revert to their prepandemic size.While poverty has fallen most among children, its retreat is remarkably broad: It has dropped among Americans who are white, Black, Latino and Asian, and among Americans of every age group and residents of every state.Poverty Rates Have Fallen for Every Demographic Group More

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    Inflation Is New Battle Line as Republicans and Biden Spar Over Spending

    Republicans say President Biden’s spending plans will keep inflation rising, but the White House says the proposals could help tame costs.WASHINGTON — Republicans have made Americans’ concerns over rising prices their primary line of attack on President Biden’s economic agenda, seeking to derail trillions of dollars in spending programs and tax cuts by warning that they will produce rocketing 1970s-style inflation.They have seized on the increasing costs of gasoline, used cars, and other goods and services to accuse the president of stoking “Bidenflation,” first with the $1.9 trillion stimulus bill he signed in March and now with a proposed $3.5 trillion economic bill that Democrats have begun to draft in the Senate.There are unusually large amounts of uncertainty over the path of inflation in the coming months, given the vagaries around restarting a pandemic-stricken economy. Yet even many economists who worry that high prices will linger longer than analysts initially expected say there is little reason to believe the problem will worsen if Mr. Biden succeeds in his attempts to bolster child care, education, paid leave, low-emission energy and more.“There’s been a lot of fear-mongering concerning inflation,” Joseph E. Stiglitz, a liberal economist at Columbia University, said on Tuesday during a conference call to support Mr. Biden’s economic plans. But the president’s spending proposals, he said, “are almost entirely paid for.”“If they are passed as proposed,” he added, “there is no conceivable way that they would have any significant effect on inflation.”The debate over the effects of the proposals “has nothing to do with the current angst over inflation,” said Mark Zandi, a Moody’s Analytics economist who has modeled Mr. Biden’s plans.Still, rising inflation fears have forced the president and his aides to shift their economic sales pitch to voters. The officials have stressed the potential for his efforts to lower the cost of health care, housing, college and raising children, even as they insist the current bout of inflation is a temporary artifact of the pandemic recession.The administration’s defense has at times jumbled rapid price increases with inflation-dampening efforts that could take years to bear fruit. And officials concede that the president recently overstated his case on a national stage by claiming incorrectly that Mr. Zandi had found his policies would “reduce inflation.”The economics of the inflation situation are muddled: The United States has little precedent for the crimped supply chains and padded consumer savings that have emerged from the recession and its aftermath, when large parts of the economy shut down or pulled back temporarily and the federal government sent $5 trillion to people, businesses and local governments to help weather the storm. The economy remains seven million jobs short of its prepandemic total, but employers are struggling to attract workers at the wages they are used to paying.But the political danger for Mr. Biden, and opportunity for Republicans who have sought to derail his plans, is clear.The price index that the Federal Reserve uses to track inflation was up nearly 4 percent in May from the previous year, its fastest increase since 2008. Republicans say it is self-evident that more spending would further inflame those increases — a new rationale for a longstanding conservative attack on the vast expansion of government programs that Mr. Biden is proposing.Nine out of 10 respondents to a new national poll for The New York Times by the online research firm Momentive, which was previously known as SurveyMonkey, say they have noticed prices going up recently. Seven in 10 worry those increases will persist “for an extended period.” Half of respondents say that if the increases linger, they will pull back on household spending to compensate.Administration officials acknowledge that inflation worries are softening consumer confidence, including in the University of Michigan’s survey of consumer sentiment, even as the economy rebounds from recession with its strongest annual growth rate in decades.The issue has given Mr. Biden’s opponents their clearest and most consistent message to attack an agenda that remains popular in public opinion polls.“There’s no question we have serious inflation right now,” Senator Patrick J. Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania, told CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. “There is a question about how long it lasts. And I’m just worried that the risk is high that this is going to be with us for a while. And the Fed has put itself in a position where it’s going to be behind the curve. You combine that with massively excess spending, and it is a recipe for serious problems.”Some Republicans say a portion of Mr. Biden’s spending plans would not drive up prices — particularly the bipartisan agreement he and senators are negotiating to invest nearly $600 billion in roads, water pipes, broadband and other physical infrastructure. But the party is unified in criticizing the rest of the president’s proposals in a way that many economists say ignores how they would actually affect the economy.“There’s no question we have serious inflation right now,” Senator Patrick Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania, said.Stefani Reynolds for The New York TimesSome of the proposals would distribute money directly and quickly to American consumers and workers — by raising wages for home health care workers, for example, and continuing an expanded tax credit that effectively functions as a monthly stipend to all but the highest-earning parents. But they would also raise taxes on high earners, and much of the spending would create programs that would take time to find their way into the economy, like paid leave, universal prekindergarten and free community college.Some conservative economists worry that the relatively small slice of immediate payments would risk further heating an already hot economy, driving up prices. The direct payments in the proposals “would exacerbate pre-existing inflationary pressures, put additional pressure on the Fed to withdrawal monetary policy support earlier than it had planned, and put at risk the longevity of the recovery,” said Michael R. Strain, an economist at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.Other economists in and outside the administration say those effects would be swamped by the potential of the spending programs like paid leave to reduce inflationary pressure.“The economics of these investments strongly belies the Republican critique because these are investments that will yield faster productivity growth, greater labor supply, the expansion of the economy’s supply side — which very clearly dampens inflationary pressures, not exacerbates them,” Jared Bernstein, a member of Mr. Biden’s Council of Economic Advisers, said in an interview.Administration officials pivoted their sales pitch on the president’s agenda last week to emphasize the potential for his plans to reduce prices.Mr. Biden’s agenda is “about lowering costs for families across the board,” Mike Donilon, a senior adviser at the White House, told reporters. He said officials believed they were in “a strong position” against Republican attacks on inflation, in part by citing Mr. Zandi’s recent analysis. The president also referred to that analysis last week during a forum in Ohio on CNN, saying it had found that his proposals would “reduce inflation.”The Moody’s analysis did not say that; instead, it found that some of Mr. Biden’s spending plans could help relieve price pressures several years from now. It specifically cited proposals to build additional affordable housing units nationwide, which could help hold down rents and housing prices and reduce the cost of prescription drugs.White House officials concede that Mr. Biden overstated the analysis but point to more measured remarks in a speech this month, when he said his plans would “enhance our productivity — raising wages without raising prices.” More

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    Senators and Biden Aides Struggle to Save Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal

    A looming deadline and a last-minute need for a new revenue source are complicating a deal that was announced nearly a month ago.WASHINGTON — Congressional negotiators and the Biden administration tried on Monday to salvage a nearly $600 billion bipartisan agreement to invest in roads, water pipes and other physical infrastructure, after Republicans rejected a key component to pay for the plan and resisted Democratic plans for an initial procedural vote on Wednesday.Senators and administration officials are still working to hammer out the details of the deal, including how to ensure that a plan to finance it will secure 60 votes for Senate passage. White House officials expressed confidence on Monday that the agreement could be finalized. But its fate was uncertain.Mr. Biden is pushing his economic agenda in parts. The bipartisan agreement is meant to be Step 1 — with a much larger, Democratic bill to follow. But weeks after their announcement of a deal, the bipartisan group has not released legislative text or received external confirmation that it is fully financed. A top negotiator said over the weekend that the group jettisoned a key plan included in the deal that would have raised revenue by giving the I.R.S. more power to catch tax cheats.Republicans have come under pressure to oppose that funding method from conservative anti-tax groups, who say it would empower auditors to harass business owners and political targets. Democrats say the increased enforcement would target large corporations and people who earn more than $400,000 — and note that improved tax enforcement has been a bipartisan goal of administrations dating back decades.Still, on Monday evening Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, set up a procedural vote to begin moving toward debate on the bipartisan deal, even without the text of the plan, on Wednesday. Mr. Schumer said that if senators agreed to consider infrastructure legislation, he would move to bring up either the bipartisan deal, should one materialize this week, or a series of individual infrastructure bills that have been approved on a bipartisan basis by Senate committees.The plan was an effort to force negotiators to move toward finalizing details and a critical mass of Republicans to commit to advancing the deal, with Democrats eager to advance the legislation before the Senate leaves for its August recess. Mr. Schumer said he had support from the five main Democratic negotiators involved in talks.“It is not a deadline to determine every final detail of the bill,” he said. A vote of support on Wednesday, he added, would signal that “the Senate is ready to begin debating and amending a bipartisan infrastructure bill.”On Monday, Mr. Biden pushed for passage of the agreement during remarks at the White House, where he promoted his administration’s economic progress. But administration officials made clear later in the day that their patience for the finalization of the bipartisan agreement was running thin.“We believe it’s time to move forward with this vote — with congressional action,” Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said at a news briefing. Asked what the administration’s backup plan was if the plan failed to clear the test vote, Ms. Psaki demurred.“We’re not quite there yet,” she said. “There is a lot of good work that’s happened. Two days is a lifetime in Washington, so I don’t think we’re going to make predictions of the death of the infrastructure package.”Republican leaders said they wanted to see legislative text before voting on a deal.“We need to see the bill before voting to go to it. I think that’s pretty easily understood,” Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, told reporters on Monday. “I think we need to see the bill before we decide whether or not to vote for it.”Democrats have argued that negotiators have had nearly a month to iron out the details and that the Senate has previously taken procedural votes without finalized bill text — including when Mr. McConnell led his caucus in a failed attempt to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act in 2017.The biggest sticking point remains how to pay for the plan. The I.R.S. plan was estimated to bring in more than $100 billion in new tax revenue over a decade.It is unclear what the group will turn to as a substitute. White House officials and the 10 core Senate negotiators — five Democrats and five Republicans — were working on Monday to find a new revenue source.Senator Rob Portman, Republican of Ohio and a key negotiator, floated the prospect on Sunday of undoing a Trump-era rule that changes the way drug companies can offer discounts to health plans for Medicare patients as an option. The Congressional Budget Office estimated in 2019 that it would cost $177 billion over 10 years, and the rule has not yet been implemented.Ms. Psaki told reporters that the administration is “open to alternatives, very open to alternatives from this end.”“But we’ll let those conversations happen privately and be supportive of them from our end,” she said.Senators were expected to virtually meet Monday evening as they continued to haggle over the details. The group met for more than two hours Sunday evening.“I think we need to see the bill before we decide whether or not to vote for it,” Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, told reporters on Monday.Stefani Reynolds for The New York TimesMr. Biden continued to push on Monday for legislative action, casting his economic policies, along with vaccination efforts, as a critical driver of accelerating growth. He promised that his remaining agenda items would help Americans work more and earn more money while restraining price increases, pushing back on a critique from Republicans.Administration officials and Mr. Biden say the Democrats’ $3.5 trillion plan — the larger bill that would follow the bipartisan infrastructure bill — will dampen price pressures by increasing productivity. The president said the proposals would free up Americans to work more through subsidized child care, national paid leave and other measures, as well as improve the efficiency of the economy.The spending “won’t increase inflation,” Mr. Biden said. “It will take the pressure off inflation.”He also said he had faith in the independent Federal Reserve and its chair, Jerome H. Powell, to manage the situation. The Fed is responsible for maintaining both price stability and maximum employment.“As I made clear to Chairman Powell of the Federal Reserve when we met recently, the Fed is independent. It should take whatever steps it deems necessary to support a strong, durable economic recovery,” Mr. Biden said. “But whatever different views some might have on current price increases, we should be united on one thing: passage of the bipartisan infrastructure framework, which we shook hands on — we shook hands on.”Mr. Biden used more of the speech to push for the $3.5 trillion plan, which Democrats aim to pursue without Republican support through a process known as budget reconciliation, which bypasses a Senate filibuster.In describing the varied social and environmental initiatives he hopes to include in the plan, the president repeatedly stressed the need for government action as a means to raising living standards and creating jobs.That plan contains the bulk of Mr. Biden’s $4 trillion economic agenda that is not included in the bipartisan bill, like expanding educational access, building more affordable and energy-efficient housing, incentivizing low-carbon energy through tax credits and a wide range of other social programs meant to invest in workers.Republicans have also amplified concerns about inflation since Democrats pushed through a $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill in March. In a letter to his conference this week, Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the Republican leader, said that “prices on everything from gas to groceries are skyrocketing,” and he vowed that “we will continue to hold Democrats to account for their reckless handling of the economy.”Mr. Biden’s economic team has said repeatedly that inflation increases are largely a product of the pandemic and will fade in the months or years to come.Mr. Biden dismissed a question from a reporter after the speech about the potential for unchecked inflation, which he said no serious economist foresaw.Margot Sanger-Katz More

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    Child Tax Credit Monthly Payments to Begin Soon

    The Biden administration will send up to $300 per child a month to most American families thanks to a temporary increase in the child tax credit that advocates hope to extend.WASHINGTON — If all goes as planned, the Treasury Department will begin making a series of monthly payments in coming days to families with children, setting a milestone in social policy and intensifying a debate over whether to make the subsidies a permanent part of the American safety net.With all but the most affluent families eligible to receive up to $300 a month per child, the United States will join many other rich countries that provide a guaranteed income for children, a goal that has long animated progressives. Experts estimate the payments will cut child poverty by nearly half, an achievement with no precedent.But the program, created as part of the stimulus bill that Democrats passed over unified Republican opposition in March, expires in a year, and the rollout could help or hinder President Biden’s pledge to extend it.Immediate challenges loom. The government is uncertain how to get the payments to millions of hard-to-reach families, a problem that could undermine its poverty-fighting goals. Opponents of the effort will be watching for delivery glitches, examples of waste or signs that the money erodes the desire of some parents to work.While the government has increased many aid programs during the coronavirus pandemic, supporters say the payments from an expanded Child Tax Credit, at a one-year cost of about $105 billion, are unique in their potential to stabilize both poor and middle-class families.“It’s the most transformative policy coming out of Washington since the days of F.D.R.,” said Senator Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey. “America is dramatically behind its industrial peers in investing in our children. We have some of the highest child poverty rates, but even families that are not poor are struggling, as the cost of raising children goes higher and higher.”Among America’s 74 million children, nearly nine in 10 will qualify for the new monthly payments — up to $250 a child, or $300 for those under six — which are scheduled to start on Thursday. Those payments, most of which will be sent to bank accounts through direct deposit, will total half of the year’s subsidy, with the rest to come as a tax refund next year.Mr. Biden has proposed a four-year extension in a broader package he hopes to pass this fall, and congressional Democrats have vowed to make the program permanent. Like much of Mr. Biden’s agenda, the program’s fate may depend on whether Democrats can unite around the bigger package and advance it through the evenly divided Senate.The unconditional payments — what critics call “welfare” — break with a quarter century of policy. Since President Bill Clinton signed a 1996 bill to “end welfare,” aid has gone almost entirely to parents who work. Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, recently wrote that the new payments, with “no work required,” would resurrect a “failed welfare system,” and provide “free money” for criminals and addicts.Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, is among those who argue the new payments will erode the desire of some parents to work. Erin Scott for The New York TimesBut compared to past aid debates, opposition has so far been muted. A few conservatives support children’s subsidies, which might boost falling birthrates and allow more parents to raise children full-time. Senator Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah, has proposed a larger child benefit, though he would finance it by cutting other programs.With Congress requiring payments to start just four months after the bill’s passage, the administration has scrambled to spread the word and assemble payment rosters.Families that filed recent tax returns or received stimulus checks should get paid automatically. (Single parents with incomes up to $112,500 and married couples with incomes up to $150,000 are eligible for the full benefit.) But analysts say four to eight million low-income children may be missing from the lists, and drives are underway to get their parents to register online.“Wherever you run into people — perfect strangers — just go on up and introduce yourself and tell them about the Child Tax Credit,” Vice President Kamala Harris said last month on what the White House called “Child Tax Credit Awareness Day.”Among the needy, the program is eliciting a mixture of excitement, confusion and disbelief. Fresh EBT, a phone app for people who receive food stamps, found that 90 percent of its users knew of the benefit, but few understand how it works.“Half say, ‘I’m really, really ready to get it,’’’ said Stacy Taylor, the head of policy and partnerships at Propel, the app’s creator. “The others are a mix of ‘I’m worried I haven’t taken the right steps’ or ‘I’m not sure I really believe it’s true.’”Few places evoke need more than Lake Providence, La., a hamlet along the Mississippi River where roughly three-quarters of the children are poor, including those of Tammy Wilson, 50, a jobless nursing aide.The $750 a month she should receive for three children will more than double a monthly income that consists only of food stamps and leaves her relying on a boyfriend. “I think it’s a great idea,” she said. “There’s no jobs here.”While the money will help with rent, Ms. Wilson said, the biggest benefit would be the ability to send her children to activities like camps and school trips.“Kids get to bullying, talking down on them — saying ‘Oh your mama don’t have money,’” she said. “They feel like it’s their fault.”Families receiving groceries at a food pantry in Queens. Experts estimate that the monthly payments will cut child poverty by nearly half.Shannon Stapleton/ReutersBut in West Monroe, a 90-minute drive away, Levi Sullivan, another low-income parent, described the program as wasteful and counterproductive. Mr. Sullivan, a pipeline worker, has been jobless for more than a year but argued the payments would increase the national debt and reward indolence.“I’m a Christian believer — I rely on God more than I rely on the government,” he said.With four children, Mr. Sullivan, who has gotten by on unemployment insurance, food stamps, and odd jobs, could collect $1,150 a month, but he is so skeptical of the program he went online to defer the payments and collect a lump sum next year. Otherwise, he fears that if he finds work he may have to pay the money back.“Government assistance is a form of slavery,” he said. “Some people do need it, but then again, there’s some people that all they’re doing is living off the system.”Progressives have sought a children’s income floor for at least a century. “No one can doubt that an adequate allowance should be granted for a mother who has children to care for,” wrote the economist and future Illinois senator Paul H. Douglas in 1925 as children’s benefits spread in Europe.Four decades later, the Ford Foundation sponsored a conference to promote the idea in the United States. The meeting’s organizer, Eveline M. Burns, lamented the “shocking extent of childhood poverty” but acknowledged strong political opposition to the payments.While hostility to unconditional cash aid peaked in the 1990s, multiple forces revived interest in children’s subsidies. Brain science showed the lasting impact of the formative years. Stagnant incomes brought worries about child-rearing costs into the middle class. More recently, racial protests have encouraged a broader look at social inequity.An existing program, the Child Tax Credit, did offer a children’s subsidy of up to $2,000 a child. But since it was only available to families with sufficient earnings, the poorest third of children failed to fully qualify. By removing that earnings requirement and raising the amount, Democrats temporarily converted a tax break into a children’s income guarantee.Analysts at Columbia University’s Center on Poverty and Social Policy say the new benefits will cut child poverty by 45 percent, a reduction about four times greater than ever achieved in a single year.“Even if it only happens for a year, that’s a big deal,” said Irwin Garfinkel, a professor at the Columbia School of Social Work. “If it becomes permanent, it’s of equal importance to the Social Security Act — it’s that big.”Opponents warn that by aiding families that do not work, the policy reverses decades of success. Child poverty had fallen to a record low before the pandemic (about 12 percent in 2019), a drop of more than a third since 1990s.“I’m surprised there hasn’t been more pushback from other conservatives,” said Scott Winship of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, who argues that unconditional aid can cause the poor long-term harm by reducing the incentive to work and marry. Research suggests that framing the payments as a benefit for children leads to parents spending it on things like diapers and school supplies rather than on themselves.Jenn Ackerman for The New York TimesGetting the money to all eligible children may prove harder than it sounds. Some American children live with undocumented parents afraid to seek the aid. Others may live with relatives in unstable or shifting care.Dozens of groups are trying to promote the program, including the Children’s Defense Fund, United Way and Common Sense Media, but many eligible families have already failed to collect stimulus checks, underscoring how difficult they are to reach. The legislation contained little money that could be used for outreach, leaving many groups trying to raise private donations to support their efforts.The Rev. Starsky Wilson, president of the Children’s Defense Fund, praised the Biden administration for creating an online enrollment portal but warned, “we really need to be knocking on doors.”Gene Sperling, the White House official overseeing the payments, said that even with some families hard to reach, deep cuts in poverty were assured.“While we want to do everything possible to reach any missing children, the most dramatic impact on child poverty will happen automatically,” because the program will reach about 26 million children whose families are known but earned too little to fully benefit from the previous credit. “That will be huge.”By delivering monthly payments, the program seeks to address the income swings that poor families frequently suffer. One unknown is how families will spend the money, with critics predicting waste and supporters saying parents know their children’s needs.When Fresh EBT asked users about their spending plans, the answers differed from those about the stimulus checks. “We saw more responses specifically related to kids — school clothes, school supplies, a toddler bed,” Ms. Taylor said. “It tells me the framing of the benefit matters.”There is evidence for that theory. When Britain renamed its “family allowance” a “child benefit” in the 1970s and paid mothers instead of fathers, families spent less on tobacco and men’s clothing and more on children’s clothing, pocket money, and toys. “Calling something a child benefit frames the way families spend the money,” said Jane Waldfogel, a Columbia professor who studied the British program.While the payments will greatly reduce poverty, most beneficiaries are not poor. Jennifer Werner and her husband had a household income of about $75,000 before she quit her job as a property manager in Las Vegas two years ago to care for her first child. Since then, she has used savings to extend her time as a stay-at-home mother.Ms. Werner, 45, supports the one-year benefit but wants to see the results before deciding whether it should last. “When you have a child you realize they’re expensive — diapers, wipes, extra food,” she said. But she added “I don’t know where all that money’s coming from.”She hopes the country can be fair both to taxpayers and to children whose parents work too hard to offer sufficient attention. “If the benefit helps parents nurture their kids, that would be a wonderful thing,” she said. More

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    European Central Bank Tweaks Strategy to Fight Inflation

    The European Central Bank said Thursday it would adjust the guideposts it uses to set monetary policy, giving its more room to deploy crisis measures even if inflation rises above its official target. The bank also said it would begin using its clout in bond markets to fight climate change.After concluding an 18-month review of its strategy, the bank’s Governing Council said Thursday that it would no longer aim to keep inflation below, but close to, 2 percent. Rather, it would simply aim for 2 percent and be ready to accept “a transitory period in which inflation is moderately above target.”The seemingly minor change gives the bank space to keep pumping credit into the eurozone economy even if annual inflation rises above 2 percent, as long as policymakers think the jump is temporary.That situation may soon materialize. Inflation in the eurozone has been hovering around 2 percent in recent months, and could rise above the target as economies reopen and shortages of needed products like semiconductors become more acute. According to the previous strategy, the central bank would be obligated to raise interest rates or take other measures to slow the economy, even if the crisis was not over.By law, controlling prices in the 19 countries of the eurozone is the central bank’s main priority, so any adjustment to its approach to inflation has broad implications for the interest rates that businesses and consumers pay on loans, and for employment and economic growth.The bank also said it would take climate change into account when it buys corporate bonds as part of its stimulus measures. The bond purchases, made with newly created money, are a means to stimulate borrowing and economic growth. But in the future, the European Central Bank will favor companies that have made sincere efforts to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide they produce.In practice, the central bank has already provided ample evidence it was willing to bend its own rules to fight the pandemic, or the debt crisis that nearly destroyed the euro a decade ago.“We do not expect the new strategy to shift the outlook for the E.C.B.’s monetary policy stance significantly,” Holger Schmieding, chief economist at Berenberg Bank, said in a note to clients ahead of the announcement. “Instead, it will formally codify the approach which the E.C.B. has pursued anyway. This will make it easier for the E.C.B. to communicate with markets and the public.”The European Central Bank’s new approach is sure to generate criticism from places like Germany, where fear of inflation runs deep. Jens Weidmann, a member of the Governing Council and president of the Bundesbank, Germany’s central bank, has called for the European Central Bank to begin dialing back its stimulus to ensure that inflation does not get out of control. He has also said that climate change was not a matter for central banks.But Mr. Weidmann belongs to a minority on the Governing Council. The central bank said in a statement that it believed that climate change was relevant to “inflation, output, employment, interest rates, investment and productivity; financial stability; and the transmission of monetary policy.” More