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    Economic and Earnings Concerns Begin to Weigh on Stocks

    After having few cares about the markets all year, investors are getting nervous as the Fed signals that harsher policies are on the way.Wall Street’s imperviousness to bad news, which enabled stocks to double in value from their pandemic panic lows, may be starting to crack.When the Federal Reserve signaled in September that it would soon tighten monetary policy by curtailing asset purchases, the stock market took it well, but not for long. The S&P 500 rose modestly for a few days before reversing course, pushing the index more than 5 percent below the high it set earlier in the month, which amounted to its biggest drop for the year.Despite that setback, the market managed to eke out a 0.2 percent gain for the third quarter.A stingier Fed is not the market’s only concern. Inflation, dismissed until recently by the Fed as a transitory artifact of the pandemic, is coming to be seen as more persistent as the prices of goods, services and labor increase. What is being acknowledged as transitory, though, is the jolt to economic growth and corporate profits provided by several trillion dollars of added spending by Congress.With a number of threats to prosperity becoming harder to ignore, many investment advisers have become less enthusiastic about stocks. They are revising return expectations down and recommending exposure only to narrow niches.“We’re not bullish today at all,” said David Giroux, head of investment strategy at T. Rowe Price. “What really drives the market is earnings growth,” he said. “We can’t repeat some of the things we’ve done this year. Earnings growth may slow in ’22, maybe dramatically.”After being a colossal boon for the economy, fiscal stimulus — in the form of enormous federal spending — may now prove to be three problems for the stock market in one. Government expenditure focused on the pandemic that boosted growth is ebbing. There is a broad consensus that taxes will rise soon to help pay for that spending. And, because many people took direct stimulus payments and invested them in the stock market, stocks ran up faster than they would otherwise.The positive effects of so much stimulus may have run their course, as domestic stock funds tracked by Morningstar lost 0.6 percent in the third quarter, with portfolios that focus on financial services among the few clear winners.The SPDR S&P 500 E.T.F. Trust, which tracks the index and is the largest exchange-traded fund, returned 0.6 percent in the quarter, beating the average actively managed mutual fund.The very fact that many investors until lately have seemed untroubled by the perils facing the economy is what some find troubling.“There is complacency in a lot of things,” said Luca Paolini, chief strategist at Pictet Asset Management. He enumerated some of his worries: “‘Inflation is temporary.’ Maybe. Maybe not. Six months ago, consumption was booming. People had money and time. Now they have less money and less time. Earnings momentum has peaked, clearly, relative to six months ago. I’m concerned the market isn’t pricing in deterioration in the economic outlook.”By some measures, stocks are as expensive as at almost any time in history. The S&P 500 trades at about 34 times the last 12 months of earnings. Sarah Ketterer, chief executive of Causeway Capital Management, worries that corporate profits face numerous headwinds and that their impact on stocks could be especially high with valuations so rich.“Inflation is up, economic growth is down,” she said. “The supply chain disruption phenomenon is global, creating cost increases and margin pressure.” Companies in many industries have reported trouble sourcing some commodities and important components of manufactured goods, such as semiconductors, hindering production and making what they do produce more expensive.Rising prices have sent interest rates in the bond market higher, driving down bond prices and keeping a lid on bond funds in the third quarter. The average one rose 0.2 percent, dragged down by a 2.9 percent decline in emerging-market portfolios.“I’m hard pressed to find an area of costs that haven’t gone up, and this may continue for some time,” Ms. Ketterer said. “No one knows how long it will take to unravel the tangled supply chain situation.”The situation seems most tangled in Asia, where many raw and intermediate materials originate. China has been the source of several worrying recent events, including power cuts that have impeded manufacturing, and financial instability at the China Evergrande Group, a giant, heavily indebted developer.Some specialists in Asian markets see little chance of Evergrande’s woes spilling over to the wider Chinese financial system, let alone beyond. Matthews Asia, a mutual fund manager, said in a note to investors that mortgage lending standards in China are fairly tight, with large down payments required and the packaging of loans into securities sold to investors minimal.“Evergrande’s problems are unlikely to cause systemic problems and the likelihood of this devolving into a global financial problem is minuscule,” Matthews’s analysts said. But they added that restrictions could be placed on the property sector in coming quarters.Saira Malik, head of equities at Nuveen, an asset manager, likewise does not expect Evergrande to become a global problem, but she cautions that it is not China’s only problem.“The government is focusing on social issues, and some of that is leading to moderation in the growth rate” of China’s economy, she said. While more expansive central bank policies would be helpful, she added, “we think China could get worse before it gets better.”Funds that focus on Chinese stocks got worse in the third quarter, sinking 13.8 percent. International stock funds in general lost 2.9 percent.As prices and risks in stock markets at home and abroad rise, the opportunities for strong, relatively safe gains shrink.Mr. Giroux said he is “buying what the market is concerned about in the short term,” such as stocks in managed care providers, which are trading at a discount to the market because earnings growth has been subdued.He said he would avoid smaller companies, as well as companies that have benefited from fiscal stimulus programs, including automakers, heavy industrial companies and semiconductor manufacturers.Ms. Malik, who said she is “moderately bullish” overall, prefers smaller companies and European stock markets. She also likes makers of office software, such as Salesforce and HubSpot, and high-quality consumer cyclicals like Nike.Mr. Paolini also favors European stocks.“The case for Europe is quite solid,” he said. “Vaccination rates are high; the Covid story is over,” yet government stimulus continues across the region, so “they don’t have the same fiscal cliff as in the U.S. and U.K.”His other recommendations include financial stocks, which tend to benefit from higher interest rates, and drug makers.Ms. Ketterer thinks there is more potential for pandemic recovery stocks to appreciate. In particular, she expects Rolls-Royce, which makes jet engines, to benefit from an operational restructuring, and Air Canada, which cut costs during the pandemic and has a strong balance sheet and little competition, to do well as travel picks up.Ms. Ketterer remains resolute about trying to pick winners when there may not be many winners to pick.“What do we do?” she said. “We’re not going to hide. We don’t want to be in cash, and we don’t want to be in bonds if rates are rising.”Mr. Giroux said he doesn’t care much for bonds or cash — money-market funds — right now, either. He favors bank loans, floating-rate securities created by bundling loans that banks have made to corporate customers. They yield close to 4 percent, and that could increase if market interest rates rise. Default risk is mitigated because bank loans have a high place in corporate capital structures.The troubles in the stock market lately are barely a blip when viewed on a chart of the phenomenal last 18 months, so a single-digit percent return may seem meager. But it may start to look generous if the time has arrived for investors to learn to live with less.“The risk profile for equities over the next three to five years is not as good as it was a year ago because valuations are high, sentiment is good and earnings growth is likely to slow,” Mr. Giroux said. “We pull back on risk assets when things feel pretty good, and right now things feel pretty good.” More

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    Oil and Gas Prices May Stay High as Investors Chase Clean Energy

    Even as more costly fuel poses political risks for President Biden, oil companies and OPEC are not eager to produce more because they worry prices will drop.HOUSTON — Americans are spending a dollar more for a gallon of gasoline than they were a year ago. Natural gas prices have shot up more than 150 percent over the same time, threatening to raise prices of food, chemicals, plastic goods and heat this winter.The energy system is suddenly in crisis around the world as the cost of oil, natural gas and coal has climbed rapidly in recent months. In China, Britain and elsewhere, fuel shortages and panic buying have led to blackouts and long lines at filling stations.The situation in the United States is not quite as dire, but oil and gasoline prices are high enough that President Biden has been calling on foreign producers to crank up supply. He is doing so as he simultaneously pushes Congress to address climate change by moving the country away from fossil fuels toward renewable energy and electric cars.U.S. energy executives and the Wall Street bankers and investors who finance them are not doing anything to bolster production to levels that could bring down prices. The main U.S. oil price jumped nearly 3 percent on Monday, to about $78 a barrel, a seven-year high, after OPEC and its allies on Monday declined to significantly increase supply.Producers are still chafing at memories of the price crash early in the pandemic. Wall Street is even less enthusiastic. Not only have banks and investors lost money in the boom-bust cycles that whipsawed the sector over the past decade, but many also say they are prepared to pare their exposure to fossil fuels to meet the commitments they have made to fight climate change.“Everyone is very wary since it was just 15 or 16 months ago we had negative-$30-a-barrel oil prices,” said Kirk Edwards, president of Latigo Petroleum, which has interests in 2,000 oil and natural gas wells in Texas and Oklahoma. He was recalling a time of so little demand and storage capacity that some traders paid buyers to take oil off their hands.If the drillers don’t increase production, fuel prices could stay high and even rise. That would present a political problem for Mr. Biden. Many Americans, especially lower-income families, are vulnerable to big swings in oil and gas prices. And while use of renewable energy and electric cars is growing, it remains too small to meaningfully offset the pain of higher gasoline and natural gas prices.Goldman Sachs analysts say energy supplies could further tighten, potentially raising oil prices by $10 before the end of the year.That helps explain why the Biden administration has been pressing the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries to produce more oil. “We continue to speak to international partners, including OPEC, on the importance of competitive markets and setting prices and doing more to support the recovery,” Jen Psaki, Mr. Biden’s press secretary, said last week.But OPEC and its allies on Monday merely reconfirmed existing plans for a modest rise in November. They are reluctant to produce more for the same reasons that many U.S. oil and gas companies are unwilling to do so.Oil executives contend that while prices may seem high, there is no guarantee that they will stay elevated, especially if the global economy weakens because coronavirus cases begin to increase again. Since the pandemic began, the oil industry has laid off tens of thousands of workers, and dozens of companies have gone bankrupt or loaded up on debt.Oil prices may seem high relative to 2020, but they are not stratospheric, executives said. Prices were in the same territory in the middle of 2018 and are still some ways from the $100-a-barrel level they topped as recently as 2014.Largely because of the industry’s caution, the nationwide count of rigs producing oil is 528, roughly half its 2019 peak. Still, aside from recent interruptions in Gulf of Mexico production from Hurricane Ida, U.S. oil output has nearly recovered to prepandemic days as companies pull crude out of wells they drilled years ago.Another reason for the pullback from drilling is that banks and investors are reluctant to put more money into the oil and gas business. The flow of capital from Wall Street has slowed to a trickle after a decade in which investors poured over $1.4 trillion into North American oil and gas producers through stock and bond issues and loans, according to the research firm Dealogic.“The banks have pulled away from financing,” said Scott Sheffield, chief executive of Pioneer Natural Resources, a major Texas oil and gas producer. The flow of money supplied by banks and other investors had slowed even before the pandemic because shale wells often produced a lot of oil and gas at first but were quickly depleted. Many oil producers generated little if any profit, which led to bankruptcies whenever energy prices fell.Companies constantly sold stock or borrowed money to drill new wells. Pioneer, for example, did not generate cash as a business between 2008 and 2020. Instead, it used up $3.8 billion running its operations and making capital investments, according to the company’s financial statements.Industry executives have come to preach financial conservatism and tell shareholders they’re going to raise dividends and buy back more stock, not borrow for big expansions. Mr. Sheffield said Pioneer now intended to return 80 percent of its free cash flow, a measure of money generated from operations, to shareholders. “The model has totally changed,” he said.Among oil executives, there are still vivid memories of the collapse in energy prices last year, as the pandemic curtailed commuting and travel.Tamir Kalifa for The New York TimesOil company shares, after years of declines, have soared this year. Still, investors remain reluctant to finance a big expansion in production.With oil and gas exploration and production businesses taking a cautious approach and returning money to shareholders, the first company “that deviates from that strategy will be vilified by public investors,” said Ben Dell, managing director of Kimmeridge, an energy-focused private equity firm. “No one is going down that path soon.”This aversion to expanding oil and gas production is driven in part by investors’ growing enthusiasm for renewable energy. Stock funds focusing on investments like wind and solar energy manage $1.3 trillion in assets, a 40 percent increase this year, according to RBC Capital.And the biggest investment firms are demanding that companies cut emissions from their operations and products, which is much harder for oil and gas companies than for technology companies or other service-sector businesses.BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, wants the businesses it invests in to eventually remove as much carbon dioxide from the environment as they emit, reaching what is known as net-zero emissions. The New York State Common Retirement Fund, which manages the pension funds of state and local government workers, has said it will stop investing in companies that aren’t taking sufficient steps to reduce carbon emissions.But even some investors pushing for emissions reductions express concern that the transition from fossil fuels could drive up energy prices too much too quickly.Mr. Dell said limited supply of oil and natural gas and the cost of investing in renewable energy — and battery storage for when the sun is not shining and the wind is not blowing — could raise energy prices for the foreseeable future. “I am a believer that you’re going to see a period of inflating energy prices this decade,” he said.Laurence D. Fink, chairman and chief executive of BlackRock, said this could undermine political support for moving away from fossil fuels.“We risk a supply crisis that drives up costs for consumers — especially those who can least afford it — and risks making the transition politically untenable,” he said in a speech in July.There are already signs of stress around the world. Europe and Asia are running low on natural gas, causing prices to rise even before the first winter chill. Russia, a major gas supplier to both regions, has provided less gas than its customers expected, making it hard for some countries to replace nuclear and coal power plants with ones running on gas.OPEC, Russia and others have been careful not to raise oil production for fear that prices could fall if they flood the market. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Russia and a few other producers have roughly eight million barrels of spare capacity.“The market is not structurally short on oil supply,” said Bjornar Tonhaugen, head of oil markets for Rystad Energy, a Norwegian energy consulting firm.Helima Croft, head of global commodity strategy at RBC Capital Markets, said she expected that OPEC and Russia would be willing to raise production if they saw the balance between supply and demand “tighten from here.”If OPEC raises production, U.S. producers like Mr. Edwards of Latigo Petroleum will be even more reluctant to drill. So far, he has stuck to the investment plans he made at the beginning of the year to drill just eight new wells over the last eight months.“Just because prices have jumped for a month or two doesn’t mean there will be a stampede of drilling rigs,” he said. “The industry always goes up and down.”Clifford Krauss reported from Houston, and Peter Eavis from New York. More

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    Kaplan and Rosengren, Fed Presidents Under Fire for Trades, Will Step Down

    Robert S. Kaplan will exit his role as head of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas next month. Eric S. Rosengren, the head of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, is also retiring earlier than planned.Eric S. RosengrenSteven Senne/Associated PressRobert S. KaplanAnn Saphir/ReutersTwo Federal Reserve officials embroiled in controversy for trading securities that could have benefited from the central bank’s 2020 intervention in financial markets announced on Monday that they would leave their positions.Robert S. Kaplan, who heads the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, will retire on Oct. 8, according to a statement released Monday afternoon. Mr. Kaplan’s statement acknowledged the controversy as the reason for his departure. Eric S. Rosengren, the president of the Boston Fed, will retire this Thursday, accelerating his planned retirement by nine months. Mr. Rosengren cited health reasons for his early departure.The resignations followed the Fed’s announcement this month that Chair Jerome H. Powell had ordered a review of the central bank’s ethics rules in light of the concern surrounding the trades. When asked about his confidence in Mr. Kaplan and Mr. Rosengren during a news conference last week, Mr. Powell expressed displeasure with what had happened.“No one on the F.O.M.C. is happy to be in this situation, to be having these questions raised,” Mr. Powell said, referring to the policy-setting Federal Open Market Committee. He added, “This is an important moment for the Fed and I’m determined that we will rise to the moment.”Mr. Kaplan noted in his statement that it was his decision to leave the Fed, and that “the recent focus on my financial disclosure risks becoming a distraction” to the central bank’s economic work.Mr. Kaplan drew scrutiny for buying and selling millions of dollars in individual stocks, among other investments, last year — trading first reported on by The Wall Street Journal on Sept. 7. He has maintained that his trades were consistent with Fed ethics rules.Mr. Rosengren announced on Monday morning that he was retiring earlier than planned to try to prevent a kidney condition from worsening, in the hopes of staving off dialysis. The Boston Fed president came under criticism because he held stakes in real estate investment trusts, which invest in and sometimes manage properties, and listed purchases and sales in those in 2020. He spent last year warning publicly about risks in the commercial real estate market, and was helping to set Fed policy on mortgage-backed security purchases, which can help the housing market by improving financing conditions.Both presidents had previously announced that they would convert their financial holdings into broad-based indexes and cash by Sept. 30.Mr. Powell offered statements of support for both of the retiring officials in the news releases announcing their exit.But the controversy has pushed him into a delicate position. His own term as Fed chair expires early next year, and the White House is actively considering whether to reappoint him. A scandal at his central bank is sure to draw questions from senators when he testifies this week, and could even hurt his reappointment chances.As chair, Mr. Powell has also focused on shoring up public support in the central bank and explaining its role. He holds frequent news conferences, aims to speak in simpler language, and championed a series of “Fed Listens” events where top central bank officials meet and hear from community members whom they might not otherwise interact with — from community college students to local food pantry staff.The 2020 trading disclosures, which are shaping up to be the most headline-grabbing scandal the central bank has faced in years, risk chipping away at the widespread trust he has been working to build.Responses to Mr. Kaplan and Mr. Rosengren’s trading disclosures have been swift, and scathing. The group Better Markets had been calling for the Fed to fire both presidents if they did not resign. Other progressive groups had called for at least one of them to be ousted, and ethics watchdogs have said that the rules that had enabled their trades needed to be revisited.After the resignation announcements on Monday, Wall Street promptly began to assess what the departures would mean for monetary policy. Both officials have tended to worry about financial stability, and for that reason were likely to favor removing monetary policy support sooner than some of their colleagues — a stance often referred to as being hawkish.“Their exit will take out two of the nine more hawkish Fed officials who saw a 2022 rate hike as of the September F.O.M.C. meeting last week and remove important voices on financial stability issues in particular,” Krishna Guha at Evercore ISI wrote in a note to clients shortly after the announcement.Mr. Rosengren has been president of the Boston Fed since 2007, and his retirement was previously planned for June. The Fed’s 12 regional members rotate in and out of voting seats, and Mr. Rosengren would have had a vote on monetary policy next year. Mr. Kaplan would have voted in 2023.Kenneth C. Montgomery, the Boston Fed’s first vice president, will serve as interim president at that bank. The Boston Fed’s board members — excluding bank representatives — will need to select a permanent pick for president, subject to approval from the Fed’s Board of Governors in Washington.A longtime Fed employee who worked in research and bank supervision before becoming president, Mr. Rosengren played a key role in the 2020 crisis response. His regional Fed ran both the money market mutual fund and Main Street lending backstop programs that the Fed rolled out last year.The Boston Fed noted in the release that Mr. Rosengren hoped that his health condition would improve, and that he would be able to “explore areas of professional interest” in the future.Mr. Kaplan has been at the head of the Dallas Fed since late 2015, before which he taught at Harvard University and had a long career at Goldman Sachs. Meredith Black, that bank’s first vice president who had planned to retire, will serve as interim president until a successor is named, the Dallas Fed said. More

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    The Fed will re-examine ethics rules after trades by two officials drew scrutiny.

    The Federal Reserve is poised to overhaul the rules regarding what its officials are allowed to invest in and trade after disclosures last week showed that two of the central bank’s officials were active in markets in 2020, drawing an outcry.Robert S. Kaplan, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, and Eric Rosengren, the president of the Boston Fed, bought and sold stocks and real estate-tied assets last year.Those transactions complied with Fed guidelines, but they involved securities that could have been affected by Fed decisions and communications during a year in which it was actively supporting a broad swathe of financial markets amid the pandemic. Policy researchers and even some former Fed employees were upset by the disclosures.In response to the scrutiny, both regional presidents announced that they would sell their holdings and move them to cash and broad-based funds. Still, the episode highlighted that the Fed’s rules governing its officials’ financial activity — although in line with what much of the government uses, and in some cases stricter — allow for considerable individual discretion. The central bank said on Thursday that it would re-examine those policies at the direction of Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair.“Because the trust of the American people is essential for the Federal Reserve to effectively carry out our important mission, Chair Powell late last week directed board staff to take a fresh and comprehensive look at the ethics rules around permissible financial holdings and activities by senior Fed officials,” a Fed representative said in a statement.“This review will assist in identifying ways to further tighten those rules and standards,” the representative added. “The board will make changes, as appropriate, and any changes will be added to the Reserve Bank Code of Conduct.”The statement came about an hour after Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, announced that she had sent letters to the Fed’s 12 regional banks urging them to adopt tougher restrictions.“The controversy over asset trading by high-level Fed personnel highlights why it is necessary to ban ownership and trading of individual stocks by senior officials who are supposed to serve the public interest,” Ms. Warren wrote in the letters. More

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    Fed Officials’ Trading Draws Outcry, and Fuels Calls for Accountability

    Central bank regional presidents traded securities in markets in which Fed choices mattered in 2020. Here’s why critics find that troubling.Federal Reserve officials traded stocks and other securities in 2020, a year in which the central bank took emergency steps to prop up financial markets and prevent their collapse — raising questions about whether the Fed’s ethics standards have become too lax as its role has vastly expanded.The trades appeared to be legal and in compliance with Fed rules. Million-dollar stock transactions from the Dallas Fed president, Robert S. Kaplan, have drawn particular attention, but none took place when the central bank was most actively backstopping financial markets in late March and April.However, the mere possibility that Fed officials might be able to financially benefit from information they learn through their positions has prompted criticism of perceived shortcomings in the institution’s ethics rules, which were forged decades ago and are now struggling to keep up with the central bank’s 21st century function.“What we have now is an ethics system built on a very narrow conception of what a central bank is and should be,” said Peter Conti-Brown, a Fed historian at the University of Pennsylvania.On Thursday, Mr. Kaplan and Eric Rosengren, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, said they would sell all the individual stocks they own by Sept. 30 and move their financial holdings into passive investments.“While my financial transactions conducted during my years as Dallas Fed president have complied with the Federal Reserve’s ethics rules, to avoid even the appearance of any conflict of interest, I have decided to change my personal investment practices,” Mr. Kaplan said in a statement. He added that “there will be no trading in these accounts as long as I am serving as president of the Dallas Fed.”Mr. Rosengren, who had drawn criticism for trading in securities tied to real estate, also said he would divest his stock holdings and expressed regret about the perception of his transactions.“I made some personal investment decisions last year that were permissible under Fed ethics rules,” he said in a statement. “Regrettably, the appearance of such permissible personal investment decisions has generated some questions, so I have made the decision to divest these assets to underscore my commitment to Fed ethics guidelines. It is extremely important to me to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest, and I believe these steps will achieve that.”It was unclear on Thursday evening whether those moves would be enough to stop the groundswell of criticism as economists, academics and former employees asked why Fed officials are allowed to invest so broadly.The Fed has gone from serving as a lender of last resort mostly to banks to, at extreme moments in both 2008 and 2020, using its tools to rescue large swaths of the financial system. That includes propping up the market for short-term corporate debt during the Great Recession and backstopping long-term company debt and enabling loans to Main Street businesses during the 2020 pandemic crisis.That role has helped to make the Fed and its officials privy to information affecting every corner of finance.Yet central bankers can still actively buy and sell most stocks and some types of bonds, subject to some limitations. They have long been barred from owning and trading the securities of supervised banks, in a nod to the Fed’s pivotal role in bank oversight, but those clear-cut restrictions have not widened alongside the Fed’s influence.“Just as there is a set of rules for bank stocks, why not look to see if it is valuable to expand that to other assets that are directly affected by Fed policy?” said Roberto Perli at Cornerstone Macro, a former Fed Board employee himself. “There are plenty of people out there who think the Fed does nefarious things, and these headlines may contribute to that perception.”The 2020 batch of disclosures has received extra attention because the Fed spent last year unveiling never-before-attempted programs to save a broad array of financial markets from pandemic fallout. Regional Fed presidents like Mr. Kaplan did not vote on the backstops, but they were regularly consulted on their design.Critics said that raised the possibility — and risked creating the perception — that Fed presidents had access to information that could have benefited their personal trading.Mr. Kaplan made nearly two dozen stock trades of $1 million or more last year, a fact first reported by The Wall Street Journal. Those included transactions in companies whose stocks were affected by the pandemic — such as Johnson & Johnson and several oil and gas companies — and in firms whose bonds the Fed eventually bought in its broad-based program.None of those transactions took place between late March and May 1, a Fed official said, which would have curbed Mr. Kaplan’s ability to use information about the coming rescue programs to earn a profit.But the trades drew attention for other reasons. Mr. Conti-Brown pointed out that Mr. Kaplan was buying and selling oil company shares just as the Fed was debating what role it should play in regulating climate-related finance. And everything the Fed did in 2020 — like slashing rates to near zero and buying trillions in government-backed debt — affected the stock market, sending equity prices higher.“It’s really bad for the Fed, people are going to seize on it to say that the Fed is self-dealing,” said Sam Bell, a founder of Employ America, a group focused on economic policy. “Here’s a guy who influences monetary policy, and he’s making money for himself in the stock market.”Mr. Perli noted that Mr. Kaplan’s financial activity included trading in a corporate bond exchange-traded fund, which is effectively a bundle of company debt that trades like a stock. The Fed bought shares in that type of fund last year.Other key policymakers, including the New York Fed president, John C. Williams, reported much less financial activity in 2020, based on disclosures published or provided by their reserve banks. Mr. Williams told reporters on a call on Wednesday that he thought transparency measures around trading activity were critical.“If you’re asking should those policies be reviewed or changed, I think that’s a broader question that I don’t have a particular answer for right now,” Mr. Williams said.Washington-based board officials reported some financial activity, but it was more limited. Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, reported 41 recorded transactions made by him or on his or his family’s behalf in 2020, but those were typically in index funds and other relatively broad investment strategies. Randal K. Quarles, the Fed’s vice chair for supervision, recorded purchases and sales of Union Pacific stock last summer. Those stocks were assets of Mr. Quarles’s wife and he had no involvement in the transactions, a Fed spokesman said.The Fed system is made up of a seven-seat board in Washington and 12 regional reserve banks. Board members — called governors — are politically appointed and answer to Congress. Regional officials — called presidents — are appointed by their boards of directors and confirmed by the Federal Reserve Board, and they do not answer to the public directly. Regional branches are chartered as corporations, rather than set up as government entities.The most noteworthy 2020 transactions happened at the less-accountable regional banks, which could call attention to Fed governance, said Sarah Binder, a political scientist at George Washington University and the author of a book on the politics of the Fed.“It highlights the crazy, weird, Byzantine nature of the Fed,” Ms. Binder said. “It’s just almost impossible to keep the rules straight, the lines of accountability straight.”The board and the regional banks abide by generally similar ethics agreements. Employees are prohibited from using nonpublic information for gain. Officials cannot trade in the days around Fed meetings and face 30-day holding periods for many securities. Regional banks have their own ethics officers who regularly consult with ethics officials at the Fed’s Board, and presidents and governors alike disclose their financial activity annually.Even with Mr. Kaplan and Mr. Rosengren’s individual responses, pressure could grow for the Fed to adopt more stringent rules, recognizing the special role the central bank plays in markets. That could include requiring officials to invest in broad indexes. The Fed could also apply stricter limits to how much officials can change their investment portfolios while in office, or expand formal limitations to ban trading in a broader list of Fed-sensitive securities, legal experts and former Fed employees suggested in interviews.Fed-related financial activity has drawn other negative attention recently. Janet L. Yellen, the former central bank chair, faced criticism when financial documents filed as part of her nomination for Treasury secretary showed that she had received more than $7 million in bank and corporate speaking fees in 2019 and 2020, after leaving her top central bank role.The Federal Reserve Act limits governors’ abilities to go straight to bank payrolls if they leave before their terms lapse, but speaking fees from the finance industry are permitted.Defenders of the status quo sometimes argue that the Fed would struggle to attract top talent if it curbed how much current and former officials can participate in markets and the financial industry. They could face big tax bills if they had to turn financial holdings into cash upon starting central bank jobs. Because Fed officials tend to have financial backgrounds, banning financial sector work after they leave government could limit their options.But few if any argue that former officials would command such large speaking fees if they had never held central bank leadership positions. And it is widely accepted that the ability to trade while in office as a Fed president raises issues of perception.“People will ask, fairly or otherwise, about the extent to which his views about the balance sheet are interest rates are influenced by his personal investments in the stock market,” Ms. Binder said of Mr. Kaplan’s trades, speaking before his Thursday announcement. “That is not good for the Fed.” More

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    China’s Biggest ‘Bad Bank’ Will Get a Rescue

    After months of silence about its future, the corporate giant Huarong Asset Management announced that it would receive financial assistance from a group of state-backed companies.China has promised to teach its most indebted companies a lesson. Just not yet.Huarong Asset Management, the financial conglomerate that was once a poster child for China’s corporate excess, said Wednesday night that it would get financial assistance from a group of state-backed companies after months of silence about its future. The company also said it had made a $16 billion loss in 2020.Citic Group and China Cinda Asset Management were among the five state-owned firms that will make a strategic investment, Huarong said without providing more details on how much money would be invested or when the deal would be finalized.Huarong also said that it had no plans to restructure its debt but left unanswered the question of whether foreign and Chinese bondholders would have to accept significant losses on their investments.Investors took the news to be a strong indication that the Chinese government was not yet ready to see the failure of a company so closely tied to its financial system. For months, investors waited for any news of Huarong and its financial future after the company delayed its annual results in March and suspended the trading of its shares in April.“It’s hugely positive,” said Michel Löwy, chief executive of SC Lowy, an investment firm that has a small position in Huarong’s U.S. dollar bonds. “It’s certainly a partial bailout because I don’t believe that totally independent investors would be subscribing to a capital raise without assurances or a tap on the shoulder,” Mr. Löwy said of the group of state-backed companies mentioned in Huarong’s statement.For years Beijing looked the other way as companies like Huarong borrowed heavily to expand. The companies grew into huge conglomerates built largely on cheap state bank loans and money borrowed from foreign and domestic investors who believed they could count on the Chinese government to bail them out if push came to shove.Lai Xiaomin, the former chairman of Huarong, weeks before he was executed in January for corruption and abuse of power.CCTV, via Associated Press Video, via Associated PressOver the past few years, however, officials have indicated a willingness to let some of these companies fail as they try to rein in the ballooning debt threatening China’s economy.Even as Beijing cracked down on risky binge borrowing, Huarong tested the limits of China’s commitment to reform. Known as a “bad bank,” Huarong was created in the late 1990s to take the ugliest loans from state-owned banks before they turned to the global markets to raise money as China opened up. It later expanded into a sprawling empire by lending to high-risk companies, using its access to cheap loans from state-owned banks.Over the years, Huarong became more and more intertwined with China’s financial system, leading some experts to say it was “too big to fail” and putting regulators in a difficult position. Under its former chairman, Lai Xiaomin, it engaged in suspicious deals that regulators said led to corruption so widespread that it might be impossible to assess the full extent of the losses.Mr. Lai confessed to using his position to accept $277 million in bribes and was sentenced to death and executed in January for corruption and abuse of power.In its statement on Wednesday night, Huarong blamed the company’s “aggressive operation and disorderly expansion” under Mr. Lai in part for its $16 billion loss.A fresh injection of cash will give Huarong more time to sell off parts of its vast financial empire, analysts noted, though it was unclear whether the investment would be enough to stem the company’s towering losses. More

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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